Knowledge as Extended Consciousness

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The Following is a Brief Piece Written at the Outset of the Conference on Evolution and Consciousness held at the Esalen Institute October 6-10, 2003

As a member of the Evolution and Consciousness conference and with the goal of offering another axon's contribution to the diversity of viewpoints before selection, I want to offer the following short theoretical approach.

The viewpoint of knowledge as extended consciousness makes parallel arguments on each of the key levels of Jay Ogilvy's chart: evolution, emergence, consciousness & enlightenment.

Beginning at the level of consciousness, the approach notes that consciousness is often unduly framed as roughly coterminous with the brain. However, there is increasingly good evidence that the mind should be considered as extended beyond the cranium and into the environment. Computation and memory have been shown to perform more economically when external features are included in the cognitive processes.

Equally, whereas the illogical viewpoint of assuming a sort of internal homonculus as the operator of consciousness has been heartily decried, the similarly illogical view of knowledge as photo slides from the ether which the homonculus might throw up on his illusory screen has not been so exposed. This problem has been attempted to be finessed by invoking the fixed, external reality as the given screen for consciousness. But this appeal to the Big Screen seriously compromises all that we do know about cognitive development and ruthlessly irons out the inherent, creative, multiply organizable aspects of external reality. In short there is no excuse not to broach some physical description of knowledge.

With a view to the work of Gregory Bateson, a suggested view of knowledge would entail those reinforcing loops of relevance that an organism forms with features in its environment. For a bird one could say that it "knows" a branch by adapting a particular perching behavior given clusters of thin cylinders amidst green and given the possibility of shifting from wings to feet. Action, knowledge and object are all of a piece, all of a self-reinforcing loop.

The effect of this view of knowledge is to extend consciousness out to limits determined by complete interactional circuits. It should be noted that this extension of consciousness out to the domain of a conjectured extended mind and this appropriation of knowledge to the direct circuits of relevance from an individual effectively divides the field of knowledge into our direct and specific relevance relationships and into a culturally and collectively maintained field of knowledge agreement.

Shifting now to the level of evolution, I would like to introduce a parallel argument. It would seem that the usual understanding of organism is unnecessarily restricted to a relatively easily identifiable boundary of, say, the cell wall or the skin. While the primacy of circular closure among the various pathways has reinforced the sense of the organism as unit, it is worth considering if the ground of the organism or its environment does not play a more integral role. One could, for example, take the opposite tack and look at life as a collection of niches filled more or less adequately by certain biological players or processes. From this standpoint there is no a priori reason to limit the organism anywhere between its DNA and the whole universe.

With the boundary of the organism under scrutiny a more promising approach would be to include a focus on the radial processes of the organism in addition to the circular processes. By radial processes would be understood any reaction in the organism where one or more of its substrates or catalysts comes from or goes to non-organism controlled reservoirs usually physically removed from the organism. What this does is indicate various boundary surfaces of an organism based on reliabilities of interaction. What evolves then are not agents with ways of making a living but whole economies. Dawkins’ concept of extended phenotype is relevant here.

The overall reframing of the concept of organism presented here is that of circular and radial processual pathways. Instead of energy inputs and entropy exports taken as relatively unimportant boundary conditions compared to the critical feature of autocatalytic closure and instead of the borrowed hubris of organism-agent performing activities, there is a whole catalytic economy embedded in a niche/portion of the environment. While this is only a slight shift in focus, the effect could be dramatic in that the intent is to imagine a biology not born under dualism.

Jay Ogilvy spoke of the conference tradition of working toward or around a vision of enlightenment. Already this conference has seen an interest in social criticism and in the shadow of the telos which hovers around us, possibly like a language game that we cannot escape. The knowledge as extended consciousness hypothesis would offer an alternative model of human engagement in the world. It is neither enlightenment nor instrumental reason. It is that of an embodied knower. Here at Esalen a way to describe the paradigm is that of learning to live in the body. It is a practice of learning to live as bodies–physical bodies, emotional bodies. This is very different than the practice of talking heads and knowing agents. Currently this tradition is stifled by a protective aversion for the mental and intellectual. And this is reflected in the odd division here at Esalen between intellectual life and the bodywork practitioners. The concept of extended mind, however, can redeem the specific body of knowledge for the individual from the universalistic knowledge concepts in which we traffic abstractly.

