The Hidden Connections
Keywords: what is life - living systems: a membrane-bounded, self-generating, organisationally closed metabolic network - minimal life - self-generating networks - social dimension: conceptual thought, values, meaning and purpose - human consciousness and culture - cognitive dimension of life - mind and matter - Theory of Cognition: Santiagotheory: identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life - structural coupling - "The relationship between mind and brain, therefore, is one between process and structure".
What is life?
What are the defining characteristics of living systems? Focusing on bacteria as the simplest living systems, we characterise a living cell as a membrane-bounded, self-generating, organisationally closed metabolic network. This network involves several types of highly complex macromolecules: structural proteins, enzymes, which act as catalysts of metabolic processes, RNA, the messengers carrying genetic information, and DNA, which stores the genetic information and is responsible for the cell's self replication.
The cellular network is materially and energetically open, using a constant flow of matter and energy to produce, repair and perpetuate itself; and added operates far from equilibrium, where new structures and new forms of order may spontaneously emerge, thus leading to development and evolution.
A prebiotic form of evolution, involving membrane-enclosed bubbles of minimal life, began long before the emergence of the first living cell; and the roots of life reach deep into the basic physics and chemistry of these proto-cells.
We identified three major avenues of evolutionary creativity -mutation, gene trading and symbioses - through which life unfolded for over 3 billion years, from the universal bacterial ancestors to the emergence of human beings, without ever breaking the basic patterns of its self-generating networks.
To extend this understanding of the nature of life to the human social dimension we need to deal with conceptual thought, values, meaning and purpose -phenomena that belong to the realm of human consciousness and culture.
We need to include an understanding of mind and consciousness in our understanding of living systems.
As we shift our focus to the cognitive dimension of life, we shall see that the unified view of life, mind and consciousness is now emerging in which human consciousness is inextricably linked to the social world of interpersonal relationships and culture. We discover that this unified view allows us to understand the spiritual dimension of life in a way that is fully consistent with traditional conceptions of spirituality.
Mind and Consciousness
One of the most important philosophical implications of the new understanding of life is a novel conception of the nature of mind and consciousness, which finally overcomes the Cartesian division between mind and matter.
In the 17th century, René Descartes based his vierw of nature, fundamental division between two independent and separate realms -that of mind, the thinking thing (res cogitans), and that of matter, the extended thing (res extensa). This conceptual split between mind and matter has haunted Western science and philosophy for more than 300 years.
Following Descartes, scientists and philosophers continued to think of the mind as an intangible entity and were unable to imagine how this thinking thing is related to the body . although neuroscientists have known since the 19th-century that brain structures and mental functions are intimately connected , the exact relationship between mine and brained remained a mystery .
the decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a thing , and to realise that mind and consciousness are not things but processes.
In biology, this novel concept of the mind was developed during the 1960s by Gregory Bateson , for use the term "mental process", and independently by Humberto Maturana, who focused on cognition, the process of knowing . During the past 25 years , the study of mind from its systemic perspective has blossomed into a rich interdisciplinary field, known as cognitive science, which transcends the traditional framework of biology, psychology and epistemology .
Theory of Cognition
The central insight of the Santiago Theory is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life.
Cognition, according to Maturana and Varela, its activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living networks. In other words, cognition is the very process of life. The organising activity of living systems, at all levels of life, is mental activity. The interactions of a living organism - plant, animal and human - with its environment are cognitive interactions. Thus life and cognition are inseparably connected. Mind - or, more accurately, mental activity - is imminent in matter at all levels of life.
This is a radical expansion of the concept of recognition and, implicitly, the concept of mind. In this new view, cognition involves the entire process of life -including perception, emotion and behaviour -and does not even necessarily require a brain and a nervous system.
Cognition is closely linked to autopoiesis, the self generation of living networks.
The defining characteristic of an autopoietic system is that it undergoes continual structural changes while preserving its weblike pattern of organisation.
