CEPA eprint 2613

Maturana, ethics and constructivism

Gash H. (2011) Maturana, ethics and constructivism. In: Lasker G. E. & Hiwaki K. (eds.) Personal and spiritual development in the world of cultural diversity. Vol VIII.. IIAS, Tecumseh Ontario: 15–19. Available at http://cepa.info/2613
Table of Contents
Introduction: Cognition at the individual level
Learning involuntary reactions
Cognition, moving from individual to social
Involuntary responses and interpersonal conflict
Ethics and relationships at the cultural level
How might a constructivist account of the origins of personal views help conflict resolution? In this paper I consider ideas suggested by Maturana’s epistemology and associated ethical comments. Maturana’s approach to thinking (and feeling) at the individual level begins with observation then we describe and explain what we observe. The explanations may or may not take account of the processes by which they are created. Might it be possible to examine how to implement process oriented examination as a personal ethical procedure? At the next interpersonal level Maturana introduces the concept of the legitimate other as a basis for ethical discussions. Moving to the level of society, Maturana based his vision of ethics on early human social groups where people were interdependent socially and biologically.
Key words: Ethics, radical constructivism, Maturana, legitimate other, matristic societies.
Introduction: Cognition at the individual level
In Maturana’s theory humans observe, describe then explain what they observe in social contexts. Observation clearly depends on an individual observing and may be solitary whereas explanations are social. Explanations only qualify as explanations when a listener is willing to accept them; otherwise they are not explanations (Maturana, 1988). In this sense they are part of an interactive network, like for example teaching and learning. Teaching only occurs when learning follows, they are interdependent. Indeed nowadays educators talk about teaching-learning to highlight this issue. Part of the social nature of explanations depends on shared criteria between explainer and listener. Maturana (1988, 1991) has been concerned often with scientific explanations and their origins and has been clear about the criteria that he believes are necessary for an explanation to be considered as scientific. In other domains, such as religion politics and art, clearly different criteria hold for explanations to be accepted. This accounts for the difficulty of discussion across domains.
The private nature of observing and language depends on our biology and our cognitive processes. Taking responsibility for this is fundamental to Maturana’s (1988) formulations about ethics. It is an invitation to take account of process, in oneself and then in the other. We communicate from different perspectives that include different life experiences and often different language perspectives. Herr (2011) has recently written perceptively about the generosity needed to communicate when conditions of difference are present. Communication is easy when people are communicating about matters where expectations and ideas are shared. However, this is not always the case.
Maturana was not alone in looking at the private nature of the initial construction of new knowledge. Ernst von Glasersfeld (1974) used the phrase radical constructivism in this context to emphasise a fundamental epistemological issue that he felt was ignored by academic epistemologists at the time and similarly by the developmental psychology community. This issue was that no matching can occur between what we experience and reality, we can only match expectations with experience; consequently saying that development occurs as a result of interactions between individuals and the environment is nonsense.
The personal construction of knowledge depends on a number of elements: biology, expectations and context. Biology is given, expectations are learned and may be individual or social, and context is social and learned. Expectations constrain the ways experience is noticed. This in turn leads to contrasting constructions of shared experience. Such contrasts imply different realities that have the potential to create conflict. Striking examples can be given in many domains and here I mention just art and music. In art, critics may denounce new techniques or ignore new work until the cultural expectations adjust. As a result works by artists like Vincent van Gogh are recognised as cultural icons after their time. Similarly new musical developments have scandalised audiences when they were first presented. The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky comes to mind. This invites some analysis at different levels, the individual, the interpersonal and the social because a key feature of these learned expectations with implications for understanding conflicting views are their learned involuntary nature.
Learning involuntary reactions
In this next section I want to discuss learning expectations. I am especially interested in how people learn involuntary responses that are difficult to control. The involuntary nature of our responses is embedded in Maturana’s view that we become structurally determined by past experiences. What happens to a system depends on the structure at that moment. So if we look at spontaneous behaviour we are structurally determined, neither can we predict how a living system will act. Bateson (1972) discussed levels of learning each of which in different ways shows the involuntary nature of spontaneous reactions to (learned) expectations. Learning zero (L0) for behaviour of the most fundamental type is uncorrectable. Maturana’s frog is a telling example with its inability to resist small fly-like objects. Frogs exhibit no feedback in this activity. The response automatically follows the stimulus (Lettvin, Maturana, McCullogh, & Pitts, 1959). Examples of early learning such as research on imprinting show similar rigidity. These behaviour patterns are learned during a critical or sensitive period. They include aspects of canine socialisation. So if specific species of dog do not learn to stay off chairs and tables within a certain time period - their future training is much more complicated. And a third example, we are naturally constrained to perceive the young of certain animals as cute when they have small noses and high foreheads. So kittens and puppies as well as babies are usually irresistible. Such examples fall into what Bateson (1972) termed zero order learning, with responses hard wired into the system. Some human reflexes such as the sucking reflex in babies as presented by Piaget are organised so as to be ready for learning by differentiating experience. So a baby will notice if mother’s breast milk is different in temperature when it is presented in a bottle.
Bateson referred to more complex types of learning as first level learning (LI). These included Pavlovian conditioning and instrumental learning. A critical dimension of this level was that the learning involved error correction within a set of alternatives of the same type. Today we might say it was learning that could be modelled by first-order cybernetics: the learner acts and notices discrepancies and corrects the response. Examples include skills in movements we make e.g., typing and driving. Other examples include more complex processes like language and mathematics. I include language learning because it is private and personal and depends on feedback the learner notices as actor. A number of scholars have made claims that language learning is innate (Chomsky, 1965). Gopnik et al. (2004) have argued that L1 models of learning mentioned above, Pavlovian conditioning and instrumental learning, are genetically based and hard wired into the system, on the grounds that these learning models apply across many species.
