Archives for posts with tag: Humberto Maturana


Somebody was asking the other day on Facebook “how can you prove that a table doesn’t exist?”
The answer, ‘walk through the place where that table is supposed to stand’ is so obvious that it hurts.

So, was that table real or not?

You see, a table may exist in two kind of places. In a store/room/backyard and in the imagination/memory of the guys who designed/made/owned it. It can remain ‘in storage’ long after it was forgotten by everybody and/or can be remembered long after it was destroyed.
A tree, on the other hand, can exist – and die, without anybody ever noticing it. Or could have been lovingly planted and taken care of by somebody. Who might die even before the tree ever reaching maturity…

But how can any of us determine whether a table, or a tree, is real or not?

By attempting to walk through it, and hurting ourselves, we only determine that there’s something there. Not at all that we’d hurt ourselves by hitting a tree or a table…

OK, there’s yet another possibility.

reality figment

Dr. Pierce – who, by the way, was produced by the imagination of a screen-writer, reminds us that neurologically there’s no way of telling apart a dream/nightmare/vision from a ‘legitimate’ perception.

Then it would be possible for whatever each of us perceives on a daily bases to be nothing but some-kind of an elaborate multidimensional movie. Or prank. Played on each of us by some extremely bored ‘arcade operator’. Or by a lab-technician performing some kind of an experiment… In this scenario all other people each of us has ever met would be nothing but characters imagined by the guy who had written the script/devised the experiment…
A slightly different scenario would be that our planet (the whole world?) is a theater, we are the spectators and most of what we perceive is the movie which is played on (for?) us. In this variation we are free to speak amongst us (discuss the movie?) and this would be the explanation for why our perceptions are coordinated so well. After all, all English speakers use the same word for table/tree and most of us are able to differentiate between a table and a chair. Or between a tree and a weed…

Or we could take a completely different road!
There’s a guy, Humberto Maturana, who has reached the conclusion that most humans are not simply aware but also aware of their own awareness. And that this is what really makes us human.
In fact, his ideas make a lot of sense. A dog is aware. If house trained, it will not pee inside and most of them are able to differentiate between their owners and some strangers. But it takes a fully functional human being to step outside of themselves and examine their actions/status.

Without this very self awareness, none of us would be considering ‘reality’. We’d simply walk around the table/tree or directly through the clear space and never waste a second considering whether the table/tree is real.

Or what reality really is.

In this scenario, reality is more like a table than like a tree.
It resembles a tree in the sense that it existed long before any of us ever thought about it and it is like a table in the sense that in order to consider it we need to imagine it first.

Reality exists.
In both scenarios and along both roads. It doesn’t matter whether in the first one we are fed fake sensations and led to believe whatever the screen writer wants us to believe. In order to do that, the screen writer has to exist in the first place. We also have to exist, otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone to watch the movie!
OK, maybe what we perceive has nothing to do (very little?) to the real reality. But that doesn’t mean that a certain reality doesn’t exist at all. Even in the first scenario.

Coming back to the second road, we cannot pretend that OUR reality exists outside us.
Yes, there is a reality – THE reality, which lurks somewhere outside our reach.
What we’re able learn from it, and all we’ll ever be able to learn, is what we’ll be able to imagine first.

Think of it. What do we do when we come across something new?
First we try to classify it among our memories. In fact we try to remember whether we already have a word for it. One imagined by one of our ancestors.
If not, we imagine one ourselves.
And only then we can proclaim that the new thing has been discovered. That it has become ‘real’.


For John Locke and his followers “what makes a person identical with herself over time is her remembering or being able to remember the events to which she was witness or agent.” (According mostly to the followers. What Locke actually said is something else, to which I’ll come back shortly)
Jesse Prinz has another opinion.


