The Epistemontology of Life and Existence.
Death and Transfiguration
We, as individuals, seem to be controlled by two, often disparate, existential systems, each endowed with its own distinct strategy when processing the idea of life and the circumstance of quotidian, real time existence and death. Both existential mind sets, conscious and subconscious, respectively, can significantly change our behavioral approach toward unexpected contingencies such as actually coming face to face with impending death and suffering. The epistemological/ abstract eternal and the ontological/individualized experiential, clash in both attitudes and actions as the will works out adaptive solutions in very different—almost opposite—ways. The coexistence of both conscious and subconscious strategies comes dramatically into life when experiencing and/or witnessing the metaphysical and emotional evolution of a human death.
Life. Many years back when I was a young Catholic biophysicist at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research I was very curious about how a crystalline ribonucleic acid powder (Rous Sarcoma Virus or RSV) standing in a test tube for weeks could come alive when cultured with chick embryo fibroblasts. I wanted to capture and describe that crucial moment of animation by using serial measurements with the latest biophysical chemistry technology including electron microscopy. I was lost and threw the towel when RSV disappeared from cytoplasm and incorporated itself into host nuclear DNA. Soon afterwards Howard and Temin won a Nobel prize by describing how RNA transcriptase enabled the viral replication based on similar results. At that time I simply called the RSV crystal a ‘truncated life’ who hijacked the host cell’s reproductive machinery for its own cancerous replicating ends. I then decided to come back to that enigma, in a neurophilosophical broad context, upon retirement from academia. After three published volumes on a model of brain dynamics the problem has become more complex than I had bargained for as will be briefly discussed below. The main Gordian knot has been an un-necessary quest by physical scientists and metaphysical theologians alike for a monadic interpretation of life at the exclusion of the other. Our contribution has been to argue for both sides of the same coin.
Scientific methodology has failed to explain how life, albeit in apparent or presumed abeyance of the first and second law of thermodynamics, is able to spontaneously evolve into a complex structural and dynamic entity able to self-generate and sustain a super-complex intrinsic order; all allegedly without the benefit of a preceding blueprint for such specific destiny. The fundamental transition from inorganic/organic atoms and molecules into a living unit of life still remains a fundamental mystery in physics, chemistry, and biology because of a lack of empirically complete and consistent descriptions or explanations of life as an emergent, irreducible and animated fact of nature. One can understand why the comfort of giving some rest to an unsatisfied inquiring mind by resting the case on a convenient “self-replicating” DNA which understandably has evolved into a major metaphor for explaining all there is to be learned about life. After all, why not invoke coding self-replicators and coded self-organizing interactors at all levels of organization to counteract the inescapable and self-evident causally efficient but invisible driving force which seems to be controlling evolution by natural selection? However, it is just as counter-intuitive to analytical logic to conceptualize humans as survivalist epiphenomenal gene-vehicles, a la Dawkins, as it is to invoke the exclusive mediation of an intelligent design or blueprint guiding such beautiful and complex order defying natural laws as witnessed in developmental and evolutionary biology. What is life then? Let’s first agree on the terminology, what do we mean by ‘life’, ‘existence’, ‘essential’ as opposed to ‘accidental’ attributions and others.
Having personally witnessed the early death and transfiguration of my dear son John Arthur, I had the opportunity to differentiate between that conceptualized instant of animation of matter when ‘life’ comes into being, like the RSV ribonucleoprotein described above, and that subsequent, perceptual description of ‘life in transit’ I chose to call ‘existence’ in real time.
Central to ‘life’ is its scientific characterization of ‘existence’ as essentially open-ended systems yet subtly maintained in steady states yet far from an equilibrium and sustained by a self-regulated inflow/outflow of matter/energy to fuel self-regulated auto-catalytic smaller cycles. The latter are somehow programmed to complete a much larger human life cycle of simultaneously conjoined endergonic negentropy and exergonic entropy. In the beginning of the cycle – endergonic control phase- we sense and respond to internal and external environments, we extract energy, build and generate complex sub-systems at a faster rate than at a later exergonic control phase where we degrade energy, deconstruct and degenerate at faster rates as we complete our human cycle of life, happiness, suffering and eventual death. Living is dying.
