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HOLISTIC SCIENCE A Tapestry of Essays by Robin Wilding

6 How we know what we know

You only need a brain when you are moving. For stationary life forms (like the mature sea squirt) a brain is no longer necessary.

Greenfield 1997

Cognition, the word, has its origins from Latin, cognitio, to know. It is defined in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary as the action or faculty of knowing. We use the word increasingly to include perceiving and conceiving as in “cognitive therapy”, the alteration of negative thoughts about the self. But the use of the words “action” and “faculty” which derive from its origins are worth returning to. They point us towards knowing “how to” as well as knowing “about”. If we or an animal can perform some coherent action which is more than instinctive we may view it as action based on cognitive knowledge, perhaps learnt. We might not want to use the expression “Birds know how to migrate” but we would have to admit that those birds who get lost en route are missing something the others have.

Cognitive Science

Philosophers have been pondering how we get to know and think about the world for many years, but it is only recently that an approach to knowledge using computer modelling, has elevated this quest to the status of a science and given it a name. Cognitive science is relatively young and not yet coherent. There is no agreed sense of direction and there are many contributing disciplines. Those which are commonly encountered are linguistics,

neurobiology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, psychology and sometimes anthropology. One which dominates is artificial intelligence (AI). One of the assumptions of artificial intelligence is that there is a concrete and real world “out there”. Cognition, artificial or naturally occurring begins with the process of sensing this outer world and making an inner representation. This representation can be modelled by a computer and managed by a suitable repertoire of symbols. Learning is possible, and AI enthusiasts believe that eventually some sort of intelligent behaviour of robots may be possible. Gerald Edelman is reported to have said in an interview with John Horgan, that his latest robot Darwin 4, was “not a robot at all but a real creature” The theory of cognitivism holds that cognition is independent of neurobiology or sociobiology. So there is no reason why Edelman should not make a creature out of little electric motors, feedback loops, appropriate software and memory chips. There is a certain appeal in adopting such a model of cognition which reinforces the expectation that there is a real world out there which we can only glimpse through making representations of it inside our heads. But there are two problems with this approach. Firstly the assumption that reality exists entirely on its own, independent of the observer is questionable. Our senses are assailed by millions of pieces of information which we are able to detect, yet we give attention to only a minute fraction of this reality. The most important aspects, and perhaps even the only aspects of a fixed outer reality to the observer are those aspects to which value or meaning is given. The question of what constitutes reality is a question we will return to, but for the moment let us mark it as open to debate. The second problem with cognitivism is that it dismisses the importance of the structure and function of living cognitive creatures. The bits and pieces, and the operating system of Darwin 4 do not resemble the biology of nerves and their connections to each other. There are neurobiologists like the Churchlands who believe the way nervous systems work are essentially linked to their structure. The hardware, they say, is important. Not the least of the strange consequences of the structure of nervous systems is that they are to some extent unpredictable and spontaneous. Creativity and compassion emerge from nervous systems. It is not likely that Darwin 4 or any of the later improved versions, will ever cry. Cognitive theory does not begin to explain the peculiarities of being human, or even sentient. The material parts of our bodies including cells, blood

vessels, beating hearts and complex connections within the brain are inseparable from love, happiness, peace and moving music. We may wonder how the body and soul ever got separated. Those of us with a Christian background have become used to separating the conscious living mind or soul from the physical body. I have traced the origins of separation in a previous essay on the effect of religion on science. Goodwin believes that the duality of the mind/body has lead us to abuse nature, to dissect, divide and control it, as if it had no greater meaning or validity than the sum of its parts. We distance ourselves from the object so as to know it and control it as if in a 3rd person perspective. But there is always our own component of emotions, feelings and mind which is a first person perspective. We need to ask ourselves how we restore the unity of mind and body so as to re-engage with the outside world in a whole way.

Cognition and Living Systems Maturana and Varela approach cognition by making the assumption that it is a

phenomenon restricted to living organisms (as distinct from robots). “Living systems are

cognitive systems, and living, as a process, is a process of cognition”.

from the active interaction between living things and their environment. The nature of this interaction depends on the structure and organisation of an organism . Greenfield observes that organisms only need a brain when they are moving. For example, the larval stage of a sea

squirt has a primitive spinal cord and an expansion of nerves at the head. It swims in search of


system disappears. Plants have a limited need to gather and store information. Their structure reflects a more static lifestyle and a less dynamic response to the environment. What organisms are is inseparably connected to what they can do . Their structure and organisation determines their unique qualities. These qualities are not readily revealed by the reduction of life’s processes down to molecular reactions. We will need to explore these unique qualities at a holistic level to understand cognition .