In this video Prinz seems to advocate that we maintain the continuity of our selves by sticking to a set of values. But this is only ‘skin deep’.
He didn’t actually say ‘what keeps us ‘together’ over time but ‘what people think that is ‘keeping us together’ as time passes’.
These two are not necessarily the same thing.
The way I see it memories are just the ‘resource’ from which our identity is continuously being built and the ‘values’ we stick to are the ‘blue-prints’ we use/update during the process but that the ‘driver’ behind all this is our self-awareness/free willing soul.
All three are interdependent.
As Locke observed, without our memories we would be like balloons drifting in a cloud of deep fog. We wouldn’t even be able to determine whether we were moving or not.
As Prinz said, without our values we’re like ships which have lost their ‘compass’.  Just imagine a boat sailing during a starless night or in a cloudy day. There are ways that experienced sailors can use to determine whether the ship is moving – relative to the surrounding water – but not even Black Beard nor Magellan would have been able to reach their destinations without ever seeing the Sun, some stars or using a compass.
Not to mention the fact, sorry Jesse, that without our memory we wouldn’t be able to remember today what set of values we had been using yesterday.
Finally, but not lastly, without our self-awareness/free willing soul we would be like perfectly sea-worthy ships which have been abandoned by their crews. Adrift in the middle of the sea, at the mercy of the elements. Elements themselves being not merciless but amoral…
 I’m sure that by now you have already figured out what I mean.
It is “we” that ‘compares’ and ‘considers’ things, that forms “ideas of identity and diversity”, that sees “anything to be in any place in any instant of time”, that is “sure” of anything (or not)… and so on and so forth…
Without this “we” no discussion about memory nor values would have ever been possible
Without memories the “we” would go ‘hungry’. Or nuts.
Without values the “we” would be ‘toothless’. Or antisocial/in jail.
And all these have already been mentioned, albeit in different terms, by both Humberto Maturana and Stephane Lupasco.
Don’t tell me that none of you have ever thought, however passingly, of the other meaning of ‘stool’.


First and foremost language is perceived as a communication medium.

As such it needs clarity and consistency, otherwise information could not have been reliably exchanged and or preserved through its use.

But language is used for many other purposes than for simply ‘translating’ raw data. Where to find a certain object or how to execute a certain task.
We use it to convey sentiment – the way we are affected by the raw data that has become known to us, and to communicate our particular understanding of things. Our point of view about what has happened around us.
Furthermore we use it to convince people. To do things or to accept our points of view.

All these different uses involve a considerable amount of negotiation.

Regarding immediate goals – the things we are negotiating about, but also some that is taking place ‘under the table’ and involves the continuous fine tuning of the instruments used during the negotiating process. The words themselves.

These negotiation instruments – the language itself, in fact, have to be constantly re-calibrated for two rather obvious reasons.
For starters, the reality around us – and our understanding of it – is changing constantly.
Secondly, every negotiation involves a degree of ‘shade’. In fact that ‘shade’ is exactly the space where ‘change’ happens, where the positions of the two negotiators overlap and where the two can swap ideas.
If words would be rigidly precise than we’d have to invent new ones every time reality changes, no matter how minutely. Also whenever our understanding about things deepens, no matter how shallowly.
Simultaneously, too much ‘linguistic precision’ would kill not only poetry and our ability to convey our real feelings to other human beings but would also gravely impair our ability to influence each-other. Could you imagine how our life would be if a polite intervention would sound exactly like an SMS message of if a marriage proposal would be similar a requisition order?

More about how the linguistically mediated interplay between us has brought about our own self-awareness can be found here:

Humberto Maturana, The Origin and Conservation of Self-consciousness.


Ever since people have become aware of their own awareness philosophers have entertained opposing views as to what is more important: matter or soul.

The materialists point out that everything, including us, is made of matter and, hence, nothing would be possible without it while the idealists maintain that everything that exists is nothing but a projection of our own thoughts.

As an engineer who had designed (material) objects before actually building them I find it strangely rewarding that both these fiercely opposing sides are, simultaneously, right.

