Evan Thompson
Life and Mind
From Autopoiesis to Neurophenomenology

in: Clarke/Hanson Emergence and Embodiment New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory, Duke University Press, 2009


From Autopoiesis to Neurophenomenology
77 Varela - sense-making

calculus of self-reference (Varela 1977)
„Not One, Not Two“ - a position paper on the mind-body relation, in which Francisco Varela set forth some ideas about dualities and self-reference, the relation between natural systems and logic and mathematics, the algebraic foundation of self-reference.

78 The dualism of concern to Francisco Varela is not the abstract, metaphysical dualism of mental and physical properties, but rather the dualism of mind as a scientific object versus mind as an experiencing subject. The mind-body problem is not only a philosophical problem, or scientific problem, but also a problem of direct experience.

It is one thing to have a scientific representation of the mind as „enactive“ - as embodied, emergent, dynamic, and relational; as not homuncular and skull-bound; and thus in a certain sense as insubstantial. But it is another thing to have a direct experience of this nature of the mind in one's own first-person case.
In more phenomenological terms, it is one thing to have a scientific representation of the mind as participating in the „constitution“ of its intentional objects; it is another thing to see such constitution at work in one's own lived experience. Varela believed, like phenomenologists and also Buddhists, that this kind of direct experience is possible. He also thought that unless science and philosophy make room for this kind of experience, we will never be able to deal effectively with the mind-body problem.

Franciso Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch The Embodied Mind 1991

An appreciation of the
„fundamental circularity“ of science and experience reminds us that such models of consciousness are objectivations that presuppose, on an empirical level, the particular subjectivities of the scientists who author them but also, on a transcendental level, the intentionality of consciousness as an a priori openness to reality, by virtue of which we are able to have any comprehension of anything at all. Experience is thus, in a certain sense, irreducible.

79 Neurophenomenology (1996) - Here the idea that the mind-body problem is also a problem of experience is articulated programmatically in relation to neuroscience and the so-called „hard problem“ of consciousness.

The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of how and why physiological processes give rise to experience. It is one thing to be able to establish correlations between consciousness and brain activity; it is another thing to have an account that explains how and why certain physiological processes suffice for consciousness. At present, we not only lack such an account, but we are also unsure about the form it would need to have in order to overcome the conceptual gap between subjective experience and the brain. In proposing neurophenomenology as a „methodological remedy“ for the hard problem, Varela‘s insight was that no purely third-person, theoretical proposal or model would suffice to overcome this gap.

Varela:
„In all functionalistic accounts, what is missing is not the coherent nature of the explanation but its alienation from human life.
Only putting human life back in will erase that absence; not some „extra ingredient“ or profound „theoretical fix“. „Putting human life back in “means, among other things, expanding neuroscience to include original phenomenological investigations of experience".

80 Life beyond the Hard Problem
Consider Thomas Nagel‘s classic formulation of the hard problem: „If mental processes are physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is that such a thing to be the case remains a mystery“.
Nagel‘s point is the now familiar one that we don't understand how an objective physical process could be sufficient for or constitutive of the subjective character of conscious mental processes.

But stating the problem this way embeds it within the Cartesian framework of the „mental“ versus the „physical“ in opposition to eachother or reduce one to the other (not one, not two). What we need instead is a framework that does not set "mental" and "physical" in opposition to each other or reduce one to the other. We need to focus on a kind of phenomenon on that is already beyond this gap. Life or living being is precisely this kind of phenomenal. For biology, living being is living organisms; for phenomenology, it is living subjectivity. What we need, and what neurophenomenology aims for, is an account of the lived body that integrates biology and phenomenology and so goes „beyond the gap“.

81 For neurophenomenology the guiding issue isn't the contrived problem of how to derive subjectivist concept of consciousness from an objectivist concept of the body. Instead, it is to understand the emergence of living subjectivity from living being, including their reciprocal shaping of living being by living subjectivity. It is this issue of emergence that neurophenomenology addresses, not the Cartesian version of the Hard problem.

The strong continuity of life and mind:

Implicit in this step of recasting the terms of the hard problem is the idea of a strong continuity of life and mind. One way to put this idea is that life and mind share a common pattern of organisation, and the organisational properties characteristic of mind are an enriched version of those fundamental to life. Mind is life-like. But a simpler and more provocative formulation is this one: Living is cognition.

This proposition comes from Maturana and Varela‘s theory of autopoiesis. Some have taken the „is“ in this proposition as the „is“ of identity (living= cognition), others as the „is“ of predication or class inclusion (all life is cognitive).

82 The origins of the proposition go back to Maturana's 1970 paper, „Biology of Cognition). There he uses the concept of cognition widely to mean the operation of any living system in the domain of interactions specified by its circular and self-referential organisation.