Knowing emerges

When it becomes adult it stops moving, fixes to a rock and filter feeds. The nervous

Autopoiesis or Self Generatation Maturana and Varela believe that a living system is autonomous and exists for itself. At first

glance this seems to exclude the environment from the living process. There is a “dialogue” with the medium ( that local part of the environment with which the organism interacts) but this “dialogue” takes place through receptors which are triggered, not informed, by outside events. Maturana and Varella were influenced by the discoveries of Jacob and Monod who described the control process of the production of an enzyme called lactase. Yeasts cannot do without lactase to metabolise the sugar lactose. Jacob and Monod found that the gene coding for the production of lactase , was normally repressed, or switched off. The repressor was a compound made by another gene. So repressors made by one gene could control another. These French workers also found that this repressor compound was altered in the presence of the sugar lactose itself. It was altered in such a way that it no longer worked as a repressor and so the gene coding for lactase production went into action and the enzyme was produced. The cell could now metabolise the lactose sugar. These were two highly significant findings. The first was that cell behaviour (such as metabolising lactose) is triggered by external events ( the availability of lactose). This “dialogue” between living and non-living will be expanded later. The second finding of great significance was that genes influence each other. It was known that there were more genes in the nucleus of living cells than were required to code for the number of products the cell made. Perhaps these genes were regulating the relationships and activity of themselves and the producer genes Maturana and Varella take the lactose story one step further. The lactose triggered the expression of the lactose gene. It did not bring with it the information required for transcribing the gene, carrying the messenger RNA to the cytosol and building amino acid onto amino acid, the exact sequence which would construct a molecule of lactase enzyme. That was an internal action, informed by internal “knowledge”. Maturans and Varrela stress that a living organisms exhibit a high level internal organisation with selective response to its environment. The response to changes in the environment is interpreted by receptors at the structural borders of a living cell and these receptors trigger a response from the inner organisations in the cell. Maturana and Varella conceived of a metaphor for this concept of internal autonomy which they called autopoiesis or self generating. The internal isolation in which the dynamics of the

living process takes place is modified by external interaction with the surrounding medium. But influence may travel in an outwards direction. A single celled organism may trigger

structural changes in its surrounding medium. There is the opportunity here for expansion of the individual self to include its medium and perhaps other organisms.

Maturana captures the structure and function of autopoiesis in a diagram of a cell interacting with its niche. The niche is that part of the surrounding medium where the organism actually encounters the environment. The diagram illustrates the two directional flow of influence between the organism and its niche. During a history of encounters the medium around an autopoietic system may change as a result of changes within the living system.

This suggests a degree of coherence, or inter-relationship between a living system and its

environment. This is in

organisms adapt to some given external environment which influences the organism via a

one way traffic of information. The autopoiesis view is claiming that there is a two way flow of information. This is particularly important in

the development of second order autopoiesis. The interaction between a simple cell and its niche requires a coupling of molecular organisations. These couplings are selective and are limited by the degree of structural similarity between the organism and the niche environment.

similarity between the organism and the niche environment. contrast with the more accepted view by Neo
similarity between the organism and the niche environment. contrast with the more accepted view by Neo

contrast with the more accepted view by Neo Darwinists, that

contrast with the more accepted view by Neo Darwinists, that Interaction is also possible with adjacent
contrast with the more accepted view by Neo Darwinists, that Interaction is also possible with adjacent
contrast with the more accepted view by Neo Darwinists, that Interaction is also possible with adjacent
contrast with the more accepted view by Neo Darwinists, that Interaction is also possible with adjacent

Interaction is also possible with adjacent organisms when they are structurally similar. Maturana modifies the symbol of autopoiesis to represent a second order system resulting which may allow some organisational coupling. When these couplings are mutually beneficial the relationships become conserved. The association may be loose and temporary or be so powerful as to lead to the partial loss of autonomy within individual organisms and the development of a second order system. For example, free swimming bacteria attach to surfaces when they can, to form an aggregate.

The bacteria are now in very close proximity to each other and may become attached, even to bacteria of a different species. They enter a new phase of collective behaviour which transcends that of each individual. This aggregate has a new level of structure and organisation which appears to be beneficial to all the members of the “commune” at least on the grounds that both their reproductive success and resistance to antibacterial agents is increased. The new structure has been called a biofilm and this especially robust aggregate of bacteria is of some importance to us.

