Carry It On

Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind

By Evan Thompson

Cambridge: Harvard University Press

In a couple of recent blog posts[1], I’ve talked about how life-science needs to expand its reductionist agenda to approach the mysteries of life, enabling us to bridge the chasm between science and spirituality.  After recently completing Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life, I believe that he could be one of the leading thinkers in getting us there.

Thompson was one of the co-authors, along with Francisco Varela, of a ground-breaking book published in 1993 called The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, which explored some of the areas of overlap between cognitive science and Buddhist psychology.  Varela, who introduced (with Humberto Maturana) the idea of autopoiesis[2], was viewed by many as a thought-leader in this area, until he tragically died in mid-career in 2001.  In his current book, Thompson is carrying on the thought-processes he began with Varela[3], and taking them into expansive new areas.

At the core of the book is the idea that life is a self-organized, self-creating system.  This central theme is then applied to different aspects of life, such as consciousness, evolution and cellular dynamics, to provide a coherent view of how these seemingly disparate areas are in fact all integrated.

A key phrase Thompson has coined to describe his particular view of life’s self-organized nature is “dynamic co-emergence.”  This is crucially important for contrasting living systems with other complex, self-organized non-living processes, such as a candle flame or a whirlpool.  Here’s how Thompson explains it:

An autonomous system, such as a cell or multicellular organism, is not merely self-maintaining, like a candle flame; it is also self-producing… In the single-cell, autopoietic form of autonomy, a membrane-bounded, metabolic network produces the metabolites that constitute both the network itself and the membrane that permits the network’s bounded dynamics.  Other autonomous systems have different sorts of self-constructing processes…  Whether the system is a cell, immune network, nervous system, insect colony, or animal society, what emerges is a unity with its own self-producing identity.

The reason why Thompson calls this “dynamic co-emergence” is that:

… the whole is constituted by the relations of the parts, and the parts are constituted by the relations they bear to one another in the whole.  Hence, the parts do not exist in advance, prior to the whole, as independent entities that retain their identity in the whole.  Rather, part and whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other.

Thompson traces a tradition of Western thought, going back to Aristotle, which entertained this approach to understanding life.  I call it the “moonlight tradition”, because its illumination was so overwhelmed by the bright glare of Platonic dualism, that it’s just about invisible to most conventional examinations of Western thought; but when you look at the world by its light, you see things in a new and beautiful way, in the same way that a plain, familiar landscape becomes entrancing by moonlight.

Following this line of thought, Thompson shows how Kant arrived at a view of “natural purpose” for living organisms which is only now being re-discovered by scientists applying the mathematical tools of complexity theory that were not available to Kant.

These tools are, however, available to Thompson, and he makes excellent use of them in exploring the implications of “dynamic co-emergence” to central aspects of our lives.  A key concept from complexity theory is that of an “attractor”: a relatively stable, dynamic state to which a complex system converges over time.  Every time you turn on the water in a sink and see the pattern it makes as it circles the drain, you’re seeing an attractor.  It’s both stable and dynamic.  It keeps changing, but only within certain parameters.  Open the faucet more, and after a few chaotic moments, the water will settle into a new attractor.[4] Attractors can describe the changes in state taken by the kinds of self-organizing, dynamically co-emergent systems that comprise life as we know it.

When you apply the concept of attractors to the most complex systems of all, such as our minds, this leads to another concept known as “metastability”, where things appear relatively stable even as they keep fluctuating from one area to another within an attractor.  This dynamic, Thompson explains, “permits a flexible repertoire of global states without the system becoming trapped in any one particular state”.  Increasingly, leading neuroscientists are applying this analysis to understand how complex patterns of neuronal firings can lead in our brains to the state of consciousness.

Thompson follows this logic on inexorably, exploring how the cellular complexities of dynamics such as metabolism lead to a sense of purpose in even a single-celled organism.  As this microcosm of value is then traced up the ladder of complexity all the way to human cognition, we see how intentionality turns into what is known as “valence” (attraction/repulsion, like/dislike, etc.) and ultimately into what we define as values.

Similarly, we can trace how the short-term dynamics of the attractor of our consciousness lead to feelings, then to moods, and ultimately personality.  From this perspective, we can begin to see personality as a kind of metastable phase-state within which our emotions and moods play out.  But always, the emphasis is on the dynamic co-emergence of the parts and the whole.  So, in this example, your feelings and moods are continually re-forming your personality at the margin, which then impacts those very feelings.  You, therefore, are a self-created and self-creating entity!

Thompson champions a fundamentally different, and potentially liberating, view of ourselves and the world around us, in stark contrast to the reductionist, deterministic view espoused by the life-science mainstream.  In a powerful invective, Thompson witheringly critiques Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of the “selfish gene,” arguing that “it is little more than a metaphor that masquerades as a theoretical concept and… leads to a misleading picture of the nature of possible explanations in molecular biology.” I found this section very convincing, and feel it should be required reading for anyone who remains committed to the “genocentric” view of life.

But what metaphor could we use to replace the current “genetic program” view of the natural world?  Thompson proposes a metaphor that he calls “laying down a path,” implying that “there is no separation between plan and executed action.”  This is one area where I think there’s a lot more to be done.  Personally, I believe that the “music” metaphor may be the most powerful candidate to replace “genetic programming.”  Later in the book, Thompson does describe evolution in term of dance:

Like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements, organism and environment enact each other through their structural coupling.

However, I think there’s a lot more play in the metaphor than that.  One writer who has embraced this as a central metaphor is Denis Noble, author of The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes, a book that I’d recommend as a great complement to Thompson.  The power of the music metaphor is that it incorporates all the complexities of dynamic co-emergence, and at the same time it plays havoc with the traditional “competition” metaphor so prevalent among genetic determinists.  Imagine a biologist from another planet watching an orchestra play and observing that “the violins must pursue the most successful adaptive strategy because there are so many of them.”

After centuries of its concealment in the twilight of the “moonlight tradition,” the application of mathematical rigor to a more holistic view of life has the potential to revolutionize the life sciences in the 21st century and beyond.  Thompson’s book does a great job of applying Varela’s insights further afield, and in doing so he’s “laying down” an important path for others to follow.

[1] Re-weaving the Rainbow and A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism.

[2] Autopoiesis can be loosely defined as a definition of life as a system with a semi-permeable boundary produced by reactions within that boundary that simultaneously regenerate the components of the system: thus, it’s self-organizing and dynamically self-creating.

[3] Thompson writes in the Preface that the book was originally intended to be co-authored with Varela.

[4] Technically, this describes what’s called a chaotic or strange attractor, as opposed to a more predictable point attractor or limited cycle attractor.


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