Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Tree of Knowledge" Part I : Intro

I am starting a new series of posts bringing forward some of the book, Tree of Knowledge, by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. They came up with a new term in biology, autopoiesis, in the 1970s. A short introduction to the authors is in order, starting with Varela.

In the comprehensive site about Varela's life and work appears this quote:
"Unless we accept that at this point in intellectual and scientific history that some radical re-learning is necessary, we cannot hope to move forward in the compulsive history of the ambivalent rejection-fascination with consciousness in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. My proposal implies that every good student of cognitive science who is also interested in issues at the level of mental experience, must inescapably attain a level of mastery in phenomenological examination in order to work seriously with first-person accounts. But this can only happen when the entire community adjusts itself to the corresponding acceptance of arguments, refereeing standards and editorial policies in major scientific journals, that can make this added competence an important dimension of a young researcher. To the long-standing tradition of objectivist science this sounds like anathema, and it is. But this is not a betrayal of science: it is a necessary extension and complement. Science and experience constrain and modify each other as in a dance. This is where the potential for transformation lies. It is also the key for the difficulties this position has found within the scientific community. It requires us to leave behind a certain image of how science is done, and to question a style of training in science which is part of the very fabric of our cultural identity."
Francisco Varela, Neurophenomenology : A methodological remedy for the hard problem, Journal of Consciousness Studies, "Special Issues on the Hard Problems", J.Shear (Ed.), June 1996.

As part of this vision Varela helped organize a series of nine meetings between scientists and Buddhist leaders including the Dalai Lama.

Maturana is an advocate of something called radical constructivism having contributed concepts supporting a Biology of Cognition. From Maturana:
"The Biology of Cognition is an explanatory proposition that attemps to show how human cognitive processes arise from the operation of human beings as living systems. As much, The Biology of Cognition entails reflexions oriented to understand living systems, their evolutionary history, language as a biological phenomenon, the nature of explanations, and the origin of humaness. As a reflection on how we do what we do as observers it is a study in the epistemology of knowledge. But, and at the same time as a reflection on how we exist in language as languaging beings, it is a study on human relations".

(I can almost hear his Chilean accent in this quote thanks to the spelling.)

I admit I don't understand even half of what he and Varela are trying to say or how, but I do get:
a) they are talking about life from single cell life on up, pointing out how life organizes itself

b) they are leaving out supernatural agency (of which I wholeheartedly approve)

c) they lean toward phenomenology, or first person "knowing", with which I am all too familiar.

Tree of Knowledge is a careful argument for how to think about the nervous system, perception and cognition. They begin to discuss the physical nervous system about half way through, which is where I'll pick up next time.

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