Another quite striking example of the capacity to change from a first order system to a second order is seen in the life history of slime mould. These single celled organisms exists in a free ranging mobile form which moves about on some forest floors. If their environment becomes less suitable they begin to move together in quite a coherent way. The slime mould organisms collect into a mass which then starts to move like a slug. The slug cannot feed and has no separate organs but moves due to coherent streaming of its members. The slug does not last long but reaches a spot where it appears to become anchored. It now changes shape and a stalk rises from the base. At the top of the stalk some organisms become transformed into spores and are released into the air to float to some better feeding ground. The organisms in the stalk die. These examples of biofilms and slime mould illustrates the potential advantage to an organisms of losing some autonomy for the potential gain of collective living. In autopoietic terms they have to transcend the first order systems if they are to benefit by structural coupling that comes with second order systems. In the second order systems the survival of individuals is transcended by the survival of the collective. In the case of the slime mould there are many individuals who are sacrificed in the process of releasing a few pioneering spores who alone have a chance of survival. I will return to biofilms and slime mold in the next chapter as they both illustrate emergent order in systems. Other one way transitions to a second order have apparently been so successful that they have lasted billions of years. Thirty billion years ago, four different organisms, plastids (including chloroplasts, organisms capable of photosynthesis), mitochondria and flagellated bacteria, developed an association of mutual benefit with a host cell, and came to occupy a

single shared structure, the nucleated cell. This novel arrangement was so successful that it made possible the great blossoming of diverse multicellular living forms that have since inhabited the earth. The nucleated cell is the building unit for all forms of life today more complex than bacteria. Lynn Margulis coined the term symbiogenesis to describe this process. She points out that the eucaryote cell, was not the result of competition between its members for survival but due to co-operation. We are seldom reminded of the mutually beneficial, peaceful co-existence which is sometimes built up between different living organisms. The metaphor popular amongst many biologists is still the “struggle for survival” or “eat or be eaten”. While survival, or more commonly failure to survive, has made extinct 99% of all forms of life on earth, it is interesting that co-operation to mutual benefit has resulted in a life form which is still with us after 30 billion years. The eucaryote cell is a medley of four separate organisms which came together in co- operation all those billions of years ago. It is possible that for some time, each of the separate, organisms making up eucaryote (nucleated) cells, existed merely in close association as a second order system, while retaining a degree of autonomy. Each of these components of the eucaryote cell then transcended its “self” so thoroughly that it lost its identity and came to exist as a more complex first order system. Mitochondria, the power source of nucleated cells, have however held on to their genetic identity and reproduce all by themselves carrying forward their unique genetic material to further generations. The mitochondria in every one of our own human cells are still there providing energy but with a degree of independence. The contribution which mitochondria make to the nucleated cell is in supplying a source of energy using sophisticated biochemical processes. The resulting energy output far exceeds the output from the biochemistry used by procaryote cells (like bacteria). The eucaryote (nucleated cell) has capabilities which provide the potential for higher complex multi-cellular organism with a staggering diversity, a capability which far exceeded the non- nucleated bacteria and which was responsible for a surge in the diversity of life on earth. The upgrade in terms of cognition represents a quantum leap forward. Let us move to higher levels of organisation which illustrate cognitive changes of a more subtle nature.

Third order autopoiesis The termite is a multicellular organism with a substantial degree of cell differentiation. It appears to be a collection of first order units, coupled together as a single structure. The termite however, like many other social animals, requires a level of coupling with other termites in order to survive. Only the queen termite lays eggs, and these have to be fed and tended by other termites. There has to be some coherent behaviour in the termite colony so that the queen and the larvae are properly looked after. There is also evidence of coherent behaviour in the construction of the self made accommodation they live in. The use of the concept of first , second and third order autopoietic systems is clearly a metaphor. It is not an intrinsic process but a construction that has been made to try and explain what we observe. Like any classification system, the distinctions break down when pressed. The boundaries between first, second and even third order systems are fuzzy. However they illustrate an important quality of living systems. When the nature of the encounters and coupling between individual systems allows for transcending the self, there emerges a new composite structure of some novelty and intrinsic value. With a long history of encounters this novel organisation may become conserved as part of the cognitive behaviour which makes living organisms unique. It is important to note that the new organisation and structure of second and third order systems is not genetically determined or predictable.

