Wednesday, October 19, 2005


On page 202, discussing flowers and bees, Varela, Thompson and Rosch say “These two broad and reciprocal constraints appear to have shaped a history of coupling in which plant features and the sensorimotor capacities of bees coevolved. It is this coupling, then, that is responsible for both the ultraviolet vision of bees and the ultraviolet reflectance patterns of flowers.” Further down on the page they add “organism and environment are mutually enfolded in multiple ways, and so what constitutes the world of a given organism is enacted by that organism's history of structural coupling.” Here it seems that the authors are dealing with the perception of an organism’s “world” being “enacted” through the process of mutual interaction between the organism and its environment. What they mean by world seems a little murky, but I think they are making the point that cognition is in effect thermodynamic, that it is made up solely of action and reaction. This seems a fine definition, but I wonder if it leaves certain parts of human cognition mysterious.

Take the bee-flower example. In this instance, VT&R’s argument would state that the mutual dependence of bee on flower, flower on bee, was cognitive. The same goes for the Bittorio on pages 151-7. Any system that develops the characteristics of coupling, that “becomes part of an ongoing existing world . . . or shapes a new one” (207) would be considered as a cognitive system.

My question is, does this description of cognition account for human self-awareness? Is self-awareness (even the awareness of no-self) a different order of cognition—more complex, perhaps—than that exhibited by bees and Brittorios, or is it something else entirely? Also, is cognition the same as intelligence? I’m curious to see if anyone else thought about this point, or if was just me. One complication, I suppose, is the question of whether or not bees and Brittorios are self-aware, which doesn’t seem answerable. However, I doubt Varela, et al. would argue that either are able to conduct the kind of self examination that is necessary for mindfulness.


Blogger Anthony M. said...

Your question about the relationship of cognitive systems like bees and flowers and cognitive systems like the mind seems related to a discussion earlier in the book: In chapter 3 (I think) they say that one conclusion of cognitivism is that cognition can occur without consciousness. what? I don't know. But I think that both this phenomenon "in nature" (bees and flowers) and the phenomenon of self-awareness in the mind are both complex parts of cognitive systems. (Neither is necessarily more complex than the other.) The bees' perception and the flowers' colors are emergent properties of the larger system, just as self-awareness is an emergent property of mind....

I don't know if this has anything to do with your question...

6:42 PM  
Blogger jmj said...


You articulated what I was getting at; my question was, how can we determine the point at which cognition erupts into consciousness (or do we need to)?

2:27 PM  

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