Cybernetics, Feedback Loops, and the Prevalence of Evil
Recently for class, I read Rowen Williams’s book, Tokens of Trust. In Chapter 2, Williams discusses the mechanics of the cosmos, focusing on the complexity and coherence of how the world operates. However, he is quick to resist the common mechanistic accounts of the world, such as the old analogy of the cosmos as a watch or a fixed machine. Instead, Williams maintains that the systems are dynamic and capable of change. Though he did not specifically use the term, it sounds like Williams envisioned a type of cybernetic viewpoint of the world, which might align more with systems theory.
Cybernetics and systems theory are interdisciplinary fields that explore the complex interactions and behaviors of systems, be they mechanical, biological, social, or computational. They provide frameworks for understanding and managing the intricacies of dynamic systems in various domains.
Cybernetics, coined by Norbert Wiener in the mid-20th century, focuses on the study of feedback loops and control mechanisms within systems. It seeks to understand how information flows within a system and how it can be used to regulate and optimize system behavior. Cybernetics has applications in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and management, emphasizing the importance of communication and feedback in achieving system goals.
Systems theory, on the other hand, takes a broader perspective and encompasses the study of systems at multiple levels of complexity. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of components within a system and their roles in influencing system behavior. Systems can range from simple mechanical devices to complex ecosystems or organizations. Systems theory helps in modeling, analyzing, and predicting the behavior of these systems. It provides tools for problem-solving, decision-making, and holistic thinking.
Both cybernetics and systems theory share common principles, such as the consideration of feedback, adaptation, and emergence. They are crucial in addressing contemporary challenges like climate change, healthcare management, and information technology. These fields enable us to design more resilient, efficient, and adaptable systems by recognizing the interplay of elements within them, ultimately contributing to a better understanding of the complex world we inhabit. An interesting perspective within some circles of cybernetics is the role of teleology because the feedback mechanism within a system can be understood as operating according to an ascribed telos. Thus, as the classic example goes, a thermostat operates according to the telos of an established temperature. When the temperature in the environment dips below that temperature, the thermostat activates a negative feedback loop to course-correct and bring the temperature back to the desired telos.
Rowen Williams, borrowing from Thomas Aquinas, maintains that the systems of the world have their ultimate teleological end in God. Thus, all systems find their truest nature in bringing glory to God. However, given that the world systems have such complexity and possibility for change, the systems can either go with the telos or against it. Complex, interdependent, and interrelated systems produce complex changes that can bring about drastic consequences — especially when rational agents are involved and influencing those systems (William, 40).
Though it doesn’t solve the problem of evil, I think such a perspective provides helpful analogies for thinking about evil in our world. Evil is like a positive feedback loop that causes the system to operate against the telos and into chaos. But before I can develop the analogy further, allow me to explain negative and positive feedback loops, because negative and positive are used in a technical sense, not in a value sense. To make it easier, I'll break it down into a compare and contrast, focusing on purpose and operation, and give a simple example.
Negative Feedback Loop:
a. Purpose: Negative feedback is a stabilizing mechanism within a system, aiming to maintain or restore a desired state or setpoint. b. Operation: When the system deviates from its desired state, negative feedback mechanisms work to counteract that deviation. They reduce the gap between the actual state and the desired state. c. Example: In the human body, negative feedback regulates body temperature. When you get too hot, sweat glands release sweat, cooling the body. When you get too cold, shivering generates heat, warming the body.
Positive Feedback Loop:
a. Purpose: Positive feedback amplifies deviations from a system's desired state, potentially leading to exponential growth or a significant change. b. Operation: Instead of opposing changes like negative feedback, positive feedback mechanisms reinforce them, causing a continuous deviation from the initial state. c. Example: A classic example is a microphone too close to a speaker. The microphone picks up sound from the speaker, amplifies it, and sends it back to the speaker. This loop continues, leading to a loud, screeching noise.
Thus, when these insights are applied to how we think about evil, we can analogously say that evil operates as a positive feedback loop, similar to an invasive species. Imagine that you introduce wild rabbits into an ecosystem, and let them reproduce as much as possible. This is a positive feedback loop that will tend toward accelerating chaos and system breakdown that is extremely difficult to stop. Or, think of an invasive species of plant that spreads throughout an ecosystem. In many such cases, the invasive species can be a positive feedback loop that brings chaos and destabilization toward the system, but it’s incredibly difficult to remove it without damaging the entire ecosystem.
What I like about this analogy is that it is compatible with the privation theory of evil. In the two analogies I gave, both rabbits and the invasive plant are good in themselves and are good when they are operating in their proper environment. The “evil” is derived from a misalignment of goods in a way that breaks down the proper teleology of the system. Likewise, I think we could say that evil has no telos because, ontologically speaking, evil as such does not exist, but is rather a privation of the good. However, at the same time, this analogy of a positive feedback loop captures something about the emotional force and devastation that we often feel when encountering evil, and the language of privation, though technically correct, often feels hollow. Finally, what I like about this analogy is that it aligns with Jesus’ parable.
Matthew 13:24-30 reads: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”
It’s not a perfect one-to-one correlation, but I think there’s a strong resonance between Jesus’ teaching and the analogy of evil as an invasive species operating as a positive feedback loop.
Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief. 1st U.S. paperback ed, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.