The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Organisms and Environment

The US philosopher Fred Dretske agrees that information is in the environment and cognitive agents simply absorb it, thereby creating mental states. As Dretske puts it, information is what we can learn about the environment from a sensory signal.

From a biological standpoint, Daniel Dennett's "intentional stance" defines just the relationship between an organism and its environment. The organism continuously reflects its environment, as the organization of its system implicitly contains a representation of the environment. The organism refers to the environment. Intentionality defines an organism as a function of its beliefs and desires, which are products of natural selection.  Intentional states are not internal states of the system, but descriptions of the relationship between the system and its environment.

The British psychologist Henry Plotkin defines knowledge itself as incorporating the environment. His focus is on the harmony established over the centuries between the organization and structure of a living being and the world it inhabits. Adaptation is the act of incorporating the outside world into the organism's structure and organization. More properly, this is "biological" knowledge. But human knowledge is simply a subset of biological knowledge.

This school of thought has been influential in reversing the traditional role between the living organism and the environment: the organism is no longer a protagonist, its free will unleashed and its creativity unlimited. The organism is a far more passive actor in the overall drama of Nature, one that has to rely upon (and whose behavior is conditioned by) the information that the environment supplies.

Ecological realism has also been influential in reshaping the profile of a cognitive system: since a cognitive system is simply an apparatus to pick up information and translate it into appropriate action, it turns out that pretty much any living thing can be considered, to some extent, as a cognitive system.

Life and cognition have lost some of their exclusive appeal, as we realized how constrained and passive they are.


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