F. Capra
The Web of Life

A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter

Knowing That We Know

Identifying cognition with the full process of life - including perceptions, emotions, and behaviour - and understanding it is a process that involves neither the transfer of information nor mental representations of an outside world requires a radical expansion of our scientific and philosophical frameworks.

One of the reasons why this view of mind and cognition is so difficult to accept is that it runs counter to our everyday intuition and experience.  As human beings, we frequently use the concept of information and we constantly make mental representations of the people and objects in our environment.

However, these are specific characteristics of human cognition that result from our ability to abstract, which is a key characteristic of human consciousness.  For a thorough understanding of the general process of cognition in living systems it is thus important to understand how human consciousness, with its abstract thought and symbolic concepts, arises out of the cognitive process that this common to all living organisms.

In the following pages I shall use the term "consciousness" to describe the level of mind, or cognition, that is characterised by self-awareness.

Awareness of the environment is a property of cognition at all levels of life.  Self-awareness, as far as we know, is manifest only in higher animals, and fully unfolds in the human mind.  As humans, we are not only aware of our environment, we are also aware of ourselves and our inner world.  We not only know, we also know that we know.

Language and Communication

In the Santiago theory, self-awareness is viewed as being closely tied to language, and the understanding of language is approached through a careful analysis of communication.

Communication, according to Maturana, is not the transmission of information, but rather a coordination of behaviour between living organisms through mutual structural coupling.  Such mutual coordination of behaviour is the key characteristic of communication for all living organisms, with or without nervous systems, and it becomes more and more subtle and elaborate with nervous systems of increasing complexity.

Bird songs are among the most beautiful kinds of nonhuman communication, which Maturana illustrates with a stunning example of a particular mating song used by African parrots.  These birds often live in dense forests with hardly any possibility of visual contact.  In this environment, had couples form and coordinate their mating ritual by producing a common song.  The casual listener and it seems that each bird is singing a full melody, but closer inspection shows that this melody is actually a duet in which the two words alternatively expand upon each other's phrases. The whole melody is unique to each couple and is not passed on to their offspring.  In each generation, new couples will produce their own characteristic melody is in their mating rituals.  In Maturana's words:

In this case, the vocal coordination of behaviour in the singing couple is an ontogenic (i.e. developmental) phenomenon... the particular melody of each couple in this species of bird is unique to its history of coupling.

Communication is essentially a coordination of behaviour

This is a clear and beautiful example of Maturana's observation that communication is essentially a coordination of behaviour. 

In other cases, we may be more tempted to describe communication in semantic terms,i.e. in terms of an exchange of information that carries some meaning.  However, according to Maturana, such semantic description are projections by the human observer.  In reality, the coordination of behaviour is not determined by meaning but by the dynamics of structural coupling.

Instinctive and learned communication

Animal behaviour may be inborn (instinctive) or learned, and accordingly we can distinguish between instinctive and learned communication.  Maturana calls the learned communicative behaviour "linguistic". 

Although it's not yet language, it shares with language the characteristic feature that the same coordination of behaviour may be achieved by different types of interactions.  Like different languages in human communication, different kinds of structural coupling, learned along different developmental  paths, may result in the same coordination of behaviour. Indeed, in Maturana's view, such linguistic behaviour is the basis for language.

Linguistic communication requires a nervous system of considerable complexity, because it involves quite a lot of complex learning.  For example, when honeybee indicate the location of specific flowers to each other by dancing out intricate patterns, those dances are partly based on instinctive behaviour and partly learned.  The linguistic (or learned) aspects of the dance are specific to the context and social history of the beehive. Bees from different hives dancing different dialects. But even very intricate forms of linguistic communication, such as the so-called language of bees, are not yet language. 

Language arises when there is communication about communication.  In other words, the process of "languaging" takes place when there is a coordination of coordinations of behaviour.  Maturana likes to illustrate this meaning of language with a hypothetical communication between a cat and her owner.

