Constructivism is Only a Construct
quotations and recommended reading selected by
Cognitive Science (p. 258-259)
Cybernetics provided cognitive science with the first model of cognition. Its premise was that human intelligence resembles computer 'intelligence' to such an extent that cognition can be defined as information processing, i.e. as the manipulation of symbols based on a set of rules. According to this model, the process of cognition involves mental representation. The mind is thought to operate by manipulating symbols that represent certain features of the world.
Since the 1940's, almost all of neurobiology has been shaped by this idea that the brain is an information-processing device. The computer model of cognition was finally subjected to serious questioning in the 1970's when the concept of self-organization emerged. These observations suggested a shift of focus — from symbols to connectivity, from local rules to global coherence, from information processing to emergent properties of neural networks.
Santiago Theory of Cognition (p. 260-262)
In the emerging theory of living systems mind is not a thing, but a process. It is cognition, the process of knowing, and it is identified with the process of life itself. This is the essence of the Santiago theory of cognition, proposed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.
In the Santiago theory the specific phenomenon underlying the process of cognition is structural coupling. An autopoietic ['self-making' or self-organising] system undergoes continual structural changes while preserving its web-like pattern of organization. It couples to its environment structurally, i.e. through recurrent interactions, each of which triggers structural changes in the system. The living system is autonomous, however. The environment only triggers the structural changes; it does not specify or direct them.
Now, the living system not only specifies these structural changes, it also specifies which perturbations from the environment trigger them. This is the key to the Santiago theory of cognition. The structural changes in the system constitute acts of cognition. By specifying which perturbations from the environment trigger its changes, the system 'brings forth a world', as Maturana and Varela put it. Cognition, then, is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a continual bringing forth of a world through the process of living. The interactions of a living systems with its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of living itself is a process of cognition. In the words of Maturana and Varela, 'to live is to know'.
It is obvious that we are dealing here with a radical expansion with the concept of cognition and implicitly, the concept of mind. In this new view, cognition involves the entire process of life — including perception, emotion, and behavior — and does not necessarily require a brain and a nervous system. ... Thus even a bacterium brings forth a world — a world of warmth and coldness, of magnetic fields and chemical gradients. In all these cognitive processes, perception and action are inseparable, and since the structural changes and associated actions that are triggered in an organism depend on the organism's structure, Francisco Varela describes cognition as 'embodied action'.
In fact, cognition involves two kinds of activities that are inextricably linked: the maintenance and continuation of autopoiesis and the bringing forth of a world. A living system is a multiply-interconnected network whose components are constantly changing, being transformed and replaced by other components. There is a great fluidity and flexibility in this network, which allows the system to respond to disturbances, or 'stimuli', from the environment in a very special way. Certain disturbances trigger specific structural changes, i.e. changes in the connectivity throughout the network. This is a distributive phenomenon. The entire network responds to a selected disturbance by rearranging its patterns of connectivity.
Since these structural changes are acts of cognition, development is always associated with learning. In fact, development and learning are two sides of the same coin. Both are expressions of structural coupling.
Not all physical changes in an organism are acts of cognition. When part of a dandelion is eaten by a rabbit, or when an animal is injured in an accident, those structural changes are not specified and directed by the organism; they are not changes of choice and are thus not acts of cognition. However, these imposed physical changes are accompanied by other structural changes (perception, response of the immune system, etc.) that are acts of cognition.
On the other hand, not all disturbances from the environment cause structural changes. Living organisms respond to only a small fraction of the stimuli impinging on them. Each living system builds up its own distinctive world according to its own distinctive structure. As Varela puts it, 'mind and world arise together'. However, through mutual structural coupling, individual living systems are part of each other's world. They communicate with one another and coordinate their behavior. There is an ecology of worlds brought forth by mutually coherent acts of cognition.
In the Santiago theory, cognition is an integral part of the way a living organism interacts with its environment. It does not react to environmental stimuli through a linear chain of cause and effect, but responds with structural changes in its nonlinear, organizationally closed, autopoietic network. This type of response enables the organism to continue its autopoietic organization and thus to continue living in its environment. In other words, the organism's cognitive interaction with its environment is intelligent interaction. From the perspective of the Santiago theory, intelligence is manifest in the richness and flexibility of an organisms structural coupling.
The range of interactions a living system can have with its environment defines its 'cognitive domain'. As the complexity of a living organism increases, so does its cognitive domain. At a certain level of complexity, a living organism couples structurally not only to its environment but also to itself, and thus brings forth not only an external but also an inner world. In human beings the bringing forth of such an inner world is intimately linked to language, thought, and consciousness.
