Conservation and change in the evolution of epigenic systems
Systems studies generally focus on change in the form of evolutionary, adaptive, or learned behaviors and structures. In this paper I will focus on conservation as the core of any change and expand on the implications Maturana's systemic law "whenever a network of configurations begins to be conserved, a space is opened for everything else to change around what is conserved."
As a system comes into being whenever a network of relations spontaneously begins to be conserved, and a new relational domain arises as that system begins to relate in its medium as a complex unity, new networks of relations can only arise in a consistent manner as long as the original configuration that comprises that system remains durable. Hence complexification is dependent on conservation. As systems become adequately complex to act in more than one relational domain the network of conserved systems inevitably becomes systemic through structural intersection. In a systemic network, new changes begin to be constrained by what I term structural inertia of the encompassing and interacting medium of any given system acting in any particular relational domain. In these circumstances further evolution of the network of systems begins to be guided by the propensity for any system of conserving some relational domains in preference to others. In living systems this can be termed emotion or "whim" while self-conscious (i.e. languaging) beings may regard such differentials as choices.
I claim, and will substantiate, how systems of explanations in language also evolve in a similar manner, following the same dynamics of conservation and change, influenced through structural coupling, structural intersection and structural inertia. However, the structural constrains of languaging systems are grounded in human relational behavior which is more labile than biophysical evolution. This results in an open-ended rapid expansion of lived realities. As languaging beings also remain connected to and dependent on the biophysical systems, whether or not these connections are adequately cohered with through the lived realities, such beings are vulnerable to disassociations that may lead to the end of particular systemic relations and the extinction of particular lineages.
I will conclude this paper by proposing an relationship between what we term "meaning" in our human lives and what we conserve without doubt—and hence begin to associate with our individual and social identities. Meaning is relevant to systemic evolution as it guides the propensities for engagement in various relational domains.
Could it be more different? Radical constructivism applied to physics teaching
"When students can repeat something verbatim, it is obvious that they have learned it.—Whether they have understood it, is a question these tests avoid." --Ernst von Glasersfeld in "Radical Constructivism and Teaching," to be published in French in Archives Jean Piaget, Geneva
"...a physics major has to be trained to use today's physics whereas a physics teacher has to be trained to see a development of physical theories in ... students' minds." -- Hans Niedderer in "International Conference on Physics Teachers' Education Proceedings" Dortmund: University of Dortmund, p. 151, 1992.
The program of physics teaching at any level is best described as: the presentation of the established canon by approved methods for the benefit of the deserving. This practice is rooted in a 'normal science' of teaching physics, to use T. S. Kuhn's expression. This 'normal science' manifests a view of the essential nature and meaning of human knowing: The true nature of reality, what causes our experiences when we interact with it, can ultimately be known by our mental effort. We can compare two statements and ascertain which is closer to the true description of this reality. We can present such statements to others and they can know what we know.
This 'normal science' entails a view of the nature and value of people. We know the deserving because they 'get' what has been presented. The deserving, by definition, have the requisite mental capacity and have worked hard enough to 'get' what is presented. Many do not to 'get' what is presented, but we cannot all be physicists! With this program we troll through society finding the deserving and initiating professional training and indoctrination. The undeserving are helped to adjust to their status and to accept the authority of the deserving on issues of physics.
Could a pedagogy were based on an entirely different view of the nature and significance of human knowing such as radical constructivism? Given the hegemony of the 'normal science,' this new 'science' of physics teaching is a 'revolutionary science.' The program of this new physics teaching is to engage students in examining their conceptions of physical phenomena by comparing their predictions with actual experiences with the phenomena. When students decide their predictions are inadequate, they are engaged in constructing and testing new explanations for the phenomena. It is not about presenting the established canon. Student understanding and the effort to formulate explanation that enables assimilation of experience drive the process. All students are capable of noticing when an explanation does not work for them and of collaboratively formulating explanation that better fits their experience. The intended and actual outcomes are also decidedly different.
We cannot decide what is a true description of objective, external reality, but we can ascertain the degree of fit and usefulness of an alternative 'science.' Evidence of change in student understanding will be shared for comparison of these two programs of physics teaching.
