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Pavel Pelikan: 

Man and Information

Svoboda, Prague, 1967

by Oldrich Kyn

Czechoslovak Economic Papers, no. 11, 1969





 upDuring its relatively short existence the series "Economy and Society" has gained a good reputation among Czechoslovak economists. Almost every volume is looked forward to with great interest and it is soon sold out. The volume 29 introducing the book by Pavel Pelikan Man and Information was probably a great surprise for many. But in any case a pleasant surprise as the book is definitely worth reading and has a pleasant, understandable, but at the same time a very precise style. It is a surprise because the book apparently does not deal with economics but belongs to the field of psychology. Human society consists of individuals and, therefore, the study of an economic system must be based on the knowledge of how individuals behave. It is not for the first time that an economist turns to psychology, however, Pavel Pelikan was clearly not satisfied with what has already been done in this area (e.g. by the Austrian school). He is mainly interested in the theory of organization and control of the national economy, i.e. problems related to the exchange of information and the structure of decision-making processes in economic systems. Therefore he wants to lay foundations by giving a comprehensive description of an individual from the viewpoint of information. How successful he was in his excursion into this field could be better judged by an expert in psychology. However, his study is definitely authentic and introduces many new and stimulating aspects.




 upWhen reading this book, an economist studying the way the economy functions will soon find out at what is Pelikan aiming. Numerous conclusions from the analysis of the behavior of the individual show what significant facts in the social system were often disregarded. If we take them into consideration we can reach very significant new conclusions for the rational and  scientific organization and control of the society. I see as most important in the Pelikan's book how rigorously, logically and scientifically he demonstrates that a significant and inseparable role in the human thinking and decisions is played by the subconscious and intuitive factors. This imposes clear limitations on the social communication and therefore also on possibility of rational conscious organization and control of social systems. But let us quote the author own words: "The presumption of the omnipotence of the normative theory to supply the members of the social system with a necessary programs (by 'program' he means algorithm for decision-making --O.K.) as conscious (e.g. written  rules) leads to a machinery conception of the social system (perfect bureaucracy). If carried out completely, people could be replaced by machines, since all precisely formulated conscious programs can be carried out by computers. A significant property of programs, according to which decision-making takes place under intuitive organization and control, is the ability to be at the disposal everywhere, where the results of the normative theory are insufficient….However the disadvantage of these programs is that they cannot be communicated nor a priori verified." From this the author draws the conclusion that the choice of people for significant decision-making positions always plays the most important role.                   





upThe book consists of four sections: 

  • 1) Introduction, 

  • 2) Man and His Environment  

  • 3)Human CNS and Messages about Messages, 

  • 4) Man as a System with Purposeful Behavior.



The introduction gives a brief, but very successful explanation of the basic terms. Each  existing object is characterized by its material and form. The material effect (further called "Action") influences the material of the object,  the information effect ("Message") influences the form. Further such terms as information, communication channel, redundancy, etc. are explained. Operation with messages is the processing of input data into output data. Complex operation is an operation which consists of a number of elementary operations. Program is the arrangement of basic operations into complex operations. The program can be considered as a kind of message and can be under certain circumstances communicated. Messages communicated in society can, therefore, be divided into data and programs. It is possible to distinguish two basic types of changes in the program: program is put into the system from outside, program is prepared by the system itself





upMan and His Environment. In this part the author introduces a system for further explanation. Main attention is paid to the “system for the processing of messages” of the individual; this is roughly what in psychology is called the central nervous system (CNS). The opposite of the CNS is the natural environ­ment and the social environment. The natural environment is divided into the inner (the body of man) and the outer (the rest of the physical world). The social environment is created by the CNS of other people. The material inter­action is only considered between the inner and outer natural environment, therefore, forms the so-called action system. On the other hand, the CNS and the social environment create the message system. The author distinguishes between natural messages, i.e. communication between the system of actions and the message system and social messages —communications within the message system (between the CNS of various people). It is important that the natural messages are in a natural code (wave length of light, sound waves, etc.), social messages are always in a code agreed upon in society (e.g. language). From another aspect we distinguish between the messages about actions and the messages about messages. Natural messages are only messages about actions, social messages are both messages about actions and messages about messages. The socially communicated messages about messages also include programs. That means that a program always has to be expressed in a code agreed upon in the society. Human thought is a set of operations with messages within the CNS. Messages within the CNS can be expressed both in the agreed upon code (thoughts in terms of words) and in the natural code (e.g. combination of geometrical forms).

