Perception and the Cognitive Theory of Life:

Pages: 5-13
Year: 1999
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Rolf Lines – FALL 1999 – Vol 27 – Nº 04

Volume: 27

When it comes to the practice of Rolfing®, it is not much of an exaggeration to say perception is everything. One of the most important and difficult skills that every Rolfer must learn is the ability to “see.” The problem of teaching students to perceive the whole person in accordance with our five taxonomies of assessment (structural, geometric, functional, energetic, and pyschobiological orientation – including the worldview and psychological taxons) becomes especially critical in our advanced classes where Rolfers learn to design sessions that are not based on recipes.

Perception can be enhanced or thwarted in many ways. Surprisingly, we have noticed in our advanced classes that Rolfers’ perceptual abilities are often hobbled by an unconsciousness acceptance of the presuppositions of dualism. Almost every discussion of perception among Rolfers and other somatic practitioners, whether theoretical or naive, is contaminated with the self-defeating presuppositions of dualism.’ In this paper, I will demonstrate some of the problems with dualism as a first step toward freeing our understanding and experience of perception for the unique kind of perception required by the work of Rolfing. In order to make my points relevant to contemporary developments in science and Rolfing and to show how pervasive dualism is, I will show how dualism infects biology, cognitive science, and, in particular, the Santiago or cognitive theory of life.

This article builds on my previous article, “Radical Somatics and Philosophical Counseling,”2 and my assertion that the Santiago theory has serious problems that need to be overcome before it can be useful to Rolfing.

The Santiago or cognitive theory of life argues for a definition of life that introduces autopoeisis (self-making) and cognition as two sides of the same coin and claims that they are necessary and sufficient for characterizing the organization of all living creatures. In so doing it also carves out an important new biological approach to the questions of perception and consciousness. Its originators, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, claim to have overcome dualism and the representational theory of perception that often accompanies it. Closer examination reveals that they really only introduce the problems of dualism at another level of their theory. I will show how by not overcoming its Cartesian heritage, the Santiago theory fails on two fronts: it ends up as a solipsistic variation of transcendental idealism and fails as an account of consciousness because it rests on an unexamined acceptance of Descartes’ machine ontology. I will also show how later versions of the Santiago theory, even though claiming to be influenced by Merleau Ponty, seriously misinterpret him and miss the significance of what he called corporeal reflexivity (self sensing) for understanding the nature of consciousness and the body.

Although problematic in its original form, the Santiago theory is an important one about the nature of life. My purpose in critiquing the Santiago theory is not to dismiss it, but to refurbish it so that I can use it toward creating a holistic biology that provides a foundation for how the practice of Rolfing understands, perceives, and transforms the being of the whole person. My eventual goal, clearly beyond the scope of this article, is to create a more complete non mechanistic theory of biological organization that goes beyond, but does not forsake the traditional understanding of structural integration as organization in gravity.

In the Western world, ontological dualism found its first expression in the philosophy of Plato, but it was Descartes, in the seventeenth century, who gave dualism its most influential voice. Gilbert Ryle aptly characterized Descartes’ view as portraying a human being as “a ghost in a machine.” Our ways of understanding are still so much under the influence of Descartes’ r notorious distinction that even those who consider themselves non-dualists often find it difficult to think about mind and body in any other way. Practitioners of alternative medicine often proclaim their anti-Cartesian sentiments by asserting that body and mind are one. But the fact that many of these practitioners continue to wonder how mind and body are connected shows that their thinking is still infected with dualism.

Dualism is a metaphysics, an epistemology, and a theory of perception. It is also a theory about what constitutes the essence of being human. The way Descartes formulated the difference between mind and body made it impossible to understand how they could possibly affect one another. For Descartes physical bodies and living bodies are material entities that share the fundamental property of taking up measurable space – material bodies are extended. Minds, however, are immaterial things that do not take up measurable space.

For Descartes, the essence of what makes us human is to be found in the mind or soul, not in the body. This way of drawing the distinction makes it impossible to understand how something that is not extended can have any effect on what is. Indeed, if the mind has no spatial properties, what sense could it make to say that the mind is even in the body? Thus, by defining consciousness and body in such a way that they exclude each other, Descartes made the solution to the mind/body problem unsolvable and ended up with a view that is self defeating and solipsistic.