No representation, No information (p.263-265)
According to the Santiago theory, cognition is not a representation of an independent, pregiven world, but rather a bringing forth of a world. What is brought forth by a particular organism in the process of living is not the world but a world, one that is always depending upon the organism's structure. Since individual organisms within a species have more or less the same structure, they bring forth similar worlds. We humans, moreover, share an abstract world of language and thought through which we bring forth our world together.
Maturana and Varela do not maintain that there is a void out there, out of which we create matter. There is a material world, but it does not have any predetermined features. The authors of the Santiago theory do not assert that 'nothing exists'; they assert that 'no things exist' independent of the process of cognition. There are no objectively existing structures; there is no pregiven territory of which we can make a map — the map-making itself brings forth the features of the territory.
Together with the idea of mental representations of an independent world, the Santiago theory also rejects the idea of information as some objective feature of that independently existing world. To understand this seemingly puzzling assertion, we must remember that for human beings cognition involves language, abstract thinking and symbolic concepts that are not available to other species.
The ability to abstract is a key characteristic of human consciousness, and because of that ability we can and do use mental representations, symbols, and information. However, these are not characteristics of the general process of cognition that is common to all living systems. Although human beings frequently use mental representations and information, our cognitive process is not based on them.
The rejection of representation and of information as being relevant to the process of knowing are both difficult to accept, because we use both concepts constantly. To gain a proper perspective on these idea, it is very instructive to take a closer look at what is meant by 'information'. The conventional view is that information is somehow 'lying out there' to be picked up by the brain. However, such a piece of information is a quality, name, or short statement that we have abstracted from the whole network of relationships, a context, in which it is embedded and which gives it meaning. Whenever such a 'fact' is embedded in a stable context that we encounter with great regularity, we can abstract it from that context, associate it with the meaning inherent in the context, and call it 'information'.
We are so used to these abstractions that we tend to believe that meaning resides in the piece of information rather than in the context from which it has been abstracted. For example, there is nothing 'informative' in the color red, except that, when embedded in a cultural network of conventions and in the technological network of city traffic, it is associated with stopping at an intersection.
Development and Evolution (p. 215)
As it keeps interacting with its environment, a living organism will undergo a sequence of structural changes, and over time it will form its own, individual pathway or structural coupling. At any point on this pathway, the structure of the organism is a record of previous structural changes and thus of previous interactions.
Now, since an organism's structure at any point in its development is a record of its previous structural changes, and since each structural change influences the organisms future behavior, this implies that the behavior of the living organism is determined by its structure. Thus a living system is determined in different ways by its pattern of organization and its structure. The pattern of organization determines the system's identity (i.e. its essential characteristics); the structure, formed by a sequence of structural changes, determines the system's behavior.
Moreover, the fact that the behavior is structure-determined does not mean that it is predictable. The organism's structure merely conditions the course of its interactions and restricts the structural changes that interactions may trigger in it.
This concept of structural determinism sheds new light on the age-old philosophical debate about freedom and determinism. According to Maturana, the behavior of a living organism is determined. However, rather than being determined by outside forces, it is determined by the organism's own structure — a structure formed by a succession of autonomous structural changes. Thus the behavior of the living organism is both determined and free.
The Structure of Magic II, John Grinder and Richard Bandler(Science and Behavior Books, 1976)
From The Epilogue p. 195-196We wished to demonstrate, not that any particular approach to therapy is any more potent than any other approach, but that all forms of therapy assist their clients in changing. So the question is no longer which approach is the best; it is how such seemingly different approaches can work.
Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
(The University of Chicago Press, 1980.)From The Afterword (Second edition, 2003) p. 273
Johnson, Mark, The Body in the Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987.
Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson, Philosophy in The Flesh, Basic Books, New York, 1999.
McNamee, Shelia & Gergen Kenneth, Therapy as Social Construction, Sage, 1992.
Maturana, Humberto and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, Shambala, Boston, 1992.
Varela, Francisco, Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind, MIT Press, 1993.
Watzlawick, Paul, Munchhausen’s Pigtail, W.W.Norton & Co., New York, 1990.
Wilber, Ken, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shambhala, Boston, MA, 1995.
James Lawley offers psychotherapiy to individuals and couples, and coaching, research and consultancy to organisations. He is a co-developer of Symbolic Modelling and co-author (with Penny Tompkins) of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, (with Marian Way) Insights in Space: How to use Clean Space to solve problems, generate ideas and spark creativity and an Online training in Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling. For a more detailed biography see about us and his blog.
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