Goals from a cybernetic epistemology

Goals are a common theme in therapy. I am starting this explanation with two common definitions of goals: Commonly defined as an aim or desired result, or the object of a person’s ambition. So the question is how do we describe goals from a cybernetic view? Glanville (1997) attempts to deal with this issue in his aptly titled paper “A ship without a rudder”. The title of his paper describes a ship with no steering device, which will make sense as this explanation continues. Goals are an important tool in therapy and can still be used when taking a cybernetic approach.

Using Glanville’s line of thought I have composed a short essay on goals and how they can be discussed from a cybernetic perspective. In discussing goals, we bring into question the ideas of, purpose, course or trajectory, errors, sensing, control and feedback. Many people set goals for themselves and what comes with that is knowing when one is on track to achieving these goals, as well as knowing when obstacles are encountered. People have motivations as to why they want to achieve their goals which can be seen as the purpose. Someone may say “I want to finish my degree in psychology”. To determine the purpose of this person’s goal, one can ask what does completing your psychology studies mean to you? When this person studies and completes their assignments/tests and achieves good results they know they are on track or on the correct trajectory. If they are unable to spend time doing their studies and do not get good results they are aware that they are foregoing their goal. This is the role of errors and feedback where we use the information to make a decision as to how to handle our situations. We discern whether we are on track for our goals or if we are falling by the way side. Using feedback we can make decisions, as in the case of the psychology student – they may need to make changes by performing an additional assignment etc. in order to stay on track.
We are systems, we have senses and a neurological system that allows for observation and interpretation of our world. The goals we set are within us and based on us. For example, if I have a goal to finish my degree and I don’t achieve it, nothing happens to my degree. The degree does not know whether the goal was achieved or not. In a relationship, I may decide to be a better husband and make drastic changes in my behaviour. My wife may or may not agree that I am a better husband, while I may confidently feel I have reached my goal. The point is that I make my goals and only I know if I have achieved them. Other people around me may or may not agree that I have achieved my goal.
Goals relate to stability and so do the themes of error, feedback, trajectory and sensing. Gaols and stability are two sides of the same coin. Stability is known when there is a goal, for without a goal we cannot infer if a system is stable or not. Knowing the system’s reference point and its destination, one can determine the stability of the system, but this label of stability is determined from the one who set the goal. An outside observer may attempt to define stability for someone else’s goal but the label is based on the external person’s own frame of reference. For example, the student who is attempting to complete their psychology degree knows from where they started and what they have to deal with to reach their goal. Maybe they have a family and also have a job and have to balance their study, work and home life. Now this person had a sick child and did not manage to write their test and subsequently got a zero result. They knew they would have passed their psychology test had they written the test. This same person also missed an assignment owing to work commitments. Now stability may be defined from the view of the lecturer and from the student. The lecturer could easily think the student is on a trajectory of failing and may interpret the missed assignment and test as poor work ethic. The student however may be more than capable and knows they are still on track as they are confident they will pass the next assessments. Here two definitions of stability – one from the external observer (lecturer) and the other internal observer (student) which do not correlate. The lecturer thinks the student is going to fail and sees their work as now unstable, while the student knows they are still on track but had to prioritise other activities in place of the test and assignment.
A system/person can determine how accurately their behaviour is in terms of reaching their goal as they know if they are falling off the trajectory. Reaching or not reaching the desired end point relates to stability in that the system needs to act in a manner that takes into account environmental cues so as to reconsider its behaviour. This mechanism is achieved through feedback of environmental information into the system to modify the behaviour based on the system’s purpose. Purpose is the term used to describe the motivation of the system/person in having its aim (Glanville, 1997). The system knows whether it has reached its desired goal, which means it knows when it is moving along a trajectory of change. Change relates to a reference point, for how does one know a change has taken place without knowing where they were before the change occurred. This is a key point in therapy. Clients seek out a therapist as they require a change in their status quo. Thus, for goals to be part of therapy, we need to determine what the status quo for this person is so that we know when/if a change has occurred. To determine the status quo for the client, one can ask questions and learn about what it’s like to be this person. The client is now the teacher teaching the therapist about their life. In this instance I do not seek to correct the client, I want to know how the client talks about their life, the clients own words are more important than my clarifications. (Please see essay of cybernetics and listening).
Evaluating a system’s stability can be undertaken when the goal and the reference points are used in the analysis. However, are goals stable? This introduces a dynamic characteristic where goals may be dynamic, changing over time as the system itself changes. If the system is changing over time – so might the goal be changing over time. This is the common situation in relational goals. If I have a goal of being a better father, this goal is not static. As I make new behaviours I will re-interpret my goal differently from time to time. I may make an effort to spend more time with my children and then from the feedback I receive I adapt my idea of what it means to be a better father. In this case, one could infer that the goal too has a goal as the goal is also reaching some desired point. This may seem absurd but in living systems, as we change so too does our definition and interpretation of what we seek to achieve. Glanville (1997) believes that every goal must have a goal of its own. I will attempt to explain this now. To define the goal we need to look at the system that desires this goal. If the system changes over time so too does the goal as the goal is interpreted by the very system that aspires to this goal, as goals are personally set. This in turn means that the goal and the system share a circular relationship, which may be infinite. The goal is set by a person with the goal based on this person who set it. As the person changes so too does the description and context of the goal as they are both part of the same system. I aspire to being a good father. As I make changes in my life my understanding of what it means to be a better father changes and my goal is reframed again and again. This goal can be described as having its own goal. (If this is not clear please refer to Glanville’s paper in the reference below. The full paper is available by clicking the link)