Through Descartes’ influence science became the study of mechanical things. All things in the material universe, including the phenomenon of life, were given a mechanistic explanation. As a result, what sits at the heart of most contemporary biology and cognitive science is not just a set of guiding ideas for how to conduct research, but also Descartes’ machine ontology and metaphysical understanding of materiality. It is one thing to claim that science should investigate the material world mechanistically and quite another to claim that the universe is a vast machine composed of extended things and that living bodies are nothing but soft machines. Science did not discover, prove, or observe that the material world is only made up of the kind of stuff that takes up measurable space. And it did not discover, prove, or observe that living bodies are nothing but natural machines. At best, these assumptions are guiding ideas for how to conduct science. At worst, they are metaphysical assertions that claim to tell us what the nature of the material and living world is.

Contemporary philosophy and science have pretty much rejected dualism and dismantled the Cartesian view of consciousness as an immaterial non-bodily entity. But the other side of Descartes’ problematic distinction has gone largely unchallenged by biologists and cognitive scientists. Like most of contemporary science, biology is still under the sway of Descartes’ metaphysical understanding of the material universe.

It is clear that we neither know what consciousness is nor how it arises in living creatures. Dualism provides no insight. If we begin with the assumption, as I think we must, that consciousness is not other than the biological material from which it arises, then it becomes equally clear that we also have no idea what this living stuff from which consciousness is made. I suggest that part of our perplexity comes from accepting the Cartesian view of the material world: an unexamined metaphysical assumption that so severely attenuates our understanding of the material world that it vandalizes every attempt to understand how matter could become conscious of itself.

Daniel Dennett draws out the full implications of the mechanistic approach to life. He claims that there is no longer any serious informed doubt that we are the descendants of self-replicating robots: “Not only are you descended from such macromolecular robots but you are composed of them … But unless there is some secret extra ingredient in us (which is what dualists and vitalists used to think), we are made of robots – or what comes to the same thing, we are each a collection of trillions of macro molecular machines. All of these are ultimately descended from the original self-replicating macromolecules. So something made of robots can exhibit genuine consciousness, because you do if anything does.”3

Besides Merleau-Ponty and other phenomenologists, there are also philosophers, like John Searle, who vigorously argue against the narrowly conceived materialism that underlies Dennett’s position. Searle argues that mind is a biological phenomenon and believes that it may be possible someday to build an artificial brain from nonbiological materials that is capable of consciousness. Although I agree with most of what Searle says, I am not as confident as he that it is possible construct consciousness from nonbiological materials. Also, I find that many of his arguments against the narrowly conceived materialistic account of consciousness trade on exploiting the concept of reflexivity without fully recognizing it. If consciousness evolved from the reflexivity inherent to life and that machines are not capable of it, then reflexivity is, if not the extra ingredient, at least the pivotal activity of living matter and consciousness that the mechanistic approach can neither account for nor model. If machines are not capable of reflexivity, it follows that the mechanical and computer simulation approach is the wrong starting point from which to begin our investigations into the nature and evolution of life and consciousness. It also follows that it would not be possible to build a mechanical brain that caused consciousness. Machine stuff, the hardware from which machines are constructed, is simply the wrong stuff from which to make reflexivity and consciousness.

We therefore must take a quite different approach to the phenomenon of consciousness – an approach that is not dualistic, mechanistic, or vitalistic. We must first disentangle our framework of inquiry from its Cartesian presuppositions and then realize that the nature of consciousness cannot be understood in terms of the concepts we have inherited. Consciousness is not an immaterial incorporeal ghost-like entity that inhabits a machine-like body. It cannot be grasped by means of our inherited understanding of materialism. And it is not a piece of hardware or a mechanical process. Rather human consciousness is a nonmechanical biological phenomenon which evolved from the ability of living creatures to sense themselves sensing (corporeal reflexivity).

However, even if reflexive machines are indeed possible, the fundamental question that still faces every scientific account of consciousness is the one that is almost never asked clearly. how does living matter become reflexive and then conscious of itself?


The Santiago theory of life claims that all organisms, from bacterium to human, have, perceive, and cognize an ordered world. A question that arises is “How does this ordered coherent world come about?” In the history of Western philosophy four basic theories, with variations, have been offered to answer this question with respect to human cognition. Variations of these theories show up when cognitive theorists, physiologists, and biologists attempt to explain perception and cognition.

