Publication 4666

Berman M. (1989) The roots of reality: Maturana and Varela’s the Tree of Knowledge. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 29(2): 277–284. Fulltext at http://cepa.info/4666
The Tree of Knowledge, by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, is a landmark attempt to integrate biology, cognition, and epistemology into a single science, reversing the dualism of fact and value, and of observer and observed, that has haunted the West since the seventeenth century. The authors see perception as a reciprocal and interacting phenomenon, a “dance of congruity” that takes place between a living entity and its environment. This, they argue, implies a relativity of worldviews (there are no certainties), as well as the existence of a biology of cooperation going back millions of years. Recognition of a lack of absolutes, and of the nature of perception itself, they assert, make it possible for us today to change things for the better, as a deliberate and conscious act. What is overlooked in this discussion, however, are the origins and nature of conflict. By being pointedly apolitical, the authors wind up implying that one worldview is as good as the next. Cognitively speaking, the substitution of Buddhism for politics is a serious error, leaving, as it does, too many crucial questions unanswered. It is thus doubtful whether the biological argument being advanced here can stand up to serious scrutiny, and whether the dualism of modern science has indeed been overcome. Yet The Tree of Knowledge remains an important milestone in our current efforts to recognize that science is not value-free, and that fact and value are inevitably tied together. We are finally going to have to create a science that does not split the two apart, and that puts the human being back into the world as an involved participant, not as an alienated observer.

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