The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Autopoiesis and consciousness

Posted in General by Tom Froese on March 13, 2007

I’ve recently had an e-mail exchange with Hugo Urrestarazu, an old student of Maturana’s, on the topic of the relation between autopoiesis and consciousness. I thought that his response to my questions might be of interest to everyone with respect to this week’s seminar discussion by Steve so I posted it here in slightly edited form:

Do you think that autopoiesis is a necessary condition for consciousness? It appears that if we accept Maturana’s claim that consciousness pertains to the relational domain and cannot be reduced to physiology, then the answer is no. All that is required is ‘languageing’, and at the moment I can’t think of an a priori reason to say that languaging requires autopoiesis. What do you think? Does this mean that, for example, a robot could be conscious without being alive?

The point you make about Maturana’s relational domain as not being reducible to physiology, is formally correct within the theory, but it addresses the following fundamental question: which are the minimum requirements that we should ascribe to some generic “relational agents” so that we could distinguish the emergence of a relational domain (in their mutual interactive behaviour) which was “similar” to the relational domain in which we experience consciousness? In other words, the whole problem lies in the definition of the kind of “relations” that the said “relational agents” should be able to establish in order to allow us to say that they constitute in interaction system with the same chacteristics of “our relational domain” in which we experience consciousness.

From then on, we would need to define the “relational capabilities” of those generic “relational agents”. We know well (more or less) what are the relational abilities that we are capable of, how these contribute to the existence of our human relational domain (language and all the rest of it) and how this ensemble participates in the acquisition of our individual consciousness. We also know (more or less) how these abilities are the outcome of a biological evolutionary process which is rooted in the physiology of uncountable generations of living beings. This means that, as far as the “human relational domain” is concerned, its existence cannot be causally disconnected from our existence as cognitive biological systems (or structure determined systems rooted in the workings of the phenomenology allowed by the macromolecular domain, in which autopoiesis is possible and operational closure takes place).

Now, the point is: can we define a “generic relational domain” without referring to the causal foundations that account for the emergence of the only relational domain we know about, where consciousness is an observable phenomenon? The only way that I can think of, is to abstract the purely relational aspects of the “relational agent’s” behaviour, without seeking any explanation concerning the way by which those agents bahave adequately so as to constitute a relational network in which conscious behaviour could be observable. If this feat was accomplished, then we could say that autopoiesis is not a necessary condition for the emergence of a relational domain (that was similar to ours) and in which conscious behaviour should be expected to occur. By “autopoiesis is not a necessary condition” I refer in fact to the nature of the “relational agents” as not being necessarily autopoietic systems as we are (a particular kind of robots, for example).

This leaves open the following question: how can we detect a conscious behaviour? Is there a way to observe a conscious being and deduce from its behaviour that it possesses what WE experience as consciousness? We are already in difficulty when trying to ascribe conscious behaviour to bonobos, for example. They are intelligent beings and can perform a variety of highly complex cognitive tasks, they developed language and were led to exceed their natural performances by being tought a language of human origin (sign language). In fact this should not be a matter of surprise, given the genetic proximity and it is pointless to explain further. The point is how do we know that they are conscious? Should we define several levels of consciousness? What would be the base level? Can we define a consciousness detection protocol so that when confronted to our feats in robotics we could
sensibly say that we detected a conscious bahaviour in them?

Another important point is the following: if we admit that consciousness does not rely on the nature of the particular structure that determines the behaviour of the “relational agents”, but depends essentially on the nature of the relational network itself, this would mean that “consciousness” is a collective phenomenon. Let us restrict the discussion to our human consciousness. We feel that what we experience as consciousness is an individual state that occurs to every one of us when we are conscious (not unconscious, nor asleep). When Maturana says that “consciousness pertains to the relational domain” he is pointing to the wider phenomenology of our being in a network of conversations whose structure determines the kind of consciousness that we can develop individually. The causation patterns that determine our counsciousness are of “external” origin for us, as members of a social network. But the outcomes of those causation patterns are instantiated somehow in our sensory-motor system, in our neural network, they lead to “internal” causation patterns that cannot be independent of our physiology. We are there at the intersection of two (at least) phenomenal domains.

Maturana does not deny this. He says just that the physiological domain does not account for the phenomenon of languaging, it does not explain the phenomenology occurring in the relational domain, even if the emergence of the relational domain relies on the biological substrate in order to exist. The relational domain is a meta-domain with its own structure and with its own structure determined causation patterns. And we, individual humans, we are the substrate where those causation patterns manifest themselves. And enaction tells us that we cannot distinguish between what is caused from within from what is caused from elsewhere. In my humble opinion, if we are concerned with human consciousness, we should not neglect what happens to us, in our own structure determined body, when we are serving this meta-domanial causality that pervades our bodily existence.

So, what is left for the quest of consciousness? I have some ideas boiling there, somewhere in the realm of the intersection of domains. But I have no time to go further this time. Anyway, I can tell you that Francisco pointed to some theoretical issues concerning the definition of autopoietic system’s components that are the starting point of my reflections. I think that there may be ways to formalize the notion of neural activity so that a better connection could be established among phenomena pertaining to intersecting phenomenological domains.

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