Maturana’s Theory of Biology of Cognition

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the researchers at the AIMS Center are currently taking part in a book study of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s book, The Tree of Knowledge. This book is essentially a description of their theory of biology of cognition, which has had a profound effect on many different academic disciplines, and is, in essence, a different way to understand human cognition.

Since the Renaissance, Western tradition has put forth a hierarchical, linear narrative which has dominated the popular Western view. The analogy that can be used to represent this viewpoint is an individual as a “cognitive explorer” living in an external world. This external world is full of absolutes, all that is “out there” is concrete, knowable, and transparent to our perceptual/cognitive capacities. Knowledge can be thought of as the “big K,” independent from the observer and just waiting to be discovered.  

Maturana, on the other hand, has presented a very different epistemological viewpoint in his Theory of Biological Cognition, which involves an observer-dependent reality. As we are beginning to learn in our book study, this theory talks about knowledge as a construction of the observer based on limited sensory input gathered from the outside world. Even more important, that knowledge is not just based on sensory input from the outside world, but it is also extensively a construction of the prior experiences specific to the individual observer. This is a much different epistemological frame from the idea of knowledge as the “big K,” which is out there waiting to be discovered. It is an alternative viewpoint that does not sound right or sit well with our Western traditions and training.  

Maturana’s work is concentrated around the mind/brain problem and current neuroscience research in the realm of perception has tended to provide positive correlations to his theories involving the brain. Where our Western tradition of objective realism tends to fail, Maturana’s Theory of Biological Cognition helps provide an alternative explanation for ideas like origin of order in complex natural systems, the surprising degree of autonomy of living systems, and the coherence between behavior and circumstances.

But as it is often stated when talking about the interaction between the mind, the brain, and consciousness, there is a paradox here that is difficult to get around. How can we use the brain to study the brain? Can we really use cognition to help understand the process of cognition? If you are interested in exploring this idea of an observer-dependent reality further I would suggest that you watch a 17-minute TED video by Alin Seth called “Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality.” It is a wonderful video that will challenge the perception of your own reality. Certainly, these are all interesting questions based around very big ideas.

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