The first theory is sometimes called naive realism. It claims that the organism is born into an already existing ordered world; cognition is simply a matter of the organism’s representing to itself what is already there. Our senses give us access to this world and it exists out there independently of our senses.

Descartes undermined this view when he turned his attention to an examination of the causal theory of perception. The theory goes something like this: photons spin off the sun, strike and ricochet off the surfaces of objects, which then bump into the photoreceptors in the retina, which then cause a series of complicated neural firings until finally somewhere an idea is created that represents what exists out there in this world. According to Descartes and the scientists and philosophers he influenced, we do not actually see objects themselves. What we see is a construction created by our brains that is a kind of mental picture or representation of the object. The assumption that we only have access to our own internal experience and not to an ontological reality outside our experience is at the heart of the Cartesian view of perception and almost every theory of perception since, including the Santiago theory.

This account raises a serious skeptical problem: how can we know whether these representational ideas are accurate, representing existing things in the external world? Consider a dream, says Descartes. When we dream, our brains construct the most amazing world of objects and situations. We unquestioningly believe in this world and live it just as fully as when we are awake. But how do we tell the difference between our dream ideas and our waking ideas that supposedly represent a world out there? The only way we could know if our ideas represent an external reality would be to compare our ideas with the reality they supposedly represent. But according to the theory we have no access to the external world except through our ideas. Since we cannot compare our ideas with the world they represent, perhaps there is no world out there at all and everything we see and believe in is a construction of our own minds. This is the solipsistic comer into which Descartes painted our culture and himself.

The second theory of how we have knowledge of a world is called idealism and was formulated in response to the problems that Descartes’ theories created. Bishop George Berkeley argued that the only reasonable conclusion to draw from Descartes’ problematic ruminations was that the external material world simply did not exist. To be is to be perceived, Berkeley argued. There is no material world that interacts with our minds. All that exists are minds and their ideas. Berkeley argued that since the existence of something depends upon its being perceived, the question of whether an unperceived object exists is by definition contradictory. Hence the question whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if there is no one to hear it is simply nonsensical – there is no tree and no forest if there is no one to perceive it.

The third theory takes a transcendental turn. Transcendental idealism claims that the cognitive structures of the organism create a world by imposing a supervenient order on an essentially unordered material realm, on what William James colorfully called a “booming, buzzing, confusion.” Kant, the first philosopher to put forward this view, said we cannot know the material world as it appears unperceived and in itself. Agreeing with Descartes, he says that we can only know the representations that our minds create in response to how the material world affects our senses. Kant unsuccessfully tried to avoid solipsism by arguing that, since we all share the same cognitive structures and these structures function the same way in all cognitive beings, they bring forth the same ordered world.

A fourth theory claims that the ordered coherent world organisms live and perceive arises from the interactions of the embodied cognitive structures of the organism that allow it to perceive aspects of a nascent order that exists independently of the way the organism perceives it. Although too simplistically stated this theory is MerleauPonty’s and the only one that systematically critiques and transcends the assumptions and problems with dualism.

Before we examine the Santiago theory, it is worth pointing out that many of these skeptical issues about the existence of the external world could have been avoided right from the very beginning. With the exception of the fourth theory, every attempt to solve the problems that arise from the causal theory of perception rests on not understanding what the causal theory actually explains. As a scientific theory it only tells us what the conditions are under which the perception of objects take place. By explaining the conditions that make perception possible, it tells us how we are able to see objects. It is not a phenomenology of experience that gives us any information about what we actually perceive. In no way does it show that we have no direct assess to the world by means of our senses.


The Santiago theory of life originated with Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, but had antecedents in the work of Metchnikoff and Bateson. Since later versions by Varela have been influenced by Merleau-Ponty, it looks like it might be an interesting variation of the forth theory. Actually it is a problematic variation of the third.

Living systems are autopoietic systems according to Maturana and Varela. As self-making they create their own boundaries and thereby differentiate themselves from a background. This activity of differentiation by means of boundary making is necessarily also cognitive because it depends on a rudimentary ability to recognize the difference between self and non-self. Autopoietic beings are constantly in the process of maintaining their identity by means of this cognitive ability.