Autopoiesis and the Nervous System Maturana applies the features of autopoiesis to understand the relationship between the animal nervous system and its environment. His early work on the vision of the frog challenged existing concepts of vision and established the nervous system as a self regulating, self co-ordinating system triggered but not informed by the outside world. This, so far fits the metaphor of autopoeisis. He describes a nervous system as a closed network of neuronal elements in which every nerve cell is affected by those around it. A nerve cell has thousands of feeler like connections(dendrites) with other cells. It is capable, when sufficiently electrically charged, to blast off an electrical impulse which is carried along a particularly long dendrite, the axon, to reach another group of target cells. Only when there is a particular

spatial or temporal pattern of activity around each target cell, does the arriving impulse alter the electrical charge of the target cell membrane sufficiently to cause an impulse to travel down its axon to another cell. The shape and size of the target cell, and the distribution of excitatory and inhibitory impulses, including their timing of arrival are all contributing factors. Hence every nerve cell operates under the influence of configurations of activity in cells all around it. There is nothing particularly logical or predictable about it. But it points clearly to the nervous system as a closed network of changing activity between its components. There are no direct inputs from the outside but triggers which alter the activity within the network . In this sense it is similar to the autopoeitic systems Maturana and Vareela described. The outside environment influences the inner workings via an intermediary processor series of triggers, We might call this process perception as it is an interpretation of messages not directly received from the outside world, but from messages received from sensory devices in contact with the outside world.

Vision as an example of perception The simplest light sensitive cells record intensity and are found in most animals and plants. The simplest form of vision, such as in the amphibian eye, provides a sense of movement as the image crosses a visual field. More complex still is the recognition of form, which requires a focussed image and more complex processing by the nervous system and brain. Cells sensitive to light contain cis-Retinal. When struck by a photon of light the shape of this compound is altered with the release of free energy. Cis Retinal is bound to a protein in the cell membrane called Opsin. The alliance of Retinal and Opsin, called Rhodopsin is the universal light sensor of animals. The free energy released by the Retinal kicks the Opsin through a series of shape changes that results in a change in the electrical potential of the cell membrane. When enough electrical charges have built up in the membrane, a pulse wave of changes travels along the membrane and down the nerve dendrite where it may reach adjacent nerve cells. So at this early stage, we can see that there have to be enough photons reaching the cell to generate a nerve impulse. In mammals, the cell sensitive to light intensity, has a rod shaped end composed of many fine folded layers of the cell membrane. Cells

sensitive to colour are cone shaped. Both these cells occupy a layer called the Retinal which also contains many other nerve cells of different types whose branches interconnect along their dendrites with each other. The type of branching determines the nature of their

contribution to an impulse coming from a rod or cone.

enhance information about spatial contrast and suppress information about diffuse illumination. We have noted that a photon striking a Rodopsin molecule does not necessarily produce a nerve impulse, and now we have to add that even if it does, it will start a cascade of activity within the retina well before the message has reached the brain. Maturana and Lettvin (1960) showed that considerable processing of visual stimulation begins in the cells of the retina. Shephard (1994) also emphasises the multiple pathways and processing which occur in visual perception. He is wary of the computational models which build up perceptions by matching pattern recognitions and motion experiences to incoming “information”. Such models ignore the early modification of the image at the retina and assume a hardware structure which is not analogous to the brain. The response of another neurobiologist, Churchland (1997) also argues that the living “hardware” is a crucial element of the process of cognition. Shepard wonders where there might be a mechanism for “binding” all the parallel processes of the brain together to construct a coherent visual image. Yet as Greenfield (1997) writes, if there were such a process, presumably located somewhere, we would loose our vision

entirely if it were damaged, and this is not the case. The brain is not organised as a bundle of

mini-brains, each with its own dedicated tasks

more likely to form a balanced dialogue with each other than converge on an executive centre”. However the image is built up in our brains, we have to allow that the process appears to be an inner construction and not a filtered representation of the outside world.

Circuits between the Retinal cells

She writes “Connections between regions are

The perception of colour The experience of colour, has been studied extensively as it provides insight into the

realm of an “inner” world and the “real” world “out there”.

are not always representative of the actual wavelengths that are reflected from a surface.