Here the reader might express some doubts: does human thought always take place only in those two codes ? Does it not seem probable that certain messages in the CNS are expressed in a special individual code which the CNS “agreed upon only with itself” so that it is neither a natural code nor a socially agreed upon code? That such a code exists seems to be a sensible assumption which, however, can probably be proved only by introspection. If such a code existed, it would have a significant impact on this theory, mainly because of its central point, the distinguishing of conscious and subconscious data, operations and programs in the CNS. The problems would become somewhat more complicated. On the other hand it can be easily inferred that in spite of the necessity of adjusting some definitions and making some of the terms more precise, the main conclusions of Pelikan’s book would remain valid.





upThis part of the book also contains some interesting thoughts. The first concerns the problems related to the communication of messages in the code agreed upon in society. The number of symbols in the code is limited, it is therefore possible that confusion, redundancy or loss of information (“vagueness of language”) might occur. However, without such a code it is impossible for people to understand each other and it is therefore also impossible to organize and manage complex social systems. The author, however, warns against overestimating the advantages of the code: “We can easily imagine a social system which is flooded with directives, regulations and rules, which, however, can have difficulties with such basic actions as is e.g. the baking of good bread, the production of sharp razor-blades and the making of fine and reliable shoes”. The author, however, not very happily connects the difference between the natural and the agreed code with the difference between the plan and the market. The exchange of messages in the market takes place to a great extent also in an agreed code (prices, advertising, etc.) which, by the way, causes many shortcomings of the market.

Very interesting contemplations deal with the intelligence of the systems and natural selection. Intelligence is defined as the property of the system on which the quality of the transferred messages depends (one might think of a more rigorous definition). On a long-term basis intelligence could be measured by the action power which the CNS gains in the “system of actions”. One can also speak about the intelligence of the social organization which depends on a) the intelligence of the CNS which participates in it, b) the structure of the social system, c) how the respective CNS are located in this structure. The author is convinced that  natural selection is, after all, the only uncompromising intelligence criterion also for social systems.





upThe CNS and Messages about Messages. In this section the author first of all describes the hierarchy of the operations taking place in the CNS. He further defines conscious and subconscious data. Conscious data are messages, processed in the CNS and which this CNS is simultaneously able to communicate to the social environment. This definition is, no doubt, a very interesting one. However, the problem arises whether “consciousness” defined this way conforms with the current meaning of this word. The problem that arises from this definition is most visible while considering emotions and artistic expressions based on these emotions — even though something similar might be pointed out concerning scientific thought. I think that people consider many feelings as conscious without being able to communicate them for the simple reason that no suitable symbol for them exists in the social code. The great charm and adventure of art comes from the fact that it tries to “communicate the incommunicable”. On the other hand, the automatic creations of surrealists could serve as an opposite argument — this shows a certain possibility of communicating subconscious data. Perhaps the introduction of an individual code for the CNS would be of help here. It seems, however, that social communicability is closely connected with the consciousness and unconsciousness. As the delimitation of terms is a matter of definition we could criticize the author, after all, only for the fact that his definition of terms is not in complete agreement with the common use of those words.

The author defines conscious operations as follows: a) all output and input data are conscious, b) they are deterministic, c) various CNS carry them out in the same way and agreed symbols exist for their designation. Here we can see again that social communicability is the basic characteristic and that communicability is possible only in the agreed code. All other operations are designated as unconscious. According to the way the conscious and unconscious input and output data are combined, several types of unconscious operations can be distinguished. Those operations which have both the input and the output data conscious but are processed unconsciously are called intuitive operations. An important feature of the intuitive operations is that they cannot represent a deterministic transformation of conscious input data to conscious output data. A significant case of intuitive operations is the intellectual selection (creative work, inventions).





upNow we arrive at the definition of conscious, unconscious and mixed programs. The conscious program is a socially communicable message describing the arrangement of basic operations for certain complex operation whereby the basic and complex operations must be conscious. All conscious programs can be carried out by machines. Unconscious programs are socially uncommunicable messages. Mixed programs have some conscious and some unconscious parts. On the basis of these definitions the author develops interesting considerations mainly in section 3.2.1. Consciousness and Social Communicability, 3.2.2. Limits of Social Communication, 3.2.3. Inexact Communication and Misunderstandings. “Human consciousness is based on the ability of the human CNS to carry out certain activity and, at the same time, to look at this activity in a similar way as it is able to look at the activity of other CNS from its social environment. ... That is why there is such a close relation between human consciousness and social messages”. The author mentions the connection of his thoughts with the ideas of Marx and Freud. It would, however, also be of interest to compare them with Stalin’s theory from the Questions of Linguistics or with the Newspeak (from Orwells "Nineteen hundred eighty four"), which was to stop 'socialy undesirable' thoughts of people by exclusion of certain symbols  

