Humberto Maturana

Autopoiesis,Structural Coupling and Cognition
Cybernetics & Human Knowing
vol.9, no 3-4, 2002
pg 25

Cognition - What is "to know"?

The understanding of structural determinism brought with it for me the question of cognition as I asked myself: "If structural determinism is the case, what then is "to know"?

If living systems are structure determined systems, and if all that occurs to them and in them arises in them at every instance determined by their structure at that instant, and if all that the external agents that impinge on them can do is to trigger in them structural changes determined in them by their structure at the moment of their interactions, what is "to know"?

That which we human beings call cognition is the capacity that the living system exhibits of operating in dynamic structural congruence with the medium in which it exists.

It does not matter if the living system observed is an insect or a human being. We may ask ourselves whether the knowledge that the living system exhibits is learned or instinctive, but our assessment is the same: namely, if we see a living system behaving according to what we consider is adequate behaviour in the circumstances in which we observe it, we claim that it knows.

We may ask you how the living system arrived at having the dynamic structure that allows it to operate in dynamic structural congruence in the medium in which it happens to live. If we come to the conclusion that the living system obtained at dynamic structural congruence with the medium as a result of its evolutionary development as the kind of living system that it is, and independently of its individual life history, we claim that the knowledge of what we see in it is instinctive.
If we come to the conclusion that the dynamic structure with which we see the living system operating in dynamic structural congruence with the medium has arisen in the course of its individual history as a result of its interactions in the medium, we claim that the knowledge that we see has been learned.

Instinctive and learned knowledge thus differ only in a claim about their historical origin. The origin of instinctive knowledge is philogenetic, a feature of the evolutionary history to which the living system belongs, and the origin of learned knowledge is ontogenetic, a feature of the individual epigenesis of the living system.

Since what are occurs to a living system at any moment, occurs determined by its structure at that moment, nothing external to a living system can determine what happens in it or with it.

Therefore, due to the structural determinism of living systems neither the notion of reception of information, nor the notion of computation through processing information obtained by the senses can be used to explain cognition as the adequate behaviour of living systems.

In these circumstances I claim that the process which gives rise to the operational congruence between an organism and its niche, that is the process that we distinguish in daily life either as learned or instinctive knowing, is structural coupling. I claim that any attempt to explain the adequate behaviour of human beings, or any other living system, (which in daily life we call cognition) as if it were the result of some computation made by the nervous system using data or information obtained by sensors about external objective worlds, is doomed to fail.

Knowledge is something that an observer assigns to a human being or to a living system when he or she sees such an organism behaving adequately (in operational coherence) with a changing medium. We are usually not aware that we ascribe knowledge to any living being, human or not, when we see it operating in a manner that we consider adequate for the domain in which we behold it, even though we do this regularly in daily life as we operate as teachers when we grade examinations.

Indeed, that is what you're doing now as you read what I have written, and you will either accept or reject what I have said as revealing knowledge according to whether what I say agrees or does not agree with what you consider adequate behaviour in the domain in which you're attending to what you're reading of what I have written. The teacher gives or does not give knowledge to the student according to whether the student does or does not do what he or she considers adequate behaviour in the domain specified by his our listening. Similarly you give or deny me knowledge according to whether what I have written satisfies or does not satisfy what you consider adequate in the domain in which you attend to what I write.


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