Maturana Seminar #2 - Biology LO12896

Richard Karash (
Fri, 14 Mar 1997 15:41:09 -0500 (EST)

Maturana Seminar #2 - Biology

Well, this seminar is absolutely fascinating. Prof. Maturana is a small,
wiry and very active lecturer. He speaks with great precision needs many
words to articulate these hard-to-describe concepts. His stories are very

Here are my notes and questions from Day #2. Again, I'm a beginner in this
area and offer these in case they might be helpful for someone else
approaching the area. I'm also interested in responses... Have I got it
(right)? Any thoughts on my questions or notes?

(Feel free to forward these notes to others, but please keep this message

Warning: In most of the notes below "organization" is the biologist's word,
the organization of the living entity. Not an organization in which people
come to work.

Distinction between Organization and Structure
Living systems have continuously changing structure. It is their
organization that is conserved.

Consider the photo-receptor in the eye. A photon enters. The result depends
on the structure of the photo-receptor. The structure determines to what
kinds of photons the photo-receptor will be responsive and what the
response will be. The structure includes a whole set of connections and
pathways determined by the previous history of interactions.

We do experiments. Stimulus produces response. Repeating the stimulus
produces the same response. Again, same result. Then try it again and it
does not. Why not? Because each interaction changes the structure.

Conservation of organization. Changes in structure.
Dynamics of constitution.

The cell membrane, perhaps we can look at it physically, but the real
boundary has to be defined operationally. Even considering the cell
membrane, if we look at it very closely, it's just molecules and there is a
lot of empty space between them. So, we cannot define the boundary
physically; we have to define it operationally.

A perturbation is an encounter which triggers structural changes in which
the organization is conserved. If we consider an encounter that is a
perturbation, and make it bigger, stronger, more intense, ultimately we
will create an encounter which is destructive to the living system. Then it
is no longer a perturbation.

Structure of a living system determines what it admits as a perturbation.
Vs. the things that do not trigger a structural change. And vs. the things
that will be destructive.

QUESTION: So, there is an ordered set of types of encounters: those with no
structural effect (structural not sensitive to these), perturbations (which
trigger a structural change but leave organization intact), and destructive
encounters (which cause such a large change that organization is no longer

An autopoietic system is one... (like the previous definition)... where the
products constitute the components of the system and (*NEW*) specify the

Observing is an arbitrary act. It is done by someone. They choose to
observe or not to observe; that's arbitrary. But, once we do observe, the
result is not an arbitrary result. The result of observation will have
coherence with (??wording) what is happening.

We look at the structural changes that have been triggered in a system to
see what encounters the system has had. When your child comes home talking
"funny" you ask, "Who have you been talking to? what encounters have you
had?" History is the flow of structural changes.

When a living system interacts with the medium, there will be structural
changes in the medium as well.

Central point: If look at systems in terms of functions, inputs and
outputs, we miss something important. We have to look at its structure to
understand what is happening.

The worm and the salamander belong to the same history of structural

Something... may produce a result... in a different domain.

Seeing blue is a result in a different domain than the domain of the
spectral distribution of light which triggered the result of seeing blue.
Seeing blue is in the domain of cognition which is different from the
domain of light waves.

We see blue because we belong to a particular history of structural

Causal relationship.
Contingent relationship, based on structure.
Generative relationship.

QUESTION: What is the distinction between the above three?

Structural Coupling
Suppose there are two autopoietic systems which interact with each other
and with the medium. (Diagram... Figure to the left at time 0, figure to
the right at time n.)

The changes in structure of one system are coupled to the changes in
structure of the other with which it interacts, and with the changes in
structure of the medium. When we wear a pair of shoes over the course of a
year, the feet change... and the shoes change... and the shoes and feet fit
together. They feel comfortable. Molded to each other.

Structural coupling with conservation of organization = adaptation. This
will be controversial, just saying this word.

I see adaptation as continuous.
For Darwin, adaptation is a *variable*. That is, we might talk about one
organism being more adapted... or less adapted. I see adaptation instead as

Adaptation is a relation of congruence.

Conservation of autopoiesis is conservation of organization = maintenance
of life.

Conservation of adaptation is congruence with the medium.

Living things have unity and identity.

QUESTION: Lots of questions about identity. For example, if I had an organ
replacement for my brain, so it's my body but someone else's brain and
their history, do I preserve my identity? [Honest!]

Identity is with respect to a domain.

When we say to a child, "You... are a lazy child!" that creates structural
changes, may bring forth a lazy child.

Whenever in a collection of elements, some configuration of relations begin
to be conserved, a space is opened for everything else to change around it.

To address organization, look to what is conserved.
To address structure, assess it operationally by interaction with the

All biological processes are mostly closed systems... most of the flows and
transitions are within the system... plus just a few arrows coming in and a
few coming out.

Human beings have a unique capability for reflection. This gives the
opportunity for design. We can manipulate the structure of the system or
the circumstances in which it resides so that the flow of events goes in a
certain way.

Structural determinism does not imply predictability.

Organization is the configuration of relationships to be conserved.
The realization of that configuration would be structure.

The border is a dynamic phenomenon, defined by the participation of the
components within preferentially over the participation of similar elements

A totality is very different from a composite entity.

QUESTION: Maturana's epistemology leads us to the view that no one has a
monopoly on truth. But, this statement is offered as a truth.