Not all goals need to change over time and when the system is stable and attains its goal, we can say that the conditions were satisfied between the system and its goal. Stability, however does not mean that the system is not changing. If the system is on course for attaining its goal through correct behaviours in terms of what is needed for this goal to be reached, then stability is being achieved. I may be making changes to my life daily and yet still achieve stability as the changes I am making are in line with achieving my goal. A person driving his car entering the highway wants to increase speed to join the moving cars at the high speed of the highway. They need to accelerate to increase the car’s speed. Even though the speed of the car is changing, the acceleration may be seen as stable or uniform. The uniform acceleration allows for the driver’s goal of increasing speed to be achieved. Stability does not mean that the system stays the same.

The external observer:
In determining the goals of a system we can ask who is defining this goal. Is this the goal determined by a person for them self or is this goal determined by an outside observer. An external observer can be informed of a goal by the one who set the goal, but this external observer cannot know the complete details of purpose, trajectory, error, feedback, sensing, which goes with this goal. The external observer cannot get into the reality of the one who set the goal. The external observer cannot get into the mind of the person who set the goal. Even if an external observer could get in the mind of the other, they would be interpreting the mind of the other based on their own lived experience and not that of the other for they had not lived the life of the other. Thus, we may observe what we think are goals or what we are told are goals, but they are the goals that we have attributed to the system and even if the system behaves “randomly” from our view, this randomness may be in line with the system’s stability and feedback system, and are thus not random at all. In therapy, a client may describe what their goals are, but too quickly we attach our won meaning to their goals – defining these goals in terms of our own understanding. To be cybernetically correct, I need to be aware that even though the client described their goals to me, I am still interpreting them based on my understanding of what these goals mean. I can ask the client what they mean by their goals but even so I cannot escape my own system (brain) attaching my own beliefs, values, purpose, feedback, stability and so forth onto this goal. I may ask the client, how do you know you have reached your goal? I will try to create a conversation whereby the client provides the markers for when the goal is achieved. The client can educate me as to what errors they are interpreting and how they use the information they receive from their world as feedback. They can advise me on the purpose and whether or not they see their behaviours as stable and so forth. The client is the expert. This does not mean I cannot challenge the client, it means that I need to learn more about how the client’s interpretation of their goals operate so that I may be better equipped to converse in a meaningful manner with this client.

A goal is dependent on a system as a goal is something that a system desires, for without a system there can be no goal. The observer defines the goal and is within this system, and thus goals are defined within systems. The position of the observer in this system also changes the view of the goal – external versus internal observer with each providing different ideas of purpose, stability, feedback and reference. When external observers attribute a goal to a system, they inherently are basing their judgement on their own sense of stability and their own reference point. They ascribe this goal to the system they are observing. Cybernetics is initially concerned with steering and the steersman – the Cybernetician is, himself, a steersman (Glanville, 1997). If I am observing another person and define what I believe to be the goals, I have just included myself in that goal for I as the external observer am the person who determines when the person reaches this goal from my position as external observer. I am now acting as the steersman through my observation and in essence I am actually steering the system. However, as I am part of this system it is now self-referential. If I am providing a course for which the other person is moving I am part of this system, which now as Glanville (1997) states is a ship without a rudder.

Glanville, R. (1997). A Ship without a Rudder. Problems of Excavating Cybernetics and Systems.