Construction, design and knowledge
I do not want to become involved in arguments for and against a constructivist position in this workshop, not do I want to become involved in arguments about whether there is any such thing as knowledge or whether knowing would better express an appropriate concept. Therefore I shall talk in a framework that I hope will be understood as essentially and unavoidably contstructive.
One area in which our activities are, almost without question, constructivist, is the area of design.
There are those who attempt to mechanise design, aiming to turn it into a predictable and quasi-objective activity. Their failures do not convince them of the falsity of this approach. But if we are to produce something that is new, as designers believe they do, what is produced (what is new) cannot be predicted—else, in an important sense, it is not new. (This argument applies, also, to such notions as emergence.)
Designing is, I have argued, the quintessential cybernetic activity. It is, equally, quintessentially constructive. To talk about design is, therefore, to talk about cybernetics and/or constructivism. It is also, as I have also argued, the quintessentially human activity: we design what we know, and hence, we design not only our concepts but the world they relate to.
But this understanding raises a question about the knowing that we are involved in in design, and therefore cybernetics and construction.
Design is an action, an activity. It is a doing that leads to the making of something—it generates an outcome. Cybernetic and constructivist systems, which involve active observers (observers in as opposed to observers of systems) are also concerned with action.
The sort of knowledge that designers need, is, therefore, a knowledge for action, which I abbreviate to knowledge for. This sort of knowledge is in sharp counter distinction to knowledge of what is there, the conventional, non-constructivist knowledge which has to be re-configured if it is to accommodate a constructivist viewpoint and thus be truly cybernetic. This sort of knowledge is the knowledge science is concerned with when it attempts to unravel the world. When the scientific notion of knowledge is used, a separate and specialist type of knowledge is used that will help translate knowledge of into knowledge for: transform knowledge. This sort of knowledge is the knowledge of engineers and technologists.
I do not claim that the notion of knowledge for is un-connected to to other types of knowledge, just that it’s a rather clear and catchy way of talking. What I am interested in is discussion about this type of knowledge, including discussion of how it relates to other knowledge categories.
Enactive cognitive science
Enactive cognitive science is an outgrowth of and has its roots in constructivism, developmental psychology, systems theory, "constructivist AI", and co-evolutionary models of biology. This radical constructivist approach to cognitive science differs from others in that the emphasis is not on the "recovery" of (pre-given) features of the world, but rather on how the mechanisms of autonomous systems can arise and participate in the generation and maintenance of viable "phenomenal worlds" through their activity.
Within the constructivist tradition we can distinguish between realist and radical constructivism. The former leaves largely untouched the belief in an external, objective, knowable world. By this view, constructive mechanisms tend to be "in the head" of the cognitive agent -- and cognitive construction is a way by which a cognitive agent comes to have such things as interpretations, opinions, beliefs, and models of that objectively existing world. For this view on constructivism, knowledge is still a "mirror of nature," but some of that knowledge is the result of active construction by the cognitive agent. To the extent that constructivist thought has become a force in educational theory, it is this realist version that is most prevalent. And, as such, constructivism is often treated as one option among many for pedagogical design; that is, discussion often turns on such things as "when one should use constructivist approaches in teaching" and "techniques for motivating students by having them engage in constructive activities."
The latter, radical, orientation holds that it is not just (some) "knowledge of The World" that is constructed by the cognizing agent, but rather, the phenomenal world -- the world as it is for the cognitive agent -- is inseparable from the agent's knowledge about it (and indeed, inseparable from the agent's knowledge about self). Further, this knowledge, the known world, and the agent itself, are all the result of active construction. Within this radical orientation, researchers take different positions on such questions as whether there is an objective reality ("behind the phenomenal reality"), whether there is an "ultimate" grounding (and if so, what it is). Nonetheless, by and large, radical constructivists agree that an objective reality, whether or not it exists, is not the world to which humans have direct access. The world as we know it is the result of constructive activity. And this fundamental belief informs in a radical way the study of cognition -- and the development of materials based on the insights of such study.