Maturana and Varela claim that a material world exists independently of an organism’s perception of it. But they also claim that it does not exhibit any pregiven, or predetermined features – unperceived, it is undifferentiated environmental noise. Recurrent interactions between an organism and its environment create changes in the organism’s structure. In order to maintain its autopoietic identity and organization in the face of continual perturbations, the organism achieves through its structural plasticity a structural congruence with its environment.

This structural congruence is called structural coupling and is a rudimentary form of cognition and perception. The organism’s structure allows it to classify and organize its responses to perturbations into an ordered whole. But because it is also the organism’s “structural state that specifies what perturbations are possible and what changes trigger them,”4 the world that is eventually cognized and perceived is specified by the organism’s structure. Since the world that an organism experiences is not a world outside itself, but its own internally ordered state, it is not capable of distinguishing between causes that are internal and external to it. The organism “carves a reality for itself out of an undifferentiated background of perturbations, in ways that depend only on the many and varied paths of the structural coupling.5

On this theory the organism does not extract information from a pre given world and represent it to itself, as the many cognitive scientists and information theorists who are influenced by the Cartesian model imagine. Rather, structural coupling as a rudimentary form of cognition and perception arises because the organism is capable of organizing the repeated perturbations it experiences into an internal world that preserves the organism’s autopoietic unity, identity, and organization. The etymological root of the word “information” is in-form are and it means “to form within.” As the word implies, information is not extracted from without, but formed within the organism. By means of structural coupling an organism continually brings forth a world. What it brings forth is not the world, but a world – not an external world, but a world of organized responses completely internal to and dependent on its own structure. In the case of human beings and other organisms this world is historical. In the case of human beings it is also consensual.

Cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson state the cognitive theory of life this way: “Every living being categorizes. Even the amoeba categorizes the things it encounters into food or nonfood, what it moves toward or away from. The amoeba cannot choose whether to categorize; it just does. The same is true at every level of the animal world… Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied. We have evolved to categorize; if we hadn’t we wouldn’t have survived. Categorization is, for the most part, not a product of conscious reasoning. We categorize as we do because we have the brains and bodies we have and because we interact in the world the way we do.”6

Even though this theory is important and bursting with insight, it is not without problems. Instead of making the mind the transcendental constituting agency as Kant does, Maturana and Varela make the autopoietic cognitive organism the transcendental agency that constitutes a world. True, the Santiago theory is not a form of representationalism or idealism. But by making biological structure the constituting agency, their view is structurally the same Kant’s transcendental idealism and is thus subject to all the same problems. For this reason I propose calling the Santiago theory transcendental cognitivism.

Even though they claim that their theory is not solipsistic, by insisting that there are no pregiven features upon which an organism’s world is based, solipsism is the inevitable result.

In order to understand how these problems arise, let’s look at Fritjof Capra’s affirmative explication of the theory. He employs a map making analogy that captures the gist of structural coupling. Although unintended by Capra, the analogy also demonstrates the theory’s untenable epistemology. He says, “There are no objectively existing structures; there is no pregiven territory of which we can make a map – the map making itself brings forth the features of the territory.”‘ Notice how Capra’s statement presupposes the thing he denies. How can a map bring out the features of a territory if there is no pregiven territory to begin with? If there are no pregiven features upon which a map is based, then there is no basis for distinction between accurate and inaccurate maps. If the map is not based on territory that exists independently of the map maker, then every map is an arbitrary construction arising from the biological structure of the map maker. Since every map is as true as any other map, it is not possible for a map maker to make an error. If bringing forth a world is to be understood according to this analogy, all worlds are arbitrary constructions arising from the structures of an organism’s biological embodiment, the concept of error makes no sense, and, hence, knowledge and cognition are impossible.

