Living Dissipative Systems (Organisms)

[Part Three]

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Phylogenetic development of the Brain

The historical development of Man from remote precursors is accomplished by adjustment, change, addition, etc., of instructions of the DNA. Natural Selection takes place at the phenotypical level (this term in the sense used in Genetics), and so at the level of the ultimate effects of the instructions. Genetic crossing-over and gene-mutations guarantee a sufficient degree of diversity of the genotypes which are selected via the phenotypes. The selection-criterion has a tautological nature : That genomic type producing the largest number of progeny has the biggest chance of being preserved in the population.
A part of the instructions relates to the global construction of the brain, its general design. This global build-up can be called the ' morphological skeleton ' of the brain. This skeleton, is evolutionarily crafted. What in fact is evolutionarily crafted are the instructions for building up this skeleton in every individual.
This is the phyletic (phylogenetic) dimension of the development of the brain.
So brains have been developed as an evolutionary response (one could say an evolutionary strategy -- but without a strategist) to meet some challenges of some relevant aspects of the environment (biotic and abiotic) in which the organisms find themselves. This phyletic development is an ' avenue ' leading to the solution of long-term (survival) problems that showed up in certain lines of descent.
The development of the brain goes hand in hand with the development of sense-organs.

Ontogenetic development of the Brain

The evolutionarily evolved instructions, encoded in the DNA, direct the development of the body and its functions, again and again for each new individual. Likewise (the development of) its brain. On the basis of these instructions the brain is actually formed during the embryological development. But also after birth the brain keeps on developing for a certain time, because the brain skeleton, encoded in the DNA is only a global skeleton. The instructions for that skeleton cannot anticipate the precise ecological situation in which the organism will find itself. It turns out that the newly formed brain must be trained with respect to the processing of data supplied by the senses. So it must, after birth, develop itself still further, during the interaction of the individual with the environment. And this is, for an important part, controlled by the parents in those (higher) animal species showing nesting behavior and care of brood. Also every individual human develops in such a social context.
The described embryonic and post-natal individual development of the brain, is the ontogenetic dimension of the development of the brain.

In the phylogenetic dimension of development first of all the origin of the brain takes place followed by an evolutionary ' fine-tuning ' with respect to long-term demands, which could be relatively constant.
In the ontogenetic dimension of development the actual construction of the brain of the individual takes place plus a ' fine-tuning ' by way of training. This fine-tuning is partly flexible, for instance with respect to behavior (of the individual). Partly it is not flexible, for instance with respect to qualia that relate to things like color-vision. An appropriate environment with a broad spectrum of diverse stimuli is necessary for the post-natal training of the brain, in order for it to be able to function correctly and flexibly during the subsequent life of the individual.
In the phyletic as well as in the ontogenetic dimension of development the brain is tuned to an aspect of the environment that is specific for the particular species of organism.


It seems possible to describe the brain, and with it its functions, as some sort of ' formal system ' of rules. The material configuration directly embodies these rules. These rules are thus immanent with respect to that configuration of brain elements (i.e. immanent IN the configured set of brain elements). The phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of this system of formal rules, and so the development of the brain, cannot be isolated from the environment of the organisms, i.e. cannot develop properly without (communication with) the environment, as we already found out, but also not apart from the corporality of the whole organism itself. Only by an integral development with this corporality and environment, neural activation patterns with meaning can be generated. The formal system in itself does not have meaning. The neural patterns must have the potential for bearing meaning. Only then they can be mental signs for other items. This, by the way, also applies for the development of the DNA instructions.
Life is matter-with-meaning.
The significata [= those items which are intended by the mental signs] of the instructions and of the neural patterns ultimately lie in the corporality of the organism and in the relevant section of its environment.