For example, the colours we see

Maturana and Varela (1987) and Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991) cite further examples of the manner in which the nervous system acts as a self referring system triggered by events in the environment. Several experiments in colour perception indicate that we can experience colours even when the light reaching our eyes is not coloured (achromatic) . Coloured shadows were described by Otto von Guericke in 1672. He noted that the shadows of his finger made by the rising sun and his candle appeared blue. A more controlled experiment involves the use of two projectors, one white and the other covered with a red filter. The shadow cast in between these two light sources appears green. The spectral light reflected by the shadow is not a green wavelength but towards the red end of the spectrum. An even more dramatic example is provided by projecting two checkered patterns of light and dark grey. Overlapping shadows are squares of yellow blue and pink. There appears to be no direct representation by specific optical receptors, for specific wavelengths but rather three groups of receptors. One group is achromatic and signals brightness while the other two signal differences in hue. The opponent-process theory explains the structure of colour appearance on the basis of two “channels” for hue, one for red-green and the other for blue-yellow. By addition and subtraction of the signals along these two channels, the 11 or so hues we experience are generated. Our experience of colour is therefore an inner construction from inner codes and not a straight transformation of wavelengths in the light reaching the retina. This does not imply that we are not experiencing

real differences in the wavelength of visible light, and that colour perception is internal, and has no relation to the “real” world. Some studies on cultural experience of colour, indicate

that most humans distinguish the same 9 to 11 separate colour categories. 1

however, suggest that colour perception has as a cultural base and is not exclusively a physiological phenomenon. While there are conflicting opinions about colour perception, there does seem to be enough evidence to suggest constraints in the “outside world” which limit the extent of our experiences. We all see to 10 or so colours, not an arbitrary or infinite array which might be possible if colour vision was an entirely inner or cultural construction. It might be expected that the electrical signals arriving at the various parts of the brain were somehow coded as visual and not touch or sound. Yet these signals are indistinguishable. There are some people in whom the senses get mixed up, most commonly

Other studies

seen in those who see colours associated with particular sounds. Varela et al (1991) refer to the work of Bach y Rita who developed a video camera for blind people. The camera transformed light patterns into mechanical vibrations, transmitted through a patch, onto the skin. These patterns of vibration have no “visual” content unless the camera is attached to the body somewhere and is moved by the volunteer. After a few hours of experience the person no longer interprets the skin vibrations as bodily sensations but as images in space being explored by the bodily directed “gaze” of the video camera. This vision is not a passive mapping of external features but a creative perception built up by a history of experience. The mechanism of sensory-motor coupling has been found in many quite different neural structures such as the avian brain and even in invertebrates. Varela concludes that cognition emerges from recurrent sensory motor patterns. These correlated relationships of sensory and motor patterns are conserved throughout life, and constitute the source of knowing. Perception requires both outer encounter brought about by action and linked sensation that the encounter provides. The linking together of encounter and sensation provides the organisms with a history of experiences made up from memories of both action and sensation. The way the nervous system links its motor and sensory capacities will depend on the structure of the nervous system. The version of the outside world which the organism creates is partly dependent on sensory triggers set off by the environment and its inner construction made by its CNS. Cognition is the history of these perceptions which have built up from a repertoire of experiences.

The evolution of cognition Goodwin argues that natural selection does not explain the origins of anything It does not explain how novelety occurs. Othodox views of evolution claim that novelty arises only after multiple and random modifications, the fittest of which eventually survive It claims that successful behaviour is sustained by the continuity of those genes which control behaviour. But the action of genes is dependent on the context in which they are expressed. Different DNA sequences may produce the same protein while the same gene will have different products in a different context. Genes constrain what is possible but do not determine what

happens. Goodwin argues that the structure and form of organisms emerges, not from an infinite variety of random modifications, but from a relatively small number of generic possibilities which are viable in the environment. The example of colour vision again provides useful confirmation of this view. Varela et al point out that colour vision is the most successful adaptation to the constraints of the outside world. However like vision itself, there are a few generic varieties of colour vision which all seem congruent with the needs of the organisms.

For example, it has been noted that colour vision in humans is trichromatic, that is, the retina translates colour into a three channel message to the brain. Many other animals are trichromatic but some are dichromatic and others tetra-chromatic and even penta-chromatic. The trichromatic world of colour cannot be the optimal “solution” to some adaptive problem in the face of such rich diversity in colour perception. An alternative to the Darwinian “selection of the fittest” or most optimal solutions to the environment, is to see evolution as a natural drift rather than selection. Varela et al write “cognitive capacities are linked to histories that are lived, much like paths that exist only as long as they are laid down in walking”. These authors note that these are not optimal

cognitive capacities but are merely viable ones which are conserved. It is viable when

becomes part of an ongoing existing world (as the young of every species do) or shapes a new one (as happens in evolutionary history)”. There are thus many possible evolutionary pathways. The path taken constrains the path ahead but there is no “ultimate ground to prescribe the steps we will take”.