In fact, when knowledge is considered as the circular loops or behavioral adaptations that a knower/organism makes with features of its environment, then each of us knows by a calculus of specific relations. These specific relations that we have with features of our environment are highly idiosyncratic to the individual and determine our “knowledge body” where knowing is connected to a ground of care and emotions. Living from and interacting with others from our specific investments in specific knowing relationships prevents us from becoming the talking heads bouncing stressfully off the mental echo chambers of unbodily anchored knowledge. This view is similar to the native American epistemological tradition where knowledge is tagged to its degree of personal experience.

Under the rubric of emergence, the last of Jay’s four building blocks, it is worthwhile to consider the emergence of culture and language as a closure of the set of radial relationships attained by the radially active primate, humans. Whereas life and organisms have tended to be studied through the key frame of autocatalytic closure, it is worth noting that moving along the phylogenetic tree one can easily see a trend towards greater investment of the organism in radial processual machinery. A mammal like a cat devotes a large fraction of its body weight to movement, perception, ingestion and processing their coordination. But a prokaryote devotes most of its processual machinery to strictly metabolism. When primates attained a sufficient density of radial relationships often through at least two channels of relevance (hands and eyes), then the increasing interrelevance of the features to each other made the collection of external features glow with reciprocal relevance, i.e. meaning. Some features, e.g. sticks and stones, became in effect catalysts to other features of more direct relevance, e.g. tubers and small game. This process can be imagined to have been progressive as self-reinforcing loops increased relevance amongst features of reality. In terms of an alleged emergence of mind this view reveals the whole of the external radial relations of organisms which was always a given for organisms before rich interrelationships began the relatively quick process of pulling specific parts like words, tools and other real categories into the expanding whole of relevance.

In the interest in keeping this proposal short and in fostering the connectivity to other participants as Jay requested, I will summarize the argument made at the four different levels and give their potential tie to ideas of others.

Although knowledge as an indication of extended mind is not considered in the literature except in feminist epistemology such as in concepts of embodied knowledge or of community knowledge, the literature is beginning to have references to the notion of extended mind, or mind beyond the cranial boundary. One such reference is from Andy Clark and David Chalmers: "The view we advocate here is reflected by a growing body of research in cognitive science. In areas as diverse as the theory of situated cognition (Suchman 1987), studies of real-world-robotics (Beer 1989), dynamical approaches to child development (Thelen and Smith 1994), and research on the cognitive properties of collectives of agents (Hutchins 1995), cognition is often taken to be continuous with processes in the environment." "The Extended Mind." Analysis 58.1 January 1998. p. 10. Among participants it is likely that this concept could have a tie to the work of Evan Thompson. My focus on knowledge rather than mind is an attempt to draw attention to a ubiquitous phenomenon that has too long remained in uncritical use except under the dim light of post-Cartesian epistemological truth analyses.

Similarly, the injunction to consider organisms from the radially interactive pathways that are in some measure discontinuous as well as the more continuous closed loops of autocatalytic closure and physiology seeks to reframe the self-other frame into a degrees of self point of view. This view was born in considering Stuart Kauffman’s treatment of work cycles by autonomous agents in his book Investigations. Although the view here carries to an extreme the direction of his work in examining a simple radial relationship of action, connection or useful comments are most likely to come from his quarter.

The model of human improvement offered here as living in a body, from the body and between bodies differs from the Buddhist practices focusing more on mental awareness. The bodywork and gestalt psychology practices of Esalen are passionate if not eloquent testaments to the calming honesty that can come from living close to direct experience and to the joy that can come from living directly within the terms of satisfaction. Whether or not a mental “body” composed of the specific knowing relationships of individuals can constitute an everyday medium capable of helping individuals live from direct cares and under a kind of internal therapy check is an open question that could have connections to Richard, Michael, Frank or others.

The conjecture that reality itself as we have come to know it is a closure of a rich set of radial and external relationships formed in the course of the evolution of metacellulars repeats and completes the above arguments on the level of the emergence of mind. This story of whole and part in the evolution of mind, if not preposterous, might have connections to Jay’s reminder that language had to pre-exist words since otherwise a word by itself would have no meaning without some whole frame as background.

In fact I look to any of you for connections and am thrilled about the ones I am already getting.


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