Purposive Explanations Are More Useful For Identifying Lower-Level Activity In Living Systems Than The Other Way Round
Denis Noble (University of Oxford)

part of: Science & Scientist 2023: Life & Cognition at the Intersection of Science, Philosophy, & Religion
December 17, 2023, 12:00am - 12:30am

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Bhakti Vedanta Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science
Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science
Bhakti Vedanta Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science
Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science

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ABSTRACT:   Physiology shows that higher-level functionality, including purposive explanations, are more successful in predicting lower-level, microscopic and molecular events than the other way round (Noble & Noble, 2023a, 2023b, 2023c). This is why GWAS association scores for most genes are abysmally low. So low, that they cannot be relied on to predict later life disease states (Hingorani et al, 2023). The reason is that low-level events are constrained by higher-level organisation by determining the boundary conditions under which those events operate.


Hingorani, A.D. et al 2023. Performance of polygenic risk scores in screening, prediction, and risk stratification: secondary analysis of data in the Polygenic Score Catalog. British Medical Journal. e000554. doi:10.1136/ bmjmed-2023-000554 

Noble R. & Noble, D. 2023a. Physiology restores purpose to evolutionary biology. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 139, 357-369.   

Noble D. & Noble, R. 2023b. How purposive agency became banned from evolutionary biology. In Corning et al (Eds) Evolution 'on purpose'. MIT Press. 221-235.

Noble R. & Noble, D. 2023c. Understanding Living Systems. Cambridge University Press.  


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In her 1983 Nobel lecture, Barbara McClintock challenged 21st-century science to “determine the extent of knowledge the cell has of itself, and how it utilizes this knowledge in a ‘thoughtful’ manner when challenged.” Since then, significant scientific progress has been made in recognizing that all cells are cognitive and that they exercise self/nonself discrimination in various ways. These discoveries proved Humberto Maturana’s hypothesis that  “[l]iving systems are cognitive systems and living as a process is a process of cognition [...] for all organisms with and without a nervous system” and challenge theories that reduce cognition/consciousness to neuronal correlates, “the minimum neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any one specific conscious experience,” since a single nerve cell already exhibits conscious decision making. 

These discoveries also prompted scientists to recognize the need to clarify the concept of “self.” While such efforts advocate a non-reductionist systems approach, they avoid the first-person perspective of selfhood in favor of third-person perspectives. But the first-person perspective is the only concrete account we have of the self. This situation demonstrates the necessity for phenomenological approaches to self-inquiry that transcend systems thinking by embracing conceptual thinking. G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy demonstrates this method’s applicability for comprehending Logic, Nature, and Spirit. Humanities scholars at Princeton University have conducted several programs engaging with Hegel’s philosophy since 2017, including one individual (now a Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) currently studying Hegel’s logical category of life, its transition to the category of cognition, and the implications this has for comprehending organic life and artificial intelligence.  

Vedānta philosophy describes that our consciousness determines our experience, i.e. our knowledge of objects and the world determines the world we live in and how we perceive those objects. To the extent that “embodied cognition” refers to the understanding that cognition/consciousness is enmeshed in the relationship between a body and interactions with its environment, it coincides with Vedāntic knowledge in that cognition/consciousness is intertwined in the relationship between a body and its interactions with the environment, but understanding the body as a material thing intended to exploit the environment to maximize individual enjoyment produces a very different experience than identifying as spirit fixed in uninterrupted joyful loving service to the Supreme. 

We hope to clarify the distinction between cognition and consciousness to accurately determine the various behaviors of particular living entities. An etymological analysis suggests considering cognition as a less sophisticated faculty than consciousness. Cognition is an initial step of mediated thought where an object is reflected into the mind and a preliminary mental representation is formed, which is enough to navigate the relatively simplistic experience of cellular life and other lower lifeforms such as insects and plants. The phrase “lower lifeforms” is not being used in a derogatory way but to denote living entities whose activities seem mainly absorbed in exercising volition and cognition while responding to immediate environmental circumstances without exhibiting symptoms of a sophisticated internal emotional experience. Consciousness, on the other hand, denotes an identity-in-difference between subject and object that requires a dialectic approach to comprehend. This is a further development of thought where the conscious agent knows apparently external objects as identical to itself, as well as recognizing its difference from objects. In addition to exercising volition and cognition, conscious entities like elephants, cows, and humans have a more mediated relationship with their environment allowing them to form emotional attachments to things other than themself. Scientists recognize that “there is continuity between humans and other animals in their emotional (and cognitive) lives; that there are transitional stages among species, not large gaps; and that the differences among many animals are differences in degree rather than in kind.” When one experiences an identity with something other than oneself, a feeling of inner connection is established. So, living cells may be volitional and cognitive, but not emotional. This indicates an evolution of consciousness throughout lifeforms where different stages of development are distinguished by the degree to which and particular manner in which a living entity expresses volitional, cognitive, and emotional activity. 

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