Some essential components of cognition

We have reviewed the process which involves our motor and sensory “hardware” and the coding and filtering that occurs before outside information is interpreted. There still some important variables which are driven by the nervous system of an organism and which

contribute to the

cognition develops and further the requirement of collective cognition to complete the whole

process. Collective Cognition

process of cognition. There is also the essential variable of context in which

A termitary exhibits as much evidence of civic planning, workable architecture and good building practice as any human accommodation complex; and yet there is no plan and no supervision. The best we can say which is very little, is that termites know how to build a termitary. How did they acquire this Knowledge and where and how is it conserved? Their brains are very small just 100,000 neurones; well short of the capacity for storing all the information necessary to build a termitary. We may have to consider the possibility that the entire knowledge base derives both from building instincts which could be “hard wired” and driven by genes and a component which requires the presence of other perhaps more experienced termites. The full information required for the scale and coherence of a termitary may be held as collective information past on by association and learning. There is a parallel in bird song. Catchpole and Slater review the evidence for song learning among birds. Young chaffinches have the basic equipment to make cheeping noise but not to sing the chaffinch song. They have to hear the song, the full information one could say, at a crucial receptive stage in their lives. Too late and they will never sing the song. Like many other skills, particularly hunting and migrating in mammals and birds, the full information has to be learned. It requires action, sometimes play, but always copying the example of the fully skilled adult, or a flock/herd of adults. Every autumn Bewick swans leave their breeding grounds in Siberia. Some fly 2,500 miles to spend winter at the Wild Fowl and Wetlands Sanctuary at Slimbridge in Gloucester. Riso and Risa have made this journey every year for the last 13 years. By now the “know” the way though still requires some carefully calculated changes in course to prevent being blown off target by cross winds. Their young cygnets will have to learn the way as Riso and Risa will not always be there. It is a joint effort and there are hundreds of other adults who contribute to the navigation of the entire flock. The knowledge seems to resides collectively. If so it adds to the conventional understanding of knowing as residing in the brain of an individual and pushes the boundary to include community knowledge. The role of the environment on the development of cognition is illustrated by new ideas of learning language. It is becoming clear that human language does not possess universal grammar. The Evans-Levinson approach explained by Christine Kenneally is that cognition is more than a “toolbox” ready to be used but “more like a machine-tool” capable of

manufacturing special tools for special jobs. In this view the first job of the brain in mastering a language is to make a more complicated brain. This could mean that speakers of different languages could have quite different brains. This view of language adds a further dimension to cognition. It looks as if there are two components of cognition. One, is a brain which has some rudimentary capacity, and a second no less important component which is an outside source of knowledge on which the young brain can interact and develop. Collective knowledge such as language is ephemeral and therefor fragile. Once lost as many hundreds of languages have been, the collective cognition has disappeared and there is no return.

Action; How important is action in knowing? Recall Greenfield’s observation that organisms only need a brain when they are moving. In the experiments by of Bach y Rita no “sensations” of spatial awareness developed unless the camera was moved in an exploratory way by actions taken by the volunteer. Learning by doing is familiar to us in many ways. You have to ride a bicycle to learn how to do it. No amount of instruction, theory, meditation can take the place of doing it. The knowledge thus gained some would argue is actually implicit. We don’t actually know how we do it. Value; We are continually attaching values to external events in order to discriminate between those which have meaning and those which do not. So while external events are quite real, they have no meaning unless we or some other living thing, find the event of value. Of all the information about the outside world which our senses could provide, we clearly

filter the majority of information out, attaching value to a tiny proportion and paying attention

to it.