As we learn more and more about the biophysical chemistry of living organisms we seem to be in denial that, because we cannot ontologically describe either a causally efficient force to drive the dynamics of the living or the essential negentropy of structural/functional details of its self-evident order, there must exist an epistemological metaphysical entity providing the blueprints for their orderly evolution into a living unit. So, why not ignore those two postulates of scientific methodology and invoke the mysterious existence of autopoietic, self generating , self sustaining super-complex activity that, equally mysteriously ‘emerges’ into a super-complex living unit. As such that miracle of creation is seen as being somehow essentially endowed with another super-complex genetic and memetic memory database good for a human life cycle. A materialistic act of faith and denial! So much for the super-complexity of the enactment of life from the non-living.
What about the evolutionary path of the living unit as it unfolds in real space-time? Do we evolve according to the exclusively rational ontological model of the materialistic faith or the exclusively epistemological model of the theological faith? What kind of decision-making behavior, should we predict from either model? Are there other alternatives? Stay tuned. See also Harold 2001.
It has not been so bad for an ontological scientific model of ‘life’ rooted essentially on falsifiable sense-phenomenal measurements on the one hand and intuitions about experiences on invisible and significant objects and/or events whose existential meaning is epistemologically found when expressed and communicated in a metaphysical logic language, on the other hand. A hybrid model of sorts. But which side of the epistemontological coin do we choose? Do we need to have choices?
Existence. Contrary to the experience of the originally elongated chick embryo fibroblast that predictably transformed into a spherical tumor cell within the standard environmental condition (STP) of the experiment, in the exclusive case of the human species, existence is an individualized self conscious experience of being oneself -as distinct from the relevant sense-phenomenal or intuited invisible surroundings which become the human existential circumstance. The human existence is predicated on inherited, acquired or willfully (or not) created circumstances. The latter does not exclude circumstances from being consciously willed (or not) as imaginary, mythical, fictional, and the like. To say that it ‘exists’ means/implies it is ‘real’ for a self-conscious person within a stated probability. If the object/event is a pathognomonic reality of mental disease it is not proper to say it ‘exists’. If something ‘is’, whether ontologically sensed or epistemologically inferred as probable (not possible!) under specified STP conditions, then it ‘exists’ under the scrutiny of metaphysical logic methods even if invisible to the sensory detection. In other words, existence implies a probable predicate attribution of an entity that ‘is’, ontologically measured matter or epistemologically inferred micro because of extrasensory dimensions. It is important to distinguish further between the existential –as defined- and the predicative context. There is an essential and an accidental predicate. A particulate matter is an essential predicate –invisible or not- whereas a wave form is an accidental predicate expressing the manner in which the particulate matter travels in space time. Color, shape, etc. are examples of accidental, non-essential predicates. Of more common use are, unfortunately, identity predicates where equivalent essential or accidental features are substituted for the original and then the representation handled as if they existed in reality and not analogically, a serious categorical error often found in the literature. Thus man is essentially a genetically determined biological entity with environmentally determined, acquired accidental predicates such as temperament, color, stature, and other psychosocial attributions. It should be obvious that once there exist accidental predicates there has to be an implied essential predicate because the former cannot have an independent existence. Man is he and his circumstance, a truly biopsychosocial (BPS) hybrid with free will. Without an introspective self consciousness-based free will one can conceive of a BPS adapted sub-human living being whose behavior or decision making process can be explained by Skinnerian operant conditioning or simulated in a computer. It is both the introspective capacity and the consequent co-generation of a silent language and thought that is exclusively human, as argued elsewhere. Having outlined the primacy of the genetically driven biological imperative of self preservation under unconscious control as an essential predicate and the memetically driven accidental predicate of his psycho-social existential circumstances under subconscious control, we should be in a position to generalize a model predicting the decision-making process for the human species. Which aspect will carry more weight in the free willing of behavioral adaptive alternatives, the rational or the emotional? Not so. The human species has been able to transcend the coded alternatives programmed in his genetic and memetic data bases and improvise a very individualized adaptive response tailored to his ongoing existential circumstance at that particular instance, sometime contrary to his own BPS interests. When you objectively ponder on this scenario you will realize that the materialistic, physicalist approach rooted exclusively on scientific methodology, while necessary and persuasive, is not sufficient to adequately model the dynamics of life and existence. We need to complement the physical evolutionary approach with a metaphysical component that will reach outside our 4-d space time for answers as explored in one of our dissertations. Of course, one can always settle for a myopic invocation of the magic of multiple autopoetic, self generated and self sustained forces that magically and spontaneously ‘emerge’ into a super complexity that violates the very physico-mathematical foundations of the physicalist rational approach. What role do non-rational, emotional circumstances play in the survival of our human species?