Learning one is pre-contextual learning and learning associations fit this form of learning. People differ in terms of their interests and what catches their attention. Some walk down an unfamiliar street and notice buildings, and others notice particular types of cars. One might say they each experienced that street at that time, but what they noticed was quite different. In these cases I think that what they noticed was an involuntary activity, almost but not quite out of their control. But I am quite convinced that what they noticed was due to their past experience, their existing knowledge, and the associations they had built up through past activities with the items they noticed.
The mechanisms of associative learning also fit newer accounts of ways people learn heuristics according to Bayesian learning models. These models predict on the basis of limited experience to the general case. Recent work on magical reasoning depends on simple associations (Nemeroff & Rozin, 2000). So for example, wearing something that reminds us of someone may increase their “influence” on us. It is magical in the sense that there is no mechanism for the influence: it is “action at a distance”. As another example, we form positive or negative emotional associations for certain odours in this way. Shweder (1977) drew attention to additional ways the mind makes associations by correlating events. He argued that we learn to connect items in experience through a process of correlation rather than a rational process. So for these reasons often our expectations are involuntary and spontaneous.
Cognition, moving from individual to social
Bateson’s next level of learning is about learning contexts for L1. This may be positive or negative. For example, in rote-learning experiments rules may be noticed and so the learners learn to learn. Or, consider what happens when expected occurrences alter. This situation leads to pathology because the individual thinks that s/he should behave according to one set of rules but the rules have been changed. So a dog in an experiment vainly tries to discriminate between a circle and an ellipse which is becoming more circular as the experiment proceeds and the dog becomes distressed. Or in human experience, a person vainly tries to please another who does not wish to be pleased but will not say so. LII was a way of interpreting things achieved by creating a new context for a set of experiences. Bateson put it this way:
“We suggest that what is learned in Learning II is a way of punctuating events. But a way of punctuating is not true or false. There is nothing contained in the propositions of this learning that can be tested against reality[Note 1] . It is like an inkblot; it has neither correctness nor incorrectness. It is only a way of seeing the inkblot.” (Bateson 1972, p.300, italics in original)
Bateson discussed personal social attributes as L2 learned behaviours that include dependent, hostile, anxious, exhibitionistic, passive, energetic, playful and careless behaviour. Each of course exists as a transaction with another person rather than a personal characteristic. Bateson (1972, p.300) shows how definitions of such relationships can be given in behaviour sequences of the form a1 b1 a2. So dominance-submission could be defined where a1 is a signal defining conditions of reward or punishment, b1 is a signal of acceptance, and a2 is a signal of a reward.
There are additional reasons this type of learning is resistant to change. It is a social way of seeing and part of this social meaning consists in it being part of the identity of the individual who has learned the context in a social setting. So characteristics are resistant to change because individuals have an identity according to which they are expected to behave in this way in the group where they belong. Personal characteristics are also resistant to change because they are learned early in childhood, are unconscious, and are what Bateson called self validating (1972, p.301). For example, if I am anxious (an L2 behaviour) about being late for trains I arrive early at stations as regularly as possible. This only confirms the correctness of my anxiety, and if I am late for a train my anxiety is doubly confirmed! In this way anxiety becomes a way of being.
Involuntary responses and interpersonal conflict
The previous sections have emphasised ways personal interpretations are learned and placed the involuntary nature of these behaviours in a constructivist context. Not that people cannot change, rather that the systemic influences on learning and action are deep and often difficult to change. In all sorts of domains these different perceptions imply different realities and such differences leads to argument and to conflict. Maturana’s solution to differences between people within a constructivist framework was to propose the recognition of difference as an invitation to discuss how it arose. In other terms, we can begin to discuss the reasons for the point of view taken and see whether the assumptions leading to the difference are open to discussion or negotiation. In this it may help to remember that cognitive constructions are dependent on the history and biology of the person to whom they belong.
A variety of factors may lead the discussion into an impasse where one or both participants holds rigidly to their own positions. These include disagreement about the criteria holding for explanations and especially about disagreements that threaten identity. Disagreements about criteria may be avoidable if the discussion focuses on them. Even in discussions on religion if the criteria could be made explicit there might be scope for more understanding. The recent riots following the burning of the Koran in Florida on April 1, 2011 highlight the power of symbols as indeed the burning the American flag has similar symbolic power. Presumably the importance of a symbol is a function of the extent that it captures by association the involuntary feelings of the group for whom it has meaning.
Willingness to enter into discussion about difference on the basis of the biology of cognition with the criteria of explanations as a focal point implies that the other is regarded as a legitimate other in Maturana’s phrasing.
Ethics and relationships at the cultural level
Maturana’s (1990) views on the origins of human societies in evolution are closely aligned with his notion of a matristic society. I summarise his views rapidly here as space is limited. Humans lived initially in groups of about 12 people. We were gatherers before we were hunters and we shared what we gathered. We share because of our biology. The hand is a caressing organ. Even chimpanzees after quarrelling – touch. We have a history of neoteny allowing playfulness and enjoyment of doing for the sake of doing rather than for the result. Because of neoteny humans need a biology of caring. Love is so important that we get ill if we are not loved . Referring to a religion focused upon the worship of a goddess or goddesses, or where the female deities are considered more important than the male deities. Such a society, Maturana referred to as matristic which is a term preferred by some over the term “matriarchal” as the suffix reminds them of the negative, controlling and limiting aspects sometimes found in patriarchal religions. Matristic societies are ones that are characterised by sharing, cooperation, respect, and love. The emotion is love. Perhaps it would be clearer to write about this as emotioning. We feel positively or negatively or indifferently towards each other. On such feelings are relationships based.
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Experienced reality would be clearer. HG.
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