In “The ghost in the machine" Arthur Koestler writes “Organisms have the power to build

up ordered, coherent perceptions and complex systems of knowledge out of the chaos of sensation impinging on them: life sucks information from the environment"

Embodiement; The conclusions about how we process information from the environment are not confined to biologists like Maturana. The view of a world perceived through experiences is the essence of phenomenology. It is a philosophical view which fits comfortably with biologists, who want a definition of cognition which is broad enough to encompass the behaviours of all living organisms. Merleau-Ponty was a philosopher who believed that the world we see has to be actively

reconstructed and given meaning before it is real. He wrote " The world is not an object

natural setting of and field for all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions (which are ) the background from which all acts stand out". He concludes that the world is inseparable from the subject, and the subject is a projection of the world from which it in turn is inseparable. Thus both

the world outside and inside are self referring or embodied in one.

cognition as a keyboard which offers up certain chosen keys to the monotonous hammering of the outside world. From the well -read medical practitioner Deepak Chopra, who believes in the power of self awareness we read “experience is not what happens to you it is how you respond to what happens to you”.

it is the

He suggests a metaphor of

Solipsism; We , and perhaps other animals suffer from illusions, which, as Maturana points out, we are not aware of, until they have been revealed. We live in what we think are valid reflections. But the self referring inner neural system may create its own reality far from the constraints of the outside world. Desires and fantasies make our observations unreliable. Hence the insistence by the early scientists to discipline the mind, to observe objectively, without feeling and to measure and then re-measure until the figures (now called data) revealed the real state of things “out there”. Of course the notion of objectivity and detachment are illusions themselves. We have seen just how thoroughly scientists are influenced by their desires and ambitions. But note that Merleau Ponty is not saying that we make an inner reconstruction of an outer world, with all the illusions and fantasies that we may bring to it. The outer process constructs and limits the inner. So for example there are not an infinite number of colours for us to experience. He is arguing for an embodiment of the outer with the inner process. The internal and external are one. The risk of illusion and fantasy can be modified by testing validity amongst other observers. Collective perceptions may be centred enough to discard peripheral and wayward versions of reality. Scientists have made a virtue of engaging in debate in order to arrive at some consensus view. Often enough they fail to reach consensus, but that is a healthy sign of the vigorous process

science should

order to sort out a very confusing array of opinion amongst cosmologists and physicists. Delegates left the conference without arriving at any agreement. This non-result reassures the rest of us lay folk that there is at present no standard body of knowledge regarding black holes which we should be trying to grasp. It still remains the gold standard of good science to look for corroborating evidence. If a scientist

A conference on black holes was specifically set up during 1999 in Norway in

claims to have made a discovery, the doubters must not only examine his work carefully but must look to other workers to try and replicate it. Eventually, that which seems to hold up even under pressure of dissenters, gains a certain status of being recognised as the most likely version of reality. But all those who subscribe to the orthodox scientific methods of enquiry would accept that there never complete certainty. What makes science robust is the willingness to accept that a current idea or theory is not written in stone but may be supplanted by a better one as new evidence emerges. This acceptance of uncertainty and openness to movement is what separates science from dogma.

Groundlessness There will always be a tension between, on the one hand viewing the world as seen through our senses and on the other looking for a reality independent of our participation in it. The idea of embodiment of inner and outer worlds is a balance between representation and solipsism. In this middle way, lies compromise but also the discomfort of uncertainty. Groundlessness is a recurring feature in Eastern philosophies. Varela et al believe that Western philosophy has been preoccupied with finding a rational understanding of life and mind rather than a pragmatic method for dealing with human experience. They encourage a mental journey into the Madhyamika Buddhist tradition of mindfulness/awareness. The father of the Madhyamika tradition was Nagarjuna, who lived in the second century CE. He believed that there was no point in arguing whether things exist or are non-existent. Things originate, or arise, co-dependently. He concludes “nothing is found that is not dependently arisen. For that reason, nothing is found that is not empty”. There is an uncanny echo of this eastern view to be found in the strange phenomenon discovered by particle physicists, that particles adopted certain behaviour only when observed. The strange relationship between quantum physics and Eastern philosophies was a theme in Fritjoff Capra’s book, “The Tao of Physics” Recall that the outcome of psychic experiments were influenced by the attitude of the participants. The experimenter in both cases is integrated with the experiment and cannot be isolated from it. The Madhyamika tradition links groundlessness with compassion. When we are groundless there is nothing (no ego) to be gained or lost. Being mindful/aware allows relatedness to enter and desire to leave. Groundlessness may however be taken as despair, nihilism and loss of heart. The cure our culture recommends is a return to meaning and the safety of familiar ground. Varela et al argue that Buddhism offers a way of living which reduces despair and nihilism through encouraging compassion for others and working for the relief of their suffering. In this pursuit, our own despair and uncertainty becomes more bearable

