Introduction

The two earlier posts in this series exploring the biologist turned philosopher Humberto Maturana's domains of reality focused on how we make sense of experience through explanation and how these explanations drive our actions. Taking a step back, this post discusses from Maturana's perspective how we first signify to ourselves and others we are having an experience that may or may not need to then be explained.

"And by speaking about experience I refer to that which we distinguish as happening to us" (Maturana, 1992).

To Maturana, experience is what we distinguish as happening to ourselves. If we do not distinguish it, we do not experience it. Distinctions are fundamental not only to experiences, but to everything we encounter throughout our daily lives including people, places, objects, processes, relations, and so on though the present focus is on experiences. Yáñez and Maturana (2013) write that the world we live in every moment is the realm of all the distinctions we make, think we can make, or think we cannot make. In the context of experience, the world we live in is partially constructed by what we have experienced, what we are experiencing, and what we think we might and might not experience in the future.

Distinctions

It is through operations of distinction we generate the meaningful world around us including our experiences of it. A distinction is comprised of the autonomic acts of specification and demarcation (Maturana & Poerksen, 2004). In my interpretation of Maturana's work, the act of specification is the drawing of a boundary around an experience that determines what and who is and is not part of it, when it began and ended or if it is still continuing, and where it is taking place. The act of specification creates a division between "this" and "that" or between what is the experience and what is not (Tsoukas, 2000).  It is like the cover photo used on this post where everything distinguished is within the lens where everything that is not is outside of it. Through drawing this boundary, we specify the experience we are having and attribute some fundamental characteristics to it. Next, the now bounded experience is demarcated from all that surrounds it and brought forth in the domain we identify it as belonging to. In this process, we cleave the experience from the background of noise or chaos and in doing so attribute to it meaning, history, and significance, while placing it within one our domains of reality to which we think it belongs or creating a new one for it.  

We do not have an experience until it has been distinguished and it is through distinctions we come to have an experience of a particular kind and meaning. To draw on the example used in the previous post, two firefighters may specify the same wildfire but as they demarcate it from the environment one may bring it forth as a fire burning so rapidly no action can be taken while another may bring it forth in a domain of a suppression where action is possible. This is because the experiences we specify and the domains we define them as existing within are products of the coherences of our experience.

The Coherences of Experience and Distinctions

Operations of distinction are performed through the application of what Maturana refers to as the coherences of our experience, seemingly alternatively termed operational or experiential coherences. Unfortunately, Maturana never directly offers a definition though from a wider reading of his work experiential coherences appear to be consistencies found across our experience. Experiential coherences exist generally as part of the flow of our every day life becoming specific to domains of reality through operations of distinction and explanation. The following dialogue from the book From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition demonstrates experiential coherences in use:

That animal that you see yonder is a horse
And how do you know that it is a horse?
I know that it is a horse because I recognize in it the characteristics of a horse.
And how do you know that those characteristics that you recognize are the characteristics of horse?
I know because I have seen them in other horses.
And what is a horse?
An animal that those who know horses call a horse because it has the characteristics of those animals that they call horses.
But that is a circular argument.
No, it is the revelation of the circular operation that constitutes the validation of a distinction in the domain of experiences of an observer as he or she operates as a human being (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011, p.21).

Experiential coherences are applied during operations of distinction as we specify and demarcate experiences (Maturana, 2000). In this way, the experiences we distinguish and how we distinguish them reveals something about the regularity of our experience as we use our experiential coherences to specify that which we distinguish and bring forth in a domain in which it exists (Bunnell, 2008). While experiential coherences enable us to have experiences, they also limit the experiences we can have as we can only distinguish what falls within the space of our experiential coherences, at least initially (Maturana, 2011). We may not experience something experienced by others if it takes place beyond the space of the coherences of our experience such as when we are a novice working with experts. At the same time, we may fail to have the experience of a weak signal that would have indicated a need to change tactics while working in new terrain where we do not have past experience to draw from. If the coherences of our experience do not dispose us toward distinguishing an experience we will not have it.

On the other hand, we may distinguish an experience as being incoherent with our coherences and feel awestruck, disbelief, or other feelings of strangeness. We may then use the coherences of our experience to explain it in a manner coherent with our experience that resolves its strangeness while staying within our present domain or by transitioning to another one  (Maturana, 1988; Maturana, 1995; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). The coherences of our experience then seem to form a basin of attraction where experiences distinguished my fall within. The deeper they fall within the hollow the more aligned they are with the coherences of our experience taken as a totality but also within the context of individual domains as well.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Energy_landscape.png

Distinctions, Domain Transitions, and new ways of Acting  

In addition to possibly triggering a transition to one domain to another through the distinction and subsequent explanation of an initially incoherent experience, distinctions move us between different domains or even open new ones (Maturana, 1988; Maturana, 1995; Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008). If the experience we distinguish is coherent with the domain we are presently in we maintain domains. Experiences distinguished as being incoherent within the domain we are in may lead to the transition to a new one. A fire alarm going off during work is a good example.

