“The point is that the purpose of these conversations is to discover the ‘rules.’ It’s like life – a game whose purpose is to discover the rules, which rules are always changing and always undiscoverable.”[1]

Every so often, one is lucky enough to stumble into a new, untapped source of good ideas and alternative ways of thinking. Steps to An Ecology of Mind, a collection of essays by Gregory Bateson, is a just such a repository of careful thought. Steps exemplifies the freely-structured intellectual work of the mid-twentieth century, work that would now be considered cross-disciplinary and stands in contrast to the current tendency towards hyper-specialization. This is the first in a sequence of posts that attempt to grapple with Bateson’s ideas and hold them up against the conventional ideas of our increasingly interconnected world.

Bateson’s work and writings span the fields of anthropology, animal behavior, psychology, cybernetics, and genetics, and his lack of focus might be viewed skeptically. It was only late in his career that even Bateson himself began to see a common thread in his work[2], a characteristic way of thinking that may feel at once familiar and foreign, yet this common thread is evident even in his earliest writing.

Indeed, for me one of the pleasures of reading through this book was following the changes in Bateson’s thinking over the course of his career. Though he was not a young man when he died in 1980, I got the impression that he was still creating, still playing with new and old ideas, and had he lived longer he would have continued to produce provocative work.[3]

The way of thinking found in Steps is metaphoric and holistic, yet grounded in well-understood principles – those of information transmission and encoding, and the dynamics of causal networks described by differential equations or Markov models. Such a balance between loose and strict thinking can yield ripe fruit, a point I’ll explore in a later post.

Communicating the Ineffable

Bateson keeps coming back to two main themes, those of communication and play on the one hand and the dynamics of systems containing feedback loops on the other, and he revisits these themes through many different lenses. In terms of communication, he is primarily concerned with the ineffable, the self-referential and paradoxical, the kinds of communication that lie at the boundaries of consciousness. Indeed, pinpointing precisely what distinguishes this object of interest is itself slippery and difficult to communicate, to the point where Bateson himself has trouble.

He relates the following exchange with a student:

“‘I want to ask a question.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘It’s – do you want us to learn what you are telling us?’ I hesitated a moment, but he rushed on with, ‘Or is it all a sort of example, an illustration of something else?’ ‘Yes, indeed!’

But an example of what?

And then there was, almost every year, a vague complaint which usually came to me as a rumor. It was alleged that ‘Bateson knows something which he does not tell you,’ or ‘There’s something behind what Bateson says, but he never says what it is.’

Evidently I was not answering the question, ‘An example of what?’”[4]

On the one hand you can’t help but admire the student for confronting his confusion over Bateson’s teaching style. On the other, you get the impression that these students, even the bright ones, have been failed by the system. That their difficulty with Bateson’s big ideas is merely a reflection of mainstream education’s poor treatment of epistemic reasoning. And Bateson’s impatience with this state of affairs is palpable.

The other theme, that of systems containing feedback loops, so-called “cybernetic thinking,” particularly how it relates to Bateson’s theories of information, communication, and play, is one I’ll return to in a future post.

Limitations of Language

Steps begins with a small collection of “metalogues,” dialogues between father and daughter that take on some of the structure of their subject matter. These metalogues are both playful and poignant, and while they feel a little bit dated, the intent comes through loud and clear.

“F: ... The question, after all, is what does one Frenchman tell another Frenchman by waving his arms? And we have part of an answer – he tells him something about how he feels about the other guy. He tells him he is not seriously angry – that he is willing and able to be what you call ‘silly.’

D: But – no – that’s not sensible. He cannot do all that work so that later he will be able to tell the other guy that he is angry by just keeping his own arms still. How does he know that he is going to be angry later on?

F: He doesn’t know. But, just in case...

D: No, Daddy, it doesn’t make sense. I don’t smile so as to be able to tell you I am angry by not smiling later on.

