Biology of Knowledge… Biology of Love?

How is life related to the mind?
Is mind continuous with life?
How do we know what we know?
What’s love got to do with it?

Maturana & Varela bring forth these questions in The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987). They believe that “living is sense making” and that “all life is cognitive.” While these phrases don’t have the popular power of “cogito ergo sum,” they are good reminders that cognition and life are co-emergent and inseparable. All experiences change the brain and in turn, our level of brain functioning shapes the content of daily experiences.

If you are curious about the mind and the way that it works, The Tree of Knowledge is very readable. “Knowing how we know,” is the main subject of this book, which outlines a unified scientific conception of mind, matter and life. Maturana & Varela’s view of cognition has important social and ethical implications as they assert the only world humans can have is the one that we create together through the actions of our coexistence (p. 248):

“We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth. If we have succeeded in bringing the reader around to this reflection, this book will have achieved its second purpose.”

In addition to their beautiful conclusion, Maturana & Varela (p. 246-247) express how:

This [love] is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness... To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet from what we have said in this book it should be apparent that such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots.

So, to live as human is not simply to know and feel, but also to love. Life and cognition are inseparable, you can’t have one without the other, and love brings forth all of the diverse possibilities for our tender true humanity to be.


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