In his last book available in English translation, Maturana & Verdeen-Zöller (2008) write that if we distinguish new kinds of experience, say the explosive fire behavior witnessed in the Pacific Northwest, new domains of reality may be opened. Of course the caveat here is that for a new domain of reality to be opened the experience must first be distinguished as new. If it is distinguished as being part of an existing domain, no new domain will be created. I believe this is critical to developing new ways of functioning in a landscape relentlessly referred to as "unprecedented:" We must first classify our experiences as being new and not belonging to existing domains where we already have identified legitimate courses of action for dealing with them. It is perhaps a bold step to admit what we are experiencing is new to us and that we do not have ready at hand appropriate means to address it. Perhaps nothing is greater than the temptation to "fit" a new experience into an existing domain rendering it normal and use routine approaches to interact with it. Identifying an experience as being new beings to open the pathway toward creating a new domain constructed out of a now expanded set of operational coherences, an array of actions seen as legitimate, and a collection of criteria for accepting explanations.

Conclusion

As they have been presented here, operations of distinctions are the most fundamental act in our sense-making. To have an experience is to distinguish it. Foreign experiences may be forcefully explained through to maintain our presence in one domain or used as an opportunity to develop new ones. Whether we will distinguish a foreign experience or not is contingent upon what the ever-expanding regularities across our experience will enable us to "see" (distinguish). Here, Maturana sheds insight on the failure to identify weak signals or downfalls in new terrain: Our experience drives what we see, if we do not have the experience to bring forth a weak signal as a weak signal we will not do it. The same is true for new terrain as we find ourselves across landscapes where we have no experience to draw from. Perhaps in both cases the key takeaway is to maintain openness toward the possibility of having new experiences.

It is important to keep in mind the horizon introduced by Yáñez and Maturana (2013). The world we live in and having experiences of is generated by already  distinguished experiences, as well as the experiences we think we will and will not have. Whether an experience is considered new is relative to what we anticipate we will experience later. I think this is interesting and deserves further consideration. For example, if we expect the outcome of an incident to be X we will not expect it to be Y and Z or unknown W and by consequence not experience it as new. In other words, sense-making in the present has both opening and closing characteristics.

Lastly, the acts of specification and demarcation should not be forgotten. Specification and demarcation determine what the experience is to us and how we present it to others. As a result, these autonomic acts drive our actions. Ideally, to the extent that it is possible, both acts should be made deliberate and explicit when appropriate as they underlie our strategies, form our perceptions, and move us between domains.

References

Bunnell, P. (2008). Editors foreword. In M. R. Humberto, & P. Bunnell (Ed.), The origin of humanness in the biology of love (pp. v-xxi). Devon, Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.

Maturana, H. (1995). The nature of time. Chilean School of Biology of Cognition.

Maturana, H. R. (1988). Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology,, 9(1), 25-82. doi:10.1080/03033910.1988.10557705

Maturana, H. R. (1992, September 10). Explanations and Reality. Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Retrieved from https://www.hyperkommunikation.ch/texte/maturana_explanations.htm

Maturana, H. R. (2000). The nature of the laws of nature. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17, 459-468.

Maturana, H. R. (2000). The nature of the laws of nature. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17, 459-468.

Maturana, H. R. (2011). Origins and implications of autopoiesis: Preface to the second edition of de máquinas y seres vivos. 6(3), 293-306. (A. Paucar-Caceres, & R. Harnden, Trans.)

Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2011). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition (2nd ed.). (W. K. Koeck, & A. R. Koeck, Trans.) Kaunas, Lithuania: Carl-Auer.

Maturana, H. R., & Verden-Zöller, G. (2008). The origin of humanness in the biology of love. (B. Pille, Ed.) Exeter, Devon, UK: Imprint Academic.

Tsoukas, H. (2000). Knowledge as action, organization as theory: Reflections on organizational knowledge. Emergence, 2(4), 104-112.

Yáñez, X. D., & Maturana, H. R. (2013). Systemic and meta-systemic laws. Interactions, 76-79.

Maturana, H. (1995). The nature of time. Chilean  School of Biology of Cognition.

Maturana, H. R. (1988). Reality: The search for  objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of  Psychology,, 9(1), 25-82. doi:10.1080/03033910.1988.10557705

Maturana, H. R. (1992, September 10). Explanations and Reality. Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Retrieved from https://www.hyperkommunikation.ch/texte/maturana_explanations.htm

Maturana, H. R. (2011). Origins and implications of  autopoiesis: Preface to the second edition of de máquinas y seres vivos. 6(3),  293-306. (A. Paucar-Caceres, & R. Harnden, Trans.)

Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2011). From  being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition (2nd ed.). (W. K.  Koeck, & A. R. Koeck, Trans.) Kaunas, Lithuania: Carl-Auer.

Maturana, H. R., & Verden-Zöller, G. (2008). The  origin of humanness in the biology of love. (B. Pille, Ed.) Exeter, Devon,  UK: Imprint Academic.

Tsoukas, H. (2000). Knowledge as action, organization as theory: Reflections on organizational knowledge. Emergence, 2(4), 104-112.

Yáñez, X. D., & Maturana, H. R. (2013). Systemic  and meta-systemic laws. Interactions, 76-79.