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Science, Objectivity and the Passion for Explaining

In this essay Maturana negotiates several complex philosophical questions in a surprisingly accessible way. In it he answers three questions:

  1. What characterises cognitive constructivism?
  2. Why, under this view, is it not possible for science to achieve true objectivity?
  3. If this is so, why does science not slip into relativism?

As ever, the term ‘science’ encompasses the social sciences as well. Maturana sees no justification for a cleavage between the two – certainly not the old distinction between quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Throughout, he considers these issues not as a philosopher but as a biologist reflecting on science as ‘a cognitive domain generated as a human biological activity’.


First, what kind of person is the scientist? What is the motivating force not only of the scientist, but the domain of science itself?

For Maturana, the fundamental emotion that enlivens science, that determines it as a domain in which science takes place as a human activity, is curiosity; curiosity which emerges as a desire or passion for explaining. In this domain explanations are adequate – they qualify as legitimate scientific explanations – if they meet the ‘criterion of validation of scientific explanations’. That criterion is policed by the scientific community itself.

Already, he has set the scene for a discussion of cognitive constructivism and the problem of objectivity. Already he has framed the issue – the nature of science – as a question situated in the realm of human activity. To further channel our attention he turns to the etymology of the word ‘science’. Originally ‘science’ was a synonym for knowledge; any knowledge whose validity could be defended on methodological grounds. In modern times this changed. Science now refers only to a knowledge validated through one method, the scientific method. This is due to two important (often unstated) assumptions:

  1. That the scientific method, through verification, corroboration, or the denial of falsification, reveals or specifies, an objective reality that exists independently of what the observers do, even if it cannot be fully known; and
  2. That the validity of scientific explanations and statements rests on their connection with such objective reality.

In refuting these claims Maturana answers the first two questions listed above. While the conventional view assumes for science direct access to an objective independent reality, Maturana argues that scientific activity is not structured in a way that would facilitate this direct access. Put differently, science cannot attain pure objectivity. A consideration of just what it is that scientists do when they are doing science helps to explain.


What Scientist Do: Scientists as Observers

Scientists are observers. As observers they distinguish in language the different kinds of entities that they bring forth as objects of their explanations and their reflections. Thus, scientists are human beings in language making distinctions in language. As well as observing the world, scientists are engaged in observing themselves. Scientists are ‘always trying to observe their observing in an attempt to describe and explain what they do. They begin to reflect in language upon what they do and how they do it as they operate as “languaging animals”.’

Again, science is considered very much as a human activity. Accordingly, the observer ‘happens in observing, and, when the human being that the observer is dies, the observer and observing come to an end’. When we consider the activity of the observer we have two choices. We can either take for granted and ignore the cognitive abilities of the observer as ‘unexplainable properties’. Or, with Maturana, we can take these seriously and find they must be explained by showing how they arise as a result of the biology of the observer as a human being.

The scientist as a human being is, like all living systems, a structure-determined system. The scientist is an operationally closed system that does not admit instructive interactions. Nothing external to a living system (the observer) can specify what will happen in him or her. It follows ‘that the observer as a living system constitutively cannot make explanations or statements that reveal or connote any­thing independent from the operations through which he or she generates his or her explanations and statements’ (emphasis added). Thus the thesis of operational closure is central to an understanding of cognitive constructivism (for more see here).

The word ‘cognition’, then, when used by scientists must signify what scientists do or how they operate when they generate their cognitive statements i.e. new knowledge. To understand what we mean by ‘knowledge’, we must first specify what we mean by a ‘cognitive domain’, and by ‘actions’.

‘Actions’ refer to all that we do in any operational domain to bring forth a discourse. Thus, to think is to act in a domain of thinking. Science is just one operational or ‘cognitive domain’. There are as many cognitive domains as there are domains of adequate actions (distinctions, operations, behaviours, thoughts, or reflections) that the observers accept. Each of them is constituted and by the criterion of validity proper to that domain.

