Consciousness is a Form of Life, #2–Dynamic Systems Theory and The Dynamic World Picture.
By Robert Hanna
TABLE OF CONTENTS
III. Dynamic Systems Theory and The Dynamic World Picture
IV. Conscious-Mind-is-a-Form-of-Life 2: Solving The Free Will Problem
V. Dynamic Emergence, Life, and Consciousness
This installment contains section III.
But you can also download or read a .pdf of the complete version of this essay HERE.
III. Dynamic Systems Theory and The Dynamic World Picture
The essential embodiment theory of the mind-body relation, or EET, in turn, against the backdrop of the CMFL thesis, presupposes a comprehensive metaphysics of nature whose general outlines I’ll sketch in this section, and then elaborate in the next two sections when I add a theory of free agency to EET + CMFL (section IV), and then a theory of dynamic emergence (section V). According to this comprehensive metaphysics of nature, which I call The Dynamic World Picture, the world is the totality of dynamic systems, not static things.
But what, more precisely, are dynamic systems? Here’s a very brief primer of contemporary dynamic systems theory or DST.[i] DST is the mathematical theory of sets of physical elements — where each such set is perceived by us as a single entity — whose states change over time in ways that depend on their current states according to rules. The Dynamic World Picture entails that dynamic systems are not merely perceived unities, but also real unities in nature. So as I interpret DST, dynamic systems are real, unified physical processes whose collective behaviors, effects, and outputs occur in some ordered pattern that can be mathematically described in relation to their present conditions. This is not to say, however, that every dynamic system operates like two billiard balls colliding on a flat surface, like mechanical clockwork, or like a digital computer. Many dynamic systems — including the roiling movements of boiling water, traffic patterns, the weather, ecosystems, planets, solar systems, stars, star systems, and the movements of living organisms — are complex. Complexity includes two essential features: (i) being non-equilibrium or far-from-equilibrium, and (ii) being non-linear. Being non-equilibrium or far-from-equilibrium means that a dynamic system is such that its energy sources, energy expenditures, information levels, and material constituents are not constant in value — this phenomenon is also known as ‘‘fluctuation’’ — due to direct exchanges of energy, information, and matter with the environment. For example, frozen water at temperatures approaching absolute zero is in thermodynamic equilibrium, and boiling water is far-from-equilibrium. On the other hand, being nonlinear means that a dynamic system is such that its outputs, effects, or collective behaviors (a) are not a mere recursive or digitally computable function of their inputs, (b) are not a posteriori predictable from our knowledge of the system’s initial conditions, which include its individual elements and facts about their past dynamic history, the currently existing relations between those elements, the currently existing relations between those elements and other things, and the current laws of nature, and © are not a priori derivable from all the facts about the system’s initial conditions. Non-linear dynamic systems are describable by non-linear functions, while linear dynamic systems are describable by linear functions. For example, the movements of colliding billard balls on a flat surface are describable by linear functions, while the movements of billiard balls on a curved surface are describable by non-linear functions.
The most interesting dynamic systems have what is called dissipative structure and are self-organizing. The notion of being ‘‘dissipative’’ here means that the energy-loss or entropy of a system is absorbed and dispersed (hence ‘‘dissipated’’) by the systematic re-introduction of energy and matter into the system. Thus a dissipative structure is one that maintains a non-static causal balance between the inner states of the system and its surrounding natural environment:
With the help of this energy and matter exchange with the environment, the system maintains its inner non-equilibrium, and the non-equilibrium in turn maintains the exchange process. . . . A dissipative structure continuously renews itself and maintains a particular dynamic regime, a globally stable space-time structure.[ii]
Self-organization is how a non-equilibrium, non-linear dynamic system with dissipative structure internally generates forms or patterns of order that determine its own causal powers, and in turn place constraints (‘‘demands’’ or ‘‘needs’’) on the later collective behaviors, effects, and outputs of the whole system, in order to maintain itself. Or in other words, self-organization is natural purposiveness or natural teleology. The prime example of self-organizing systems is of course living organisms, although nonliving complex systems like the roiling movements of boiling water, traffic patterns, the weather, ecosystems, the Earth, solar systems, stars, and star systems are all also self-organizing in the comprehensive sense of DST.
