It’s only a construct
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Presented at The Developing Group, 1 Feb 2003

This year we will explore six aspects of the philosophical basis for Symbolic Modelling: 

ConstructivismAll that we know is constructed.
ContextOur constructs are situated in contexts of contexts of …
Multiple PerspectivesEvery construct presupposes a perspective and multiple perspectives add to a wider and deeper knowing.
LevelsQualitatively more complex constructs transcend and include less complex constructs.
Developmental perspectiveEvolving through levels has directionality and stages.
It’s happening nowThe fractal nature of here and now.

These six aspects are highly interconnected and form part of a larger ‘cosmology’. Our purpose in constructing such a cosmology is to enhance your ability to facilitate others to self-model their own constructs and to evolve in ways that are aligned with their system’s natural development. Our aim is to operate out of constructs that are sufficiently flexible, open, inclusive and responsive that they enable us to:

  • minimally contaminate the client’s perceptions
  • be maximally informed by the client’s language and behaviour
  • construct a model that is maximally isomorphic with the client’s model
  • retain our own independence and integrity.

1. Constructivism

Quotations from:

The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra (1996)

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 aworld, 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 & Richard Bandler (1976)

The Epilogue p. 195-196

We 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.

The answer we presented in these first two volumes is basically a simple one. All the techniques of every form of therapy are techniques which affect the processes of representation, the creation and organization of a client’s model of the world. To the degree that techniques induce change in a client’s modeling of the world is the degree to which they will be effective in assisting a client to change. As a client’s model of the world changes, his perceptions change and so, too, does his behavior. The processes by which a person’s model of the world becomes impoverished are the same processes by which it can be enriched — the processes of Deletion, Distortion, and Generalization. All forms of therapy, all the techniques of the different forms of therapy — in fact, all learning — can be understood in terms of the processes of representation.

We have always found it uncanny that the techniques of therapy mirror so precisely the disorders of the mind found in the chronic wards of mental hospitals. … We, as therapists, in essence use the formal patterns present in psychotic and schizophrenic behavior to assist our clients in growing and changing in ways which enrich their lives. The therapist’s role is more that of a guide using the natural processes already at work in people all of the time.

We have also thought that these “mentally ill” people are simply an exaggerated example of the way most human beings live their lives, that perhaps they have been locked up — hidden from view — because they are a symbol of the repetitious, dried up, colorless lives which many “normal” human being live.

Finally, we would like to remind the readers of the two volumes of The Structure of Magic that it is only a way of talking about it.

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (2003)

(Second edition, first edition, 1980.)

The Afterword p. 273

If the new empirical results are to be taken seriously, then people throughout our culture will have to rethink some of their most cherished beliefs about what science and philosophy are and consider their values from a new perspective.

If conceptual metaphors are real, then all literalist and objectivists views of meaning and knowledge are false. We can no longer pretend to build an account of concepts and knowledge on objective, literal foundations. This constitutes a profound challenge to many of the traditional ways of thinking about what it means to be human, about how the mind works, and about our nature as social and cultural creatures.

At the same time, what we have discovered is fundamentally at odds with certain key tenets of postmodernist thought, especially those that claim that meaning is ungrounded and simply an arbitrary cultural construction. What has been discovered about primary metaphor, for example, simply does not bear this out. There appear to be both universal metaphors and cultural variation.

More recommended reading

Capra, Fritjof, Hidden Connections, Doubleday, 2002.

Campbell, David, The Socially Constructed Organisation, Karnac, London, 2000.

Edleman, Gerald M., Bright Air,Brilliant Fire, Basic Books, New York, 1992.

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.

Mahoney, Michael J. What is Constructivism and Why is it Growing?, Contemporary Psychcology, 49, 360-363.

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.

Postscript 5 September 2007

The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams is a fascinating study of prehistoric cave art based on a theory about the origins of image-making which derives from a mixture of neuro-psychology and shaminism. Below are two examples which illustrate why having an Experiential Constructivist philosophy is important to “The study of the structure of subjective experience.”

Representation (p. 183)

Lewis-Williams questions the idea that prehistoric cave art is representational.  We, modern Westerners, see an image painted on a cave wall and we naturally assume it represents something. However Lewis-Williams produces evidence that shows that ‘seeing representations’ is a learned process that is part of our socialisation, and that it is possible than early cave ‘art’ was not meant to represent anything, rather the images were experienced as a direct embodiment or manifestation of the particular spirit (‘avatar’ is the word Lewis-Williams uses). To back up his thesis he quotes a study of the Abelam people of New Guinea by anthropologist, Anthony Forge.

Forge found although the Abelam people:

“make three-dimensional carvings of spirits and paint bright, two-dimensional, polychrome spirit motifs on their ritual structures … neither the three- nor the two- dimensional versions are representations: they do not show what the spirits look like; rather they are avatars of the spirits … the paintings are not meant to ‘look like’ something in nature, as we so easily assume.”

When Forge showed the Abelam people photographs they did not understand that the photographs represented people and they had great difficulty ‘seeing’ what was ‘in’ a photograph.  If they were shown a photograph of a person standing rigidly face-on, they could appreciate what was shown.  But if the photograph showed the person in action or in any other pose than looking directly at the camera, they could discern no meaning in the picture – they did not see the people represented.

However Forge  managed to teach some Abelam boys to understand the convention of photographs in just a few hours by drawing a thick line around the person in a photograph so they could retain their ‘seeing’ of him or her long enough to be able to learn to recognise the pattern of a two-dimensional human figure that comes so ‘naturally’ to us.

Lewis-William concludes “Seeing two-dimensional images is therefore something that we learn to do, it is not an inevitable part of being human.”

Colours of the Spectrum (p. 122)

“Two points about the colour spectrum are worth noting.  First, in a spectrum cast by a prism on a sheet of white paper the colours grade impercepibly into one another, yet there is no doubt that, say, red is different from green, and green is different from violet.

Secondly, we know that the Western notion that the colour spectrum comprises seven colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) is not a given.  Other cultures and languages designate and name different segments of the colour spectrum; that is they divide up the spectrum differently.  For instance, the Standard Welsh work glas denotes hues ranging from what in English is called green through blue to grey.  By contrast the Ibo word ojii, denotes a range of hues from grey to brown to black.  Why, then, do we think of the spectrum of comprising seven colours when other cultures acknowledge fewer?

It was Isaac Newton who decided on the seven colours.  Having poor colour vision himself, Newton asked a friend to divide up the spectrum.  When the friend obliged and split it into six colours, Newton insisted on seven colours because of the significance of the number in Renaissance thought, and, as Newton himself said, seven corresponded to ‘the seven intervals of our octave’.  Newton therefore asked his friend to add indigo to the spectrum, it being a popular dye at that period.”

I wonder …

From the above I wonder, if the concepts of ‘representation’ and ‘colours of the spectrum’ have to be learned by each human being within a social setting where these are conventional, then what other concepts do we have to learn before we can ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ them?

I present this research as examples of how Experiential Constructivists need to maintain an awareness of the ease with which we assume that because a way of perceiving the world is ‘natural’ to us, it must be ‘natural’ to all humans — then we can recognise that even our fundamental ways of perceiving are part of our constructed map of the world.

Funny how some ‘modern’ art attempts to ape a pre-historic worldview!

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