F: Yes – I think that is part of the reason for smiling. And there are lots of people who smile in order to tell you that they are not angry – when they really are.”[5]

Bateson posits that communication, particularly among mammals, is primarily about the relationships between the communicators: are we friends? do you pose a threat? am I dependent on you? Negotiations of this kind of relationship happen on what Bateson terms a metacommunicative level. (E.g. when I tell you it is raining and you look out the window to verify that my statement is true, I am setting myself up as a trustworthy source of information for you in some small way.) Such metacommunication is, as a rule, implicit, involuntary, and even unconscious.

One of the puzzles that any theory of human and animal communication has to explain is, how can organisms transmit information honestly? Part of the answer lies in the division between the unconscious and conscious parts of the mind, what Freudian theorists call primary and secondary process, respectively. Those familiar with the heuristics and biases literature may prefer to think of these processes as System 1 and System 2, though the correspondence may not be perfect.

Messages that are explicit, digital, and intentional – that is, consciously controlled, secondary process messages – are subject to deceit and deliberate manipulation. Spoken and written words are of this type. On the other hand, primary process messages such as microexpressions, voice timbre, and body language are implicit, analog, and automatic, and these are resistent to deceit (self-deception notwithstanding). Bateson puts it this way:

“We humans become very uncomfortable when somebody starts to interpret our postures and gestures by translating them into words about relationship. We much prefer that our messages on this subject remain analogic, unconscious, and involuntary. We tend to distrust the man who can simulate messages about relationship.”[6]

The unconscious primary process seems to be the way to go, if we want to communicate honestly. But this mode of cognition has severe limitations:

“Primary process is characterized (e.g., by Fenichel) as lacking negatives, lacking tense, lacking in any identification of linguistic mood (i.e., no identification of indicative, subjunctive, optative, etc.) and metaphoric....”[7]

Similarly this applies to the kind of thought processes available to us in dreams (and other altered states of consciousness) and those available to animals. These limitations may be an overstatement, as people regularly internalize extremely complex patterns of thought to the point where they are automatic. This kind of internalization may itself be limited, though, and so it seems reasonable to provisionally accept that primary process is limited in this way.

For non-human animals this conundrum is exacerbated by their limited expressive linguistic capabilities; in particular they can only communicate iconographically and with mood-signals (growls, whines, and the like). All of this means that communication about the absence of something is hard to accomplish.

Play and Ritual

Yet non-verbal animals are capable of, e.g., agreeing to be friendly, i.e. the negation or absence of fighting. Frequently this friendship is negotiated through play-fighting:

“Two dogs approach each other and need to exchange the message: ‘We are not going to fight.’ But the only way in which fight can be mentioned in iconic communication is by the showing of fangs. It is then necessary for the dogs to discover that this mention of fight was, in fact, only exploratory. They must, therefore, explore what the showing of fangs means. They therefore engage in a brawl; discover that neither ultimately intends to kill the other; and, after that, they can be friends.”[8]

Play is thus an exploratory behavior, a way of being that goes some way towards a kind of what-if reconnaissance of potentially dangerous territory without taking the extreme risks that the “real thing” would entail. Really fighting to establish dominance might lead to life-threatening injuries, while play-fighting is similar enough to the the real thing to determine who would likely dominate. Compare this function to that of dreams, which also serve as a way for the organism to simulate dangerous scenarios safely.

In our rituals, as in play-communcation, we make a distinction between the denotative action and the thing denoted. Indeed the same play-fighting dynamic can establish itself:

“In the Andaman Islands, peace is concluded after each side has been given ceremonial freedom to strike the other. This example, however, also illustrates the labile nature of the frame ‘This is play,’ or ‘This is ritual.’ The discrimination between map and territory is always liable to break down, and the ritual blows of peace-making are always liable to be mistaken for the ‘real’ blows of combat. In this event, the peace-making ceremony becomes a battle (Radcliffe-Brown[9]).”[10]

In this kind of ritual specific, coded actions represent a credible threat (or mock-threat) whose follow-through is withheld. The opportunity to cause harm combined with the lack of harm together constitute an honest signal of peaceful intent. Compare to the accolade, or knighting ceremony, in which the laying of the sword on the accolade’s shoulders implies a similarly held threat.