The fact that DST is a mathematical theory is important. Its descriptive formalism specifically includes the following seven elements: (1) a state space, which is the set of points whose coordinates completely specify the range of possible collective behaviors of the system, (2) a phase space, which is the state space insofar as its points can be considered as functions of time, (3) a trajectory, which is a particular path taken by the system through the state space over time, i.e., a particular temporal sequence of collective behaviors of the system, (4) a control parameter, which is a constant that can be manipulated externally to the system and given different values to produce systems with varying behaviors, (5) an order parameter, which is a collective variable that determines the behavior of the individual elements of the system, (6) attractors, which are subsets or regions of the state space, specifying a certain repertoire of collective behaviors, towards which the whole system moves and in which the system temporarily or permanently lives, as time passes, (7) the capacity for chaos, which is a form of non-linear, non-stochastic instability in which small changes in initial conditions can lead to large changes in the behavior of the system in computationally intractable and unpredictable ways, and finally (8) elasticity, whereby the capacity for chaos is tightly disciplined by constraining reciprocations that are the essence of homeostatic equipoise. Unlike other mathematical formalisms, DST essentially includes the actual or brute fact of the passage of time in its equations, functions, and graphs. So the value of DST as a mathematical tool is that its formalism captures patterned material change, process, and evolution over elapsed time in a finegrained, systematic, and intuitive way that cannot be captured by other formalisms. Considered purely as a mathematical theory, DST is metaphysically neutral. But even if the mathematics of DST is metaphysically neutral, DST itself is not exhausted by its mathematical tools and is not a metaphysically neutral theory. This is because it commits itself crucially to the notion of dynamic emergence, which is the process whereby a categorically simpler (less complex, more superficial) old thermodynamic structure or system S1 evolves — opens up and unfolds — into a categorically richer (more complex, deeper-rooted) new thermodynamic structure or system S2, such that S2 makes explicit what was previously only implicit in S1.[iii] For more on that, see section V below.
Another crucial metaphysical commitment of DST is its orientation towards the life sciences, especially organismic biology. The concept of the living organism is absolutely central to DST in particular and to The Dynamic World Picture more generally. In this picture, as per the CMFL thesis, the facts about conscious, intentional mindsare metaphysically continuous with the facts about organismic life. As Peter Godfrey-Smith puts it, according to the strong continuity view,
[l]ife and mind have a common abstract pattern or set of basic organizational properties. The . . . properties characteristic of mind are an enriched version of the . . . properties that are fundamental to life in general. Mind is literally life-like.[iv]
In other words, biological life has everything that is metaphysically and naturally required for conscious, intentional minds, but is not always organized in a suitably complex way. Conscious, intentional mindsare immanent structural properties of living organisms that dynamically emerge when and only when those biological systems reach a certain suitable level of complexity. Neverthless, there is also solid empirical evidence for a “primordial consciousness” or “proto-consciousness” in all forms of organismic life, including the unicellular state.[v] Thus the strong continuity of mind and life does not mean that every organism has a conscious, intentional mind like ours, but it does mean that (i) every organism has at least a primordial consciousness or proto-consciousness and (ii) that every creature with a conscious, intentional mindis necessarily also a living organism.
Moreover, it’s not true on the strong continuity view that biological life
is somehow a form of ‘‘unconscious mind.” All mind is conscious to some salient degree, whether it is either only primordially conscious/proto-conscious or else explicitly and fully conscious and intentional. And the metaphysical connection, instead, goes precisely the other way. Conscious, intentional mindis a specific structural kind of organismic life. So too organismic life is a specific structural kind of molecular, atomic, and quantum fact. In the world described by DST, conscious, intentional mindis strongly continuous with organismic life, and in turn, organismic life is strongly continuous with molecular, atomic, and quantum thermodynamics.[vi] All the basic facts in the natural world are strongly continuous with each other.
