Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" : Part IV "On the Razors Edge"

Maturana and Varela go on to explain the two conceptual, perceptual traps in a bit more detail.
"...on the one hand there is the trap of assuming that the nervous system operates with representations of the world. And it is a trap, because it blinds us to the possibility of realizing how the nervous system functions from moment to moment as a definite system with operational closure. We shall see this in the next chapter."
Maybe for the purposes of this blog we could call this idea, Representational-ism. As long as we know what it is, and how to use it properly, it is ok to use it as a conceptual tool. What is important is to avoid being "trapped" by it, or by any other singular way of viewing something as immensely complex as an organic nervous system/brain that has co-evolved within a complex living organism as part of its functional integrity.

"On the other hand, there is the other trap: denying the surrounding environment on the assumption that the nervous system functions completely in a vacuum, where everything is valid and everything is possible. This is the other extreme: absolute cognitive solitude or solipsism, the classic philosophical tradition which held that only one's interior life exists. And it is a trap because it does not allow us to explain how there is a due proportion or commensurability between the operation of the organism and its world."

The authors say,
"..these two extremes or traps have existed from the very first attempts to understand cognition, even in its most classical roots. Today, the representational extreme prevails; at other times the opposing view prevailed.

We wish to propose now a way to cut this apparent Gordian knot and find a natural way to avoid the two abysses of the razor's edge. By now the attentive reader has surmised what we are going to say because it is contained in what we said before. The solution is to maintain a clear logical accounting. It means never losing sight of what we stated at the beginning: everything said is said by someone. The solution, like all solutions to apparent contradictions, lies in moving away from the opposition and changing the nature of the question, to embrace a broader context."

Hegelian sublation, in other words...?
Here is what they propose:

The situation is actually simple. As observers we can see a unity in different domains, depending on the distinctions we make. Thus, on the one hand, we can consider a system in that domain where its components operate, in the domain of its internal states and its structural changes. Thus considered, for the internal dynamics of the system, the environment does not exist; it is irrelevant. On the other hand, we can consider a unity that also interacts with its environment and describes its history of interactions with it. From this perspective in which the observer can establish relations between certain features of the environment and the behavior of the unity, the internal dynamics of that unity are irrelevant.

Neither of these two possible descriptions is a problem per se: both are necessary to complete our understanding of a unity. It is the observer who correlates them from his outside perspective. It is he who recognizes that the structure of the system determines its interactions by specifying which configurations of the environment can trigger structural changes in it. It is he who recognizes that the environment does not specify or direct the structural changes of a system. The problem begins when we unknowingly go from one realm to the other and demand that the correspondences we establish between them (because we see these two realms simultaneously) be in fact a part of the operation of the unity - in this case, the organism and nervous system. If we are able to keep our logical accounting in order, this complication vanishes; we become aware of these two perspectives and relate them in a broader realm that we establish. In this way we do not need to fall back on representations or deny that the system operates in an environment that is familiar owing to its history of structural coupling.
My bolds.

So, what does that mean for someone like me, a human primate social groomer who deals with people in pain? Well, it means, at the very least that there will be a "solipsism" in the room in the form of the patient's subjective response to being in pain. Very few people can actively disengage from pain - it has this way of demanding the center stage of awareness. It means being aware of this and letting it exist, while simultaneously being an "observer" of the "organism" or unity that claims to be suffering pain, not allowing one's own mirror neurons too much control over one's thinking or behavior. Throwing a blanket over those mirrors. Staying cool but not cold.

It also means competently juggling at least five perspectives, as mentioned before.

In the end, whatever constitutes "help" will lie strictly within whatever the patient's nervous system is able to take from the relationship and make some new pattern out of. All I have to do, conceptually, is understand as much as I can about the problem (keep studying), be willing to offer this understanding as a possible new perception (to help move the process along, be a conversational and relational lubricant), be well-attached to my role as more of an observer than "hero" or "rescuer", then sit back, wait for the INTRA-relationships, those inside the patient, to sort themselves out. Be an effective mirror to the patient. Verbal and kinesthetic. Even use real mirrors on occasion. Keep the process moving AND not going off any rails.

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