“Goodness and badness belong to the domain of values, and responsibility belongs to the domain of awareness.” – Quote by Humberto R. Maturana


Cite as: Berman M. (1989) The roots of reality: Maturana and Varela’s the Tree of Knowledge. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 29(2): 277–284. Available 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.

Morris Berman received his B.A. in mathematics from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Johns Hopkins. He has taught at Rutgers University, the University of San Francisco, and Concordia and Victoria Universities in Canada, and has lectured widely in Europe and North America on the themes of personal and cultural change. He has also worked as a chauffeur, bank teller, secretary, and as a counselor in a Montessori school for 3-year-olds. He resigned from university teaching in 1988 to devote himself to research and writing on a full-time basis. He published Social Change and Scientific Organization in 1978, and The Reenchantment of the World in 1981, which has since been translated into German, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese. His forthcoming history of the body, Coming to Our Senses, will be released by Simon & Schuster in May of 1989.

“Nowhere,” wrote George Steiner in 1971, “do we find substantive examples of how a liberated, ‘multi-dimensional’ man would in fact restructure his relations to reality, to that ‘which is so.’ Where is the actual program for a mode of human perception freed from the ‘fetishism of abstract truths’?” Not much has changed since Steiner wrote these words, though at least a few indicators have appeared on the horizon: Umberto Eco’s (1983) The Name of the Rose, for example, or Jacob Needleman’s (1982) Lost Christianity, both of which point to the arbitrary nature of our “fixed” realities without simultaneously slipping into complete cultural relativism. The Tree of Knowledge is also such an indicator, but with a distinct advantage, namely, that it is written by two first-rate biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1987), who have grounded their epistemological position in biological research. Indeed, it is the claim of these authors that biology, epistemology, and our essential humanness cannot be separated out; and in making such an argument they may have begun the long and difficult task of creating a new model for science. It is – at least in theory – an interactive model, one that breaks with the subject/object dualism that was canonized in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. This last scientific revolution pulled science and philosophy apart; the next one, very likely, is going to put them back together.

In many ways, the book could serve as a primer, or a basic introduction to the biological sciences. It discusses the origins of life, the organization of living entities, reproduction and heredity, natural selection, the nature of the nervous system, and similar topics typically found in freshman- and sophomore-level university texts. The difference, however, is that it is organized around the premise that if science is not representational of the “external” world, neither is it solipsistic, and that a correct understanding of reality, which is rooted in our biology, arises through a mode of reciprocal interaction that steers between these two extremes. Cognition, the authors tell us in the very first paragraph, is “an ongoing bringing forth of a world through the process of living itself.”

The text begins by explaining the phenomenon of the blind spot, which is caused by the fact that there is an area of the retina where the optic nerve emerges and that is, as a result, not sensitive to light. This is an excellent example of cognition being rooted in biology, and the authors make good metaphorical use of it. Despite the presence of a blind spot, our perceptual experience is one of continuous space. We might learn scientifically, that is, intellectually, that we have a blind spot, but what we perceive, phenomenologically speaking, is a very different story. The crucial point is that we do not see that we do not see. Western culture in particular, say the authors, has tended to impose a taboo on the metalevel of knowing, that is, on the knowing of knowing. As a result, we think that we see the “space” of the world, whereas what we are really doing is living our field of vision. We think we see the “colors” of the world, when we are only living our chromatic space. The knowing of knowing undermines a representational or “commonsense” theory of cognition (the theory that we are “in here” and the world is “out there”). It forces us to see “that we cannot separate our history of actions – biological and social – from how this world appears to us.” Being, doing, and knowing form an unbroken continuum. Or to put it another way, “everything said is said by someone.” There is no independent, absolute perception. Rather, say the authors, “all knowing depends on the structure of the knower.”

Maturana and Varela recapitulate an earlier argument that they made in Autopoiesis and Cognition (1980), that living beings are beings that are continually creating themselves. This self-creation does not, however, occur in a vacuum, but in an arrangement known as “structural coupling.” In this arrangement, it is the ontogenies, or life histories, of the beings that are linked in a pattern of recurrence, or identifiable regularity. Structural coupling, as the authors define it, is a kind of dance of congruity that goes on between a living being and its environment, and it exists so long as destructive interaction does not take place.