The phylogenetic development of the brain, in the case of the higher mammals, and especially Man, has taken place in the direction of (the development of) intelligence.
Intelligence is the capacity to set up as.......if (as if the situation were so and so ...) situations in the brain, from where, by means of reasoning, predictions can be made in a conscious way. This causes the organism to be very flexible and effective in its actions. And this not just by highly developed locomotory and sensory capacities but by abstract reasoning and consideration. For this to be possible, in the case of intra-specific interactions, a fast and efficient and well-articulated information transfer between individuals is necessary. And this demands living in a social context. Only then the organism, when necessary, is able to uplift itself above the stereotypic behavior, it can ' experiment '. It then is also able to reach its goals indirectly, when this is the only way. These goals are implying cooperation with, and relate to protection against, other individuals, but they are also related to an adequate behavior with respect to the rest of the environment.
Intelligence interacts with culture. Culture is a form of living-together that probably originated with nesting behavior of some mammals. Communication and Learning (and Playing) already play an important role there. With the broadening of this social context (nests) to herds and the like, division of labour and other forms of collective behavior can originate.

The functioning of the Brain and the generation of Qualia

We will concentrate on that aspect of the brain that generates and sustains (Self-)Consciousness. This function we can call MIND. It consists in the generation of a flexible model of a Self-in-the-World. In this model certain features dominate (more than other features). It thus displays a species-specific bias (STEWART & COHEN, 1997, Figments of Reality , p. 167). In so doing the brain must not be conceived as rigid hardware ( Ibidem, p. 150/1), supplied by ' data ' that consequently would be processed. They are much more flexible than rigid hardware : A quantity of internal an external (qua origin) data enters, changes the ' program ' causing the wiring to be readjusted. The next batch data is then received, and processed by another ' hardware ' system. Not only the water of Heraclitus' river changes continually, but also we, who are stepping in it. In a global sense there are, it is true, certain areas of the brain that (always) exert or control certain functions, but they can (for each separate function) be many, and (those areas) can change with respect to function during the phyletic evolution ( This is also the case with the functionality of other bodily parts, like for instance the front legs of certain Reptiles, which, in the case of Pterosaurs -- these are certain extinct Reptiles -- and Birds, are transformed into functional wings, making those Reptiles (and Birds) airborne.).
In the ontogenetic development of the organism (and so also of the brain) the brain functions already during its own individual development. This indicates how crucial an organ the brain really is. The human brain consists of about 1012 (i.e. a one with 12 zeros) connections -- which continually change -- between about 1010 brain cells (neurons). The number of possible neural activation patterns is by consequence astronomical. The total of neural activity generates a high-level phenomenon, that we could call MIND. Mind does not need ingredients that not already exist in the physical Universe in which Mind was developed. Mind follows the same general rules of behavior as ordinary space-time matter, and itself participates in that same total of reality that we are trying to observe with our senses. Mind is a process, executed in and by ordinary material brains build up from ordinary brain matter.
It is now time for a reminder, and that implies a short intermezzo . When this is done we shall continue with our theme.

One should guard against the following interpretation of Science :

Science has great troubles with the study and explanation of brain functions, especially the function of Self-consciousness and the generation of phenomenal qualia (like for instance the experience RED), so it is very likely, if not sure, that (natural) Science CAN NEVER ............. .

This has been -- with respect to other phenomena -- often declared, and subsequently proven false (for example the artificial synthesis of organic compounds). It seems that " Science never can....." is something like a last stronghold for those who want to save human dignity. But what is wrong with physical and chemical processes?
Those who say " Science never can..... " pretend, it seems, to be able to predict the future of scientific research. That is, to say the least, naive and absurd, and is, as has been said, proven false too often. For instance nobody could in the nineteenth century have predicted Quantum Mechanics with its weird phenomena like the superposition of possible observational results, and the non-local behavior of quantum particles which originally belonged to one and the same quantum system. Something comparable applies to the Special and General Theory of Relativity, and also to the recently discovered Chaotic Dynamical Systems, which are unpredictable but nonetheless deterministic. And maybe above all, the existence, and cracking of the Genetic Code, which is, it seems, a common feature of all organisms.
But with these events I do not wish to fall into the same trap, by stating the following :

" Natural Science will be able to explain ANYTHING WHATSOEVER ".