Edmund Leighton’s The Accolade (1901) Edmund Leighton’s The Accolade (1901)

While there is always this danger that the play behavior is mistaken for the real thing, animals are usually able to distinguish between the two. How do they accomplish this?

Frames and Context and Rules

The set of behaviors an animal exhibits depends heavily on context (a point I will return to in a future post). The porpoise responds to the trainer’s whistle in the main tank, but not the holding pen. The dog may salivate when the bell is rung in the lab, but not when out for a walk. In the company of friends on the playground a child may speak up, while in class in the company of the same friends he might raise his hand instead.

Different rules apply inside vs. outside, in church vs. at work vs. at home, while playing tennis vs. in between games. These sets of rules are delineated by spatial, temporal, or purely conceptual boundaries that divide inside and outside into separate magisteria. Application windows and browser tabs divide the screen into regions in which different software runs.[11] A picture frame divides the world of the painting from the wall behind it.

Conversations can consist of one frame with an unchanging set of rules, or may be made of shifting frames:

“D: ... at the moment I would rather play this game. Only I don’t know what sort of game this is. Nor what sort of rules it has.

F: And yet we have been playing for some time.”[12]

Normally interlocutors have little trouble following such shifts, but exceptions are common. Consider the feelings of awkwardness that arise when, as in a three-person conversation I had recently, two participants have moved on to a new topic and when the third has a turn to speak he continues as if from the old topic. How difficult it is then to proceed!

Returning to the phenomenon of play as described in the previous section, it’s now clear that play itself is demarcated in its own frame, which establishes a context in which certain behaviors are interpreted in a special way, e.g. as friendly rather than aggressive. But frames (e.g. dreams, stories, movies, plays, video games) are often invisible while we’re immersed in them – they seem to encompass the whole world. And so there is a danger of forgetting the context and interpreting those behaviors as real aggression.[13] Bateson sees the development of play as a necessary step on the road to a mature epistemology:

“... the play frame ... implies a special combination of primary and secondary [unconscious and conscious] processes. ... play marks a step forward in the evolution of communication – the crucial step in the discovery of map-territory relations. In primary process, map and territory are equated; in secondary process, they can be discriminated. In play, they are both equated and discriminated.”[14]

Play is interesting not just because it enables animals to solve certain problems of communication, but because it sits on the boundary between conscious and unconscious, and this confusion of levels is integral to the solution of the communication problem.

Rule Negotiation

“If [our conversation] were like chess or canasta, I could tell you the rules, and we could, if we wanted to, stop playing and discuss the rules. And then we could start a new game with the new rules. But what rules would hold us between the two games? While we were discussing the rules?”[15]

Bateson’s interest in understanding play and conceptual frames was largely driven by his approach to psychotherapy. In particular, he saw schizophrenia as the inability to understand or set metacommunicative frames. (Bateson’s double bind theory of schizophrenia has fallen out of favor, if it was ever in favor, and I suspect his understanding of the subject was incomplete. But there remains an interesting kernel of an idea, one that might apply as well to normal, healthy people as to schizophrenics.)

The process of psychotherapy, according to Bateson, involves taking stock of the patient’s unexamined habits of thought and behavior, stepping outside of that comfortable frame, and establishing new habits of thought and behavior – new rules – in a process analogous to natural play behavior:

“The dependence of psychotherapy upon the manipulation of frames follows from the fact that therapy is an attempt to change the patient’s metacommunicative habits. Before therapy, the patient thinks and operates in terms of a certain set of rules for the making and understanding of messages. After successful therapy, he operates in terms of a different set of such rules. (Rules of this sort are in general, unverbalized, and unconscious both before and after.) It follows that, in the process of therapy, there must have been communication at a level meta to these rules. There must have been communication about a change in rules.

