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Biology of Cognition

Biology of Cognition

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BIOLOGY OF COGNITION
 
Humberto R. Maturana
 Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0.Urbana IL: University of Illinois, 1970.
As Reprinted in:
 
 Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living 
 Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 5-58.
This
Observer Web Archive Edition
provides you an online version of an important document,formatted to reflect its original appearance.
 
This material is presented with the gracious permission of the author (Professor Maturana).
 
This presentation is formatted to reflect the pagination of the paper's reprinting in
 Autopoiesisand Cognition
 
This HTML transcription (exclusive of the otherwise copyrighted material) is copyright © 2000Randall Whitaker.
 
I.
 
 
II.
 
 
III.
 
 
IV.
 
 
(Epistemological and Ontological Implications)
V.
 
 
VI.
 
 
 
 
 (In:
 Autopoiesis and Cognition
)
Page 5
 
HUMBERTO R. MATURANA
BIOLOGY OF COGNITION
I. INTRODUCTION
Man knows and his capacity to know depends on his biological integrity; furthermore, he knows that he knows. Asa basic psychological and, hence, biological function
cognition
guides his handling of the universe and
knowledge
gives certainty to his acts;
objective knowledge
seems possibleand through
objective knowledge
the universe appearssystematic and predictable. Yet
knowledge
as an experience issomething personal and private that cannot be transferred, andthat which one believes to be transferable, objectiveknowledge, must always be created by the listener: thelistener understands, and
objective knowledge
appearstransferred, only if he is prepared to understand. Thus
cognition
as a biological function is such that the answer tothe question,
'What is cognition?' 
must arise fromunderstanding knowledge and the knower through the latter'scapacity to know.Such is my endeavor.
 Epistemology
 
The basic claim of science is objectivity: it attempts, throughthe application of a well defined methodology, to makestatements about the universe. At the very root of this claim,however, lies its weakness: the
a priori
assumption thatobjective knowledge constitutes a description of that which isknown. Such assumption begs the questions,
'What is it toknow?' 
and
'How do we know?' 
.
 Biology
 
(a)
The greatest hindrance in the understanding of the livingorganization lies in the impossibility of accounting for it by
 
the enumeration of its properties; it must be understood as aunity. But if the organism is a unity, in what sense are itscomponent properties it parts? The organismic approach doesnot answer this question, it merely restates it by insisting thatthere are elements of organization that subordinate each partto the whole and make the organism(In:
 Autopoiesis and Cognition
)
Page 6
 a unity [Cf. Bertalanffy, 1960]. The questions
'How does thisunity arise?' 
and
'To what extent must it be considered a property of the organization of the organism, as opposed to a property emerging from its mode of life?' 
remain open. Asimilar difficulty exists for the understanding of the functionalorganization of the nervous system, particularly if oneconsiders the higher functions of man. Enumeration of thetransfer functions of all nerve cells would leave us with a list, but not with a system capable of abstract thinking,description, and self-description. Such an approach would begthe question,
'How does the living organization give rise tocognition in general and to self-cognition in particular?' 
 
(b)
Organisms are adapted to their environments, and it hasappeared adequate to say of them that their organizationrepresents the 'environment' in which they live, and thatthrough evolution they have accumulated information aboutit, coded in their nervous systems. Similarly it has been saidthat the sense organs gather information about the'environment', and through learning this information is codedin the nervous system [Cf. Young, 1967]. Yet this generalview begs the questions,
'What does it mean to "gather information"?' 
and
'What is coded in the genetic and nervous systems?' 
.A successful theory of cognition would answer both theepistemological and the biological questions. This I proposeto do, and the purpose of this essay is to put forward a theoryof cognition that should provide an epistemological insightinto the phenomenon of cognition, and an adequate view of the functional organization of the cognizant organism thatgives rise to such phenomena as conceptual thinking,

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