By Luis Favela
In my previous post, I discussed some of my research concerning extended cognitive systems. The existence or not of extended cognitive systems, so I argued, can be arbitrated within a complexity science framework. In short (very short!), if a system exhibits pink noise—which is fractal structure in a data series, where the patterns of variability at smaller spatial scales or shorter timescales are statistically similar in structure to variability at larger spatial scales or longer timescales—than such a signal is indicative of interaction-dominant dynamics, which is indicative of non-decomposable systems (see, it was very short!). “Systems” that are non-decomposable and exhibit interaction-dominant dynamics include the human heart, motor coordination involved in gait patterns, and neural dynamics underlying some cognitive acts. So, the line of argument goes, if while wielding a sensory-substitution device a human is able to perform as well on a task as she would with the normal sensory modality that is being substituted for (e.g., touch via a cane replacing vision), then the person-plus-tool system can be considered to be an extended cognitive system. That is a controversial claim. But an even more controversial claim results from a potential consequence of the reality of extended cognition, namely, extended life.
Although some argue that defining “life” is either impossible or pointless, others think it’s useful, if not merely for the practical reason of being able to identify extraterrestrial organisms as “alive” or not. Definitions need not be set in stone, especially in the sciences. The meaning of a word can be adjusted in the face of new evidence or conceptual schemas. But having an idea of what a word means is useful, especially when attempting to conduct investigations of the phenomenon that hooks up to the term. Such is ‘life.’ A treatment of “life” that I find appealing is autopoiesis, which basically means a self-producing and maintaining system. One way to think about autopoietic systems (and there are multiple ways) is in terms of three criteria: First, the system has a semipermeable boundary (I think that’s self-explanatory); second, a reaction network (i.e., when components of system are produced by network of reactions within the boundary of the system); and third, is interdependency, or the interdependent relation of the first two criteria (i.e., boundary components produced by internal network of reactions, and that network regenerated by conditions due to boundary itself). I like this way of conceptualizing “life” because it’s broad enough to include entities such as amoeba, bacterium, and mammals, but is constrained enough to exclude entities that do not seem—at least intuitively—to be living, e.g., viruses, crystals, and sections of DNA. As a way to think about “life,” autopoiesis doesn’t seem too bad, right? But what about the relation between life/autopoiesis and cognition, is that just as easy to accept? This is where I think some people find problems with just how far fans of autopoiesis are willing to apply the theory.
Supporters of the theory of autopoiesis—such as Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, and Evan Thompson—have argued that autopoiesis is intimately connected to cognition, or, in Varela’s terms, “sense-making.” According to Varela and Thompson, life equals autopoiesis and cognition. This is because autopoiesis entails the emergence of a bodily self, which entails the emergence of a world, such that the emergence of a self and world results in the phenomenon of “sense-making;” where sense-making is an enactive process (see Thompson’s discussion of Varela on life as sense-making in his 2007 book Mind in Life, particularly p. 158). In this framework, “cognition” is the activity of sense-making. With that quick and dirty summary, I will now discuss what I take to be a potential consequence of understanding “life” in terms of autopoiesis and sense-making.
So, if life equals the combination of autopoiesis and cognition, and if cognition extends beyond the boundaries of an organism, then does life extended beyond the boundaries of an organism as well? I think it does under the autopoietic framework. Remember, an organism is an autopoietic system when it has an internal and external world. Having an external world gives rise to cognition qua sense-making. In my previous post, I discussed the results of some experiments that at least open up the possibility of extended cognitive systems. Thus, if all living systems are cognitive systems, and if cognition extends, then the living system extends as well.
Cast in this way—i.e., life as inextricably linked with cognition, and both extend beyond the organism’s physical periphery—there is a potentially unified account of a range of interesting life-involving cognitive phenomena, including, but not limited to: “Widowhood effect” (Christakis & Allison, 2006; Elwert & Christakis, 2008; Parkes et al., 1969; Wilcox et al., 2003), extended memory in couples (Harris et al., 2014), and detrimental cognitive effects of solitary confinement (Gallagher, 2014; Guenther, 2013). In conclusion, if life extends beyond the skin, scale, fur, and feather boundaries of organisms, then it appears that life and death are systems phenomena.