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
Departamento de Biologia - Universidad de Chile
This paper was originally presented at:
Biology, Language, Cognition and Society: An International Symposium on Autopoiesis
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
November 18-21, 1997
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.