Pelikán draws important conclusions about the limits of human communicability. Unconscious or mixed programs cannot be communicated at all or only partially, because they are bound to the structure of the given CNS. If society wants to make use of these programs, it must place the given person in the respective place. Another limit of communication is that the agreed symbols sometimes do not have a precisely defined meaning and sometimes they do not mean anything (the so-called empty symbols). Empty symbols can be put into empty messages. Empty messages do not transfer any information, but often have a social function too. Frequently people receive rewards for the formulation of empty messages. Empty messages can be even used to gain and maintain social power, since “from times immemorial man respected symbols the meaning of which were unknown to him”.

In the concluding part of section 3 the author deals with the problem of uncertainty and errors in the human CNS. The term subjective probability and subjective certainty is dealt with in detail. The author mainly points out that the method of assessing subjective probability of certain messages is part of the intelligence as this decides which system will hold its ground in the natural selection.





 upMan as a System with Purposeful Behavior. In this section the author discusses the “operation determining the degree of satisfaction”. This operation (marked U1) is closely related to the utility functions used in economic theory. The operations of satisfaction assigns to the messages from the environment (natural and social),that are considered to be correct with subjective certainty, an output datum called degree of satisfaction. The author considers the degree of satisfaction as a datum the maximization of which is the aim of every CNS.

In comparison with the current utility theory, Pelikan’s conception has a number of interesting features:

a) the degree of satisfaction is attached to messages, which are subjectively considered to be certain, i.e. not to the real state of the environment;

b) he considers the operation of satisfaction to be an unconscious operation with an unconscious program; 

c) the degrees of satisfaction can be conscious as well as unconscious data. He considers the unconscious to be the basic datum while the conscious is derived from it. The author makes the conjecture that the unconscious degree of satisfaction is cardinally measurable, while the conscious degree of satisfaction can contain reduced information and can, therefore, be only ordinally measurable;

d) besides the operation of satisfaction proper every person has his own model of operation of satisfaction. According to this model he imagines how satisfied he would be in certain situations. These ideas, however, may differ from real satisfaction that he would feel under those circumstances. The model of the operation of satisfaction uses conscious data only and therefore social messages can influence own unconscious operation of satisfaction.






upThis approach leads to some interesting results. For example people who want “to do good” to others can always decide only according to their own model of operation of satisfaction of the others. Thus naturally the contradiction arises between what people think that is good for others and what really is good for them. This, however, is most important if we consider the organization of society where the people in power are to decide “in the interest of others”.

From the introduced operation of satisfaction the author elegantly deducted a number of other psychological terms as e.g. needs, motivation, interests, will­power and at the end he also talks about the social function of moral norms. The definition of the operation of satisfaction, on the other hand, is far from perfect. Mainly the hypothesis of the cardinal measurability of unconscious data — “the degree of satisfaction” seems to be insufficiently founded. Can one at all rationally assume that such data are comparable and transitive, not to mention further conditions necessary for cardinal measurability? I think however, that Pelikan put unnecessarily strict demands on the operation of satisfaction which are not at all necessary for the conclusions he reaches. He already did something like that earlier when he assumed a precise quantifiebility of subjective probabilities on an unconscious level in such a way that the sum of the subjective probabilities would always equal one. It has, however, already been pointed out in literature that the sum of the subjective probabilities need not equal one.





upI consider as one of the most important thoughts in Pelikán’s work his statement that man has not only material needs, but also needs of information, i.e. that the very receiving, processing and transmitting of messages must be considered as satisfying basic human needs, as it is related to  the change of degree of the satisfaction of man. In the concluding part of his work he adds:

“We can imagine a social system in which a relatively high degree of satisfaction of material needs would be accompanied by a very low degree of satisfaction of information needs for the greater part of its members (e.g. comfortably furnished and well supplied prisons). Such a system definitely does not constitute the ideal of a socialist society. ... Special attention should be paid to the question concerning the inevitable scope of limitations of individual freedom in favor of social discipline. Experience has proved that the demand for limitation of individual freedom under the pretext of the interest of the society can be formulated so that it serves as an ideological tool to strengthen the power of certain individuals, This would then mean an expansion of individual freedom of members of the ruling group to the detriment of the individual freedom of other members of the social system.” upbot














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