In The Embodied Mind, which Varelacoauthored with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, a similar analogy is used. They claim that when a world is brought forth it is much “like paths that exist only as they are laid down in walking”8 and that “we are always constrained by the path we have laid down, but there is no ultimate ground to prescribe the steps we take.”9 The same considerations apply to this analogy. The act of laying down a path presupposes something upon which the path is laid. A path cannot be laid down on a “featureless landscape;” a featureless landscape is an oxymoron. I walk where I do according to how the landscape presents itself to me. I can easily make my way across a meadow, for example. But if I come to a sheer wall of rock two thousand feet high, I will not be able to make a walking path up its surface. The path that I lay down as I walk is the result of how the structures of my biological embodiment interact with and reveal the peculiar features of the landscape. Since there are many conceivable and permissible paths that could result from how the structure of my body couples with the constraints of my environment, I agree that there are no ultimate or absolute grounds or constraints. But from this it does not follow that there are no grounds or £. constraints whatsoever – that is, that there are no relative but reasonable and contextually relevant grounds. After all, the wall of rock is a feature of an autochthonous landscape and its existence constitutes part of the environmental constraints that would provide most hikers with good grounds for laying down a path elsewhere.

Although the theory of cognition as embodied action in The Embodied Mind is greatly influenced by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, the authors seem to have missed the crucial point that allowed Merleau-Ponty to overcome ontological dualism and its transcendental variations. As part of his critique of transcendental idealism MerleauPonty very clearly argues against any notion that the world outside our perception is without predetermined features. He would agree that the organism brings a certain structure to the world that determines or enacts to some degree how the world is perceived. But he also insists that there is an order, or what he also calls a nascent logos, that is not dependent on how we perceive it, and that this field of presence is already pregnant with form. What the organism brings is a structure and a history of learning how to use that structure to perceive various features of the world. In any perceptual act, we do not constitute the world as Kant, Husserl, or Varela and his colleagues would argue. Rather, the ways in which we have learned to use the structure of our lived body allows us to highlight or divine various aspects of a field that was not constituted by us.

Varela and his colleagues claim that their purpose has been “to understand the regularity of the world we are experiencing at every moment, but without any point of reference independent of ourselves that would give certainty to our descriptions and cognitive assertions.”10 and that they are questioning “one of the more entrenched assumptions of our scientific heritage – that the world is independent of the knower.”11 Their theory presupposes the existence of something with which we must couple in order for perception and cognition to occur. Even though the Santiago theory says that the structure of the organism determines what triggers the changes in itself, it is still the case that the organism must be capable of recognizing those aspects of the environment that are its triggers. But recognition is already a form of perception and cognition. Thus, since the Santiago theory presupposes the very thing it seeks to explain, it is circular. At the same time, since the Santiago theory seems to embrace the view that the thing with which we couple can never be known apart from our perception of it, it follows that we could never recognize anything as a trigger in the first place. Without any way to compare our perceived world to what we couple with, any perceived world would be as valid any other, all knowledge and science would be impossible, and the theory is so strong that it cannot account for error This way of articulating the theory of structural coupling makes it a form of transcendentalism structurally the same as Kant and Husserl’s. And like these it appears to both presuppose and make impossible the very thing it wants to explain: cognition. Thus, the theory leads to solipism and skepticism concerning the possibility of achieving the goal of “understanding the regularity of the world we are experiencing.” The only way to avoid solipsism and the impossibility of science is to add to the Santiago theory Merleau-Ponty’s point that the perceived world is founded on an autochthonous order.12

The Santiago theory is subject to even further difficulties because it does not grasp this crucial insight from Merleau-Ponty. The Santiago theorists claim that the organism brings forth a world, that the organism enacts a world, or that the world brought forth is a’ result of the history of the organism’s structural coupling. In bringing forth a world, we learn that the organism, “selects or enacts a domain of significance.”13 But from what does the organism bring forth a world? From what does the organism select or enact a domain of significance? With what does the organism structurally couple?

Varela and his colleagues claim that the organism structurally couples with the material world. They claim that the material world, before it is perceived by the organism, is just undifferentiated environmental noise. But if this extra-referential presence exhibits no features whatsoever, then structural coupling would be an impossible affair. With no distinguishable features anywhere to be found, how could an organism specify which perturbations were to be its triggers? In order for something to become a perturbation or a trigger it must exhibit some distinguishing features that allow it to function or be selected as trigger. A featureless landscape, a featureless environment, a featureless trigger, or a featureless perturbation are all inconceivable. The notion that the material presence with which the organism couples is undifferentiated environmental noise is a variation of James’ “booming, buzzing, confusion.”

