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"


From a different perspective, similar conceptual changes were advanced in the 1960s by the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana when he argued that the relationship with the environment molds the configuration of a cognitive system (“Biology of Cognition”, 1970).  Maturana had worked with  the US neurophysiologist Jerome Lettvin on the vision system of frogs,  and they had reached the conclusion that the frog does not see “the world” but  only what is relevant to the frog's survival, for example patterns of small moving shadows; and,  by reacting to such patterns, the frog "catches" flies, its foodstuff ("What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain", 1959).

"Autopoiesis" is the process by which living systems form and maintain their boundaries in the face of an ever-changing environment. It is the process by which an organism can continuously reorganize its own structure to interact with the world while remaining itself. Adaptation consists in regenerating the organism's structure so that its relationship to the environment remains constant.  Autopoiesis is a pattern of organization common to all living systems.

Living systems are organized in closed loops. A living system is a network in which the function of each component is to create or transform other components while maintaining the circular organization of the whole. A cell exhibits autopoiesis, as does the Earth as a whole.

The product of a living system is a new organization of itself. It continually produces itself. The being and the doing are the same.

Autopoiesis is self-maintenance. Organisms use energy (mainly from light) and matter (water, carbon, nitrogen, etc) to continuously remake themselves.

Living systems are units of interaction. They only exist in an environment.  They cannot be understood independently of their environment. They exhibit “exergonic” metabolism, which provides energy for the “endergonic” synthesis of polymers, i.e. for growth and replication.

In fact, the organism reorganizes based on environmental stimuli. The stimulus, therefore, can be viewed as that part of the environment that is absorbed by the structure.

The circular organization of living organisms constitutes a homeostatic system whose function is to maintain this very same circular organization. It is such circular organization that makes a living system a unit of interaction. At the same time, it is this circular organization that helps maintain the organism's identity through its interactions with the environment. Due to this circular organization, a living system is a self-referential system.

At the same time, a living system operates as an inductive system and in a predictive manner: its organization reflects regularities in the environment. Living systems are organized according to the principle: "what happened once will happen again".

Cognition is biological in the sense that the cognitive domain of an organism is defined by its interactions with the environment.

Cognition is the way in which an autopoietic system interacts with the environment (i.e., reorganizes itself). It is the result of the structural coupling with the environment that causes the continuous reorganization.

All living systems are cognitive systems. Cognition is simply the process of maintaining oneself by acting in the environment.  Action and cognition cannot be separated: "all doing is knowing and all knowing is doing". Living is a process of cognition.

In summary, an autopoietic system is a network of transformation and destruction processes whose components interact to continuously regenerate the network.  An autopoietic system holds constant its organization (its identity).  Autopoiesis generates a structural coupling with the environment: the structure of the nervous system of an organism generates patterns of activity that are triggered by perturbations from the environment and that contribute to the continuing autopoiesis of the organism.  Autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize a living system.

A living organism is defined by the fact that its organization makes it continually self-producing (autopoietic), i.e. not only autonomous but also self-referential ("the being and doing of an autopoietic system are inseparable"). 

Autopoiesis progressively generates more and more complex organisms and then intelligent organisms.

Multi-cellular organisms are born when two or more autopoietic units engage in an interaction that takes place more often than any of the interactions of each unit with the rest of the environment (a "structural coupling"). Inert elements then become macromolecules, and macromolecules become organic cells, and so on towards cellular organisms and intelligent beings.

A nervous system enables the living organism to expand the set of possible internal states and to expand the possible ways of structural coupling.

But the nervous system is self-referential: perception is not representation of external world. Perception does not represent, it specifies the external world.

No living system exists independent of cognition. Each cognitive act is not about knowing the environment, but about reorganizing oneself in accordance with the environment. The autopoietic system knows only itself. There is no representation of the external world. There is just reorganization of the system based on the external world.

Intelligent behavior originates in extremely simple processes: the living cell is nothing special, but many living cells one next to the other become a complex system thanks to autopoiesis.

Even life's origin can be easily explained: at some point in its history the Earth presented conditions that made the formation of autopoietic systems almost inevitable. The whole process of life depends not on the components of a living organism, but on its organization. Autopoiesis is about organization, not about the nature of the components. 

Evolution is a natural drift, a consequence of the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation. There is no need for an external guiding force to direct evolution. All is needed is conservation of identity and capacity for reproduction.

For Maturana, information is a pointless concept. Communication is not transmission of information but rather coordination of behavior among living systems.

Maturana extends the term "linguistic" to any mutually generated domain of interactions (any "consensual domain").  When two or more living organisms interact recurrently, they generate a social coupling. Language emerges from such social coupling.  In this view, language is "connotative" and not "denotative". Its function is to orient the organism within its cognitive domain.

The point Maturana reiterates is that cognition is a purely biological phenomenon. Organisms do not use any representational structures: their intelligent behavior is due only to the continuous change in their nervous system as induced by perception.  Intelligence is action. Memory is not an abstract entity but simply the ability to recreate the behavior that best couples with a recurring situation within the environment.


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