So far, so good; and on the basis of this, Maturana and Varela paint a picture of a “biology of cooperation” going back, in the case of the human race, more than three million years. The dance of congruity they posit must have predominated if we managed to survive for this long; and such cooperative characteristics, the authors say, are still with us today, even if we have obscured them through competition and war. Daily life remains “a refined choreography of behavioral coordination.”

The concluding pages of the book are very optimistic, and this optimism follows from the metaphor of the blind spot and the possibility of self-awareness – or more precisely, from the possibility of the awareness of awareness. Steering between representationalism and solipsism, we see that we are stuck in a world that is a combination of regularity and mutability, a world that necessarily hides its origins. We can shed light on origins, that is, on blind spots, only by generating other blind spots. This is inevitable, because the physiology of the retina/optic nerve combination means that all the parts of reality can never be simultaneously accessible. What we do not see literally does not exist for us; only when some unexpected interaction occurs (e.g., cross-cultural contact) do we see a (now previous) blind spot. Knowing how we know, therefore, necessarily plunges us into cognitive circularity, yet this is hardly cause for despair. Rather, it is the starting point of a new science, a new mode of scientific explanation, which is to say, a new method for the understanding of reality itself.

The optimistic implication of all of this, according to the authors, is that the knowledge of knowledge compels us to recognize that (Descartes notwithstanding) certainty is not proof of truth, that there are many worlds (realities), and that things will change if we live differently. This then necessitates, or at least calls for, tolerance – the affirmation that other people’s worldviews are as valid and legitimate as our own, based on the understanding that all “certainties” express a particular structural coupling. The message, then, is one of love: “We have only the world that we bring forth with others,” write the authors, “and only love helps us bring it forth.”

What should we make of such a book? I believe its strongest feature is the description of the circular or reciprocal nature of scientific understanding. As early as 1927, quantum mechanics sounded the death knell for representationalism, revealing as a fact that observer and observed are entities that condition each other. It is time for biology to catch up, and Maturana and Varela have surely done their part in this direction. The metaphor of the blind spot is a powerful one in this regard; it reflects a true humility on the part of the authors, for it provides the reader with a way in, rather than simply laying out “the way things are.” I feel called upon, as a result, to follow the authors’ invitation and turn the blind spot metaphor on The Tree of Knowledge itself. This is not to say that my critique will not possess its own, and undoubtedly very large, blind spots, but that is for others to point out. The task at hand for me, as reviewer of this book, is to identify its blinds spots, and see what we are left with as a result. So I must ask the authors’ forgiveness in advance, and note that I am, in effect, only carrying out their own instructions.

“Everything said is said by someone,” the authors have told us. “All knowing depends on the structure of the knower.” Who, then, are Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela? Two things stand out for me here in dramatic relief: the fact that these scientists are Chilean, and the fact that the book has such an obvious “Eastern” – specifically Buddhist – flavor, emphasizing as it does the knowing of knowing. Since 1973, Chile has had such an unhappy history, steeped in the repression of human rights and the wholesale torture and slaughter of so many human beings. It is enough to make sensitive intellectuals abandon politics altogether, and this is indeed the glaring blind spot of The Tree of Knowledge. It has also always been the glaring blind spot of Buddhist philosophy. What is never explained in this book, as a result, are the biological origins and nature of conflict. Competition and war are dismissed as aberrations of our fundamental biological heritage of cooperation, but no attempt is made to pinpoint the source of these supposed aberrations. Are they too rooted in our biology? If they constitute deviations, how did this turn in the road biologically come about?