When Varela and his colleagues claim that the organism and the environment co-evolve, they say that organisms are not parachuted into pregiven environments. This claim is straightforwardly empirical but employs a different meaning of the word “pregiven.” It is an interesting extension of evolutionary theory that lends itself to scientific investigation and they give convincing arguments and evidence to show that organisms and their environments evolve together. But the empirical claim that environments change and evolve is not the same as the epistemological claim that there is no autochthonous order independent of the knower. Thus, we see that there are two ways of understanding “pregiven” that have probably been conflated by Varela and his colleagues: one is the empirical claim that the environment is not pregiven (in the sense that the environment is in the process of evolving with its organisms) and the other is the epistemological claim that there is no pregiven world (in the sense that the extra-referential presence with which the organism structurally couples is undifferentiated environmental noise). By conflating these two rather different senses, it is likely that Varela and his colleagues are misled into thinking that they have given some empirical justification for their transcendental cognitivism. However, the empirical claim about evolving environments does not support the epistemological claim that the organism constitutes its world and there is no world independent of the knower.

The truth of the Santiago theory is not its transcendental cognitivism, but the understanding that were it not for the structure of our bodies and the cognitive tools with which natural selection has outfitted us, we could not grasp a world at all. We do not bring forth or enact a world by constituting or constructing it with the cognitive tools our bodies evolved. Rather, the world appears to us as it does because our bodies evolved the ability to discover, highlight, find, and reveal specific features of an autochthonous order that is not our own making.


The Santiago theory is an important advance in biology and I agree with its basic tenet that living creatures are autopoietic and cognitive. Unfortunately, like most of biology and cognitive science, it also maintains a commitment to Descartes’ understanding of materiality and his machine ontology, a commitment that further undermines the theory. Since molecular biology has made such astounding advances in recent years, the loyalty to these metaphysical assumptions is hardly ever questioned in that context. But when it comes to a biological account of perception, cognition, and the nature of consciousness, the inherent difficulties with the assumptions of our inherited mechanistic/materialistic paradigm come more clearly to light.

As a way to avoid animism and vitalism, Varela states his mechanistic assumptions up front. He says “Our approach will be mechanistic: No forces or principles will be adduced which are not found in the physical universe.”14 Living systems, he argues, are autopoietic machines.”We are thus saying that what defines a machine organization is relations, and hence that the organization of a machine has no connection with materiality, that is, with the properties of the components that define them as physical entities. In the organization of a machine, materiality is implied, but does not enterperse.”15 Thus, living autopoietic machines are defined by the peculiar organization of their processes, not by their component parts or what they are made of.

As I argued in “Radical Somatics andPhilosophical Counseling,” livingcreatures are quite unlike machines that they have the ability not only tosense and respond to their environment, but also to sense themselves sensing their world. Self-sensing, or what Merleau-Ponty calls corporeal reflexivity, is therefore inherent to cognition and perception in living beings. Autopoiesis and cognition am two sides of the same coin, as Varela insists. But the coin of which they are two sides is living matter. It is this living matter, this amazing stuff that has the capacity for self-sensing, that is the stuff from which consciousness evolved. The reflexivity of living matter is just as fundamental to the nature of autopoiesis as cognition is. Without the ability to sense itself an organism has no way to sense its difference from the other. Thus, any biological account of cognition or perception that leaves out reflexivity or attempts to give only a mechanistic explanation will utterly fail to grasp the nature of cognition, perception, and conciousness.

The critical difference between how a machine and a living organism respond to or perceive their environment lies in self-sensing. In perceiving its world a living organism does something that no machine has so far accomplished, or is likely to accomplish. It not only senses, perceives, and cognizes its world, it also senses itself sensing its environment.

Machines register, or if you like, “perceive” changes in an environment and shift their state accordingly. But self-sensing is at the very heart of the organism’s way of perceiving and its cognitive ability to distinguish self and other. As Varela points out in his discussion of the immune response, the organism must use its own structure as a point of reference for discriminating between self and other. “If the organism doesn’t know itself, how can it detect the presence of something foreign?”16 Varela’s transcendental cognitivism and mechanistic approach prevent him from grasping the true significance of this “self-knowing.” I suspect that he passes over the importance of corporeal reflexivity because he understands “self-knowing” along the lines of a recursive proposition.

