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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Brian Goodwin

Brian Goodwin was a mathematician and biologist who helped found the field of mathematical and theoretical biology, which includes modeling, complex systems biology, bioinformatics, and computational biology. He was a co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute, where the emphasis was on deterministic chaos and the self-organization of complex adaptive systems as the model for biology.

But Goodwin did not like the prevalent opinion that biology can be "reduced" to chemistry and physics. Like Ernst Mayr and others who called for a new philosophy of biology, Goodwin emphasized that biological systems have a history, unlike anything in physics. He liked the "philosophy of organism" proposed by Alfred North Whitehead's Process Philosophy and disliked René Descartes' dualism of mind and body.

He was a bit skeptical about Darwinism, arguing that genes cannot fully explain the complexity of biological systems. He thought that nonlinear phenomena and perhaps even new fundamental laws were needed to understand evolutionary biology. Complex patterns observed in nature might result from constraints imposed by complexity, with natural selection in a secondary role.

Perhaps Goodwin's greatest contribution to biology was the suggestion that biological systems, and subsystems down to the proteins (Jacques Monod thought proteins were purposeful - "teleonomic"), should be regarded as creative cognitive systems, using their knowledge to decide on actions and behaviors. He named this idea cognitive biology.

He described what he meant by knowledge, and how knowledge (and a knowing system) can give "meaning" to information.

I have defined knowledge as a useful description of some aspect of the world, giving the possessor the competence to behave in a manner which contributes to its survival and reproduction. The fact that we are dealing with descriptions means that there are codes or sets of codes which relate them to that which is described. The unravelling of such codes, which is the equivalent of learning to read an unknown language, together with the solution of the problem how the knowledge is transmitted reliably from generation to generation, has been a major preoccupation of contemporary biology: coded knowledge is located largely in the DNA, which acts as a primary memory store for the organism, this knowledge being in the form of hypotheses which need to be translated into active form for testing. However, there is a great deal of 'tacit' knowledge in other structures. The elucidation of the translation and assembly process from the coded linear sequences in the DNA to active three-dimensional proteins, which function as tests of genetic hypotheses by revealing their meaning, constitutes one of the triumphs of twentieth-century biology.

I used the term 'meaning' above in relation to the translation and testing of genetic hypotheses and it needs some clarification in this context. In coded form as it occurs in the DNA, the information for a particular protein such as the enzyme β-galactosidase (required for the catabolism of the nutrient lactose in micro-organisms) or a crystallin (a protein which forms the transparent lens of the eye) cannot be tested because it exerts no action upon the organism or its environment. Before it can be tested, the information in the DNA must be translated into a form in which it exerts a particular type of force and acts within a particular context. Thus the β-galactosidase converts lactose into glucose and galactose when it operates within the context of the bacterial cell (which defines particular conditions of pH, osmotic concentration, substrate level, etc.); while a crystallin transmits light rays in a particular way within the context of the eye. These activities may be said to constitute tests of meaning of the coded hypotheses in the hereditary material, involving the interpretation of the information. This interpretation takes place within a particular context, which in part determines the pattern of forces which operate during the testing operation. We then arrive at a distinction between information and knowledge. The technical definition of information involves only selection (e.g. specifying one out of a set of possibilities), but says nothing about meaning, which I take always to involve activity in real space-time. Thus knowledge differs from information in that it not only involves selection of alternative possibilities, but also includes instruction for action which, operating in a particular context, conveys meaning.

Goodwin marks the "discontinuity" between the human and the biological spheres as the use of symbols (abstract thought like his mathematics), a view shared by many theoretical scientists. Information philosophy focuses on the creation of abstract, symbolic information by humans, its communication, and its external storage for use by future humans (the Sum).
My own definition of knowledge as a useful description of an aspect of the world has itself dualistic overtones, since it can be taken to mean that the description need not reproduce the essence of that described, but only represent it in some formal sense. My meaning is that knowledge is manifest when there is a re-enactment of the process which is described, as the biological clock re-enacts the cyclic process of the night-day-night transition. The evolutionary history of the organism, which includes the experience of these day-night cycles, is embodied in the organism's activity. Therefore its knowledge is in its process; it is not something static, set aside from this process. Thus instead of a description of the organism's world emerging from the organism as subject, which is the Cartesian or the Kantian way of looking at knowledge, we have the organism emerging from the world as an organised, coherent whole in which knowledge is a constituent of activity: a constraining, ordering constituent, as described above. As Whitehead (Process and Reality) has put it: 'Descartes in his philosophy conceives the thinker as creating the occasional thought. The philosophy of organism inverts the order, and conceives the thought as a constituent operation in the creation of the occasional thinker . . . . In this inversion we have the final contrast between a philosophy of substance and a philosophy of organism.' The creative process thus realises itself through the organised activities of beings. For Whitehead this description applies not only to organisms, but to Nature in general, thus avoiding a physical-biological dualism. But we then find ourselves in the position of asking what is the nature of these beings if they are other than biological organisms; i.e. how are we to recognise other 'actual entities' apart from ourselves and other organisms? We are faced with some kind of distinction between the organic and the inorganic, between animate and inanimate. Whitehead regards this distinction as fictitious, arising from an abstraction. He also appears to deny that there is any significant distinction between organic order and mind. This denial results in the important assertion of continuity, of a basic unity in the world; but it fails to recognise different levels of creative organisation, and to distinguish between them. I have suggested a distinction between biological and physical process in terms of the concept of a cognitive system; but a distinction between organisms and minds requires, I believe, a theory of symbolic and moral processes which characterises human intelligence and contrasts it sharply with the constrained knowledge which operates in organisms. Symbolic thought has degrees of freedom not available to processes which employ fixed relationships of interpretation and meaning between structures and their descriptions (reproductions or re-enactments).

However, despite the necessity for clear distinctions between levels of organisational complexity in Nature, I believe that a major consequence of Whitehead's philosophy of organism is the resolution of the Cartesian duality in his vision of the world as creative process. The fundamental category of being is activity, creative activity. In relation to organismic process, knowledge is an essential ordering ingredient. Man as an actual entity interacts with every other actual entity, i.e. the rest of the universe, and this is how the world can be known, why it is intelligible. Knowledge cannot be obtained without this union and the way of science is the way of experience. Knowledge comes through the resolution of complication into greater and greater simplicity and the art of resolution is the art of life. A cognitive biology seeks to bring this vision into clearer perspective. The way is made infinitely easier by the extraordinarily penetrating insights of Whitehead.

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