Death and Transfiguration. As my teary eyes watched my son Johnny die I kept asking to myself when does life end? Does life refer more to the functional integrity of the metabolic machinery sustaining the vital homeostatic processes like cell respiration and generation or does it mean the sudden or gradual extinction of that integrated ‘animation’ of matter we normally describe as being ‘alive’. For most of us parents, it is more like experiencing an irreversible harrowing process where both aspects, the biological chronicle of ‘systems failure’ and the sudden extinction of all measurable indices of animation. The former described by the physical credo that models the scientific physicalist script, the latter explained by the metaphysical script that models the theological credo. This inextricable duality makes life and death impossible to disambiguate. Having accepted death as a permanent, irreversible event, it now looks like the virtual mirror image of birth and life is seen now as ‘something’ that moves in and out of matter. But we may synthesize complex matter in the laboratory but never living/animated matter as described above. The combination of gametes DNA at fertilization to ‘synthesize’ living matter always has required a living cellular environment. Perhaps we will never know. As I pondered and grieved I turned my focus on the comparative effects of this ongoing process on the dying and myself on two levels. The first level was an evaluation of the efficacy of interspecies information transfer between Johnny and me. The second level was a speculation as to his suffering vis a vis my own. It did not take long for me to realize that the un-natural analgesic and anxiolytic pharmacological effects on both observed and observer respectively would seriously interfere with our cortical pre-motor mirror neurons and limbic systems as amply discussed elsewhere. When he was still in denial of the seriousness of his condition, his facial musculature profile and mental alertness reflected his hopes for recovery. When he was close to death his facial musculature relaxed as his mindscape revealed confusion and/or acceptance of his condition; at one point he even smiled. Not being able to analyze much at the first level, I turned into a speculation as to whether towards the end he was still suffering at least as much as I did. I was surprised at what a self-induced rationalization of the ongoing experience can do. At that point it became much more clear the distinction between the unconscious, subconscious and introspective self-consciousness aided by the co-generation of silent language and thought. I re-discovered, as hinted in a previous publication, that ultimately, rationalization of existential reality is a self serving activity geared to provide an experience of biopsychosocial well being, an epicurean hedonistic goal!! To follow are the tentative arguments I fashioned inside the Hospice room on that Sunday before he finally died.
Nobody wants their lives to end unless it is premature, the case of Johnny. But ‘it’ can move in at birth and out of existence at death, i.e. if there is re-incarnation, life is like an intervening gap of non-instantiated hibernation, a sort of break from ‘existence’ in the real, dangerous world and will continue in a paradisiac sleep waiting for a subsequent second or third.., coming.. Epicurus is smiling in his animated hibernation!
Epicurus characterized death as a harrowing evil but then rationalized: to whom? Not to Johnny, death will not affect him because when alive it is absent and when it comes he is absent. For death to harm the subject who dies, there must exist a subject who is harmed by death to satisfy its causal efficiency. Furthermore, who can precise the nature of the harm and the time and place where that harm is materialized? Restating, when the subject is alive there is no death and after we die there is no living subject to be harmed. Ergo, grief is entirely self-centered, me, the father, who wrapped inside a blanket of self-pity guilt emotionally grieve at my possible indirect, un-intentional involvement in his demise. But Johnny’s body and mind are not harmed by its own extinction. If we ponder hard and find out we did everything a parent can do to preserve his life we can be harmed only by whatever real negative deeds that will cause us to suffer. Is this the unavoidable, self serving or self preserving BPS integrity function of self consciousness, to rationalize an escape hatch and survive as a species. We have examined in detail how humans can logically analyze a situation in abstract, with the best of our analytical faculties during a decision-making contingency, only to find out how the individualized, ongoing, real time existential reality hijacks the logical justifications in providing the subject with a feeling of biopsychosocial equilibrium and a sense of well being. Needless to say, this behavior maybe illegal, immoral and in the long run may constitute an act against self interest but this is not always the case where altruistic acts against self preservation interests are in conscious control of the decision-making brain circuitry. There have been recently published (last week!) fMRI studies on decision-making choice of alternatives demonstrating the individualized nature of these processes where ongoing, real time experiences seem to counter well thought analytical conclusions in the subjects tested. If the experience and peremptory satisfaction of a sense of biopsychosocial well being controls our existential reality, then what can we say about the prophets that, living under similar or worse existential circumstances before the influence of organized religions, were able to overcome those strong neuro-humoral emotional satisfaction and do the right thing where self interest was not in exclusive control of behavior? What guided their sacrificial behavior against self-interest? More to come.
