Life as cognition
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela of the Santiago School of Cybernetics are known for one of the most elegant descriptions of consciousness I have ever come across: “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system.”3 This statement is called the Santiago Theory of Cognition, and it is considered a “direct theoretical consequence of the theory of autopoesis,”4 developed by the same team. This definition of cognition suggests that a perpetual communion between an organism and its environment crafts the organism’s living body. A brain is just a secondary expression, like a concentrated node, of the process of living. Cognition emerges from living–an orchid is stunningly beautiful because that is a survival technique, just as a cheetah is stunningly fast because that is a survival advantage for its niche. All of these characteristics can be considered as cognition from the perspective of the special environment in which they evolved.
There is no separation between an organism, situated in an environment, and its mind. Moreover, self-awareness or meta-cognition emerges from a critical mass of complexity between connections. With these two definitions, is it possible to observe the process of cognition and intelligence on the scale of human group arrangements and societies? Social physics has already determined that an individual acts very differently when considered as an individual versus when considered within a group’s mentality or decisions.5 Is there “cognition” in our social movements?
3Maturana, Humberto R./Varela, Francisco J. (1980): Autopoiesis and Cognition. The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht: Reidel, p. 13.
5for a great book on the real but nebulous line between individual and group “mind”, see: Ball, Philip. Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.