Also this nobody can say beforehand. It even is certain that Science cannot explain anything whatsoever, and cannot make anything whatsoever. As foreshadowed in Mathematics, problems can crop up that cannot, even in principle, be solved by whatever Science, for example the so-called Stop-problem of Turing, relating to the behavior of computer programs, which in fact means (i.e. relates to) the behavior of certain man-made machines (computers). The unsolvability of this problem is proved. Whether these are always problems worth tackling, and relevant with respect to the principal questions Man asks himself, questions relating to himself and the rest of Reality, cannot be decided beforehand. We must await further developments.
But it cannot be denied that Science can do a lot, not least by the appearance of fast computers that can be used for executing long and complicated calculations, necessary for the elaboration of theoretical models relating to aspects of Reality, calculations that would take millions of years without the help of these computers, and moreover (when done without these machines) without any guarantee for error-free results. Further, and related to that, computers are indispensible for doing simulations, especially graphic simulations (for example artificial environments, graphically displayed), to enhance our insight into the nature of Reality.
Let us continue with MIND.

With respect to Mind we must discriminate between : Phenomena like Self-consciousness, but also phenomenal conscious experiences, that we can interpret as qualia, like RED, internally generated, because of external stimuli, are qualitatively so utterly different from the corresponding neural patterns, deducible by, for example, the detection of electrical signals emitted from the brain, that many thinkers were persuaded to believe that there must be some corresponding fundamental ontological difference between the Objective Domain (for instance brain processes) AND the Subjective Domain, i.e. the final experience of (having in oneself) qualia. According to me nothing is gained with such a belief, the problem is simply evaded. For what are these ontologically different (different in such a way that they should be immaterial) entities abiding or appearing in a conscious human being?
In my view we have, with the generation of qualia, to do with a very long (but fast) and complex series of stadia in a bottom-up process, that starts at (the level of) the particular neurons and then ' ascends ' via neural dynamic patterns, (then) patterns of patterns, (then) patterns of patterns-of-patterns all the way up towards the final qualia of experience (for example qualia of sensory perception). This bottom-up route of the process (or for that matter the top-down route with respect to explanation) is that long and complex, and for our apprehending that long and that hard to access, and consequently so hard to track down, that the end product seems to have nothing to do anymore with the starting-point of the process (the physico-chemical reactions at the neuron-level). That end product appears to be fundamentally different from the starting-point. The appearance of something seemingly novel is nowadays called (something) emergent.
Indeed, some (man-designed) dynamical systems seem to generate structures which have nothing to do with the situation on a lower level, although in this case one knows that those seemingly novel structures (patterns, phenomena) have TOTALLY (i.e. completely) originated from the lower level, because such a system can be exhaustively defined.
To be ' emergent ' accordingly is epistemological in nature. In an ontological sense there is no emergence whatever. This means that for the observer it appears that something fundamentally novel is being added, but in reality this is not the case. Of course something is generated by such a dynamical system, and as such it is new. But it is not new in an ontological sense, which means, for example, that it is not the case that something immaterial is generated by a material dynamical system.
The whole set of qualia is a ' decorated ' image generated by the brain. But the internal condition of the brain is constantly changing because of the changing input from the senses, but also by input from the brain itself. In this latter case a -- constantly changing -- dynamical area of the brain is active in that sense (i.e. meaning) that it is --- with respect to that particular current (' input '-) process --- ' extern ', i.e. coming from ' outside ' relative to another area.
During the postnatal individual development of the brain, encoding relations are being set up, in which, in a selective way, a number of sensory and other stimuli are encoded into certain dynamical neural structures. In the case of renewed (i.e. repeated) stimuli those same dynamical neural structures are activated, resulting in a certain system of qualia. Such a particular system of qualia is the ' decorated ' image, the internal image, of (i.e. representing) that something that, at that particular moment, is interpreted as something from without.
An internal image allows for two ontological interpretations (by the investigating philosopher) which do not exclude each other, but which complement each other :
  1. An internal image is an active neural structure, present at a certain moment -- it is a complex of neural firing patterns. On a lower level it is a set of electro-chemical reactions taking place in the brain.
  2. An internal image is a representation of something else. This " something else " is something different from what the internal image itself intrinsically (stated in 1) is. So here the internal image is a sign, pointing to something else (It can also point to itself and in this case one and the same item is the sign as well as the signified). That " something else " will then be the meaning of the internal image. The internal image is an encoded version of that " something else ". The internal image is, insofar as it is an encoding (-method), subjective relative to the human species. But in many cases also subjective relative to the particular human individual. The internal image is objective insofar as the corresponding neuronic configuration is being activated -- and then we have (i.e.possess) that internal image (posited) IN our mind -- by, finally, that something, for which the internal image stands. We -- as knower, in the act of, say, an observation -- close the loop between the objective reality and its subjective mental representation, by pretending that they are one and the same (i.e. not only the same with respect to content, but also numerically the same). This pretension proceeds unconsciously and is a biological function. In this way it appears that we directly observe (into) the outside (world).
All this is expounded here, i.e. expounded in this Essay, in a bottom-up context with respect to the brain and its activity. The whole is ontologically homogeneous, in that sense that the ontological status is interpreted as being the same everywhere in the process (the process of phenomenological experience, and also the process of self-consciousness). A Carthesian Dualism of Body and Mind implies a 'homunculus' residing INSIDE the brain, reading the sensory output (output of the senses to the brain). But why is the homunculus not able to read data directly from the outside world, and so without the mediation of the brain? Why then are brains necessary? They are necessary, evident from the effect when the brain is partly damaged.

