The Hidden Connections
Keywords : Form (organisation) - Matter (structure) - Process - Meaning - the study of form (or pattern of organisation), the study of matter (or material structure), and the study of process - living systems are cognitive systems in which the process of cognition is closely linked to the pattern of autopoiesis - Meaning: the fourth perspective - Self-awareness -
Form Matter Process Meaning
Form - pattern of organisation
Matter - material structure
The three perspectives on the nature of living systems correspond to the study of form (or pattern of organisation), the study of matter (or material structure), and the study of process.
When we study living systems from the perspective of form, we find that their pattern of organisation is that of a self-generating network. From the perspective of matter, the material structure of a living system is a dissipative structure, i.e. an open system operating far from equilibrium. From the process perspective, finally, living systems are cognitive systems in which the process of cognition is closely linked to the pattern of autopoiesis.
The full understanding of any biological phenomenon must incorporate all three perspectives.
Take for example the metabolism of a cell. It consists of a network (form) of chemical reactions (process), which involve the production of the cells components (matter), and which respond cognitively, i.e. through self-directed structural changes (process), to disturbances from the environment. Similarly, the phenomenon of emergence is a process characteristic of dissipative structures (matter), which involves multiple feedback loops (form).
To give equal importance to each of these three perspectives is difficult for most scientists because of the persistent influence of our Cartesian heritage. The natural sciences are supposed to deal with material phenomena, but only one of the three perspectives is connected with the study of matter. The other two deal with relationships, qualities, patterns and processes, all of which are nonmaterial. Of course, no scientist would deny the existence of patterns and processes, but most of them think of the pattern as an emergent property of matter, an idea abstract did from matter, rather than a generative force.
To focus on material structures and the forces between them, and to view the patterns of organisation resulting from these forces as secondary emergent phenomena has been very effective in physics and chemistry, but when we come to living systems this approach is no longer adequate.
The essential characteristics that distinguishes living from nonliving systems -the cellular metabolism - is not a property of matter, nor a special "vital force". It is a specific pattern of relationships among chemical processes. Although it involves relationships between processes that produce material components, a network pattern itself is nonmaterial.
The structural changes in this network pattern are understood as cognitive processes that eventually give rise to conscious experience and conceptual thought. All these cognitive phenomena are nonmaterial, but they are embodied - they arise from and are shaped by the body. Thus, life is never divorced from matter, even though its essential characteristics - organisation, complexity, processes and so on - are nonmaterial.
Meaning - The Fourth Perspective
When we try to extend the new understanding of life to the social domain, we immediately come up against a bewildering multitude of phenomena - rules of behaviour, values, intentions, goals, strategies, designs, power relations - that play no role in most of the nonhuman world but are essential to human social life. These diverse characteristics of social reality all share the basic common feature, which provides a natural link to the systems view of life.
Self-awareness emerged during the evolution of our hominid ancestors together with language, conceptual thought and the social world of organised relationships and culture.
Consequently, the understanding of reflective consciousness is inextricably linked to that of language and it social context. This argument can also be turned around: the understanding of social reality is inextricably linked to that of reflective consciousness.
More specifically, our ability to hold mental images of material objects and events seems to be a fundamental condition for the emergence of the key characteristics of social life.
Being able to hold mental images enables us to choose among several alternatives, which is necessary to formulate values and social rules of behaviour. Conflicts of interest, based on different values, are at the origin of relationships of power.
Our intentions, awareness of purposes and designs and strategies to reach identified goals all require the projection of mental images into the future.
Our inner world of concepts and ideas, images and symbols is a critical dimension of social reality, constituting what John Searle has called "the mental character of social phenomena".
Social scientists have often referred to it as the "hermeneutic" dimension to express the view that human language, being of a symbolic nature, centrally involves the communication of meaning, and that human action flows from the meaning that the attribute to our surroundings.
Accordingly, I postulate that the systemic understanding of life can be extended to the social domain by adding the perspective of meaning to the other three perspectives on life. In doing so, I am using "meaning" as a shorthand notation for the inner world of reflective consciousness, which contains a multitude of interrelated characteristics.
A full understanding of social phenomena must involve the integration of four perspectives - form, matter, process and meaning.
Integrating the four perspectives means recognising that each contributes significantly to the understanding of a social phenomenon. For example, we shall see that culture is created and sustained by a network (form) of communications (process), in which meaning is generated. The cultures material embodiments (matter) include artefacts and written texts, for which meaning is passed on from generation to generation.
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