We Living Systems

Fax interview with Humberto Maturana by Arjen Mulder, published in "The Art of the Accident" (1998).

We Living Systems

The Art of the Accident, 1998

Arjen Mulder: After reading "The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding" (1987), the book you wrote in collaboration with Francisco Varela, I would like to ask you how you feel about the unprecedented proliferation of technologically produced images (photos, movies, television, video, World Wide Web) we have been witnessing in the twentieth century. It seems to me that these technological images affect us, bypassing our linguistic faculties. In that sense they deny our humanness as you define it – i.e. that all human behavior takes place in language and conversations. These images were and still are mostly unidirectional: you can watch TV images but you cannot answer them in any other way than through behavior that seems to be the goal of these images themselves, namely inertia and/or consumption. Do you see ways of addressing this proliferation of technological images to counteract their "denial of our humanness," or can they be incorporated into another kind of bodyhood, another conception of "humanness"?

Humberto Maturana: We human beings are languaging bipedal primates, and we exist as human beings living with other human beings in the flow of language. This means that our humanness is not an intrinsic feature of our biology but that we become human beings by living in this way with other human beings from our early babyhood onwards. But, as we are emotional animals as well, it is better to say that we human beings exist as such in the flow of our language (coordinations of coordinations of consensual behaviors) braided at every instant with the flow of our emotions (relational domains) in the domain of recursive coordination of behavior in which our languaging takes place. It is this dynamics we connote in our daily life with the word conversation. Accordingly, we can say that we human beings exist in the flow of conversations and that everything we do as human beings we do in the recursive flow of coordinations of coordinations of consensual behaviors. That is, we are human beings and we become human beings as we live and grow in conversations with other human beings.

A nervous system exists as a closed network of neuronal elements, and operates as such in the closed dynamics of changing states of activity between its component neuronal elements in a way in which every change in state of activity between the neuronal elements of one part of the network leads to changes in the state of activity that occurs between the neuronal elements of other parts of the same network. Moreover, as a component of an organism, a nervous system exists in structural intersection with the sensors and effectors of the organism which are thus at the same time components of both the nervous system and the organism. As components of the nervous system, the sensors and effectors operate as neuronal elements, and not as sensors and effectors; but as components of an organism, the sensors and effectors operate as such. As a consequence, although a nervous system intersects with the sensory and effector components of the sensory and effector surfaces of an organism, the nervous system does not and cannot encounter the medium in which the organism interacts, only the organism does. At the same time as an organism interacts in the medium, its sensors and effectors encounter the medium, but do not participate in the operation of the nervous system as a closed network of changing states(relations) of activity between its neuronal components. What happens is that through the structural intersection of the nervous system and the organism, the nervous system gives rise to sensory effector correlations in the organism, and the interactions within the organism modulate the flow of the structural changes in the nervous system, and the structure of the nervous system changes in a manner contingent on the course of the interactions of the organism. Or, in other words, as the nervous system has a plastic structure that changes by following a course modulated by the interactions of the organism as it realizes its manner of living, the nervous system goes on through its structural changes generating sensory effector correlations in the organism that make operational sense to its way of living. And when the latter stops happening, the organism undergoes a breakdown in the realization of its way of living through the operation of its nervous system.

In these circumstances, what is relevant for us now in relation to your question, is to stress that as we live in language our brains become languaging brains that generate in us as organisms an internal dynamic that results in a flow of sensory effector correlations appropriate for languaging behavior in the domain of interactions in which we live as human beings. Moreover, it is also necessary to stress that as our brains become languaging brains, they become capable of generating in us sensory effector correlations that would make sense in interactions with other human beings as operations in language, even if they arise in us while we are alone or are just silent while thinking without words. But not only that. Because of the way we live our particular lives as human beings, our nervous system becomes a nervous system that generates the sensory effector correlations that involve our emotional behavior according to the conversations in which we have participated and participate. So, when we watch television we become involved as beings that live in conversations even if we keep silent. And whatever happens to us in our emotional behavior in the process of seeing what we see, happens to us according to the kind of human being that we are becoming in the history of conversations which we have lived. We live as totalities in the internal dynamics of our closed bodily systems all the time, and there are no virtual emotions in our living however we live. Virtual realities are external to us, they belong to the flow of our interactions, not to the flow of our living as humans.

The images on television do not bypass our humanness, nor do they deny it, they enter it as aspects of our daily life directly, and that is their potency. Television images appear as if they were unidirectional in their occurrence, but as we see them we are not passive, as we find out later when we reflect on what we saw or on what happened to us when we watched them. We respond immediately or with delayed actions as actual manipulations or commentaries, or with indirect actions in behaviors or reflections that occur in a different relational domain, and that arise in us without us being aware of their connection with what we saw on television, because they arise as unconscious modulations of our actions and emotions. Certainly, in our direct response we can change the channel, comment explicitly, turn off the TV, or accept in full awareness the suggestion or invitation that the images entail. But to act in full awareness and taking full responsibility for what we do under the evocation of the images on television, we must have learned to be aware of what we do, and we must live in self-respect and self-trust so that we are not frightened that we will disappear if we do not conform with the alleged universal or social validity of what we are told. If we do not act in self-respect and self-trust, we cannot say no.