Radical constructivism as a philosophical study of mind in the Western tradition can be traced back at least 2500 years; within the scientific study of mind, the pioneering efforts Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jakob von Uexkull initiated research to propose and empirically verify possible constructivist mechanisms of cognition. During the 20th century relevant research also occurred within the fields of cybernetics, the life sciences, artificial intelligence, and artificial life.
Enactive cognitive science emerged at the end of the 1980s as a specific extension of the radical constructivist approach to cognitive science. In addition to the basic radical constructivist premises, it added a number of key concerns as part of its research agenda: structural coupling, embodied action, situatedness, emergence, intersubjectivity, consciousness (or first-person cognition), and neuro-phenomenology. A further, crucial unifying theme for the entire enactive research agenda is that it does not merely focus on some particular "enactive" phenomenon or mechanism, but is crucially concerned with co-specification, co-determination, co-adaptation, and co-evolution. Thus, to take the example of emergence, the enactive approach is not only interested in how "higher level phenomena may emerge out of lower level mechanisms," but simultaneously concerned with whether/how higher-level phenomena have causal efficacy with regard to their constituent components ("out of which they arise").
As with other scientific efforts based on the constructivist orientation, enactive cognitive science is broadly "conventional" in its scientific methodoloy. That is, there is a strong emphasis on testable hypotheses, empirical observation, confirmable (or disconfirmable) models and mechanisms, and the like. Nonetheless, the constructivist approach to scientific enquiry does raise a number of specific methodological questions and assumptions, particularly as regards the nature of verification.
Although enactive cognitive science was initially introduced in terms that make it clear it is clearly within the radical constructivist tradition, the term has since been taken by realist cognitive scientists who wish to stress their own interest in certain key features, such as embodiment, emergence, or situatedness. Thus, it may become necessary to begin distinguishing between radical (original) and realist enactive cognitive science; however, for the remainder of this paper we will concentrate on the radical orientation.
This paper is a brief introduction to enactive cognitive science: a description of its main characteristics, its methods, its potential as both a theoretical and applied science, work to date, and several of its remaining major research problems.
How (radical) constructivism emerged from cybernetics—and other fields of science. Some historical remarks
There is some irony for the historian of Radical Constructivism. One of its worldwide best known representatives told us that he declines to be regarded as a constructivist since he—more or less—ever hated any -isms. (Heinz von Foerster in an interview 1997). Or there is a leading promoter of Radical Constructivism declaring his "farewell to constructivism" at least in the title of one of his recent books (Siegfried J. Schmidt—"Abschied vom Konstruktivismus", 2003)
Never mind: Radical Constructivism seems to have made its way from a revolutionary paradigm over a sheer fashion to normal science (to cite S.J. Schmidt again). Such processes always tend to provoke the interest of history of science. On several occasions Ernst von Glasersfeld, the creator of the term of Radical Constructivism engaged in writing longue durée-histories of constructivism, starting with pre-Socratic philosophers, passing medieval theorists, mentioning Giovanni Battista Vico as a key figure, acknowledging Neo-Kantians (like Vaihinger), and arriving with Jean Piaget as predecessors of actual Radical Constructivism. This seems to be all right. RC as a sort of radical epistemological innovation indeed stands in such a long tradition
But a historian’s point of view still might be different. At a closer look it turns out that quite a lot of the leading figures and founding fathers of RC (there are apparently only a few mothers) have been engaged in another revolutionary paradigm in the 1950ies, 1960ies and 1970ies: they have been part of the cybernetics movement. This is true at least for Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Ranulph Glanville, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela or Gregory Bateson.
I do not want to refer to Kuhn's notion of scientific revolutions since things often appear to be more complicated. Nevertheless there was an apparent internal and external crisis in cybernetics around 1970. In his—afterwards worldwide recognized—paper "On constructing a reality" of 1973 Heinz von Foerster wrote one of the key manifestos of Radical Constructivism. This paper gathers and integrates findings of classical cybernetics and system theory and makes use of observations of the observer (as done by Spencer Brown, Maturana, and von Foerster himself). One year later, 1974, a 'book' was published by Heinz von Foerster and some of his students and colleagues: The cybernetics of cybernetics, the first in a series of central documents of Second Order Cybernetics. I still feel justified to regard this piece as the major break-through on the road towards Radical Constructivism. And it is still irony that the publication of this book also marked the end of the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois.