The same problem emerges in the discussion of certainty versus truth, and the argument of different worldviews all having the same validity and legitimacy. In this regard, I cannot help thinking of Elaine Scarry’s (1985) brilliant essay, The Body in Pain, which should be read as a companion volume to The Tree of Knowledge, especially given her discussion of the nature of torture and war. Do General Pinochet and his staff of torturers really have a worldview as legitimate and valid as those of the Chilean citizens they have wantonly and systematically tortured? The openness that Maturana and Varela endorse was precisely the openness of that great Chilean statesman Salvador Allende, who even allowed the publication of the pro-junta newspaper El Mercurio, with its daily list of “enemies of the state” to be executed in the event of a coup d’etat. It was precisely this openness that proved to be Allende’s fatal error. Extending such generosity to those who would deny it to you once they get into power is a fatal misperception, a cognitive/biological error. It also assumes that victims and oppressors have equally valid and legitimate worldviews, whereas the example of Chile has shown us – if we needed to be shown! – that there are pathological worldviews loose on this planet, and persons with severely unwholesome tendencies as well. For my money, Chilean torturers do not have a valid worldview, and I am not willing to display any tolerance for it, as the authors of this book would apparently encourage me to do.

I am, of course, hardly suggesting that Maturana and Varela agree with the current regime in Santiago – far from it, in fact. Yet The Tree of Knowledge generates a curiously apolitical atmosphere, and this has biological and cognitive consequences (not to say political ones). The blind spot here is enormous. Whereas I agree that conflict is a rather low-level mode of understanding and relating, jumping to a higher plane of reality presumes a degree of enlightenment not much in evidence these days; and as Allende found out too late for his own good, enlightenment has to be a mutual undertaking – a “structural coupling” – not a unilateral one. As already noted, the flaw of the Maturana-Varela approach is the same flaw found in Buddhism, no matter how valuable a practice the latter is. Buddhists believe that if you live with the awareness of awareness, others will eventually follow your example. I think this is infinitely desirable; I also think it is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future. It is precisely here that the authors’ cognitive model – and therefore their biology – breaks down. “Love” may indeed, as they claim, bring forth the world, but the human race has created many worlds, and sad to say, most of the recent (i.e., post-huntergatherer) ones are not very lovely. The Chilean/Buddhist model of reality is only true in an abstract or idealized universe, or in one that is no longer with us; thus I must say to these authors, Go back to the laboratory, and get the biology straight. Locate your blind spot, and fix it up. Give us a biological epistemology that works in this world, not in some abstract Buddhistic one. Your biology is not wrong, but incomplete. So go back to the lab, and plug the hole.

Yet I do not want to conclude on a negative note, primarily because the authors do not deserve it. The Tree of Knowledge is pioneering stuff, a first draft of what future science might look like. Biologists of the twenty-first century might come to regard it as a milestone, as significant as, and in the tradition of, the work of men such as William Bateson, C. H. Waddington, Paul Weiss, and Sir Charles Sherrington. Science was never value-free, despite its pretensions to the contrary, and the authors make this subjectivity the starting point of their own epistemology, much to their credit. In being so available to discussion and criticism, they make true scientific inquiry that much more possible.

Finally, it is necessary to ask whether, in today’s world, complete as it is with Chilean torturers, a bit of optimism is nevertheless not a bad thing. True, the Beatles were wrong when they said that “all you need is love,” for you need much more than that, including things like justice, courage, and common sense. But Maturana and Varela’s claim that “love is a biological dynamic with deep roots” is not, to my mind, easily dismissed; and if General Pinochet represents the human version of biological distortion, Salvador Allende probably represents one of the highest forms of biological integrity, a going out to life that is open, and vulnerable, and among the best that the human race has ever produced. The Tree of Knowledge offers the possibility of an erotic response to life, the posture of embracing the world in an act of biological trust. This, and the possibility of an erotic mode of scientific investigation (if such a thing can be imagined), may finally be Maturana and Varela’s real contribution to post-Cartesian consciousness. The authors are to be congratulated, blind spots and all.


