F. Capra
The Web of Life

A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter


Pattern and Structure
The emergence and refinement of the concept of pattern of organisation has been a crucial element in the development of a new way of thinking.  From Pythagoras to Aristotle, to Goethe, and to the organismic biologists there is a continuous intellectual tradition that struggles with the understanding of pattern, realising that it is crucial to the understanding of living form.  The cyberneticists is focused on pattern of communication and control - and in doing so were the first are clearly distinguish the pattern of organisation of the system from its physical structure.

The key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis of two approaches ? 

the study of pattern (or form, order, quality) 
and the study of structure (or substance, matter, quantity).

The pattern of organisation of any system, living on nonliving, is the configuration of relationships among the system's components that determines the system's essential characteristics.  In other words, certain relationships must be present for something to be recognised as - say - a chair, a bicycle, or a tree.  That configuration of relationships that gives a system at essential characteristics is what we mean by its pattern of organisation.

The structure of the system is the physical embodiment of its pattern of organisation.  Whereas the description of the pattern of organisation involves an abstract mapping of relationships, the description of the structure involves describing the systems actual physical components - their shapes, chemical composition, etc.

To illustrate the difference between pattern and structure, let us look at a well-known nonliving system, a bicycle.  In order for something to be called a bicycle, there must be a number of functional relationships between components known as frame, pedals, handlebars, wheels, chain, sprocket, etc.  The complete configuration of these functional relationships constitutes the bicycle's pattern of organisation.  All those relationships must be present to give the system the essential characteristics of a bicycle.

The structure of the bicycle is the physical embodiment of its pattern of organisation in terms of components of specific shapes, made of specific materials.  The same pattern "bicycle" can be embodied in many different structures.  The handlebars will be shaped differently for recovering bike, a racing bike, or a mountain bike; the frame may be heavy and solid or light and delicate; the tyres may be narrow or wide, tubes or solid rubber.  All these combinations and many more will easily be recognised as different embodiment of the same pattern of relationships that defines a bicycle. In the machines such as a bicycle the parts have been designed, manufactured, and then put together to form a structure with fixed components. 

In a living system, by contrast, the components change continually. There is a ceaseless flux of matter through a living organism.  Each cell continually synthesizes and dissolves structures, and eliminates waste products.  Tissues and organs replace their cells in continual cycles.  There is growth, development, and evolution.  Thus from the very beginning of biology, the understanding of living structures has been inseparable from the understanding a metabolic and developmental processes.

This striking property of living systems suggests process at the third criterion for a comprehensive description of the nature of life. 

The process of life is the activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system's pattern of organisation.  Thus the process criterion is the link between pattern and structure.

In the case of the bicycle, the pattern of organisation is represented by the design sketches that are used to build the bicycle, the structure is a specific physical bicycle, and the link between pattern and structures is in the mind of the designer. 

In the case of a living organism, however, the pattern of organisation is always embodied in the organism structure, and the link between pattern and structure lies in the places of continual embodiment.

The process criterion completes the conceptual framework of the synthesis of an emerging theory of living systems: Pattern, structure, and process.

All three criteria are totally interdependent.  The pattern of organisation can only be recognised if it is embodied in a physical structure, and in a living system is embodiment is an ongoing process.  Thus structure and process are inextricately linked.  One could say that the three criteria - pattern, structure, and process - are three different but inseparable perspectives on the phenomenon of life.  They will form the three conceptual dimensions of the synthesis.

To understand the nature of life from a systemic point review means to identify a set of general criteria by which we can make a clear distinction between living and nonliving systems.

I propose to understand autopoiesis, as defined by Maturana and Varela, as the pattern of life (i.e. the pattern of organisation of living systems); dissipative structure, as defined by Prigogine, as the structure of a living system; and cognition, as defined by Maturana and Varela, as the process of life.

The pattern of organisation determines the system's essential characteristics.  In particular, it determines whether the system is living on nonliving.  Autopoiesis - the pattern of organisation of living systems - is thus the defining characteristic of life in the new theory.  To find out whether the particular system - the crystal, a virus, a cell, all the planet Earth - is alive, all the need to do is find out whether its pattern of organisation is that of autopoietic network.  If it is, we're dealing with a living system; if it is not, the system is nonliving.

Cognition, the process of life, is inextricably linked to autopoiesis.  Autopoiesis and cognition are to different aspects of the same phenomenon of life.  In the new theory all living systems are cognitive systems, and cognition all this implies the existence of an autopoietic network.

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Cognition - the process of life

The three criteria of life - pattern, structure, and process - are so closely interwined that it is difficult to discuss them separately, although it is important to distinguish between them.  Autopoiesis, the pattern of life, is a set of relationships between processes of production; and the dissipative structure can only be understood in terms of metabolic and developmental processes.  The process dimension is thus implicit both in the pattern and the structure criterion.

In the emerging theory of living systems the process of life - the continual embodiment of an autopoietic pattern of organisation in a dissipative structure - is identified with cognition, the process of knowing.  This implies a radically new concept of mind, which is perhaps the most revolutionary and most exciting aspect of this theory, as it promises to finally overcome the Cartesian division between mind and matter.

According to the theory of living systems, mind is not a thing but the process - the very process of life.  In other words, the organising activity of living systems, at all levels of life, is a mental activity.

The interactions of a living organism - plant, animal, or human - with its environment are cognitive, or mental interactions.  Thus life and cognition become inseparably connected. 

Mind - or, more accurately, mental process - is imminent in matter at all levels of life.  The central idea of Maturana and Varela is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life.  This represents a radical expansion of the traditional concept of mind.  According to the Santiago theory, the brain is not necessary for mind to exist. 

A bacterium, or a plant, has no brain but has a mind.  The simplest organisms are capable of perception and thus of cognition.  They do not see, but they nevertheless perceive changes in their environment - differences between light and shadow, hot and cold, higher and lower concentrations of some chemical, etc.

The new concept of cognition, the process of knowing, is thus much broader than that of thinking.  It involves perception, emotion, and action - the entire process of life.  In the human realm cognition also includes language, conceptual thinking, at all the other attributes of human consciousness.  The general concept, however, is much broader and does not necessarily involve thinking.

The Santiago theory provides, in my view, the first coherent scientific framework that really overcomes the Cartesian split.  Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories but are seen as representing merely different aspects, or dimensions, of the same phenomenon of life.

In the Santiago theory the relationship between mind and brain is simple and clear.  Descarte’s characterisation of mind as "the thinking thing” (res cogitans) is finally abandoned.  Mind is not a thing but the process - the process of cognition, which is identified with the process of life.  The brain is a specific structure for which this process operates.  The relationship between mind and brain, therefore, is one between process and structure.

The brain is, of course, not the only structure through which the process of cognition operates.The entire dissipative structure of the organism participates in the process of cognition, whether or not the organism has a brain and a higher nervous system.  Moreover, recent research indicates strongly that in the human organism the nervous system, the immune system, and the endocrine system, which traditionally have been viewed as three separate systems, in fact form a single cognitive network.