Contrary to Varela and the functionalist’s approach, the living stuff of which organisms are made is just as important as how they are organized. Furthermore, machines and living creatures are not even organized in the same way. Living beings are not cobbled together from hardware the way machines are. Every aspect (or to speak loosely, every part) of an organism is an expression of its self-organizing unified wholeness, every aspect of the organism exists for and by means of every other aspect, and every aspect enters into the constitution of every other aspect of the organism. With respect to the stuff of which machines are made, hardware is not like living matter. The hardware of machines is the wrong stuff from which to nurture sentience and consciousness. Living beings are woven and evolved from a much softer and wetter ware, with the capacity of reflexivity, a capacity no machine or piece of hardware is ever likely to manifest.

What we share with all living creatures is perception and the concomitant corporeal capacity for selfsensing. Self-sensing is the ground from which the human kind of subjectivity and consciousness evolved. The reflexivity of flesh is at the root of our ongoing sense of identity and the experience of our consciousness as a unified single whole. Self-sensing is part of the reason why all our states of consciousness have a certain feel or mood to them. It is also at the heart of what Searle calls the ontological subjectivity or first person ontology of consciousness. “All conscious states only exist as experienced by an agent.”” My pain exists because I experience it. If I cease to be, my pain ceases to be. Rocks, trees, books, neurons, photons, dendrites and all the other objects of our world exist as third person phenomena. They exist whether I experience them or not. As Searle points out, if we could give a complete description of all the neural firings in the brain (third person ontology) when someone experiences a pain, we would always leave out the essential nature of consciousness, its subjectivity (first person ontology) Subjectivity is by its nature reflexive. That is why it exists only as experienced by an agent. This is also why structural coupling as a mechanistic account of human perception and cognition fails and why all mechanistic third person accounts fail. They leave out the reflexivity and subjectivity of consciousness. A mechanistic third person account of pain always leaves out the experience of the pain as my pain. Mechanistic third person accounts of perception and cognition in nonhuman organisms fail for the same reasons. They leave out the kind of subjectivity other organisms have, the kind of unreflective selfsensing that is inherent to their particular form of cognition.18


The best place to end this paper is with the question that motivated it: how did matter become conscious of itself? Obviously, no researcher or philosopher has any idea about what the answer is. One of the more important reasons why is because we have been looking at the phenomena of consciousness, body, ancYrnatter in terms of categories created from the Western world’s dualistic framework These categories are not only too primitive, they are so completely unsuited for the task that they make the framing of the question utterly paradoxical. As Merleau-Ponty fully understood, we need a new ontology I contend that it must be a nonmechanistic one that allows us to fathom how living matter is the stuff of consciousness and how living matter is capable of self-sensing. Reflexivity is a biological phenomenon, but not one that can be explained or modeled according to the metaphysical presuppositions that guide most scientific research. The Santiago theory is important because it so clearly recognizes autopoiesis and cognition as two aspects of the same biological event. If we can see past its transcendental’ cognitivism and its commitment to Descartes’ machine ontology and realize that reflexivity is just as central to autopoiesis as cognition is, we may have the beginnings of a holistic, nonmechanistic approach to biology and the evolution of consciousness.

Whether I am correct or not about reflexivity being beyond the ken of mechanistic science and the computational theory of mind, the question that begs for an answer is the one found in the subtitle of this paper. Before we can answer this second order question about consciousness we must answer the more fundamental and prior question: how did matter become capable of folding back on itself and sensing itself? Or to state it in Merleau-Ponty’s language, how did matter become reflexive? If we could answer this question first, we would be in a better position to understand how reflexive living matter evolved to where it could fold back on itself yet one more time and both reflectively know itself and say to itself, “I am.”19

1 See, for example, “Optimizing the Animal: An Interview with Hans Flury (Part Two),” Rolf Lines, Vol.XXV, No. 1, Winter 1997. Flury flirts with ontological dualism when he says that the body does not distinguish us from the animals and that “the body is not human at all.” Like Descartes, he seems to think that what makes us human is the mind or the soul. Using dualism to support his postion, Flury argues for severely limiting the work of Structural Integration to what he calls the non-human animal part of our nature. He neither defines his terms nor provides any compelling reasons for this peculiar point of view. If his position is as straightforwardly dualistic and Cartesian as it seems, then it clearly flies in the face of Dr. Rolf’s professed monism and her claim that her work deals with the whole person. As result, his view is neither radical (in the sense of returning to the root) nor orthodox. Since Flury provides no compelling reasons for diminishing our scope of practice to the non-human animal, his view may be more based in personal than theoretical issues. Nevertheless, his need to curtail how we work should not blind Rolfers to the importance of Flury’s considerable and often brilliant contributions. Flury’s theory of structure neither supports his dualism nor requires it. Comprehending his view of normal function is well worth the effort it takes to understand it intellectually and experientially.