  1. Eco U. (1983) The name of the rose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  2. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel.
  3. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1987) The tree of knowledge. Boston: Shambhala.
  4. Needleman J. (1982) Lost Christianity. New York: Bantam.
  5. Scarry E. (1985) The body in pain. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Steiner G. (1971) In: Bluebeard’s castle. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Cite as: Maturana H. R. (1991) Response to Berman’s critique of The Tree of Knowledge. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 31(2): 88–97. Available at http://cepa.info/616

This article is Maturana’s response to Morris Berman’s review of The Tree of Knowledge by Maturana and Varela. Maturana claims that Berman partially misunderstood the book and explains that, far from advocating passivity in the face of evil, the book asks that we act out of responsible, personally chosen love, instead of from the belief that we hold a better “truth.” In the case of Chile, this would mean opposing Pinochet for personal and cultural reasons rather than alleged biological principles of viability. Nothing is gained by attempting to defeat tyrants with the tyranny of our own imposed, alternative truth.

Humberto R. Maturana was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1928; he has been interested in living systems since he was a child. To become a biologist he studied medicine in Chile, then studied anatomy in England, and eventually obtained a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University in 1958. Since then he has been doing research in neurobiology. This research led him to develop, between 1960 and 1969, the theories of cognition and of the organization of living systems (autopoiesis) presented in the book The Tree of Knowledge (see also Maturana & Varela, 1980). His first publication on these subjects was an article entitled “Neurophysiology of Cognition” that appeared in the book Cognition: A Multiple View, edited by Paul Garvin (Spartan Books, 1970). The Tree of Knowledge is based on a course entitled Biology of Cognition that Maturana created in 1974 and that he has been teaching in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Chile since then. In the meantime, he has continued his research in the domains of cognition, language, and evolution.

I usually do not answer criticisms of my work that I think arise from an inadequate reading of it or that I consider to express an unreflective bias in the critic. But, in this particular case, Berman (1989) makes such misleading attributions in his article about my book The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela, 1987) that I wish to respond. First, however, I shall summarize parts of the book that I think are relevant to Berman’s concerns.

  1. The book deals with the relation between knowledge and action, not with blind spots, even if we use these to invite the reader to reflect on his or her cognitive certainties in the process of explaining our cognitive abilities as aspects of our operation as living systems.
  2. The book is concerned with the consequences of the recognition of our constitutive inability to distinguish in the actual experience between what we call in daily life perception and illusion for our understanding of the biological phenomenon that we connote when we speak of cognition.
  3. The book is concerned with the fact that we human beings cannot claim that our rational arguments and actions are valid because they are supported by some connection with an independent transcendental reality or truth. And we show that we cannot do this because there is no operational way through which we human beings could make, as living systems, any distinction, connotation, or reference to something deemed to exist in any way independently of what we do.
  4. The book is concerned with the constitutive operational legitimacy of all manners of living in living systems, even if some of them do not seem desirable to us as we observe or distinguish them from the perspective of our preferences.
  5. The book is concerned with the biological conditions under which social phenomena arise and take place, and we claim in it that the social is constituted in relations of love, that is, in relations that entail the actions of acceptance of the other as a legitimate other in coexistence with us. At the same time, we claim that love, as the domain of actions that constitute the acceptance of the other in coexistence with us, is a fundamental biological phenomenon, and not something peculiarly human as some philosophical and religious traditions seem to claim. And because we claim that the social is constituted by the actions of love, that is, the actions of acceptance of the other as a legitimate other in coexistence with us, we claim that that which destroys love destroys the social.
  6. The book is concerned with responsibility in human relations. Moreover, the book is particularly concerned with the responsibility entailed in the awareness of knowledge, in the sense that when one knows that one knows one cannot deny to oneself that one knows. We claim that awareness of knowledge puts the actions that knowledge entails in the domain of our preferences. Thus we say: “It is not knowledge but the knowledge of knowledge that compels. It is not the knowledge that a bomb kills, but what we want to do with the bomb that determines whether or not we use it. Ordinarily we ignore or deny this to sidestep responsibility for our daily actions.”
  7. Finally, the book is an invitation to the reader to become aware of his or her actions in the ethical domain by showing the reader his or her intrinsic participation with others in the constitution of the world in which he or she lives. But it is precisely because the book is an invitation to reflection by opening a space of awareness that it is not and cannot be a recommendation for any particular action. Invitations may be accepted or declined without any value judgment being passed by the inviter upon the invitee, which is not the case in a recommendation. At the same time the book is written with the authors’ full awareness that this invitation to responsibility as an invitation to reflection expresses their ethical concerns as a cultural and not as a biological phenomenon.
  8. Finally, the book is an invitation to realize that the world in which we human beings live is the world that we bring about together in our coordinations of coordinations of actions that constitute languaging and emotioning through the conscious or unconscious realization of our desires, and that world depends on our desires, not on our reason.