In these circumstances, the only way there is to conserve humanness in general, and the loving aspect of humanness (homo amans) in particular, and to do so without destroying it in the attempt, is through education for the loving aspect of humanness (homo amans). That is, through education for the conservation of self-respect and self-trust in respect and trust of others as a way of human coexistence. And this is done in the biology of love, that is indeed to live with our children in the biology of love, that is to live with them in the relational behavior by which children are seen, listened to, and invited to join in together with the parents in bringing forth a world in which all relationships take place in cooperation, in self-respect and self-trust, respect for others as well as love and responsibility for the world that we bring forth with others in what we do.

AM: I agree. But then there are accidents. Now, the accident can be defined from two angles: either as something inherent to the system or as something that invades a system from outside. In the first case, accidents are a function or a potential of the structure of the system itself. Hereditary illnesses and some cancers can in that sense be understood as accidents – death is an accident. Inadequate reactions of a system (organism) to external conditions may also be viewed as accidents in a structural coupling. What these "system-inherent" accidents have in common is the fact that they bring about a new state of the system: the functionality of the system flips from one mode into another. This can have fatal consequences but can also cause unexpected and unpredictable configurations. Now, because it concerns new states, with corresponding new emotions, there are no words to talk about it. This can lead to despair, but also to a creative outburst (for example in the arts – poetry, or painting, or photographs etc). In your work you never seem to address this type of "system-inherent accident," this fundamental insecurity of our existence as a physical body. Yet this insecurity is a crucial factor in our humanness.

HM: I think that we talk about an accident when confronted with an unexpected experience, so I consider that the accident is a feature of the life of the observer, not of the systems in which we are immersed or deal with. Indeed, I think that expectations and plans are in the long run necessarily destined to fail precisely because of the structurally determined nature of what one may call natural processes. In nature or in the spontaneous flow of the cosmos there are no accidents. So, a natural system only exists and operates in a course of time that lasts as long as it lasts spontaneously. Structurally determined systems are all systems that have independent structural dynamics. Indeed, a system arises and exists as such only in the structural dynamics that specifies an operational border enclosing the processes that constitute it by making them independent of other processes that may occur in its surroundings. In these circumstances, any encounter that a system may undergo triggers structural changes that an observer could not have computed by studying its structural dynamics, and to the observer they would appear as accidental. If the observer considers the system in a context by focussing on the system of processes that surround it, again there will be a wider context that he or she will not have considered, and the whole situation will be open for accidents. This is why I say that all plans and expectations will necessarily eventually not be fulfilled, and that it is up to the observer whether he or she lives the fact that an expectation or a plan is not fulfilled as an opportunity or a frustration.

We living systems exist in our interactions with the particular part of the medium in which we live, and which is all that one could say that a living system knows. I call this part of the medium in which a living system lives, its niche. Our niche as human beings is our cognitive space, and all that we do, we do as we operate in the flow of our living as structurally determined systems in our niche. In the patriarchal culture to which most human beings currently belong, we usually treat the fact that our expectations or our plans are mostly not fulfilled, as if their not being fulfilled were the product of some intrinsic failure or fault of the planner, and of ourselves if we happen to be the planner. As a consequence we resort to punishing the guilty, as if that would correct anything. In a way we as human beings all know that plans never work totally, but since they might work some of the time, we continue planning on the edge of uncertainty. Living, however is mostly regular, because it is realized through cyclic processes that are immersed in other larger cyclical processes to whichliving systems are structurally coupled in the flow of their living. So living systems mostly do not live in what we could call uncertainty. It is human beings that either interfere with the cyclical dynamics of the biosphere, or generate linear processes that introduce incoherence in the cyclical dynamics of the biosphere, who live or may live in the insecurity of believing in planning and knowing at the same time that plans eventually do not work. Due to this, we humans try to control, which is a way of attempting to insure the desired result of the planning through manipulating the lives of other human beings or other living things. The result usually creates frustration and suffering. So, I do not usually speak of accidents or uncertainty in human life, because I stress that the only way out of the nonsensical frustration, anger or guilt, if plans do not work out in the knowledge that most of the time they do not work, is by treating every so-called failure as an occasion for the expansion of knowledge (expansion of the niche), and as an opportunity for collaboration with all the others involved, so that the new plans arise in an expanded niche.

AM: "System-external accidents" are effects from outside that affect the system and deregulate it in such a way that the system starts to function differently. This can cause the disintegration of the system (organism) – to death and destruction. But bodies/systems may also adapt to the new conditions and find a new way of functioning within their structural couplings. In this sense one can consider an (extreme) passion as an accident, as a coupling that is too strong for either both or one of the systems (persons), given his or her initial structure. But such a passion can also force a radical restructuring or renewal of (one of) the lovers. Another example of a restructuring "accident" is the miracle – the utterly unexplainable event that is experienced as a "revelation" and that can lead to a religious conversion. Passions and miracles are examples of emotions that are roused by external phenomena, and do no fit into the cultural context of a system/body/organism. They induce renewal, in whatever direction: either the organism or the context in which it interacts may be forced to change. So in the case of the system-external accident we again encounter a "force" that can lead to destruction as well as to renewal, or both.