Radical Constructivism—as a label, trademark, and movement—then emerged apparently more or less by chance by activating or re-activating existing networks, as Ernst von Glasersfeld put it in an interview in 2005, networks going back mainly to cybernetics.
But things are still more complicated. When Warren Sturgis McCulloch finished the series of the Macy-Conferences on cybernetics in 1953, his introductory remarks ended up with one of the nicest constructivist metaphors: a bear participating in a scientists' conference. At least McCulloch’s interpretation of cybernetics then seems to be a clearly constructivist one.
RC—The hidden agenda. New research directions from old texts
In the short contribution I would like to stress three major points. First, looking more closely on articles by Heinz von Foerster and BCL-research reports from the late sixties and early seventies one finds a general basic assumption which can be labelled as Radical Cognitive Holism (RCH). Moreover, RCH offers two interesting methodological corollaries, namely a de-constructivist heuristic device and a more constructivist one.
On the one hand, the de-constructivist device stresses the importance of the unity of cognitive processes and points to all sorts of semantic traps which result from taking different semantic notions as sufficient condition for basic differences in cognitive mechanisms and processes.
The constructivist device, on the other hand, emphasizes the necessity of a single cognitive mechanism plus appropriate recombinations and reconfigurations which in turn should be sufficient to account for seemingly different cognitive performances.
Past, present and future of radical constructivism
The transformation from an information-based to a knowledge-based society is not only accompanied by an increased need for knowledge discovery and knowledge management, it also reflects a rising interest in the (radical) constructivist worldview. It replaces the concept of absolute and mind-independent information “out there” in favor of asking how knowledge comes about. Radical constructivism and constructivist approaches in general have the potential to provide the fruitful framework for alternative forms of knowledge management which excel traditional approaches that have proven insufficient as solution strategies for complex problems and the demands of the faster moving global economy, science, and culture. I will review the past, present, and future of the constructivist movement championed by cyberneticians such as Heinz von Foerster and Ernst von Glasersfeld among many others.
In a broad sense, the constructivist program can be characterized as follows. (a) Questioning the Cartesian separation between objective world and subjective experience; (b) Including the observer in scientific explanations; (c) Rejecting representationalism; (d) Maintaining an agnostic relationship with reality; (e) Moving the focus from the world that consists of matter to the world that consists of what matters; (f) Emphasizing the “individual as personal scientist” approach; (g) Focusing on self-referential and organizationally closed systems which strive for control over their inputs rather than their outputs; (h) Preferring process-oriented approaches over a substance-based perspective; (i) Asking for an open and less dogmatic approach to science in order to generate the flexibility that is necessary for today’s social and scientific challenges.
The first six points have already been subject to various philosophical argumentations and scientific investigations. Future constructivist research may therefore focus on points g to i. The first of these three remaining points refers to the role of formal self-organizing networks and their capacity to base (radical) constructivism on formal rather than empirical foundations such that knowledge and reasoning can be adequately accounted for in formal networks and their properties. The second point is closely related to the first in the sense that networks are considered process ontologies. This leads to the question whether the material basis of networks plays a subordinate role. The third point links to defining a knowledge society by its ability and willingness to continuously revise knowledge rather than to cling to traditional habits.
Finally, in order to encourage and promote constructivist research I will introduce the new peer-reviewed international journal Constructivist Foundations available at http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/journal/ It is concerned with the interdisciplinary study of all forms of constructivist sciences, especially radical constructivism, cybersemiotics, enactive cognitive science, epistemic structuring of experience, second order cybernetics, the theory of autopoietic systems, among others. Its first edition appears simultaneously with the ASC conference.
From observer to creator
Maturana´s concept of the "observer" together with certain constructivist epistemological theorems will be challenged by introducing and discussing six axioms of an empirical constructivist point of view:
1. Everything done, is done by a creator.
2. A creator is an observer making sense of his observations by conduct, i.e. by changing his states.
3. Oberservation means representing states or processes; creation means changing states.
4. Creation needs behaviour which itself is observable.
5. Comparing observations means representing changes of states.
6. Changes of states are qualities of action.