My comments

If I recognize and accept that all manners of living are in their constitution operationally legitimate, and if I recognize and accept that I cannot distinguish in the experience between perception and illusion, I cannot deny any particular manner of living under the pretense that I know which are biologically, transcendentally good and which are biologically, transcendentally bad. If I deny any particular manner of living, I want to do it responsibly, that is, aware that I act according to my preference, knowing that I know that I do so, and not under the explicit or implicit pretense that I am transcendentally right. Berman says that he is not “willing to display any tolerance” to people like General Pinochet. If he says so because he thinks that he is intrinsically right and that General Pinochet is intrinsically wrong, he is speaking like General Pinochet, and I would not like him as a President of Chile because he will be, with a different preference, and regardless of whatever declarations he makes, a person as fanatic, blind, and disrespectful of others as General Pinochet is anticommunist. If Berman were to take responsibility and say that he is willing to deny and oppose General Pinochet because he does not like the world that General Pinochet brings about, then I would accept Berman’s rejection of General Pinochet as an expression of his responsible choice and not of his fanaticism, and I would believe him to act as a truly responsible and democratic person. It is only to the extent that we are aware that we are not owners of the truth that we can respect the other and act in favor of or against him or her with responsibility. It is my knowledge that I could act like General Pinochet that allows me not to act like him. The greatest crimes and abuses that have been committed in the history of humanity, and that we commit daily, have been and are committed in the defense of the “truth.”

Berman speaks about Chile and the Chileans with great ignorance in the domains of biology, culture, and democracy. He says, “It was precisely this openness that proved to be Allende’s fatal error in relation to what he calls extending the generosity of tolerance to those who would deny it,” and he calls this attitude of Allende “a fatal misperception” as well as “a cognitive/biological error” (p. 282). Berman does not understand democracy if he asks democracy to become a dictatorship to defend itself. Berman does not understand the Chilean culture (and the Chileans) if he thinks that the military coup in Chile could have taken place without Chilean support and Chilean initiative. He does not understand biology or cognition as a biological phenomenon if he thinks that some biological systems are operationally more legitimate than others. He does not understand biology or cognition if he claims that there are biological errors. He does not understand culture or biology if he does not see that values are cultural, not biological, phenomena. If Berman were to claim that he does not like the world brought about by torturers because he does not like torture and he does not like to live in a world in which torture shows up as an accepted practice, and if he were to claim that he is willing to take action against torturers because he does not like torture, not because he is right and they are wrong, then I would accept that he reveals, understanding of culture, lack of fanaticism and responsibility for his actions.

The acceptance of the constitutive operational legitimacy of all manners of living in the biological domain does not carry with it the acceptance of all manners of living as equally desirable in the human domain of coexistence. Such an acceptance is an act of preference in the domain of responsible actions. The most common justification for killing and torturing in the history of the occidental, patriarchal culture, to which a great part of modern humanity belongs, is the defense of truth, the defense of reason, or the defense of universal transcendental values under the claim that the defender is intrinsically right and the others are intrinsically wrong. I differ. I do not accept torture because I do not like it, and because I know that like any other human being I could become a torturer; thus I direct my behavior so as never to become a torturer, by taking responsibility for my actions against torture. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is a most difficult action, since it always entails the risk of offending those who do not take responsibility for their actions because they claim that their actions are valid on transcendental principles, or on an undeniable truth, or on a rational argument, or on an objective fact, while they privately know that what they say is not ethically valid. I think that all human beings can become tyrants and torturers not because I think that we human beings are bad or evil, but because we become so unaware, whatever our manner of arguing, just by defending the truth, as an unavoidable feature of the dynamics of the defense of the truth when we do so in the belief that we are intrinsically right and the others are intrinsically wrong. Indeed, I maintain that the fundamental emotion in the constitution and realization of human beings is love, not aggression, and that most physiological and psychological human diseases are the result of interferences with the biology of love.