Mind undoubtedly has originated and further developed by a co-evolution -- in the phyletic dimension -- of organism and social context, and this is in fact an interaction between a developing intelligence and a developing extelligence, whereby extelligence represents information, ritual patterns, habits, etc., stored outside the individual (not, however, outside the totality of individuals, but outside the 'general individual' under consideration, so not outside the total of individuals observed through the succession of generations).
After a certain necessary scaffolding, the intelligence-extelligence feedback loop is able to operate on its own, whereby the scaffolding presents itself as a solution of the chicken-egg problem that always crops up with the origin and development of two states of affairs standing in mutual dependency with respect to their generation. In this phyletic process intelligence as well as extelligence are enhanced and intensified, and interact with each other in a constructive way, the one being tuned by the other. Language plays an important role in the processes described.

The Illusion of the Self, and of Free Will

A certain view (the one of DENNETT, D.C. 1991, See STEWART & COHEN, 1997, p. 215) poses that Mind appears on the basis of interaction between more or less independent ' demons ', together forming a ' pandemonium '. Demons are (here) a kind of ' subroutines ' which can, when necessary, be called for, ' report ' their results and then again awaiting a next call. Mind has been historically (phyletically) developed, so in this case there is no ' masterprogrammer ', who created everything, like in the case of modern computers also containing such a pandemonium in their software set-up. The pandemonical setup developed phyletically step by step in an ecological and social context. These quasi independent subroutines are held together by a general ' feature-detecting system ', that does not however organize them (there is no homunculus in the brain, no immaterial spirit, as an organizer -- for what organizes that spirit in turn?), but only rationalizes their independent ' decisions ', analogous to a ringmaster of a circus, giving to the public the illusion that he directs everything. But in fact the ringmaster watches carefully what the clowns and other artists do, and then makes gestures as if those clowns respond to his (encoded) instructions (STEWART & COHEN, 1997, p. 218). The role of the ringmaster (in our brains) is such that it appears that everything in us is tied together into a significant and meaningful whole, suggesting a SELF who executes all kinds of actions and performs sense perceptions [ This ringmaster concept is added to the theory of DENNETT by STEWART & COHEN, 1997 ]. The ringmaster in our heads gives the impression that he is in charge, while in fact he isn't. This ringmaster is not a homunculus in the Cartesian Theatre, he is just a demon of the pandemonium (i.e. one demon among the other demons).
Phyletic development of the brain does not imply that Self-consciousness must have been developed gradually. Self-consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that could appear more or less suddenly after the organism exceeds a certain threshold of complexity and organization during the phyletic complexification of the brain. Thereby the ringmaster is a demon involved in the creation of the illusion of a self. But SELF is something that is dispersed over all the processes of the brain generating the emergent Mind, just like ' running the program ' is devided among all demons of the computer. SELF is not a thing, but a process, maintaining a certain degree of Identity at a high level, even during all kinds of changes that the individual undergoes. When time passes, that what appears the same YOU is changed, but with sufficient continuity that it nonetheless appears the same YOU, although, according to this view, it is in fact not so.
So it seems that there is nothing in Socrates that remains the same during his life, nothing that remains the same despite all kinds of changes of other matters in him. Socrates continually changes, having only an illusion -- created continually by the brain (by rationalization of all the participating processes) -- of a SELF-that-remains-the-same (STEWART & COHEN, 1997, p. 224), an illusion that is nevertheless useful for survival. Probably this creation of the illusion proceeds by means of ' compensating reactions ' that neutralize all changes in a certain way, or, maybe better expressed, that mask them :
ORGANIC ACTION STADIA    A ------- A+1 ------- A+2 ------

