The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Process Behind the Structure

Robert Cairn once used an analogy: evolution is to biology what development is to psychology, i.e. the process behind the structure.

The US psychologists Esther Thelen and Linda Smith advanced a theory of development that was as opportunistic as evolution. Their emphasis is on processes of change, on the ever-active self-organizing processes of living systems that are analogous to the selection algorithms of evolution.

For them development is the outcome of the interplay between action and perception within a system that, by its thermodynamic nature, seeks stability. Performance and cognition emerge from this process of interaction between a system and its environment. Cognition, in particular, is an emergent structure, situated and embodied, just like any other skill of the organism.

The development of the brain seems to be orderly, incremental, and directional (towards nutritional independence and reproductive maturity), but this is an illusion. In reality development is not driven by a grand design: it is driven by opportunistic, syncretic and exploratory processes. At a closer look, in fact, development is modular and heterochronic (i.e., different organs develop at different rates and different times), although the organism progresses as a whole. Global regularities (and simplicity) somehow arise from local variabilities (and complexities).

Knowledge for thought and action (i.e., categories) emerges from the dynamics of pattern formation in the context of neural group selection.  Perception, action and cognition are rooted in the same pattern formation processes. Categories arise (self-organize) spontaneously and reflect the experiences of acting and perceiving, i.e. of interacting with the world.  More precisely, categories are created through the cross-relation of multimodal (hearing, seeing, feeling, etc) experiences.  Unity of perception and action is reflected in the way categories are formed. Development can then be viewed as the dynamic selection of categories. Categories are the foundation of cognitive development.

At the same time, categories are but a specific case of pattern formation. Therefore, cognitive development is a direct consequence of the properties of nonlinear dynamic systems, i.e. of self-organizing complex systems. 

Being in the world "selects" categories. Therefore meaning itself is emergent. 

These features are shared by all organisms: every living system is a cognitive system.


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