Maturana Seminar #1 - Epistimology LO12887

Richard Karash (
Thu, 13 Mar 1997 20:27:45 -0500 (EST)

I'm in the UK attending a three day seminar by Prof. Humberto Maturana.
I'm here because I teach Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning
methodologies to business audiences. I think that Maturana's work is at
the heart of something important to good Org Learning practice and I want
the stimulation of hearing from one of the seminal figures in the field.

The program is at the Open University, which is itself quite unique. It is
a relatively new university which conducts all it's courses using Distance
Learning techniques (in the past by correspondence courses, now on the

I'll share some notes and the questions that are bothering us in the
seminar. I do so in case these beginner's notes might be helpful to others
approaching this difficult material. I'm also interested in responses...
Have I got it (right)? Any thoughts on my questions or notes?

The audience is fifty people, with a mix of consultants and academics.
Everyone here is interested in human organizations, and the session is
sponsored by the systems faculty at the Open University. There are no
biologists in the audience.

A basic text I've found useful is Maturana and Varela, The Tree of
Knowledge, subtitled "The biological roots of human understanding,"
Shambhala Press, 1992.

Prof. Maturana's plan is:
Day 1: Epistimology
Day 2: Biology
Day 3: What it means to be human

Here are my notes and questions from Day 1:
(Feel free to forward these notes to others, but please keep this message

In biology, we deal with descrete entities. They have unity. If you kill
it, you kill *IT*. Living things are descrete entities, even when they are
in communities.

There is a boundary. Separates the entity from everything else.

In the 60's, people were modelling the appearance of biological phonomena,
not the biological phenomena themselves. I was interested in the
phenomena. In the network of relationships.

Autopoiesis: A network of productions of components such that the products
produced constitute the components of the network.

MY NOTES: Entity has continuity, even though all it's parts (e.g. cells)
might be replaced.

Autpoiesis is one manner of being autonomous.

I studied color vision. Experiments in pigeons. The acitvity of the retina
could not be correlated with the spectral distribution of the light. I
decided to see if the activity of the retina was correlated with the
*names* we give to patterns of light. [Description of colored shadows; see
Tree of Knowledge. Shine a red light and a white light on an object, we see
lots of pink and a *green* shadow. But there is no green light there!
Illusion? or what?] Retinal activity for "green" in the shadow is
associated with the perception we have of green. A technician who starts
with the assumption that the spectral distribution is the true *reality* of
color would measure the spectral distribution in the shadow; he'll find
"white" and say that the perception of green is an illusion.

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.

Ontology of the Observer
Consider an observer and the act of observing.

We are continually immersed in:
The praxis of living
Happening of living

We are languaging beings. All this is occuring in language.

*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.

To not accept the question is to consider that learning is about finding
things that are *already there*. Instead, learning arises from what we do.
It is not about finding something that is already there.

Whenever there is a molecular autopoietic system, biological phenomena

(Diagram. Left hand column is the presumption of objectivity and an
reality independent of the actions of the observer. Right hand column
occurs when we consider *the* question, it is objectivity in parentheses,
because every observation is dependent upon the actions of the observer,
and the presence of multiple realities...)

MY NOTE: There are multiple realities because every observer is unique...
Why did Maturana not say this at this time?

Distinctions occur in language. There is no distinction and not
distinguishing something except in language.

Distinguishing anything requires an operation, an action by the observer.

QUESTION: Lots of questions about languaging beings, distinguishing, and
experience. Does a baby distinguish between being hungry and being
satisfied before it has language? Does a baby feel pain before it has
language? Does it experience pain? Can we feel pain without experiencing
pain? Is experiencing the same as distinguishing? If human beings are
languaging beings, are there any other languaging beings?

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?