Imagistically speaking, the natural world is an ontological spiral, not an ontological bifurcated plane, and also not an ontological hierarchy of levels. In the world described by DST, conscious, intentional mind dynamically emerges from organismic life; in turn, organismic life dynamically emerges from molecular, atomic, and quantum thermodynamics; and all three domains of facts dynamically continuously intertwine with each other. For more on dynamic emergence, see section V below.
Now according to classical Cartesian interactionist substance dualism, the world consists of two essentially distinct kinds of substance (mind and matter) and correspondingly of two essentially different kinds of property (mental and physical), each of which constitutes a domain of logically and metaphysically distinct substantial particulars (minds and bodies) under that kind and instantiating those properties. Then those two kinds of substances, properties, and substantial particulars are by some entirely unexplained means — perhaps as a result of God’s incomprehensible and all-powerful will — supposed to interact causally, despite their splendid mutual logical and metaphysical isolation.
This is of course the classical early-modern metaphysical picture of The Bifurcated World:
Historically speaking, The Bifurcated World Picture did not survive the rise of modern natural science. As Jaegwon Kim correctly observes,
since the seventeenth century the Cartesian model of a bifurcated world has been replaced by that of a layered world, a hierarchically stratified structure of ‘‘levels’’ or ‘‘orders’’ of entities and their characteristic properties. It is generally thought that there is a bottom level, one consisting of whatever microphysics is going to tell us are the most basic physical entities out of which all matter is composed (electrons, neutrons, quarks, or whatever). And these objects, whatever they are, are characterized by certain fundamental physical properties and relations (mass, spin, charm, or whatever). As we ascend to higher levels, we find structures that are made up of entities belonging to the lower levels, and, moreover, the entities at any given level are thought to be characterized by a set of properties distinctive of that level.[vii]
The Layered World Picture began to emerge in Boyle’s seventeenth century ‘‘corpuscularian’’ theory of matter, and took its final shape in the early twentieth-century Rutherford-Bohr atomic theory of matter. More generally, The Layered World Picture is intimately bound up with the parallel developments of particle physics and microscopy.[viii] The Layered World is a world of increasingly small microphysical compositions, apparently all the way down, such that each lower level or stratum of reality is populated by a different sort of smaller material particle, out of which all the entities at higher levels are constructed:
Just as The Bifurcated World Picture belongs to Cartesian substance dualism, so too the Layered World Picture belongs to materialism or physicalism. This is because in The Layered World the relation between the layers is one of asymmetric, non-reciprocal or one-way ‘‘upwards’’ necessary dependence based on the part-whole relation: the higher levels are all ultimately either identical with or (logically or nomologically) strongly mereologically supervenient on the lower levels, in the sense that higher levels are entirely built out of smaller and smaller items occurring at the lower levels.
Now the fatal metaphysical flaw in The Bifurcated World Picture was the incomprehensibility of the causal relationship between the two essentially distinct domains of mental and physical facts. But there are two fatal metaphysical flaws in The Layered World Picture. The first flaw is the great difficulty of reconciling inert particles with active forces, which leads to the several equally difficult sub-problems of understanding action-at-a-distance, the aether, relativity, gravity, electromagnetic fields, waves, ‘‘wavicles,’’ quantum phenomena, and so on. Neither relativity theory nor quantum mechanics conforms especially well to The Layered World Picture. The second flaw in The Layered World Picture is the great difficulty of understanding the nature of the conceptual, ontological, and causal gaps or transitions between levels, which is the same as the problem of reconciling the continuity of downward decomposition with the discontinuity of upward evolution, especially at the levels of biological and mental facts. The possibility of a downward decomposition of all entities and facts at any given level into mereological sums occurring at lower levels in the hierarchy strongly suggests that all the higher levels should explanatorily, ontologically, or at least causally collapse down onto the bottom level. But upward evolution of the levels over physical time strongly suggests, contrariwise, that each new higher level has its own conceptual, ontic, or causal integrity and thereby resists any such downward collapse. This downward vs. upward tension in The Layered World Picture provided by materialism or physicalism, in the end, is every bit as theoretically vitiating as the bilateral dichotomy in The Bifurcated World Picture provided by Cartesian interactionist substance dualism.
