Maturana - Epistimology LO12908

John Paul Fullerton (
Sun, 16 Mar 1997 05:13:03 +0000

Replying to LO12887 --

I wrote this note in response to Rick's original report, then loaded it
into a word processor and thought that I lost it. Anyway, here it is. Let
me start with thanking Rick for sharing his notes. It's a very neat way to
allow virtual attendance very affordably :) Furthermore, though I'm taking
a non-agreeing viewpoint, please don't take my comments as disrespectful
or seeking to end the conversation. In addition, I am not a physicist or
biologist and don't think of my comments as being definitive.

Rick shared from the Maturana conference.

Maturana says
> Perception is not taking in data from the environment (as if our
> eye measured the distribution of spectral energy in light). What
> we see is in us (stimulated by and contingent upon something
> outside). Our senses record our complex reaction to a stimulus, not
> the stimulus itself. Therefore, we cannot say that our senses
> inform us of an external reality.

Perception involves taking in data from the environment. What we "see" is
a combination of at least 1. data received from the environment, 2.
fundamental brain processing, 3. developed processes in the brain, as well
as 4. the established thoughts we have about what is taking place.
(Example - 1. Light reflects off of the leaves of a tree and reaches my
eyes. 2. The eyes invert the image and send the inverted image through my
optic nerve to my brain, and the brain registers things whereever it does
that. 3. I "take" the image I'm having as being three dimensional, and
spatially distant, and visible to a significant extent. Awareness of the
outline of the tree and that it is a spatial object involves brain
processes that I am not aware of as I "see" the tree (it's not an
immediate given to be able to do that). 4. I think it's really a tree, not
a motion picture, or a drawing. Possibly I don't think about it much at
all because "it's a tree, after all, and I'm thinking about something else
anyway :) "

> *THE* question... How do we do what we do? We live and observe. How
> do we do this?
> I invite you to accept this question and consider it. To not
> consider the question is to make the assumption that there is an
> objective reality independent of the actions of the observer and
> to assume that we can know that objective reality. To rely on
> "reality" as an explaining principle. This view is fundamentally
> flawed. I say this not as a philosopher, but as a biologist, based
> on findings about human perception.

How do we live and observe? Decent philosophical or scientific question, I
guess. To consider the question, one does not have to assume or accept
that there is no objective reality. To say that there is no objective
reality, is to make an apparently objective statement about what is real,
and that's not fair.

Either we can make accurate observations (referring to the nature of
things, thus there's an objective reality to speak of, or we cannot, and
thus we cannot even say objectively that we cannot speak of objective
reality. For that itself should then describe reality.)

As an aside (probably not much related to the present conversation),
yesterday I saw the new movie production of Hamlet. Yow, a four hour
movie. The words in the movie seemed to me to be "very like"
Shakespeare's, possibly general quoting. In one scene, guards talk and
mention that on a certain day (maybe "the day of our Savior's birth")
ghosts cannot walk around and everything is safe. Horatio says "I partly
believe it." From such a real-world religious comment I took note of the
other partly believeable or simply present array of ghosts, superstitions,
fears, and things like that in Shakespeare's work. It seemed that to some
extent it was like the work of a computer hacker (in the sense of
significant knowledge of the operating system and access to very effective
system capabilities). I mean that more in the sense of smart coding rather
than illegal activities. Shakespeare uses all of these spectres (or
spectra) and it works (people partly believe it, somehow it pushes keys
that play different strains of music that we hear). Even so, one of the
most endearing moments in the movie (to me) was when Hamlet picks up a
child who plays a clown and kisses him on the forehead - something not in
the words of Shakespeare's play (I suppose) though it's an action that
doesn't require explanation when everything else is over.

It's probably true that REALITY is different than what we think - from the
farthest stars to the space within atoms, to models of what we can't see
and don't constantly think about. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to
knowingly start hitting my finger with a hammer, oh no, because it hurts
if I hit my finger with a hammer.