Cognition is effective conduct in this domain of interactions, not the representation of an independent environment. In Maturana's words, „Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition". This statement is valid for all organisms, with and without the nervous system“.

Francisco Varela later came to prefer a different way of explicating the „living is cognition“ proposition: Living is sense-making.

Boe: vgl. Luhmann Introduction 221 –Sinn - sinngebendes Moment

To expand the proposition „living is sense-making“:

Life = autopoiesis. By this I mean the thesis that the three criteria of autopoiesis - a boundary, a molecular reaction network, that produces and regenerates itself and the boundary - are necessary and sufficient for the organisation of minimal life.
Autopoiesis entails emergence of the self.
Emergence of self entails emergence of a world.
Emergence of self and world = sense making. The organism‘s world is the sense it makes of the environment. This world is a place of significance and valance, as a result of the global action of the organism.
Sense-making = cognition (perception/action).

84 „Cognition“ in the present context means the sense-making activity of living, which underlies the conservation of adaptation - no sense making, no living, no conservation of adaption. Notice that this way of thinking about cognition rests on an explicit hypotheses about the natural roots of intentionality: intentionality arises from the operational closure of an autonomous system.

Consciousness“ can have many meanings, but the one most relevant is sentience, the feeling of being alive and exercising effort in movementConsciousness as sentience is a kind of primitively self-aware liveliness or animation of the body.

85 Life’s sense-making is a manifestation of the organism‘s autonomy and coupling, but not necessarily of consciousness…Being „phenomenally conscious“of something would seem to entail being able to form intentions to act in relation to it. It's hard to make sense of the idea of being conscious of something, in the sense of subjectively experiencing it, while having no intentional access to it whatsoever. But there seems no reason to think that autopoietic selfhood of the minimal cellular sort involves any kind of intentional access on the part of the organism to it sense-making.
It seems unlikely that minimal autopoietic selfhood involves phenomenal selfhood or subjectivity.

86 Living beings are in some sense teleological: organisms have an interest in their own being and continuation; they realise a dynamic impulse to carry on being; they are always impelled beyond their present condition - these are teleological modes of description.

Living is sense-making“ also sounds like a teleological description because it characterises the organism as oriented toward the sense it makes of its environment. Sense making is reminiscent of the phenomenological notion of intentionality, which signifies not a static representational „aboutness“ but rather an act of intending, purposive striving focused on finding satisfaction in further cognitive acquisitions and experience.

88 Teleology is none other than sense-making. Sense making is not a feature of the autopoietic organisation but rather of the coupling of the concrete autopoietic system and its environment.
In other words, teleology is not an intrinsic organisational property but an emergent relational one that belongs to a concrete autopoietic system interacting with its environment.

Boe: vgl. Terrence Deacon Incomplete Nature 2012: purpose - teleodynamics.

If living beings are not reducible to algorithmic mechanism and if teleology is an emergent relational property, not an intrinsic organisational one, then we are faced with the prospect of a new kind of biological naturalism beyond the classical opposition of mechanism and teleology. Thus naturalising phenomenology always implied a corresponding phenomenological reconceptualisation of nature.

89 Life can only be known by life
I would like to commence on this proposition that life can only be known by life. The claim is a transcendental one in a Kantian and Husserlian sense: it is about the conditions for the possibility of knowing life, given that we do actually have biological knowledge. Consider the question, how is it that we are unable to recognise or comprehend the form or dynamic pattern of autopoiesis in the first place? Would this pattern be recognisable at all from some ideal objective standpoint? Or is it is rather that we are able to recognise this pattern only because it resembles the form of our own bodily selfhood? Here, in brief, is the phenomenologist‘s answer:
1 an adequate account of certain observable phenomena requires the concepts organism and autopoiesis.
2 the source of the meaning of these concepts is the lived body -
our first-person lived experience of our own animate, bodily existence.
3 these concepts and the biological accounts in which they figure are not derivable, even in principle, from some observer-independent, non-indexical, objective, physico-functional description (according to the physicalist‘s myth of science).

The basic ground of neurophenomenology is the irreducible nature of conscious experience... Experience is irreducible not because it possesses metaphysically peculiar properties after the fashion of contemporary property dualism. It is irreducible because of its ineliminable transcendental character: lived experience is always already presupposed by any statement, model, or theory, and the lived body is an apriori in variant of lived experience. Experience is die Unhintergehbarkeit – the „ungobehindable“.

There is no dualism or idealism here: the transcendental lived body is no other than the empirical living body; it is simply that body re-membered in a certain way - namely, as where we start from and where we must all link back to, like a guiding thread.

Beobachtung Dritter Ordnung

HOME