2 Jeffrey Maitland, “Radical Somatics and Philosophical Counseling,” Rolf Lines, Vol. XXVI I, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp.29 – 40.

3 Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness, (New York, 1996), pp. 23-24.

4 Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, (Boston, 1997), p. 169.

5 Francisco Varela, The Principles of Biological Autonomy, (New York, 1979), p. 265.

6 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, (New York, 1999), pp. 17-18. In the “Acknowledgments” they say, “We owe a special debt to Evan Thompson, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch, whose extensive work on embodied cognition has been inspirational and informed our thinking throughout.” (p. x) Since Lakoff and Johnson do not sufficiently appreciate how the cognitive theory of life is infected with all the problems of transcendental philosophy and with a misinterpretation of Merleau-Ponty, they do not realize how their own attempt to create an empirically responsible philosophy of consciousness is thereby seriously undermined.

7 Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, (New York, 1996), p. 271.

8 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991), p. 205.

9 Ibid., p. 214.

10 Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, p. 241.

11 Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind, p. 150.

12 The solipsism that results from the transcendental cognitivism of the Santiago theory also undermines Varela’s organism-centered theory of the immune response. Varela opposes Metchinkoff and Burnet’s view that the central response of the immune system is the discrimination between “self” and “nonself.” Varela says that “the central distinction is between what can and cannot interact with the immunological structure: a distinction between identity and ‘nonsense’ or immunological ‘noise’.” (The Principles of Biological Autonomy, p. 219.) Thus the immune system does not discriminate between “self” and other, but between “my identity is OK” or “my identity is not OK.” The immunological response is a cognitive response and the understanding of this response is a transcendental one. Thus, in exactly the same way the Santiago theory makes cognition impossible, it also makes the immunological response impossible.

13 Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind, p. 156.

14 Francisco Varela, The Principles of Biological Autonomy, (New York, 1979), p.6.

15Ibid., p.9.

16 Francisco Varela, The Principles of Biological Autonomy, p. 218.

17 John Searle, Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, (New York, 1998), p. 73.

18 These considerations apply to the various quantum theories of consciousness and the idea that consciousness somehow has its source in the microtubules of the cell. These theories attempt to explain consciousness in the materialism of a third person ontology and miss the reflexivity of consciousness and its first person ontology. For a summary of the quantum theories see Evolving the Mind: on the nature of matter and the origin of consciousness, by A.G. Cairnes Smith, (Cambridge, 1996). For a discussion of the microtubule theory see Kevin Frank’s “Stuart Hameroff’s Theories Regarding Microtubules as the Seat of Consciousness,” Rolf Lines, 1998, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, pp. 38 – 40.

19 With some justification we can expanc this point and say that with human consciousness being comes to know itself for the first time – not only to sense itself, but to know itself. If biology can shed its inherited metaphysics, it may show us a way to conceptualize a small piece of what the Buddha directly experienced about the nature and activit,. of being over two thousand years ago. He experientially realized that the activity that is constantly creating and destroyinc this universe, an activity which is not consciousness, was also his own conten and activity. By being it and knowing it he was able manifest the wisdom that can say, “I am this.” Varela and colleagues in The Embodied Mind argue that cognitive science can be enriched by adopting the Buddhist practice of mindfulness as a practice in disciplined observation. Understanding how to cultivate this kind of disciplined observation is what we as Rolfer must also learn if we are to perceive the whole person. The cultivation of this way of perceiving is also at thi heart of phenomenology and Goethe’s approach to biology, which anticipated Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty’s phenom enology. Essential to the Buddhist realization is not just the experience of no-self, but more importantly the manifestation and experientially based articulation of the nature of being (Dharma). As long as the Santiago theory remains infected with transcendental cognitivism, it will never intellectually or experientially grasp the essence of Buddhism – and its version of mindfulness and its cultivation will evaporate into the vapors of the unknowable.

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