COMPENSATING REACTIONS   B -------- C --------- D ------

PERSON (P)               P -------- P --------- P ------

Because of these compensating reactions P appears to remain constant.
The origin of such a Self-feeling, of being a person -- thus not only being an individual, i.e. being numerically distinguished, but moreover seeming to possess a unique quality that remains the same under all alterations of the individual -- is undoubtedly related to the interaction with members of the same species, especially with members of the same population.

Remark :   What has just been said refers to the classical view that all individuals of a biological species, and so also all (geologically recent) human individuals, are specifically (in the metaphysical sense) identical, although they differ from each other numerically by being separate individuals, and are as such detectable by variable accidental differences between them. But in addition to such variable differences, there are (according to that same view) a number of constant qualitative differences between the members of the species : each one of them is a different person, a different Self, each one of them has a basic set of persistent personal characteristics, as we see for example in Socrates, Plato, etc.
If, however, we stick to the position, here defended, that every organic individual is at the same time a different species (in the metaphysical sense), except when such an individual belongs to a monovular twin, or monovular triplet, etc. (in that case it is con-specific with the other member(s) of the latter), then the special ontological status of a person is only evident in monovular individuals : they are specifically the same, but they are nevertheless different persons, different, also with respect to content, and moreover in a persistent way. Each member of a certain species or population of one or another higher mammal will experience a Self-feeling with respect to, not only the other individuals of the species or population, but, when present, also with respect to the other member of the monovular twin, or to the other members of the monovular triplet, etc. Despite the changes that such an individual member continually undergoes, it will distinguish itself qualitatively from the other monovular members.
The argument concerning the development of a Self-feeling, however, also holds good in the broader context of the biological species, because certainly the con-specific members of a population, but especially those of a family (in animals the members of the same nest) look very much alike, without their being necessarily a monovular twin, triplet, etc.

In this way an individual, belonging to that population can nevertheless discriminate itself from other individuals of that same population (and of that same species) and is accordingly not ' dynamically dispersed ' over the whole population (it is not every time somebody else, not every time a different person). Care and teaching by the parents, playing with brothers and sisters or other members of the population, is contained in this intra-specific interaction, and lets every individual develop into a person. This is already visible in the higher mammals like Wolves, Orcas and Chimpansees.