Just as we are simultaneously made of flesh and animated by souls.

If you disagree, just pinch yourself.
Now tell me, ‘did it hurt?’.
Who felt it? Your flesh or your soul?
And who’s able to meditate about the whole experience? How come are we not only able to feel things but also to think about them? Then to communicate, efficiently, among ourselves about our relatively different experiences?
Surely, there must be something shared amongst us, something that constitutes not only a medium for our communication but also a common base for our experiences.

I’m going to use ‘reality’ to designate that commonality, irrespective of the fact that reality is a two tiered thing.

A material reality, something that exists per se – according to its own, natural, set of laws, and a social reality, something that we, the people, have agreed upon – either willingly or by omission to protest, efficiently, against it.

These two tiers of reality are no longer independent.

In fact they have never been. The social reality has grown, as a bud, ‘on top’ of the material reality. And this has happened according to an opportunity enshrined in the natural laws that govern the very existence of the material reality.

Now, after its birth, social reality has started to alter the material one.
In two ways.
By developing an ever more sophisticated understanding of the inner workings we gradually discover inside the material realm and, subsequently, by using various aspects of that (inherently limited) understanding in order to effect voluntary change.

I’m going to make a brief pause here.
Social reality is a human construct, one that came to life fueled by our own volition and shaped by the sum of the choices we’ve made during our entire history.
The mere fact that we are also ‘animals’ – and have changed the world around us by our mere, and long time unwitting, existence, is something else. Related to our social existence but nevertheless different from it.

What I’m trying to say is that by coming of age – by becoming aware of our own awareness, we are currently adding a third dimension to that Ouroboros thing.
The ‘serpent’ has been ‘eating its tail’ from the very beginning of the world. New stars have been born from the dust left after the older ones have exploded and decaying organic matter is what used to feed our crops until a few short years ago – and still does for the organic farmers.
But now, that we’ve become aware of the entire process – and of our contribution to it, we are in a position to influence its direction.

We can turn it into a vicious or a virtuous circle.

Which will it be?

who needs what

And please, please, don’t make this confusion.
People do, as for now at least, need ‘nature’ in order to lead what we call/feel to be a normal life.
But nature also somehow needs us. Otherwise it wouldn’t have allowed us to become what we are today.

Until now, during our development, we haven’t broken, not significantly at least, any natural laws. Otherwise we wouldn’t have reached this stage – according to Ernst Mayr’s interpretation of  Darwin’s teachings, anyway.
Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.
We’re not dead yet, are we?

Let’s keep it that way, lest we’re gonna be replaced.



More than five years ago a friend introduced me to the work of Humberto Maturana.
I was instantly hooked.
Only I’m not that interested in how consciousness appeared to be as I am in the consequences of us being conscient.

“The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.”

This excerpt perfect illustrates what I have in mind.

First thing after becoming conscious – ‘aware of his own awareness’ in Maturana’s terms – man realized how fragile he is.  The best way to assuage that feeling was to find an explanation and a purpose for the whole situation. That’s when our immortal soul came to be. Created by God or simply invented by us, it doesn’t make any practical difference.
In time, as rational knowledge constructed wider and wider inroads into the unknown and currently offers scientific explanations for almost everything, the Creator God became less and less necessary. But ‘soul’ survived and now accompanies our still smart and yet unfulfilled desire to understand the origin of our consciousness. And now that we are no longer satisfied with the ‘divine origin’ of anything but not yet ready to accept that we might indeed be something special – fright again, being special implies extreme fragility/responsibility for one’s own fate – we are constantly searching for a new way to connect our nature/fate to the rest of the known Universe.

Hence the advent of ‘panpsyhism’. Which is not such a new idea as it would seem at first glance. The Buddhist notion of successive reincarnation has been around for more than two millennia.