But such a communication about change could not conceivably occur in messages of the type permitted by the patient’s metacommunicative rules as they existed either before or after therapy.

It was suggested above that the paradoxes of play are characteristic of an evolutionary step. Here we suggest that similar paradoxes are a necessary ingredient in that process of change which we call psychotherapy.”[16]

Alternatively, our metacommunicative rules may be more malleable and continuous than the above implies, manifesting as changes in frequency and strength of habitual behavior and cognition, and psychotherapy’s normal progression may consist of more subtle, gradual adjustments.

Necessity of Paradox

Following the spirit of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Bateson sees the difficulties of communication as fundamental:

“Our central thesis may be summed up as a statement of the necessity of the paradoxes of abstraction. It is not merely bad natural history to suggest that people might or should obey [Russell and Whitehead’s] Theory of Logical Types in their communications; their failure to do this is not due to mere carelessness or ignorance. Rather, we believe that the paradoxes of abstraction must make their appearance in all communications more complex than that of mood-signals, and that without these paradoxes the evolution of communication would be at an end. Life would then be an endless interchange of stylized messages, a game with rigid rules, unrelieved by change or humor.”[17]

We will always be plagued by statements like “this statement is false” and the difficulty of characterizing all collections that do not contain themselves. And not just in bizarre, contrived examples like these, but in everyday life and experience.[18] In order to play the infinite game, to always have the option to discover new ways of seeing, we must expect the rug to be pulled out from under us.

In five upcoming posts I will touch on Bateson’s formulations of information, entropy, and meaning; his other main theme of systems with feedback loops as an explanatory principle; some speculations surrounding complexity, intrinsic value, and one-way functions; a quick detour to discuss the interplay of learning and feedback; and finally wrapping up with some ideas on global ecology and sustainability, patterns in scientific thought, and where we sit in the world and what we can do about it.

Photo credits:

[1] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, “Metalogue: About Games and Being Serious,” p. 19 (Page numberings are based on the 2000 edition.)

[2] From the introduction:

“It was only in late 1969 that I became fully conscious of what I had been doing. With the writing of the Korzybski Lecture, ‘Form, Substance, and Difference,’ I found that in my work with primitive peoples, schizophrenia, biological symmetry, and in my discontent with the conventional theories of evolution and learning, I had identified a widely scattered set of bench marks or points of reference from which a new scientific territory could be defined. These bench marks I have called ‘steps’ in the title of the book.” (Steps p. xxiv)

[3] For an glimpse into his later life I recommend “Old Men Ought to be Explorers” by Stephen Nachmanovich, author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art and a student of Bateson’s.

[4] Steps, Introduction, p. xxv

[5] Steps, “Metalogue: Why Do Frenchmen,” pp. 10-11

[6] Steps, “Problems in Cetacean and Other Mammalian Communication,” p. 374

[7] Steps, “Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art,” p. 139

[8] Steps, “Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art,” pp. 140-141

[9] A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, The Andaman Islanders, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1922.

[10] Steps, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” p. 182

[11] Here I’m speaking metaphorically, but the fiction is a strong one and is reinforced by other conceptual boundaries like virtual machines, per-process virtual memory, and restrictions on cross-site scripting.

[12] Steps, “Metalogue: About Games and Being Serious,” p. 19

[13] A similar breakdown of communication and trust can occur in dysfunctional families. E.g. a family member may claim an insult is a joke, or misinterpret another’s serious statement as a lie or admission of weakness. This phenomenon is central to Bateson’s double bind theory of schizophrenia.

[14] Steps, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” p. 185

[15] Steps, “Metalogue: About Games and Being Serious,” p. 19

[16] Steps, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” p. 191

[17] Steps, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy,” p. 193

[18] For a particularly complex and confusing example see the Persian practice of t’aarof (further discussion here).

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