Is there evidence for such a decentralized pandemonic setup of the brain that helps to create the Self-feeling (= illusion of the Self)? There is indeed evidence for such a view.
The fact that ' I ' am not in charge of everything is already evident in the case of the many autonomous processes, steered by the brain, like Seeing and Hearing (I cannot temporarily stop Seeing and Hearing by disabling my eyes or ears). Moreover I cannot make myself smarter than I am.
The processes in the brain often proceed in a parallel manner. This parallel way of proceeding contradicts the view of a hierarchical functional structure, it points to a heterarchy. If we interpret the brain as a computer (which is not totally adequate) then it is not a serial computer -- like our ordinary computers -- but a parallel computer. A good comparison is the wave pattern that ensues when we throw a rock into stagnant water. The waves expand from the point of impact, this is the serial aspect, but the events in each individual wave ring take place in parallel.
The ' I ' is present in the brain processes in a distributed manner in the form of an emergent ' I-feeling '.

What we have described boils down to the supposition of an illusion-generating process, taking place at a high structural and functional level, that gives the organism the feeling of a Self. And the origin and maintenance of such a feeling has, as has been said, survival value in the relevant evolutionary, ethological and ecological context.

Knowing that I do have a Self-feeling, is, of course, not an illusion, but an empirical fact. Actually possessing a Self, however, should point to something that is absolutely persistent during the individual's existence.
Let us look for that something.
At first sight we must admit that the individual organism constantly changes :
First of all by metabolic processes and ageing processes, secondly by the constant updating of the image representation of the (extramental) world stored implicitly in the brain, making it seem that little by little in the course of time somebody else (than me) experiences that same outside world with his (different) interpretation of it. Finally there is a constant replacement going on of most of the body cells and their DNA.
What then remains the same, such that it could account for the Self ?
It is not the organism's individual DNA as we just saw. However, while the individual DNA is replaced, its instruction set does indeed remain identical, and with it the definite interpretation that is implicit in the machinery for editing and adjusting those instructions. These instructions and their interpretation are a kind of software, implemented in organic hardware. This hardware is the carrier of that software, and the latter remains identical despite the fact that the hardware is being replaced everytime.
So couldn't that software be the seat of the Self, implying that actually having a Self is not an illusion after all?
We can raise several objections to such a position. Firstly, this software is identical in monovular twins, so it cannot account for having a Self. Secondly, although that software resides at a higher level than its material substrate (i.e. the relevant molecular machinery) does, it still resides at a relatively low level of the given organismic individual, while the Self appears to reside at a high level of that individual. But, of course it could be generated by that software via a long chain of processes that ascend, bit by bit, to that high level, although the first objection speaks against this being so.
What about the Self-feeling?
Well, this Self-feeling is obviously co-generated by external factors.
These external factors consist of the interactions with the environment, especially the interactions with con-specific mates of the given organismic individual. These interactions cause a certain image representation of the external world and of those mates. And although that image constantly changes in the life of the individual, there could be some persistent aspects in it that cause Self-feeling in higher organisms. If the interactions with the external world, and especially with mates, were inadequate or absent, the Self-feeling would probably not appear at all.
Indeed there certainly are organisms, which, while (of course) possessing the persistent software mentioned, do not have any self-feeling whatsoever, so the presence of a persistent software as such does not guarantee the possession of a self-feeling. So the Self-feeling is not a universal feature in organisms, neither is it generated wholly within any organismic individual. A higher organism accordingly does not have a self-feeling in virtue of that very organism, it comes from without, and as such creates, perhaps by the above mentioned compensating reactions, the (important) illusion of being a Self.
In many Sections of this dissertation we spoke about the Identity of Totalities, i.e. the fact that every genuine Totality possesses an Identity. But this Identity is a specific Identity, not a personal Identity. The Dynamical Law guarantees this specific Identity, but does not guarantee or create the personal Identity that we all experience. Monovular twins have the same (specific) Identity, but experience a personal difference that extends beyond being just numerically different. It is their illusion of having a Self, of possessing a 'regulating authority', and it is created by the ringmaster in their brains, and by their interactions with the outside world.
This illusion forms the basis for a self-function within a social context.
All the foregoing shows, that a Substance-Accident Metaphysics cannot proceed adequately when it decides to accept a psychological feature (like the Self-feeling) as its theoretical point of departure. If it nevertheless does so, it turns this Metaphysics into a philosophy of Man.

Ernst Haeckel. Founder of the Monistic Biology

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