How about accepting what Maturana teaches us – that consciousness of self is something we have continuously improved by using it synergistically with language and all these could take place simply because of the increased processing power that was accidentally bestowed, evolutionary speaking, upon our brains – and move on? If a better explanation will ever dawn upon us – by feat, by chance or even by divine intervention – we can always come back and reconsider – this is how science works, right?
Remaining stuck in this so called ‘Hard Problem’ – what is the direct link between our anatomy/brain physiology and our thoughts? – won’t take us anywhere, for sure.

I’m afraid things are just a little bit more complicated than that.
It is true that we need our conscience in order to perceive matter but that doesn’t mean that we actually create matter when we perceive it.
The short (and long) of this is that matter existed long before monkeys started walking consciously on this Earth.

Humberto Maturana did a jolly good job at explaining all this:

Some recent developments (I’ll list a few at the end of this post) brought me back to this subject.

So what is freedom?

Consider a lump of dirt someplace in the middle of nowhere, so far from any galaxy that it is under no gravitational pull whatsoever. In theory it would be able to go anywhere, right? With almost no ‘energy costs’… But it has none available … it’s nothing but an lump of dirt…
How about replacing that hypothetical lump of dirt with the most sophisticated spaceship you can imagine and add to it an inexhaustible energy source. This would be ‘free’ for sure, no? But where would it go?
Now add to it a human being. But mind you, one that not only knows how to drive a spaceship but also that can hold his own in absolute solitude. Can you find such a human being? Can you even imagine one?

So, again, what is freedom? Or liberty, if you prefer this word?

So, real, effective liberty is something that has to be perceived and has to be implementable. It’s not enough for an individual to think himself as being free, that individual also needs to be able to exert his freedom. I don’t have any doubt that Stephen Hawking, one of the brightest minds alive, is one of the freest spirits on this Earth but I’m afraid that he is also one of the individuals who depend heaviest on those around him.

And, in fact, all of us are in almost the same situation as he is. OK, most of us can move on our own. But before even thinking about liberty each of us has to become aware of himself, to develop his consciousness. Only we cannot do that on our own. As Humberto Maturana amply demonstrated human conscience has developed, slowly, in time. It was a process that could take place because by some genetic mutation or accident our brains had suddenly grown close to the present dimension but that was not enough. We needed another 70 or so thousand years after we learned to speak (by doing so we were able to exchange ideas and think about concepts) to become what we are today. In Maturana’s words people are not only conscious, they are conscious of their consciousness.

I believe you already have an inkling about what I have in mind.

Liberty is nothing but a concept, one that has been refined by human thinking along our entire history. It was us who defined the notion of ‘degrees of liberty’ which is used extensively not only in statistics  but in many other scientific domains.
And it was still us who came up with such a social arrangement that allowed for free people not only to coexist with slaves but also to own them.

So what is freedom? An absolute (divine) ‘human right’ or a social construct? Both?

The point I’m trying to make is that we should never forget that freedom hasn’t been given to us on a silver plate. All along human history there have been enough people who tried hard to dominate as many as they could and too many who accepted to be dominated. And invariably the societies/communities where social relations were based on authoritarianism have eventually failed while the more egalitarian, the ones where individuals enjoyed a higher degree of freedom coped better and usually survived.

My conclusion of all this? There is no such thing as ‘liberty/freedom’ against all others. The only liberty that can survive long term is liberty with the others. While the first is nothing but a synonym for the ‘Law of the jungle’ (another human concept, the jungle doesn’t have any laws) the second is the foundation for any civilized nation. And when we’ll be able to extend the notion for all peoples (usually the slaves came from outside the people of the slave-owners)  we’ll have lasting peace.

What prompted me to write this? Which of the following do you think is a proper way of exerting one’s liberty? Or free will, which includes proper/professional behavior in every conceivable circumstance?
‘Rights’ are to be exerted no matter what or with great consideration? Tradition/order has to be upheld/maintained at all costs or only as long as it makes sense? ‘Makes sense’ to whom?

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