Compassion and Wisdom Maturana wants to recognise our

and non-living world around us. He believes that our human dilemma has it origins in the loss of a matristic society of pagan times. The parental imperative to tend the human young for a long period, and the retention of child like structure (in common with other neotenous apes) encouraged the praxis of tenderness. The highly developed sexuality of the body encouraged mutual pleasure and delight in tenderness throughout the adult life. This matristic society was not matriarchal, but did give validity to the nurturing, reproductive, tending qualities of women (in particular). Maturana suggests that Aryan, patriarchal herders, on horseback, overwhelmed the matristic society. To the Aryan invasion could be added the impact of a monotheistic, hierarchical religions which debased women, sex and nature. Christianity also soon took from its followers their sense of intrinsic goodness, in exchange for the promise of salvation. Alan Watts urges us to explore this heritage and to seek its reflection in an Eastern mirror, in which goodness and Godness is inherent in us all. These views are echoes of views expressed in the Chapter on science and religion. In the uneven and uncertain landscape of groundlessness there is a need for contemplation, a style of observation which requires that the inner chatter of the mind be stilled so as to be receptive. In quiet reflection of the world around us we may be able to see the separate parts connected to a bigger whole. Use our senses, both individually and collectively to understand and to know There is a long history of psychic or intuitive perception in oral traditions. In Chapter 5 we reviewed some of the evidence to suggest that some people have a capacity to know about events or physical structures, which are non-local, unseen, unheard and unfelt. There is a large body of credible research into ESP but there appears to be little serious consideration among cognitive scientists of ESP as a significant or useful phenomenon of cognition.

capacity for self transcendence and tenderness to the living

Goodwin wants to see an expansion of our cognition to include the qualities as well as quantities

in science.

restore the validity of women, the sensuous and nature. We may then move with greater serenity into

the new landscape of groundlessness.

There seems to be a need to heal the damage to our intrinsic sense of worth, and to


What do these examples tell us about cognition? Maturana and Varella have suggested that cognition is the result of a history of experiences which have lead to a new level of organisation. We have seen examples of first order systems, which over time, have build up a history of experiences which have become conserved and established as a new level of

cognition. What part have genes played in this process of expanding cognition? Biofilm behaviour amongst free living bacteria was not a genetic creation and is not genetically determined but it is made possible by changes in the environment which trigger gene activity to change .

The view of living organisms suggested by Maturana encourages us to accept that knowing is a process of remembered activity. This knowledge is centered within the organism and provides for self regulation and internal order. The order is contained within a structural boundary, for example the outer membrane or covering. There is also a larger organisational boundary within which the organism operates. Events within this medium defined by this larger boundary trigger a variety of patterns of internal order. The nature of the trigger determines what it is the organisms is able to

sense in the medium around it

and the influence on this order which is triggered by outside events. Maturana and Varrela coined the term autopoieisis to describes the internal autonomy of a living system and its dialogue and influence on and by its environment. The environment may include other organisms with which the individual cooperates, sometimes to the extent of losing its own identity. The individual units of multi-cellular organisms may operate as one individual. In social organisms like ants, it is difficult to make sharp distinctions between the individual as a colony and the individual as an ant. The sensory apparatus in complex living organisms is the nervous system. Like the sensors on single celled organism, the nervous system works like a trigger. The patterns in the outer world which it detects have been internally constructed. There is nothing logical or predictable about these

constructions. They are based on an accumulated history of encounters. There is for example some similarity between the constructions humans have given to the phenomenon of colour but there is little unanimity except that we all give names to between three and 15 colours. Merleau Ponty believed that there is no concrete reality but only that which is as a setting for our thoughts and perceptions. This view leaves reality dependent on perception, confined only by the extent of internal illusions. The Bhuddist view and interestingly, that of Goethe, is that nothing exists which has not arisen co-dependently with something else. If this is so then of course the observer and the observed also arise co-dependently. This process of interaction would naturally limit the illusions or inner constructions of the observer to those which are in some way related to the phenomenon observed. We could then ask whether our sense of the world around ,us might arise with greater coherence if the observer allows a respectful dialogue with the observed. We have excluded the sensual processes, especially feelings of compassion in scientific observation which might detect the qualities of phenomena. A perception of qualities does not mean abandoning the careful measures

Knowing is the accumulated memories of internal patterns of order

of quantities in science but adds to the ways we can know.