Summary and Conclusions.
The living human species, and to a large extent other subhuman species, share a wide spectrum of properties and phenomena that are entirely absent from inanimate matter. Living organisms undergo metabolic activity, grow and differentiate, respond to sensory stimulation, move, develop complex, organized functional structures, show the results of inherited environmental fluctuations, reproduce and die. They also develop significant ecological adaptive fitness to changing environments. Can the rationalized metaphor of the epistemological human abstraction, be separated from the circumstantial, ontological human of our historical experience? Quare.. This is what we find in controlled studies..
The physical aspects of their lives involves not only the replication of the nucleic acids that carry the genetic information, the memetic/epigenetic growth and maturation of the organism through a sequence of developmental steps that, exclusively in the case of humans, includes the ability to introspectively discover his individualized identity from others and the surroundings. The discovery of self coevolves with the faculty of language, now able to represent existential reality as metaphors which most likely share an embodiment with other vital neuronal networks in the brain real estate. Like other animals, inherited and environmentally-acquired servo controls guide the genetic and epigenetic preservation of biological life and its relevant neurohumoral concomitants. Unlike other animals, humans, in addition, rely on their unique ability of being self-conscious of self and others and evolve the language faculty for communication with self and others in creating a safe and progressive social environment fit for reproductive and creative social conviviality. Is the mind’s conscious linguistic representation of existential reality as conceptual metaphor abstractions separate from the quotidian unconscious/subconscious servo control of behavior? Can the physical sense-phenomenal, perceptual data bases and their metaphysical metaphor representations thereof both instantiated/embodied and share common neuronal networks? If so, which one is in control in the decision-making process. Quare… it all depends. If we depend on recorded history we would have to conclude that by and large experiencing the satisfaction of an adapted biopsychosocial equilibrated well being at the very moment when a decision must be made will trump any other logically-based abstraction or altruistic motive. Only by exception will be found the exemplary lives of historical prophets who seem to be guided by the larger, transcendental view of the metaphor abstraction coded by the language faculty; many a times performing conscious altruistic acts contrary to self interests. Why so? Are they aliens from another galaxy, immune from the pains and tribulations of existential reality or are they privy to extrasensory information?
Lakoff, in his seminal work on ‘Embodied cognition’ 1963, in open defiance of Chomskian language dogma that grammar was independent of meaning , had already considered the idea that the mind is not only represented in the brain but that the physical brain is causally efficient on controlling the metaphysical mind and not the other way around! Except in the cases of the prophets. However counter-intuitive as it may sound, it is a self-evident fact of life for the majority of us mortals. To our knowledge, nobody has even tried to understand the details of this neuronal network instantiation/embodiment of language representations as universals, as metaphor virtual reflections of existential reality. Thus, to understand the meaning of life and consciousness (not robotic awareness) we must cross disciplines, both the ontological perceptual of the natural physical sciences and the epistemological conceptual of metaphysical logic and adopt a hybrid epistemontological approach because our cognition of life and existence, that precedes every decision-making act, is influenced, if not determined, by our individualized experiences in the real time physical world. In the opinion of the undersigned there may have been a basic grammar structure, a la Chomsky, that enable communication to satisfy early basic childhood needs and then became the subject of a continuous evolution guided psycho-social adaptive strategies, a type of generative semantics where much of our language structure derives from physical environmental interactions during the first few years of life. See also: Lakoff and Johnson, ‘Metaphors We Live By’.
Dr. Angell O. de la Sierra, Esq. In Deltona, Florida Winter 2012-02-16