Accordingly, knowledge in the science domain is constituted by adequate actions that take place there. It is constituted by those distinctions, operations, behaviours, thoughts, or reflec­tions which take place in the science domain and are assessed according to the ‘criterion of validation of scientific explanations’.


Scientific Explanations

Science is irrevocably a human activity but to understand further why it cannot achieve pure objectivity we need to consider the nature of the explanations produced by science.

Explana­tions are propositions presented as reformulations of experiences that are accepted as such by others. Therefore, there are as many different kinds of explanation as there are different criteria of acceptability; that is, scientific explanations are just one kind of explanation. The different criteria of acceptability that we recognise as such define the different explanatory domains with which we operate.

Explanations are experiences of the observer (the scientist) that arise as she operates in her domain of experiences; the science domain. The science domain, like all explanatory domains, is an ‘expanding experiential domain in which the observer lives new experiences, asks new questions, and unavoidably generates new explanations in an unending, recursive manner’.


The Generative Mechanism

We have said that scientific explana­tions are propositions presented as reformulations of experiences. The experience (phenomenon) to be explained is reformulated in the form of a generative mechanism which, through its operation, enables a standard observer to have in his domain of experiences the experience to be explained. (Generative mechanisms might include theorems, equations, models, doctrines etc.)

As generative mechanisms, scien­tific explanations are constitutively mechanistic. They deal only with structure-determined systems. As such, scientific explanations take place in the domain of experiences of the standard observer, and scientific explanation operates only in the area of structural determinism in which it is proposed.

The conventional view finds scientific explanations to operate as phenomenic reductions. If this were so science would indeed be objective. But scientific explanations cannot operate in this way. The relation between the phenomenon to be explained and the explanation is non-reductionist. More precisely, the relation between the phenomenon and the generative mechanism – the mechanism that generates the explanation – is non-reductionist. This must be the case because the operations giving rise to the generative mechanism, and to the relation between it and the phenomenon to be explained, ‘intrinsically take place in independent and non-intersecting phenomenal domains’. This is the reverse of reductionism.

Maturana finds this understanding to be liberating because it allows us to see that:

‘… there are phenomena like language, mind, or consciousness that require an interplay of bodies as a generative structure but do not take place in any of them. In this sense, science and the understanding of science lead us away from transcendental dualism.’

The scientific explanation and the phenomenon to be explained lie in different domains. It is possible to understand the phenomenon to be explained – but only through the generative mechanism. The phenomenon to be explained lies in a separate domain to which we have no direct access – only an indirect (and abstract) relation through the explanation provided.

Maturana, then, makes no assumptions about an objective independent reality. He finds that the scientist uses scientific explanations only to explain his experiences by reformulating them with other experiences, with reference to the criterion of validation of scientific explanations:

‘The scientist does not use them to reveal or connote anything deemed to be independent of what he or she does. In fact, the contrary happens, because for these same reasons scientific explanations enter into the constitution of the world or worlds that we standard observers live through the transformation and expansion of our domain of experiences that they bring forth as we operate with the consequences of them in our experiential domain.’



Finally, if science has no direct access to an independent objective reality, what is left to stop science descending into relativism? Maturana does not answer the question directly, he addresses it implicitly throughout the essay. Science can only operate (it only makes sense) in relation to the criterion of validation of scientific explanations:

‘Scientists are rigorous in the endeavour to always be impeccable in the application of the criterion of validation of scientific explanations as they seek to generate scientific explanations.’

Scientists can only ‘do’ science with reference to the criterion of scientific validation. It is this criterion which specifies conditions of acceptability known to and agreed upon by the epistemic community of scientists. This is what stops cognitive constructivism from sliding into free-wheeling relativism. But it says nothing directly about ‘reality’. Reality, to borrow from von Foerster, is as it is. Reality carries on – regardless of whether or not our explanations describe it with precision, regardless of whether or not our explanations produce useful understandings.


Maturana, H. ‘Science and Daily Life: the Ontology of Scientific Explanations’, in Krohn, W. et al (eds) Selforganization: Portrait of a Scientific Revolution (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1990).


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