The following is a guest post by Brains blog reader Eric Lindell, whose paper “A Note on Active Panpsychism” was published recently in The Journal of Mind and Behavior.
Abstract: Maturana’s Biology of Cognition offers a theory of consciousness without claiming it as such. Instead, it claims only to have offered a model for the easy problem – namely, the circular organization of the nervous system. This view holds that any deviation from environmental stasis in, say, temperature will be experienced by passive mind and then offset by remedial measures initiated in active mind. Hence the organism returns to its original state due to offsetting effects by passive and active consciousness. This zero-sum explains consciousness in that there’s nothing to explain – comparable to similar effects in fields like physics and economics.
Keywords: Maturana, consciousness, theory, circular, organization, nervous system
The Unclaimed Theory of Consciousness
The nervous system’s circular organization, as argued by Maturana (1970), succinctly characterizes the basic function of living beings as stimulus-response, stasis-seeking behavior. From this follows Schrödinger’s (1944) observation that life must direct a stream of negative entropy on itself in order to maintain stasis of temperature, mass, pH, metabolism, and myriad other internal parameters and processes.
Maturana’s theory of cognition is succinctly exemplified by a thermostat. This device seeks a cooler temperature when above threshold and a hotter one when below (Boulding, 1956). Even a simple weight dangling from a spring displays analogous behavior, described mathematically as damped harmonic motion.
Some will object that human motivation and behavior are more complex, as when a stimulus produces a delayed response — or none at all. For example, instead of reacting immediately to a stimulus, it may be stored as a memory to which reaction is delayed, contingent on its retrieval from memory. However, this effect fits the stimulus-response paradigm if storing the stimulus as a memory is considered to be a response; then the reaction occurs when the memory is retrieved.
In this respect, the outer world of sensory stimuli and the inner world of memory correspond, respectively, to roles played in a computer by data input from an external device and data fetched from internal memory. The logic (and sometimes the grammar) of these two types of data retrieval is the same.
Moreover, passive and active mind have an implicit coefficient (Searle, 1992) gauging the degree of pleasure or displeasure (for passive) and of attraction or aversion (for active). This quadripartite relation (bearing an eerie resemblance to Aristotle’s square of opposition) has been noted by Hobbes (1651), Freud (1920), and Minsky (1985) — and in Eastern philosophy by Patanjali and in the Uddhava Gita (Saraswati, 2002).
When no reaction occurs to a stimulus, it is probably because there was no associated pleasure or displeasure to produce corresponding attraction or aversion. This is the null stimulus, where the scalar gauge of pleasure/displeasure is zero, as is its “resulting” (non-)reaction.
This coefficient gives rise to the possibility of the null mind — where pleasure is zero and attraction is zero. So to say the mind is gauged by a scalar coefficient allows the possibility of consciousness experiencing neither pleasure nor displeasure; neither attraction nor aversion.
Moreover, as a person pursues, engages, or consumes the object of attraction owing to the pleasure it gives, this attraction will necessarily decrease — the law of diminishing returns applied to psychology — whereby the second slice of cheesecake doesn’t hit the spot quite as well as the first. This is the arousal curve with the inverted-U shape (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) — an essential feature of the stasis-maintaining model.
For present purposes the key feature of Maturana’s model is the tracing of a closed circuit in order to return to stasis whenever a deviation occurs. Passive mind detects a temperature change; active mind initiates action to reverse that change.
This circularity is the mind’s interplay of passive and active as mutually canceling. Passive and active can be quantified as similar in magnitude, but with opposite sign. This effect is similar to a zero-sum of positive and negative charges in physics (Kane, 2000). Hence the notion of the zero-sum mind, which puts consciousness on an epistemic footing comparable to effects from physics, economics, and other fields, as a net nullity (Hawking, 1988). This provides a candidate explanation of consciousness; there’s nothing to explain.
Which brings us to a paradoxical feature of Maturana’s 1970 paper, Biology of Cognition: it presents a theory of consciousness without claiming it as such. It presents itself merely as a theory of cognition — the easy problem (Chalmers, 1996), which it certainly is. But the author hedges the final step in creating a theory of mind, which is simply to claim that this model also addresses the hard problem of consciousness.
This is far from a complete reckoning of the mind’s mysteries. However, as a start, it offers a coherent hypothesis for how this baffling enigma of consciousness can exist in the universe, employing a mode of explanation already accepted in other domains. To that extent, it belongs on the same table with other theories.
Boulding, K. E. (1956). General systems theory: The skeleton of science. Management Science, 2: 197-208.
Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (J. Trachey, Trans.). New York: Norton.
Hawking, S. (1988). A brief history of time. New York: Bantam Books.
Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. Baltimore MD: Pelican.
Kane, G. (2000). Supersymmetry: Unveiling the ultimate laws of nature. Cambridge MA: Helix.
Minsky, M. (1985). The Society of Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Maturana H. R. (1970). Biology of Cognition. BCL Report # 9.0.
Schrödinger, E. (1944). What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saraswati, A. (2002). The Uddhava Gita. Berkeley CA: Seastone. Yerkes R. M., Dodson J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. 18 (5): 459–482.