HM: Living systems exist, as all systems do, in the flow of the conservation of their organization and adaptation as a matter of course; if this does not happen they disintegrate. No effort or force is involved; adaptation as a state of operational congruence between a system and its circumstances is an operational condition of existence for any system. Success, regulation, deregulation, change, failure, or adaptation as a variable, are notions that the observer uses to explain or describe the regularities of the spontaneous process in which the person sees him or herself participating in his or her living. Living systems do not adapt, but are seen by the observer to change, conserving their operational congruence in the medium in which they realize their niche. The key concept in understanding what happens in the flow of living of living systems is conservation. Living systems exist as long as their organization as living systems and their adaptation are conserved through the flow of their structural changes in structural coupling. So, if passion appears to disrupt everything an observer can perceive in the living system that lives it, passion is its current way of living according to how that person is at that moment in his or her structural dynamics, and the person will go on living as long as his or her living in passion is conserved. If an observer sees a radical (relational) restructuring in the life of the living system (person), what the observer sees is the way in which such a person is successful in conserving his or her organization and adaptation as a person. Most of this you have already implied in the question you asked. But what you have not said or emphasized is that there is in fact no force or pressure for change. You have mentioned a force that can lead to change or to destruction. But there is no force involved. All there is in terms of energy or force is the molecular agitation at constant temperature in which we mammals live. But what indeed occurs is that a person (living system) remains alive as long as the flow of its continuous structural changes and the continuous structural changes of the medium of its niche occur following the path in which the organization and the adaptation (adequate operation in its domain of existence) of the person involved are conserved through its recursive interactions in its niche. Renewal or failure are terms used by the observer of the unexpected event in his or her description as accidents coming from the outside or the inside in the terms of your formulation. It is the unexpectedness for the observer that makes the accident, not something special in the nature of the unexpected event. Accordingly, what I wish to emphasize is that the flow of the conservation of the structural coupling between the component elements of the cosmos, of the biosphere, or of a culture, is not haphazard, but is at any time a result of the structural coherence that has arisen as a consequence of recursive historical changes around a basic way of living that has been conserved in the course of the generations. System and circumstance change together congruently and spontaneously in the flow of the natural drift. Indeed this is what structural coupling means. I insist on emphasizing the spontaneous character of all processes in the domain of our existence as living systems to make it possible for us to understand our participation in what happens to us as human beings and in what we do as such.

Understanding, reflection, change, certainty or uncertainty, are phenomena that arise in human existence through our human use of language, and occur in us also as spontaneous processes in the flow of our structural coupling with a domain of existence that has arisen in our operating as languaging beings. Human existence takes place in the biological domain, but occurs in the recursive relational dimensions of languaging which is where time, desires, and expectations arise as ways of being that have properties orthogonal to those of the present under the form of past and future. In the present there is no fulfillment or failure, all that there is is a continuous happening. It is when life takes place in languaging, that the peculiar way of human living in accidents of the internal and external kind, passions, religious conversions, regulation, function, security and insecurity, etc. can have existence and occur in the conservation of the structural coupling of human beings in the realization of their biological existence. It is only when the concept of time has arisen as a way of living in the present that emotions such as anticipation, when looking into the future, and frustration, when looking at the past, can take place as the uniquely human source of joy and suffering that they are.

AM: Summing up what I have tried to ask you: how do renewals or "novelty" come about? Is something fundamentally new possible at all in your view? And if so, how?

HM: Renewal and novelty arise with respect to the observer as his or her opinions according to the way in which the experience that he or she may currently live fits in with his or her view of what should be the course of events. At the same time in the ongoing changing present in which existence takes place, the present is continuously new, arising as a novel modification of the prevailing present. So in a way every moment is fundamentally new, and it is only through our distinction of configurations and our classificatory memory that we claim that there are novelties that are not so because we have "seen" them before. At the same time, however, due to the structural coherence of the structurally determined domain in which living systems arise as one class of system, and in which we can distinguish many different classes of systems, we can also see that all the members of a class are the same as such. So, strictly speaking, every newly created member of a class no matter how different it may be from the other members of the class, is no novelty. But an observer that has only dealt with members of a single class, cannot claim that he or she is seeing something absolutely new if he or she happens to see a system that is a member of a different class.

So, we human beings exist in a continuously newly arising present that we cannot see in its permanent novelty thanks to our memory and our joy in classifications that leads us to say, "Oh! I have seen that already, there is nothing new in it!" But, we see more than what we think we see, and relationships begin to appear that are part of our changing present that surprise us because we did not expect them, and we claim an act of creativity has occurred in us or in others. Yes, everything is at every moment intrinsically new, but it is only sometimes novel to us, and then we cannot say that we knew about it. Memory destroys and creates novelty, and at the same time it makes it possible for us to see our participation in a simultaneously changing and stable world which we help to bring about, and which as our world is our ultimate responsibility.

© 1998 Arjen Mulder / V2_

Document Actions
Document Actions
Personal tools
Log in