> learning arises from what we do. It is not about finding something
> that is already there.

Learning is the experience of someone who doesn't know everything (I
assume). The being finds things that it doesn't know about and learns
about some of those things in whatever way it can. I often reflect
(mentally) on something that I've seen or heard. There is an event or
thing that is not part of me, and for some reason I am drawn to account
for it or to know more about it. In my mind a weaver's web is spinning.
What does it mean, what does it mean, attitude, thoughts, mind, intent,
motive, harshness, gentleness, locus of control, what's to be gained, is
that acuity, observation, is there knowledge at least of what I know or is
it something I know nothing about - without intentionally going through
any of these thoughts. If I know nothing of what foods may be poisonous to
man and then I find out, how could that NOT be finding something that is
already there?

> QUESTION: One of the hardest things for me to explain is the
> notion of boundary in an autopoietic entity, yet it seems very
> important in Maturana's view. When I try to explain it, my friends
> say, "I don't think there are boundaries, everything is connected
> to everything else, it's all one very expansive network of
> relationships, why think of a boundary?" What is the importance of
> the boundary? What is it's significance to the way we act in the
> world in everyday life?

Skipping the idea of an autopoietic entity, and just considering the kind
of entity that I know about, one that doesn't conceive itself, for
instance, every temporal thing has a boundary. How could boundaries not
matter? Without boundaries we can't identify things and things have no
identity. Without boundaries there may be no quick accounting for morality
or bad and good treatment.

> Categorization is a way of *not seeing*.

Extensive categorization on purpose is not an easy task. It involves
conceptualization, finding relationships or deciding what relationships to
give priority to. One example is deciding whether to group by color or by
entities with the same domain of activity. (Blue suit, blue sky, light
blue paint in the baby's room or clothing, environment, and home design).
Human minds create at least one tree of knowledge in their minds (I don't
know if it's just one.), and the mind traces the branches of the tree to
find the things that are placed among its branches. For me, the branch
that has the idea of "Greta Garbo" has almost nothing except her name, and
the possibility that she was blonde and not a public person. For others it
may contain movies she was in, an idea of her beauty, an idea of her way
of life, how she was different from other actresses.

> Einstein said, "scientific theories are recreations of the human
> mind." I label #'s 1 & 2 as "the poetics of science" and #'s 3 & 4
> as "the engineering of science."

In Einstein's autobiographical writing, he said that the imagination was
very important to him in the thinking that he had done, and I think that
he said that he imagined things that he didn't have words for or before he
had words for them.

> The difference between a philosophical and a scientific theory is
> in what they want to conserve. When we make a scientific theory, we
> try to conserve the coherence of our experience. When we make a
> philosophical theory, we try to conserve the coherence of our
> principles.

Maybe not everyone does the same. I imagine that it is possible to be
scientifically philosophical or philosophically scientific :)

> When Einstein created the theory of relativity, he was conserving
> the coherence of experience, of things like dimensions and time.
> When he said to Neils Bohr about quantum mechanics, "God does not
> roll dice!" he was making a philosophical statement, try to
> conserve the coherence of principles (the principle of causality).

He may have reached so far out into the workings of things that it was
against his experience to think that events could go according to chance
rather than cause. He did say that he was not a religious person, so "God
does not play with dice" could mean something different than it sounds.

> QUESTION: Hmm... I think Maturana has it wrong with Relativity.
> There was no experience the of relativistic phenomena whatsoever.
> Polanyi documents very well that Relativity emerged from a thought
> experiment, very early, well before there was any data, and that
> the Michaelson-Morley experiment was inconclusive.

Einstein said that he imagined what it was like to travel on a beam of
light and (I think) the observations one on a beam of light might have. If
it was possible (and it seems like it was) for him to reason accurately
about that, then why wasn't that (itself) experience of how relativity
worked and evidence for relativity?

Have a nice day
John Paul Fullerton


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