The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

Hierarchies from Complexity

The US zoologist Stanley Salthe developed a multi-dimensional theory: an ontology of the world, a hierarchical representation of the world and a model of the evolution of the world. 

Salthe inherits a definition of complexity from the US biologist Howard Pattee: complexity is the result of interactions between physical and symbolic systems. A physical system is dependent on the rates at which processes occur, whereas a symbolic system is not. Symbolic systems frequently serve as constraints applied to the operation of physical systems, and frequently appear as products of the activity of physical systems (e.g., the genome in a cell).  A physical system can be said to be “complex” when a part of it functions as a symbolic system (as a representation, and therefore as an observer) for another part of it. 

John Von Neumann was possibly the first scientist to realize that it takes a certain degree of complexity for physical molecules to enter the cycle of Darwinian open-ended evolution. This degree of complexity is determined by description-based reproduction. Once there is description-based reproduction, then there is Darwinian evolution. Von Neumann thus made a distinction between "quiescent" symbolic description and "active" physical dynamics, between descriptions and constructions, between, ultimately, semiotic processes (information and codes) and physical systems (energy-matter and forces). Pattee believed that this distinction occurs at all levels of organization in the universe, not only at the level of genes and proteins. At the highest level this distinction translates into the distinction between the physical systems that populate the universe and the semiotic process of measurement (that codes a dynamical state into quiescent symbols). The genotype-phenotype distinction an instance of the origin of symbol systems from physical systems. What causes normal physical molecules to start functioning as descriptions? Pattee called this phenomenon, that separates description from construction and that occurs at all levels of organization, the "epistemic cut". Its origin lies not in the chemical properties of cells but in the complex relationships established within a complex hierarchical system.

Salthe was also influenced by the metaphysics of the US philosopher Justus Buchler. His “natural complex” is pretty much anything that one can think of, whether organism, concept or conscious event. On the other hand, an “order” is a multiplicity that becomes a unity by virtue of its internal organization (by virtue of the pattern of relatedness among its components). Buchler’s “principle of ordinality” states that every natural complex is an order. Basically, the principle of ordinality asserts that every complex must be constituted by other complexes, and that every complex must be one of the constituents of some other complex. Every complex is relative to some other complex, is conditioned by and conditions other complexes.

The Argentine philosopher Mario Bunge saw the universe not as a heap of things but as a system composed of interconnected systems of various kinds (physical, biological, economic, political, cultural). Bunge's systemism offered an alternative to both individualism and holism, allowing for both individual identity and collective organization. Bunge argued that a system is defined by “composition” (what it is made of), “environment” (what surrounds it), “structure” (what holds it together) and “mechanism” (how it operates).

In Salthe’s theory, the world is viewed as a determinate machine of unlimited complexity. Within complexity, discontinuities arise. The basic structure of this world must allow for complexity that is spontaneously stable and that can be broken down to things divided by boundaries. The most natural way for the world to satisfy this requirement is to employ a hierarchical structure, which is also implied by Buchler's principle of ordinality: Nature is a hierarchy of entities existing at different levels of organization.  Hierarchical structure turns out to be a consequence of complexity. 

Entities of the hierarchy are defined by four attributes: boundaries, scale, integration, continuity. An entity has size, is limited by boundaries, and consists of an integrated system, which varies continuously in time.

Entities at different levels interact through mutual constraints, each constraint carrying information for the level it operates upon.  A process can be described by a triad of contiguous levels: the one it occurs at, its context (what Bunge called “environment”) and its causes (Bunge's “structure”). In general, a lower level provides initiating conditions for a process and an upper level provides boundary conditions.  Representing a dynamic system hierarchically requires a triadic structure. 

Aggregation occurs upon differentiation.  Differentiation interpolates levels between the original two and the new entities aggregate in such a way that affects the structure of the upper levels: every time a new level emerges, the entire hierarchy must reorganize itself. 

These abstract principles also apply to biological evolution.  Over time, Nature generates entities of gradually more limited scope and more precise form and behavior. This process populates the hierarchy of intermediate levels of organization as the hierarchy spontaneously reorganizes itself.  The same model applies to all open systems, whether organisms or ecosystems or planets. 

Basically, Salthe aims at reformulating Biology on development rather than on evolution. His approach is non-Darwinian to the extent that development, and not evolution, is assumed to be the fundamental process in self-organization. Evolution, in his opinion, is merely the result of a margin of error.

Salthe’s grand theory of nature turns out to be essentially a theory of change, which turns out to be essentially a theory of emergence. 


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