The components of the network continually produce and transform one another, and they do so in two distinct ways. One type of structural change is that of self-renewal. Every living organism continually renews itself, as it sells break down and build up structures, and tissues and organs replace their cells in continual cycles. In spite of this ongoing change, the organism maintains its overall identity, or pattern of organisation.
The second type of structural changes in a living system are those which create new structures -new connections in the autopoietic network. These changes, developmental rather than cyclical, also take place continually, either as a consequence of environmental influences or as a result of the systems in turn dynamics.
A living system couples to its environment structurally, i.e. through recurrent interactions, each of which triggers structural changes in the system. A cell membrane continually incorporates substances from its environment into the cell's metabolic processes. An organism's nervous system changes its conductivity with every sense perception. Living systems are autonomous, however. The environment only triggers the structural changes, it does not specify a direct from.
Structural coupling establishes a clear difference between the ways living and nonliving systems interact with their environments.
When you kick a stone, it will react to the kick according to a linear chain of cause and effect. It's behaviour can be calculated by applying the basic laws of Newtonian mechanics. When you kick a dog, the situation is quite different. The dog will respond with structural changes according to its own nature and (non-linear) pattern of organisation. The resulting behaviour is generally unpredictable.
As a living organism responds to environmental influences with structural changes, these changes will in turn alter its future behaviour. In other words, the structurally coupled system is a learning system.
Continual structural changes in response to the environment - and consequently continuing attraction, learning and development -are key characteristics of the behaviour of all living beings. Because of its structural coupling, we can call the behaviour of an animal intelligent but would not apply that term to the behaviour of rock.
As it keeps interacting with its environment, a living organism will undergo a sequence of structural changes, and overtime it will form its own, individual pathways of structural coupling. At any point almost halfway, the structure of the organism is a record of previous structural changes and thus of previous interactions.
In other words, all living beings have a history. Living structure is always a record of prior development.
Now, since an organism records previous structural changes, and since each structural change influences the organism's future behaviour, this implies that the behaviour of the living organism is dictated by it structure. The behaviour of living systems is "structure determined"
This notion sheds new light on the age-old philosophical debate about freedom and determinism. The behaviour of a living organism is determined, but rather than being determined by outside forces, it is determined by the organism's own structure -the structure formed by a succession of autonomous structural changes. Hence the behaviour of the living organism is both determined and free.
Living systems, then, respond autonomously to disturbances from the environment with structural changes, i.e. by rearranging their pattern of conductivity. You can never direct a living system, you can only disturb it.
The living system not only specifies its structural changes, it also specifies which disturbances from the environment trigger them. In other words, the living system maintains the freedom to decide what to notice and what will disturb it.
The structural changes in the system constitute acts of cognition. By specifying which perturbations from the environment trigger changes, the system specifies the extent of its cognitive domain; it "brings forth a world".
Cognition, then, is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a continual bringing forth of a world through the process of living. The interactions of a living system with its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of living itself is a process of cognition. To live is to know.
As a living organism goes through its individual pathway of structural changes, each of these changes corresponds to a cognitive act, which means that learning and development are merely two sides of the same coin.
The identification of mind, or cognition, with the process of life is a novel idea in science, but it is one of the deepest and most archaic intuitions of humanity. In ancient times, the rational human mind was seen as merely one aspect of the immaterial soul, or spirit. The basic distinction was not between body and mind, but between body and soul, or body and spirit.
In the languages of ancient times, both soul and spirit are described for the metaphor of the breath of life.
The conceptual advance of the Santiago theory is best appreciated by revisiting the thorny question of the relationship between mind and brain. In the Santiago theory, this relationship is simple and clear: Mind is not a thing but the process - will the process of cognition, which is identified with the process of life. The brain is a specific structure through which this process operates.
The relationship between mind and brain, therefore, is one between process and structure.
Moreover, the brain is not the only structure through which the process of cognition operates. The entire structure of the organism participates in the process of cognition, whether or not the organism has a brain and a higher nervous system.
In my view, the Santiago theory of cognition is the first scientific theory that overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter, and will thus have far-reaching implications. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but can be seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life -process and structure. At all levels of life, beginning with the simplest cell, process and structure, are inseparably connected.
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