Suppose that every morning my cat meows and runs to the refrigerator.  I follow her, take out some milk, pour it into a bowl, and a cat begins to lap it up.  This is communication - a coordination of behaviour through recurrent mutual interactions, or mutual structural coupling.

Now suppose that one morning I don't follow the meowing cat because I know that I have run out of milk.  If the cat were somehow able to communicate to me something like "hey, I've now meowed three times, where is the milk?, that would be language.  Her reference to her previous meowing would constitute a communication about a communication and thus, would qualify as language.

Cats are unable to use language in that sense, but higher apes may well be able to do so.  In a series of well-publicised experiments, psychologist showed that chimpanzees are capable not only to learn many standard signs of a sign language, but to create new expressions by combining various signs.  Thus one other chimps, called Lucy, invented several sign combinations: "fruit-drink" for watermelon, "food-cry-strong" for radish, and "open-drink-eat" for refrigerator.

One day, when Lucy got very upset upon seeing that her human parents were getting ready to leave, she turned to the men signed "Lucy cry".  By making this statement about her crying she evidently communicated something about a communication. "It seems to us", write Maturana and Varela, "that, at this point, Lucy is languaging".

Although some primates seem to have the potential of communicating in sign language, their linguistic domain is extremely limited and does not come anywhere near the richness of human language. 

In human language, a vast space is opened up in which words serve as tokens for the linguistic coordination of actions and are also used to create the notion of objects.  For example, at a picnic treating you was words as linguistic distinctions to coordinate our actions of putting a tablecloth and food on a tree stump.  In addition, we can also referred to those linguistic distinctions (i.e. make a distinction of distinctions) by using the word "table" and thus bringing forth an object.

Objects are linguistic distinctions of linguistic distinctions, and once we have objects we can create abstract concepts - the height of our table, for example - by making distinctions of distinctions of distinctions, and so forth.  Using Bateson's terminology, we could say that the hierarchy of logical types emerges with human language.


Our linguistic distinctions, moreover, are not isolated but exist "in the network of structural couplings that we continually weave through languaging".  Meaning arises as pattern of relationships among these linguistic distinctions, and thus we exist in the "semantic domain" created by our languaging.

And finally, self-awareness arises when we use the notion of an object and the associated abstract concepts to describe ourselves.  Thus the linguistic domain of human beings expands further to include reflection and consciousness.

The uniqueness of being human lies in our ability to continually weave the linguistic network in which we are embedded.  To be human is to exist in language.  In language we coordinate our behaviour, and together in language we bring forth our world.

"The world everyone sees", write Maturana and Varela, "is not the world but a world, which we bring forth with others".

This human world centrally includes our inner world of abstract thought, concepts, symbols, mental representations, and self-awareness.  To be human is to be endowed with reflective consciousness: 
"as we know how we know, we bring forth ourselves".

In human conversation, our inner world of concepts and ideas, our emotions, and our body movements become tightly linked in the complex choreography of behavioural coordination.  Film analysis have shown that every conversation involves a subtle and largely unconscious dance in which the details sequence of speech patterns is precisely synchronised not only with minute movements of the speakers body but also with corresponding movements of the listener.  Both partners are locked into this precisely synchronised sequence of rhythmic movements, and the linguistic coordination of their mutually triggered gestures last as long as they remain involved in their conversation.

Maturana's theory of consciousness differs fundamentally from most others because of its emphasis on language and communication.  From the perspective of the Santiago theory, the currently fashionable attempts to explain human consciousness in terms of quantum effects in the brain or other neurophysiological processes are all bound to fail.

Self-awareness and the unfolding of our inner world of concepts and ideas are not only inaccessible to explanations in terms of physics and chemistry; they cannot even be understood through the biology or psychology of a single organism. 

According to Maturana, we can understand human consciousness only through language and the whole social context in which it is embedded.  As its Latin root - "con-scire" (knowing together) - might indicate, consciousness is essentially a social phenomenon.