By sharp contrast, according to The Dynamic World Picture that lies behind EET, there are no such things as explanatorily or ontologically distinct physical and mental worlds, nor are there any such things as distinct explanatory or ontological levels of microphysical composition. The essential features of The Dynamic World are action and mutual interaction, energy, force, and process. Molecules, atoms, and quantum phenomena are just different ways in which different kinds of inherently active and interactive, energetic, and force-driven phenomena operate according to different sets of laws of varying scope. So there is one and only one natural world, which is essentially a law-governed spatiotemporal totality of processes in various kinds of patterned change, motion, and evolution (with limiting cases of dispersal, entropy, permanent equilibrium, heat-death, and stasis), some of which are the intentional body movements of motile, situated, forward flowing suitably neurobiologically complex living organisms with essentially embodied conscious, intentional minds.
Therefore, in sharp opposition to the static binary oppositional world picture provided by Cartesian interactionist substance dualism, and also in equally sharp opposition to the static hierarchical upwards-dependency picture provided by materialism or physicalism, The Dynamic World Picture seems best captured by the simple image of a hyperbolic spiral superimposed on a rectilinear grid:
We can think of this rectilinear grid, like Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘‘logical space’’ in his 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,[ix] as the totality of all possible natural facts. Then think of the hyperbolic spiral as the trajectory or unfolding of all the actual natural events in actual space and time. Some of these natural events are chemical facts but not biological facts, although all of the biological facts are also either chemical facts or molecular, atomic, and quantum facts. Some of these natural events are chemical and biological facts but not mental facts, although all of the mental facts are also biological facts and chemical facts. So some of these natural events are mental, biological, and chemical facts, and all of these natural events are also molecular, atomic, and quantum facts. The natural mental events and facts occur on the outermost edge of the infinitely unfolding spiral, and thereby necessarily link together all of the other kinds of events and facts.
In this way, the mental facts, biological facts, chemical facts, molecular facts, atomic facts, and quantum facts are all unevenly but still systematically distributed throughout the natural world-spiral. In The Dynamic World Picture, individual physical substances really exist, but they are themselves really nothing but differently inherently or intrinsically structured sets of inherently active and interactive, energetic, and force-driven physical events operating under causal laws — dynamic systems. Everything in nature is either a dynamic system itself or else a necessary proper part of some dynamic system. For example, the weather on a certain day is a dynamic system, and a certain cloud formation is a necessary proper part of it. Likewise, that cloud formation is itself a dynamic system, and a certain water droplet is a necessary proper part of it. It is also possible for the same thing to be a necessary proper part of many different dynamic systems: the water droplet is a necessary proper part of both the cloud formation and the weather system alike. Necessary proper parthood in a dynamic system means playing a certain efficacious causal role within that system, and contributing in some definite way to the system’s efficacious causal powers. So the natural world is nothing but causally-empowered dynamic systems and their necessary proper parts, all the way around and all the way through. This is not, however, to say that each dynamic system is the same system. On the contrary, each dynamic system has its own immanent structural causal-nomological profile such that it is irreducibly the individual system that it is, and not some other one. And there are irreducibly different natural kinds of dynamic systems, not to mention irreducibly different classes of dynamic systems under various shared properties. In this way the ontology of dynamic systems is monistic, but non-reductive. The natural world is composed of a single kind of thing, dynamic systems, out of whose dynamics emerge an infinite variety of different properties. All of the dynamic systems exemplify fundamental molecular, atomic, and quantum physical properties that are instantianted spatiotemporally.