I do not claim that love brings about the world; the world in which we live is constituted by us human beings in our coordinations of actions in language. But I claim that love constitutes the social. It happens that in technical, sociological parlance we usually use the word social to refer to any system of human relations, and we do not see that there are many different systems of human relations each defined by the fundamental emotion under which it takes place, and that that which we call social in daily life is only one system. If we do not see this we do not see the role of emotions in general, nor the role of love in particular, in the constitution of human actions. In daily life, the distinction of an emotion in a human or in a nonhuman animal entails the distinction of the domain of actions in which this moves. So, whenever in daily life we refer to an emotion in an animal or in a human being, we refer to the domain of actions in which he or she moves and acts. Thus the word love in daily life refers to the domain of actions in which we act accepting the other as a legitimate other in coexistence with us, and the word hate refers to the domain of actions in which we orient our doings to the destruction of some particular other. In other words, the emotion defines the domain of actions in which an animal acts (see Maturana, 1988, 1989).

It is due to this that love constitutes what in daily life we call the social. Moreover, it happens that the biology of love, that is what happens to our physiology and to our relations when we live in a coexistence of mutual acceptance, is so fundamental in us mammals in general, and in us human beings in particular, that when we are deprived of love, either in our childhood or as adults, we become ill in mind and body. Indeed, most human suffering arises from interfering with the biology of love and is cured through the biology of love. Love, however, notwithstanding its fundamental physiological and relational role in mammalian life in general, and its constitutive role in the process of becoming human in early childhood in particular, cannot be imposed and must be acquired by living it from the womb. To be healthy, self-respecting, capable of respecting others, trustful, and trustworthy social human beings, we must grow in total trust and acceptance, that is, in love (see Verden-Zöller, 1982). Indeed, even to become a reliable militant of any kind, a child must grow in love.

Berman does not understand biology or epistemology when he writes: “I must say to these authors: Go back to the laboratory, and get the biology straight…. Give us a biological epistemology that works in this world, not in some abstract Buddhist one” (p. 283). It does not depend on my desires what biology reveals. Neither Berman, nor anyone, can force biology to satisfy his or her desires for a biological argument that gives him or her a transcendental authority through a privileged access to an absolute objective reality or to some absolute system of values. Somehow, I frequently find people who do not know biology or who believe that they know it because they can repeat what they have read about it but do not understand it, who tell me what I should do as a biologist when they find that they do not like what I say that biology reveals and who prefer to claim that I am wrong rather than to recognize their dislike of what biology shows. It is not through a Ph.D. in the history of sciences and a B.A. in mathematics that one learns to be a biologist or to know biology. To understand living systems, it is necessary to live and work in reflective and loving interactions with them. With respect to epistemology, the situation is totally different because all scientists and philosophers become capable through their training as such of reflecting on the fundamentals of their doings and thinking as scientists or philosophers. Yet, a scientist or a philosopher will find the fundamentals that validate his or her thinking and doings as such only if he or she does not pretend to be the owner of the truth.

Berman reveals himself and his listening by speaking of the Chilean/Buddhist model. This attribution of Buddhism to the Tree of Knowledge reveals either that Berman is prejudiced against Buddhism or that he has a professional distortion that does not allow him to see the difference between similarity, coincidence, and identity. There is no Buddhist argument in the book nor any claim in support of Buddhism. There is, however, a point of coincidence in the recognition that we human beings cannot in the experience distinguish between what we call, in our daily communal life, perception and illusion. Yet, where Buddhism concludes that everything is illusion, we start the study of a biological phenomenon. Furthermore, we do not invite passivity, as Berman seems to think. We invite action to the extent that we show the operational identity between adequate action and knowledge, but we invite responsible action to the extent that we claim that it is our desire for the  consequences of our actions that determines our actions as human beings. But if I invite someone to responsible action, I cannot tell him or her what to do. At most I can open the possibility for a reflection together so that we may join in bringing forth a world for living together through our responsible coherent actions.

