Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Path in Walking

In the continuation of his work with Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson's Mind in Life (2007) is the integrative discourse piece many cognitive evolutionaries had been waiting for. To limit the description of this work to the field of neurophenomenology both portrays its focus and obscures its encompassing reach. I am not sure how many years I will take over this work and its sources, yet feel time in its pages are always well spent.

On yet another reading I was reminded how one risk in creating any description of a dynamic process is how immediately the discourse begins to discuss it as an object formed. The descriptor ceases to be a shorthand in the community of shared understanding of the complexity and gains a life of its own as a thing to be discovered.

Thompson discusses natural selection and its interesting how Darwin's description of that process gained existence as a mythic force. When we go looking for the existence of the mythic beast, it is discoverable only by the parts glimpsed in its fleeting escape between the trees of the forest of our own inquiry. The process is not a thing in and of itself. It does not explain existence, but describes its process. As Thompson says:

"According to the viewpoint I am proposing, self-organisation and natural selection are not opposed but are actually two interwoven aspects of a single process of enactive evolution." (p215).

This view of organism-environment co-determination (being a 'both/and' approach) is central to our understanding of how the dynamic processes of life exhibit emergence. We enact meaning in the context of the conjunction of our 'own dynamics and those of the environments to which they are structurally coupled'. We are not a stationary thing. We are part of a process of life. In holding both concepts together we understand how "enactive evolution is the laying down of a path while walking" (p. 218).

An earlier example of this proposition is the central (and sometimes overlooked) tenet in Graves' (2005) levels of existence theory, in which he describes human consciousness as the resultant of the 'organismic' equipment and 'environmental' conditions which combine to generate 'momentary operants' (p. 162). He describes the elements as the conditions of existence and the conditions for existence, being the existential problems of living and the existential means for living, which combine as coherent forms of coping. We are neurophenomenological beings. We find coherence in the context of human existence. We are remarkable for doing this.

What if we were to accept our identity as 'momentary operants' as a reflection of the process of life in occurrence? Would we struggle to hold on to our temporary coherence of self so strongly? How does one let go into the void when there is nothing to step out to? How does one find a path forward where there appears to be none?

In knowing that we are laying down a path while walking, essentially creating our environment as we enact meaning and create ourselves, this raises for us also a moral responsibility. As members of humanity the parts and the whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other in a process of dynamic co-emergence (Thompson, 2007, p. 431). Each of us in a way is providing content in the self-definition of our collective path.

Where then are we guiding ourselves to ...

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