QUESTION: And, about reality. I really do accept and embrace most of what
Maturana is saying, but couldn't *reality* still fit in this picture? It
seems to me that it could still be consistent to believe: 1) that there is
an external reality, 2) that we can never see it "objectively", completely,
or reliably, 3) that *is* created by all of our actions in the world and
therefore dependent on our actions, and 4) that we can circle in more and
more closely upon it by collective observation and interpretation. As we
sit here around a circle discussing this difficult material, all of would
agree that what's on Neil's lap is a pad of paper! That seems like a
reality to me.

QUESTION: Action science is an important method in the social sciences and
appears to be especially important in org learning work. Is action science
in its essence very similar to Maturana's right hand column? The essence of
both, it seems to me, is us individually to take resonsibility for and
place extraordinary attention and reflection on our own role in the system
we are considering.

Categorization is a way of *not seeing*.

MY NOTE: Most of the audience is interested in what this has to say about
social systems -- are they autopoietic? And, if so, what can we say about
them. I'm much more interested in a different aspect... I think that an
essential element of what we teach in the organizational learning
disciplines, something that is common in Flores, Werner Erhard, Senge,
Argyris and my own work, is an element of personal transformation that is
moving from Maturana's left hand column (objectivity, an external reality,
truth, someone knows, being right, being in control) to the right hand
column (distinctions made collectively in language, reality is dependent on
uniqueness of and actions by the observer, different realities for
different observers, individual freedom and responsiblity, impossible and
unethical to control another person, don't sell, seek structural changes,
learning occurs in an action/reflection cycle). I'm more interested in
learning from Maturana the foundations of that right hand column and the
effect it has on how people carry themselves throughtout life. What would
our organizations be like if more people thought that way?

An explanation is
1) proposition of a generative mechanism
2) which is accepted by a listener according to the listener's informal

Generative mechanism: a mechanism such that if you let it operate, it would
produce what you are explaining.

We don't know what informal criteria are being imposed by the listener,
unless made explicit. Very often, we don't know what the listener's
criteria are. The listener might not be consciously aware of their informal

The criteria for a "scientific explanation" are more specific:
1) A description of what an observer would have to do to have (i.e. to
live) the experience to be explained
2) A generative mechanism
3) Deduction from all the operational (experiential) coherences entailed in
(2) of other possible operational experiences and of what an observer must
do to have (live) them.
4) Doing what is deduced in (3) and if it happens then (2) is a "scientific

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."

QUESTION: There is a problem about acceptance. We remember Kuhn's notions
of scientific revolutions. I suggest the additional creiterion that a
"scientific explanation" as per the 4 criteria above will not be accepted
unless it sounds reasonable to the listener. That is, is will not be
considered an adequate "scientific explanation."

QUESTION: For an explanation to be accepted as "scientific" it must be
based on generally accepted terms which are clearly defined.

MY NOTE: I'm still a little bothered by the four criteria. By these
criteria, Einstein's Theory of Relativity would not be a "scientific
explanation" until it was verified by a body of observation, something
that only occured quite recently. I believe that this theory was widely
accepted as a "scientific explanation" by the 50's, well before it was
verified by observation (orbit of Mercury, gravitational lens bending
light, atomic clocks in satellites showing time shift).

QUESTION: The generative proposition and the experience are in different
domains. The generative proposition is usually in the domain of external
reality. The experience to be explained in the domain of experience, the
domain of the results of our senses. Only infrequently will we go so far
as to make a generative proposition that extends across the domains to
include the results of our senses, as Maturana does in his explanations of
color vision.

My notion of scientific explanation starts with the coherence of
experience. It does not assume an external reality, even though this is
commonly thought about science. Reality doesn't enter the picture.

Our explainations come out of the coherence of experience. The Big Bang
comes out of the coherence of our present experience even though it
happened so long ago.

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.

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).

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.

To explain the observer and observing, we need to propose a generative
mechanism, a mechanism such that if allowed to happen, it would produce
the experience we have as observers.

The words "operational" and "experiential" can be used interchangably in
the descriptions above.

MY NOTE: I think there is a natural human drive to preserve the coherences
we see. This is another "Watch out!"

      Richard Karash ("Rick")    |  <>
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