General Pinochet and the world that he helped to bring about are the result of both the responsible and irresponsible actions of all Chileans, because we Chileans contribute with our doings in our daily lives to the world in which he shows up as he shows up. The belief that we are different from General Pinochet, and that we would not become tyrants in his place, results in the blindness that opens the space for us to become tyrants under the claim that we own the truth, as indeed has happened with many Chileans during these 16 years. But what is valid for Chile in this respect is also valid for all countries. The state of the human world with all the sufferings and joys that there are in it, is the conjoint result of the responsible and irresponsible actions of all human beings. But please, do not fall into the trap of believing that I claim that responsible actions are in themselves transcendentally good; I do not. Goodness and badness belong to the domain of values, and responsibility belongs to the domain of awareness. What I claim is that we always act according to what we want, that it depends on how we live what we want, and that it depends on what we want how we live. Thus we shall not end poverty by fighting poverty, because fighting brings forth the enemy, and we need poverty to fight poverty because we want fighting, not the end of poverty. Similarly, we shall not end tyranny and bring forth democracy by fighting tyranny through becoming tyrants ourselves. We shall remain tyrants fighting the enemies of democracy because what we want is domination, control, or certainty. Poverty and tyranny will disappear only if we act in a manner in which they do not show up as desirable features of our daily living and are considered as errors or mistakes that we want to correct through acting in a manner in which they do not appear.

I do not want in Chile a tyrant to replace a tyrant; I do not want to become a torturer of torturers through fighting torture. To become a tyrant or a torturer is easy. It is enough that we believe ourselves owners of the truth and that we believe that those who do not agree with us are our enemies and deserve to be destroyed because they are intrinsically evil or pathological. I want to take responsibility in my actions against tyranny and torture according to my desire to bring forth a human world in which tyranny and torture do not show up as normal accepted actions. If I destroy someone, I want to do it because I want to do it, not because I am right and he or she is wrong. General Pinochet does not represent “the human version of biological distortion” as Berman says. He is a human being who inspires other human beings to bring forth with him a human world that I do not like and which I oppose. Salvador Allende does not “represent one of the highest forms of biological integrity,” as Berman says. He was a human being who could not escape being trapped in the meshes of a network of ideological fanaticism. There is nothing like a biological distortion or like biological integrity in the domain of biology. Distortions and integrity are notions that refer to relations in the cultural domain and do not apply in the domain of biology. To claim otherwise is not to understand biological or cultural phenomena.

I also want to say, independently this time of what Berman says, that evil arises in the rational justification of the denial of the other, and that one becomes open to being trapped in evil whenever one claims to be rationally right through some explicit or implicit pretense of having a privileged access to an objective reality, not through a consensually accepted criterion of validation. The only possibility of escaping from such a trap is through a reflection in which one becomes aware of whether or not one wants the consequences of one’s actions, because by doing so, one puts the consequences of one’s actions on other living beings in the emotional domain where the biology of love can operate.

Finally, I regret writing an answer to a series of statements that I consider reflect a dislike under the disguise of a rational objection, but I hope that my answer will help Berman to separate these two cases in his own understanding.


  1. Berman M. (1989) The roots of reality: Maturana and Varela’s The Tree of Knowledge. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 29: 277–284.
  2. Maturana H. R. (1988) Ontología del conversar [Ontology of conversion]. Revista de Terapia Psicologica 7(10): 15–21.
  3. Maturana H. R. (1989) Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1): 25–82. http://cepa.info/598
  4. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel.
  5. Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge. Boston: Shambhala.
  6. Verden-Zöller G. (1982) Feldforschungsbericht: Das Wolfstein-Passauer-Mutter-Kind-Modell: Einführung in die Ökopsychologie der frühen Kindheit (Field research report: The Wolfstein-Passauer Mother-Child Model: Introduction to the ecopsychology of early childhood) Munich: Archiv des Bayerishchen Staatministeriums für Arbeit and Sozialordnung.

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