Living and knowing mean the same thing

The act of living, the act of experiencing the world, and the act of having knowledge are all the same thing. It sounds very abstract and philosophical, but it’s not philosophy: it’s basic biochemistry.

Think about the basic unit of life: the cell.

Autopoiesis: Living OrganizationA cell has a structure, and a set of chemical processes that are constantly operating to keep the cell in balance. This network of processes is dedicated to one and only one thing: keeping that cell running. Different chemical reactions that we talk about as metabolism, respiration, excretion: these are the basic functions of life itself. When taken together, they allow the cell to maintain a kind of equilibrium in its organization so that it doesn’t decay or break apart. These processes build cell walls when they are broken, repair internal structures, produce proteins, and so on.

In short, this organization of the cell–this system of biochemical processes that allow the cell to maintain its own identity as a cell over time–is actually what it means to say that this cell is “alive”.

Definition: Living is the operation of a network of biochemical processes in a structure that maintain that structure in some kind of dynamic equilibrium so that it maintains its own functioning over time.

Now, this is pretty easy when the environment is stable. If there is no change in the environment, the cell still needs to perform certain functions just to keep going: metabolism, respiration, and so on. But the big challenge happens whenever there is a change in the environment of the cell. That change will trigger changes in the biochemical structure of the cell, and drive it away from its happy equilibrium state.

If you look at the operation of the cell as a network of relationships that are all keeping each other in balance, then changes in the environment will deform that structure (in either a physical or a chemical sense) to bring it out of equilibrium.

How does the cell react?  It will respond by going through a series of changes, physical and chemical, that bring it back into equilibrium. This is basic chemistry–even more fundamentally, it is basic physics.

Lets look at a concrete example: an amoeba. When it is in equilibrium, it will sit in its petri dish, happy as a clam (happy as an amoeba?) and will continue with its normal chemical processes of respiration and growth and self-repair. But if you put a small blob of sugar next to it, this will cause a change in the chemistry of the water around the amoeba.

The sugar will start to dissolve, and will spread outward from the source. The concentration of dissolved sugar will be higher in the area closer to the source than in the region farther away. This causes a change–a deformation, a disequilibrium–in the physics and the chemistry of the amoeba’s membrane. The sugar interacts with the cell wall, and makes it more elastic. This means that the amoeba’s cell membrane is more elastic on the side that is closer to the sugar than on the far side of the amoeba, away from the sugar. This causes an asymmetry in the physics of the cell: the pressure of the cytoplasm is able to press outward and stretch the side of the cell that is facing the sugar. As a result, the cytoplasm “flows” toward the sugar, moving the entire amoeba along with it.

The entire amoeba moves toward the source of the sugar until it engulfs it.

This is how it eats. This is also a very basic and fundamental form of perception and response. Amoeba like sugar; amoeba want sugar; amoeba move to go eat sugar. Who knows? “Want” and “desire” may very well be exactly what the amoeba is experiencing, subjectively. (I’m not entirely certain what the internal subjective experiences of an amoeba are.)

But it’s also chemistry and physics. The “perception” and “response”, in this case, are simply a consequence of exactly those same processes that define that cell as a living thing. The cell has an identity as being a “living thing” because it is composed of a network of physical and chemical relationships that maintain themselves over time in a kind of dynamic equilibrium state. It is because of these driving forces within the cell that it reacts to the environment the way that it does.

Definition: Perception is the operation of a network of biochemical processes in a structure that maintain that structure in some kind of dynamic equilibrium so that it maintains its own functioning over time, in the presence of a changing environment.

(By the way, you’ll notice that I added a phrase on to the end of the definition of “perception”, but if you look back up the page, the same could also be added to the definition of “living” as well.)

“That’s all fine and good for amoeba,” you may say, “But what does that have to do with me?”

The same thing is true about our own sensory cells. Our photoreceptors, the cells in our eyes that detect light, have a structure that is thrown out of equilibrium by certain wavelengths of light. Those cells then have to go through a number of chemical and physical processes in response to that deformation in order to bring those cells back into equilibrium. It happens that one of those processes involves triggering an electrochemical signal that is sent to the brain. But when viewed from the perspective of cellular biochemistry, the cell isn’t “trying” to send signals to the brain. What the cell is “trying” to do is get back to equilibrium. All it is “trying” to do is live.

It’s the same as the amoeba. Our cells are living things. As living things, they are chemically and physically structured to maintain their own dynamic equilibrium. When the outside world brings them out of equilibrium, it is the biochemical process of living itself that wrestles the cell back into equilibrium. This exact same process is what we call “perception”: the cell responding to light and sending a signal to our brains.

Living is perception. They are the same thing.

Or, to put it another way: the biochemical processes that, when taken together, constitute the process of “living” are precisely the same biochemical processes that, when taken together, constitute the process of “perception”.

But let’s take this a step further. From an evolutionary standpoint, this behavior represents a kind of knowledge.

Now, I’m obviously not talking about the kind of conscious representational knowledge that you have when you memorize facts about the world. But it’s a kind of implicit knowledge. It’s “knowledge” in the sense of effective interaction with the world.

We say “he knows how to swim” when someone can swim effectively.

We say “he knows how to dance” when someone can dance effectively.

Similarly, the simple biochemical fact that the amoeba moves to engulf sucrose represents a kind of basic structural knowledge: the engulfing sucrose will help it to survive. It is evolutionary knowledge.  It is structural knowledge.

This “knowledge” is the reason why the chemical organization of the cell works produces a functional result within its environment.

In the same way, the fact that our sensory cells operate the way that they do reflects a kind of knowledge. The structure and operation of our photoreceptors is what ties our subjective experiences to certain types of “disturbances” in the outside world.  The exact same processes that maintain the equilibrium of the cell (“living”) reflect information about the environment (“knowledge”) that leads to a response that constitutes perception and action.

Living is perception, and perception is a form of knowing.

On a fundamental chemical and physical level, the ideas of “life” and “perception” and “knowledge” are completely entwined with one another.

No wait!

That sentence is a little misleading: they are not entwined with one another. That implies that they are separate but related.

When viewed from the perspective of cellular biology: life, perception, and knowledge are all, in fact, the same thing.



Post Scriptum. Incidentally, I didn’t come up with this argument. The first person to really articulate this complete argument in this way was the Chilean evolutionary biologist Humberto Maturana. If you want to find more ideas like this, go Google him and his student, Francisco Varela, who wrote a number of books and papers on this topic.