Publication 7532

Villalobos M. (2015) Biological roots of cognition and the social origins of mind: Autopoietic theory, strict naturalism and cybernetics. PhD Thesis, The University of Edinburgh, UK. Fulltext at
This thesis is about the ontology of living beings as natural systems, their behavior, and the way in which said behavior, under special conditions of social coupling, may give rise to mental phenomena. The guiding questions of the thesis are: 1) What kinds of systems are living beings such that they behave the way they do? 2) How, through what kinds of mechanisms and processes, do living beings generate their behavior? 3) How do mental phenomena appear in the life of certain living beings? 4) What are the natural conditions under which certain living beings exhibit mental phenomena? To answer these questions the thesis first assumes, then justifies and defends, a Strict Naturalistic (SN) stance with respect to living beings. SN is a metaphysical and epistemological framework that, recognizing the organizational, dynamic and structural complexity and peculiarity of living beings, views and treats them as metaphysically ordinary natural systems; that is, as systems that, from the metaphysical point of view, are not different in kind from rivers or stars. SN holds that if in natural sciences rivers and stars are not conceived as semantic, intentional, teleological, agential or normative systems, then living beings should not be so conceived either. Having assumed SN, and building mainly on the second-order cybernetic theories of Ross Ashby and Humberto Maturana, the thesis answers question 1) by saying that living beings are (i) adaptive dynamic systems, (ii) deterministic machines of closed transitions, (iii) multistable dissipative systems, and (iv) organizationally closed systems with respect to their sensorimotor and autopoietic dynamics. Based on this ontological characterization, the thesis answers question 2) by showing that living beings’ behavior corresponds to the combined product of (i), (ii), (iii) and (iv). Points (i) and (ii) support the idea that living beings are strictly deterministic systems, and that, consequently, notions such as information, control, agency or teleology—usually invoked to explain living beings’ behavior—do not have operational reality but are rather descriptive projections introduced by the observer. Point (iii) helps to understand why, despite their deterministic nature, living beings behave in ways that, to the observer, appear to be teleological, agential or “intelligent”. Point (iv) suggests that living beings’ sensorimotor dynamics are closed circuits without inputs or outputs, where the distinction between external and internal medium is, again, an ascription of the observer rather than a functional property of the system itself. Having addressed the basic principles of living beings’ behavior, the thesis explores the possible origin of (truly) mental phenomena in the particular domain of social behavior. Complementing Maturana’s recursive theory of language with Vygotsky’s dialectic approach the thesis advances, though in a still quite exploratory way, a sociolinguistic hypothesis of mind. This hypothesis answers questions 3) and 4) by claiming that the essential properties of mental phenomena (intentionality, representational content) appear with language, and that mind, as a private experiential domain, emerges as a dialectic transformation of language.


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