sitemap Letelier, Leniz & Bascuñan (1997): Teaching Biology of Cognition

Pitfalls, Risks and Challenges in Teaching Biology of Cognition

Juan-Carlos Letelier, Fernando Leniz and Francisco Bascuñan

Correspondence should be addressed to:

Dr. Juan Carlos Letelier
Casilla 653
Departamento de Biologia - Universidad de Chile
Santiago, Chile

This paper was originally presented at:

Belo Horizonte '97 Symposium Logo

Biology, Language, Cognition and Society: An International Symposium on Autopoiesis
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
November 18-21, 1997

© 1997 Juan-Carlos Letelier, Fernando Leniz and Francisco Bascuñan.
Copyright to this document remains with the authors.
It is presented here with author permission.


Biology of Cognition has had a profound impact in many areas of the academic endeavor. Outside academia the growing impact of these ideas steadily increases with various disciplines using these ideas to influence the behavior of humans groups, ranging from families to businesses. The main concepts of Biology of Cognition are difficult to grasp, thus, some fundamental notions of the theory can be misunderstood. Frequent errors and pitfalls include the identification of a subject-dependent cognition with the notion that the universe is arbitrary, and the misconception that language is a tool that by itself can change the world of the observer. This paper describes our experience in teaching these ideas to post-graduate audiences and focuses on the most common misconceptions that these ideas might trigger.


The notion that Cognition is observer-dependent is not new. A complex and rich narrative story can be built about the subjective nature of Cognition. This narrative surely began, before this century or this era, and has left a clear mark throughout the history of Western Civilization and in the Eastern tradition. But in the West, since the Renaissance, a totally different narrative has dominated our collective thoughts. In effect, in a systemic way, we learn and are taught the analogy of the "cognitive explorer" with respect to the external world. According to this analogy, the external world is a place full of "absolutes" that, in theory, are all knowable by a perfect intelligence. Thus, in this Universe, we are left to our own resources with a single and powerful tool: our mind. We must use our mind to grasp, recognize and classify the external objects. We must develop coherent responses based on our correct recognition and classification of these external objects.

This epistemological adventure places all the problems of the cognition process on the shoulders of the explorer who must correctly use his mental toolbox to deal with the external world. Without a doubt, this epistemology can show amazing advances in the domain of science and hard technology with a continuous line of successes that has established the "objectivization" of nature as the Welstacsshaung of our time. In fact, the apparent superiority of this "objectivization" is such that, for a big portion of our society, it is impossible to think about thinking about the possibility that another epistemological point of view could be possible. All the advances for new conceptual frameworks are confronted with a high degree of skepticism from the traditional viewpoint.

But the undeniable success of the paradigmatic point of view also hides a collection of defeats and failures that impel us to re-think the apparent solidity of that point of view. Some problems like the self-organization of complex systems, or the landscape of the human mental spaces have been refractory to the mainstream epistemology. As these unsolved problems are part of an important kernel of interest for many people, it is not surprising that, throughout these centuries, another "narrative line" has survived in search of an alternative theory of cognition.

Biology has been a fertile ground for alternative epistemological endeavors mainly because current scientific knowledge has not provided indisputable explanations about some fundamental biological phenomenon. The origin of order in complex natural systems, the surprising degree of autonomy of living systems and the coherence between behavior and circumstances present questions that the current model fails to satisfy. Confronted with these, and other, scientific problems biologists have always had a "penchant" for alternative epistemologies as the standard "objective reductionism" has been of limited use against them. An interesting example of this "new thinking" is the eighteenth century invention of the concepts of "species" or "population" and its refinement one century later to explain evolution..

But a new dimension in this quest for a new epistemology appeared since one hundred and fifty years ago when physicians and biologists begun to investigate the organ that appears mainly responsible for our cognitive abilities: the brain. The modern quest to understand the biological basis of cognition brings us to a self-referential situation akin to the famous "liar paradox" found in logic and metamathematics. In effect, how can we use the brain to understand the brain? or (in functional terms), which is the logical validity of using the same tool that we use to "know" to understand the inner mechanisms of that tool? in other words: Can cognition understand the process of cognition?

In the linear, hierarchical and objective epistemology that surrounds us this problem is "solved" by ignoring it or stating that Knowledge (with capital K) follows certain universal rules that are independent of the physical substrate of our mind. But, modern neuroscience criticizes this point of view by emphasizing that the internal mechanisms of brain physiology only transform nervous activity into nervous activity. No allegiance to a disembodied logical rule is followed by neuronal operations. In other words, neurons integrate their postsynaptic currents, they do not solve syllogisms. This principle could be taken as the core from which all Biology of Cognition starts.

Biology of Cognition attracts many people interested in understanding biological systems, the nature of the "mind/body" problem or those looking for an alternative epistemology. As stated above many of the roads opened by the Biology of Cognition are not new as a rich tradition for similar thoughts have been kept alive (an interesting example are the writings of William James (1890)). But although Biology of Cognition is the present of an uninterrupted path, it must be recognized that it is a most peculiar present. The peculiarity, and the appeal, of the conceptual body know as "Biology of Cognition", can be traced to:

Confronted with such a rich, diverse and unique conceptual universe, it is not surprising that enthusiastic newcomers, helped sometimes by equally enthusiastic guides, fall into this complex forest of interrelated concepts and are prey to some serious misconceptions. Thus, as teachers of these concepts, we must act in such a way that these errors and pitfalls are corrected or completely avoided in the first place.