QUESTION: Varela uses "resonance"; we have not heard that word from

Language and Emotions
When you distinguish a system, you also distinguish a medium in which it

(Using diagram of two living systems A and B, and a medium C...) The domain
of relations and the domain (inside A) of physiology... These are
non-intersecting domains. You cannot describe what is happening in one in
terms of what is happening in the other. They are incommensurable.

The system is an entity that exists in history.

We tend to talk about things in one domain as though they were in the
other. We speak as though certain things in the domain of relations are in
the physiological domain.

Consider your movements of your body. As in walking... or talking... You do
not *make* your movements. You do not *do* your talking.

Where does language occur? In the brain? Or in the relations?

Behavior is that which arises in the interaction of an organism with the
environment or with other organisms.

The observer sees that A & B (two organisms, same diagram as above)
coordinate their behavior. But they may also coordinate the coordination of
their behaviors.

This is recursion.

Recursion is when any operation is applied to the consequences of its
previous application. For example:

a' = sqrt(a); a' = sqrt(a); a' = sqrt(a) -- this is repetition.
a' = sqrt(a); a'' = sqrt(a'); a''' = sqrt(a'') -- this is recursion.

Taking the square root (in the example above) is a circular process. It
Displacement of the output to the input of the next operation is a linear

Recursion is the coupling of a linear dynamic with a circular dynamic. From
it something new emerges, a new domain.

Language is the coordination of behavior applied on the consequences of
coordination of behavior.

Language is not about symbols, not about telling information,
communication, etc.

Taxi-cab story: Suppose you want to hail a cab, but there are no empty cabs
coming your way... You see one on the other side of the street, going the
wrong way for you. You hail the cab. Your eyes make contact, there are
gestures, you are coordinating behaviors. You make a circling motion and
the cab starts to make a U-turn. Just then another taxi approaches and you
take it. The first cab gives you a very unfriendly gesture. You respond.
You are coordinating the coordination of behaviors; this is language.

When the dog understands it's name and responds, that's language.

Once in language, there is the possibility of an observer.
Observing is the next recursion. Observing is coordinating the coordination
of the coordination of behaviors.

Objects arise in language. Each recursion creates a new domain of objects.

Language is not unique to humans.
But, to *live* in language is human.

What about intention? Intention requires a foreseeable consequence. We
foresee consequences in language.

We watch a bird... We notice the change in it's wings and flight near the
ground. We say, "It's about to land!" But, does it intend to land? Or is
that a construct of the observer?

Learning is a flow of recurrent interactions in which you change.

(Back to the two epistemologies... Certainty/objectivity on the Left and
Observer-dependent on the right.) When you make a statement from the mode
on the right hand side, you are making an invitation to discourse. You are
never making a demand. On the left hand side, you are often making a

Emotions are involved. Flow from one side to the other of (same diagram).

QUESTION: This whole matter of emotion and how it fits into Maturana's
picture. Many of us have open questions about this and hope it becomes
clearer tomorrow.

Within the coherence of a given domain, we can have objectivity. But, this
is not the transcendental version of objectivity that appears on the left
hand side.

Language takes place in a continuing flow.

Encounters trigger structural changes. The continuous flow of language
triggers continuous structural changes.

How can we reflect (using language) in solitude?

A thought has consequences. A thought changes our structure.

MY NOTES: I'm reminded of David Bohm's words, "A thought... once thought...
is not gone; it leaves traces that persist forever" (my words).

Language is not abstract, even though it sometimes seems so. Language has
to do with doing. It's a flow of coordinations of coordinations of

When we speak of the nervous system, I'll show that there is no fundamental
difference in domains. (??)

Consider someone thinking a thought. Suddenly they become pale! Just from a

Listening... A listener listens. One cannot specify how another person will
hear you.

We move back and forth between the right and the left (same diagram) in
daily life. When in friendship or when we have accepted *the* question,
then we are on the right.

If we are on the LEFT and ask, "What is...(something)?" -- to answer this,
we listen orienting ourselves to providing an answer that's grounded in
reality. If we ask, "What am I?" then we have to discover our real self.
This is a path with no end because we have no access to reality.

If we are on the RIGHT and ask "What is...(something)?" -- We know that
something *is* with reference to the distinction from which it arises.

What do I do to claim that such and such is the case? For example, what do
I have to see to claim that there is language? What do I have to see to
answer, "What are emotions?"?

Suppose we have a friend who is sick or just suffered a terrible tragedy.
We are worried about the friend. We assess the possible actions the friend
might take. We distinguish a domain of possible actions (indicated by the
word for the emotion, fear, love, etc.).

When afraid of a dog, it is making an assessment of the possible behaviors
of the dog and distinguishing a domain of possible behaviors.

Emotions are when we distinguish a domain of possible behaviors.

Love is the domain of those possible behaviors through which another arises
as a legitimate other in co-existence with one's self. The word
"legitimate" means that the other does not have to justify itself to us.

Thistles story: I was walking through a field of thistles with my seven
year old son walking behind me. I was swinging a stick to beat down the
thistles in a path for us. My son asked, "Father, why you do not like
thistles?" I stopped. Stopped doing what I was doing, which I was doing
automatically. Stopped with the stick high in the air, ready to swing. My
son's words triggered a change in me. My behavior changed to admit thistles
as possible to co-exist with me. And, I saw that with just a little care we
could walk between the thistles without getting hurt.

How we use the words anger... fear... What assessment do you use to

Feelings are a reflection, an assessment of how I am at the moment. So
humans can feel fear. A mouse cannot feel, because it does not have the
mechanism to make the operation.

QUESTIONS: Distinction between emotion and feelings.

      Richard Karash ("Rick")    |  <>
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