reality, epistemology, ontology


“As we explain our experiences with the coherences of our experiences, what we do is to explain our doings with the coherences of our doings, and as we remain in the domain of our doings as human beings all the things, entities, or relations  that we bring forth in our distinctions arise as doings within the coherences of the domain of our doings as if they were indeed independent objective things, entities, or relations in the domain of our doings.

... There is no difficulty with the use of the notion of reality in this situation unless we do not see or are not aware that the notion of independence of existence is an explanatory argument conceived to account for the repetitiveness of our experiences.  If we are aware of the latter, we become aware also that we live in as many different domains of reality as we live different domains of experiential coherences in our living.  If we are not aware that we cannot validate what we say by claiming that we have a privileged access to an independent reality, we demand obedience in our relations and we become tyrants.”

Maturana and Verden-Zöller, Origin of Humanness

stories to justify our beliefs

For years I have heard the story of Easter Island, namely how the Polynesians arrived there thousands of years ago, and then proceeded to denude the landscape of the palm trees they were dependent on; at which point their population crashed.  More recent archaeological evidence has show that this story may be a Western invention, perhaps in a hubris of “we’re not so stupid”, perhaps as a warning to take action about our own situation.  If this new story is credible, then it could be a good example of our tendency to tell the stories that justify our preferences and our beliefs.  (I am not contesting the concern that our current human population is exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity.)

“Reality” as a story

Perhaps the most ubiquitous story of our times is that of Reality, the mechanical universe in which we humans exist as a sole intelligence, in some versions as the rulers of this earth.  The “Takers” as Daniel Quinn puts it.  We decry earlier understanding of how the world operates as myth, but we ourselves are now finally, with the help of science, arriving at truth.  We shall be triumphant. 

I have studied biology and ecology, and I like science; but I deeply dislike the way Science has be reified.  I claim science is a manner of explaining our experience that conserves observing.  As we add to this an understanding of observing as an operation in language, science (with a small “s”) becomes a manner of human social living - conversations and activities attended to in curiosity and sometimes awe.

For thousands of years, large stands of palm trees covered much of the island. The closely related Jubaea chilensis (left) still survives in Chile and elsewhere, but the trees disappeared from Rapa Nui in the centuries after people arrived. The landscape remains largely denuded today, as seen in this view of the area around Ahu Tongariki (right). Although people were probably responsible for some portion of the deforestation, the principal cause was a swelling population of Polynesian rats (bottom), which eat palm nuts and in so doing make it difficult for these trees to regenerate.

Terry Hunt, American Scientist Sept 2006

Photo at left by Humberto Olea. Photo at right courtesy of Terry L. Hunt. Photo at bottom by Brian Enting/Photo Researchers, Inc.  American Scientist, 2006.

William Hodges painting (detail), American Scientist 2006


When did we begin to question the obvious, ie. the “reality” of the world we live in?  Was it a counter-distinction to our awareness of mystery, of sensing things that were not “things”? Was it in answer to the persistent questions of humanity, such as: Where did we come from?  Why are we here? What happens when we die?

I do not know.  I like Maturana’s notion that philosophy as a field of study is an expansion of the questions asked by children, even as biology is an expansion of hunting, gathering, gardening, and keeping domestic animals.  (And chemistry is an expansion of cooking). 

What I do know is that philosophy became a field of study as the “logy” of thinking about things like this became a respected activity in various human cultures.   Yet the questions remain.  And the answers provided by various scholars of philosophy are often embedded in their premises, the things they too take for granted.

Bosch, Christ Crowned with Thorns, Wikimedia Commons

This phrase was part of the title of a workshop and a paper that Maturana delivered at an American Society for Cybernetics conference in the early 1990’s.  I find the title itself evocative. The paper is available on the “Observer Web” created and maintained by Randall Whitaker.

what does Bosch have to do with reality?

This image is used in the Tree of Knowledge, a book in which a course Maturana had been teaching was presented with his student Varela in English based on a grant, and then published by them in the form of a book. 

The book begins with “the great temptation” of reality, and the authors refer to this painting as four men are attempting to violate Christ, each one representing a temptation against the expansiveness and patience of Christ, as seen in his expression.  The authors see this as four styles of estrangement and loss of interior calm, and for the book, they emphasize the figure at the lower right who is grabbing at Christ, restricting his freedom, tugging him down.  They see this man as representing the temptation of certainty. 

“We tend to live in a world of certainty, of undoubted, rock-ribbed perceptions: our convictions prove that things are the way we see them and there is no alternative to what we hold as true. This is our daily situation, our cultural condition, our common way of being human.”

As you can imagine, I am equating this temptation of certainty to the temptation of “Reality” as reality with a capital “R” is a way of ensuring certainty and all that this entails.



reality as a compelling argument for compliance