At the Universidad de Chile, the Laboratory of Humberto Maturana, Jorge Mpodozis and Juan Carlos Letelier have taught the notions of Biology of Cognition to a wide spectrum of audiences. Sometimes these audiences are postgraduate students that follow an intensive one-year course. In other situations these ideas are presented in a single lecture to naive audiences. In all these teaching experiences, there has been a consistency with respect to the questions asked, the conceptual "knots" and the emotions triggered in students. In fact, the problems and pitfalls have such regularity that it has been possible to build a "pitfall map" (Figure #1). In the following section we list and briefly describe these pitfalls.

Figure #1:  Pitfalls

1) The epistemological basis is flawed or the ideas of observer-dependent reality are dangerous.

For some minority of students, the idea that "reality" is not an absolute is fatally flawed. Furthermore they argue that, if accepted, a totally relativistic ethics would ensue with unpredictable social results. Technically this attitude should not be counted as a misconception as it reflects deep emotional attachments to the notion of an external reality. As this attachment has an emotional root, it reflects the variability of attitudes. Perhaps the only way to work around this roadblock is to change the emotional student-teacher relations.

2) The epistemological basis is sound, but practically, it has no importance.

Some students accept the idea of an observer-dependent reality but argue that the conceptual body of Biology of Cognition has no practical implication as decisions and actions are still construed, by everyone, with the notion that reality is objective. This pitfall is very interesting as it reflects an important weakness of the theory: its lack of examples. Since its inception, which could be traced to Maturana's 1968 paper as a BCL report almost 30 years ago, Biology of Cognition (and Autopoiesis) has grown to a solid theoretical body... with few convincing examples for newcomers. For example, for many people it is almost impossible to doubt the external existence of "objects" that are "directly" sensed especially by touch and vision. The current response to such doubts is not satisfactory as it requires more elaborate concepts (like "structural coupling" or "enaction") which have not yet been taught to new students. Furthermore these responses present pitfalls of their own. This point shows the urgent necessity of building excellent examples about the relational nature (or the observer-dependent) nature of "external objects".

3) The epistemological basis is sound, the student is convinced, but gets side-tracked with concepts that are very appealing, juicy and perhaps irrelevant.

A "prime" example of this type of error is the curious and intense attachment that some people have to the idea that Autopoietic theory can be (and must be) applied verbatim to human society. Thus for some people the idea that human society (along with beehives) are living systems in the same manner that organisms is a powerful idea that keeps them away from other more fundamental (but less seductive) ideas. This pitfall reflects the urgent necessity for a new wave of advances in Autopoietic theory. The aforementioned confusion arises, not from the malice or ignorance of students, but from a seductive model that has not reached its maturity and is used on many occasions more as a metaphor than a scientific tool.

4) The epistemological basis is sound, the student is convinced but gets side-tracked with concepts that are inconsistent with the notion of "truth" as coherent behavior advanced by the theory.

Some students see in the notion that "reality" is not any longer an objective entity independent of the observer, and the casting of the observer as a central figure in the problem of cognition as a justification of extreme "solipsistic" viewpoint. This erroneous viewpoint dictates that every statement is "valid" (or "true") because it was said by an observer. THIS IS THE MOST SERIOUS PROBLEM THAT WE HAVE DETECTED IN OUR EXPERIENCE. In some mysterious way the notion that the external reality is not the basis for an absolute knowledge is taken by some as that the "observe-based-reality" permits any type of arbitrary statements to be true. This pitfall appears to be a very difficult obstacle to avoid as the students are introduced to the idea of an observer-dependent reality without the necessary concepts of: the origin of language, the consensual nature of "reality" or that "knowledge" means coherent manipulation of the situation where every living system finds itself, and the crucial notion that "cooperating autonomous systems create, by their mutual interactions, the Universe where they live".

5) A difficulty with the concept of "structural coupling".

For many the idea that the actions of living systems upon their environment generate the "texture" (or the background) of objects is not grasped. In effect, it must be recognized, that even in theoretical papers is not clear how "objects" are configured by their relational interactions with living systems (Maturana and Mpodozis, 1987). Furthermore it is not easy to grasp the "dual" notion that a bi-directional (mutual) determination exists between a living system and its environment. As in the case of the nature of "objects" it is of prime importance the development of examples.

6) An overvalued importance given to language, and to the study of language, as "power tool" that, by itself, would change the immediate universe of observers.

A crucially important aspect of Biology of Cognition is its explanation of the origin of language and the interpretation of language as a tool to coordinate behaviors rather than the exchange of meaning via symbols. Armed with this powerful tool some students give to language a totipotential quality. According to this viewpoint the Universe created by an observer can be changed, by this observer, by language alone. This pitfall falls to recognize that the coordination of behaviors requires the creation of a consensus with other observers and this consensus can not be arbitrary. Another formulation of this pitfall is that the nature of the object "person" is not adequately understood. In effect, the idea that "a person" is an object continuously configured throughout its interactions with the world and vice versa is not easy. Thus the power of language per-se should be de-emphasized and the power of language as a tool to coordinate behaviors should be re-emphasized instead.

7) The ethics of a "subjective" epistemology based on the cognitive dynamics of observers could justify anything.

This paper was transcribed into HTML format by Randall Whitaker, January 1998.
Some stylistic reformatting (e.g., italicization, vertical list spacing) for The Observer Web version has been done.
Because of graphic format incompatibilities, the original Figure #1 was reconstructed as a GIF by Randall Whitaker. Owing to spatial and other constraints, this reconstruction entailed some stylistic and formatting modifications from the original figure.

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