And so, according to The Dynamic World Picture, there are no fundamentally mental, or essentially non-physical entities in the natural world. So too, according to The Dynamic World Picture, there are no fundamentally physical, or essentially non-mental entities in the natural world. No dynamic system is fundamentally physical in that it cannot instantiate an inherent or intrinsic mental property. But at the same time, however, many dynamic systems are predominantly physical in that they do not instantiate intrinsic mental properties (for example, rivers, mountains, and weather systems). Similarly, many dynamic systems are predominantly mechanical since they do not instantiate intrinsic biological properties (for example, automobiles, coke machines, and laptop computers). But not all dynamic systems are predominantly physical, just as not all dynamic systems are predominantly mechanical and unliving. Some dynamic systems not only can but in fact also actually do instantiate intrinsic biological properties but not intrinsic mental properties (for example, plants), and some dynamic systems not only can but in fact also actually do instantiate intrinsic mental properties as well as intrinsic biological properties (for example, animals of a suitable degree of neurobiological complexity). And there may be real borderline cases between non-living dynamic systems on the one hand and living dynamic systems on the other (for example, viruses), and also between merely primordially conscious/ proto-conscious dynamic systems on the one hand and explicitly and fully conscious dynamic systems on the other (for example, insects). The crucial metaphysical point is that an infinite multiplicity of real non-living or mechanical, living or biological, and conscious, intentional dynamic systems compatibly co-exist in the dynamic natural world.
Otherwise put, and now coming back again to the three contrasting philosophical pictures, the hyperbolic spiral image of The Dynamic World picture obviously contrasts very sharply with both the binary plane image of The Bifurcated World picture and also the stratified plane image of The Layered World picture. In The Dynamic World Picture there is at once an indissoluble holistic blending and an inevitable pluralistic scattering of quantum facts, atomic facts, molecular facts, chemical facts, facts about living organisms, facts about essentially embodied conscious, intentional minds, and facts about rational minded animals or persons, over the infinitely many dynamic systems. To put a twist on Josiah Royce’s pithy definition of idealism — “the world and the heavens, and the stars are all real, but not so damned real”[x] — according to The Dynamic World Picture, the natural world of dynamic systems is everywhere and everywhen physical, but not always so damned physical. Thus The Dynamic World Picture presents a dynamic neutral monism. The single kind of thing that composes the natural world is neither fundamentally mental nor fundamentally physical, but instead is inherently active and interactive, energetic, and force-driven — like the spinning Saul Bass spiral graphic in the opening title sequence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
[i] See, e.g., Varela, Maturana, and Uribe, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model”; Nicolis and Prigogine, Self-Organization in Nonequilibrium Systems; Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy; Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution; Kauffman, The Origins of Order; Kauffman, At Home in the Universe; Haken, Principles of Brain Functioning: A Synergetic Approach to Brain Activity, Behavior, and Cognition; and Weber and Varela, “Life After Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuality.”
[ii] Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution, as quoted in Weber, “Life.”
[iii] See also, e.g., Hanna and Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action, section 8.2; and Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2), section 2.6.
[iv] Godfrey-Smith, Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature, p. 320; see also Thompson, Mind in Life.
[v] Miller Jr., Torday, and Baluška, “Biological Evolution as the Defense of ‘Self’.”
[vi] Schrödinger, What is Life?
[vii] Kim, ‘‘The Non-Reductivist’s Troubles with Mental Causation,’’ p. 337.
[viii] See, e.g., Wilson, The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope; and Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics.
[ix] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, props. 1.13, 2.013–2.0131, 2.11, 2.202, and 3.4.
[x] Royce, The Letters of Josiah Royce, p. 217.
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