Who Determines Surroundedness of an Organism?

A quote from Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

p. 113-114 ‘Yes, there is a sense in which it is correct to invoke the opposition between “the organism” and “the environment” in the case of an insentient creature such a a bacterium. The organism does not, however, itself lie at the centre of its environment, creating an organism-centered space. The centre-surround distinction belongs only to the observer, just as that which counts as the surroundings of a pebble to the observer rather than to the pebble. It is the observer who posits the organism as being related to an environment centred on it. “Surroundedness” does not come free along with, say, a membrane marking the boundary between the organism and the rest of the material world any more that it comes free with an entity such as a pebble that has a continuous surface marking its limits. The boundary visible to us do not transform the organism’s objective location into a point of view that stipulates that which is physically around it as its surrounding.’

I like this statement and below there is my discussion related to it at the everything-list.


13.10.2012 12:16 Evgenii Rudnyi

Another question here would be who will divide the state space to a bacterium and environment. Let us imagine that we have implemented somehow a bacterium in Game of Life (or even better in Continuous Game of Life). What is meaning of “A bacterium travels” when there is no human observer?

Or let me can put it this way. To find out whether a bacterium is there and to find out its coordinates, one could imagine an extra algorithms that analyses the state space of for example Continuous Game of Life. Now we run two different simulations.

1) Continuous Game of Life as it is.

2) Continuous Game of Life with an extra algorithm to find out if a bacterium is there and to report coordinates of the bacterium.

Is there any difference between 1) and 2)?

14.10.2012 01:46 Russell Standish

A very pertinent question. I wish I knew the answer (myself and many others too!).

There is a sort of proto-answer in the work of Jim Crutchfield. It is possible (sort of) to come up with a workable definition of emergence that doesn’t require the presence of an observer (or rather he has a metric to indicate what sorts of things are likely to be interesting to an abstract observer – my emphasis).

14.10.2012 10:55 Evgenii Rudnyi

Do you know some papers/books that discuss this question in depth?

I have taken this idea from

Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

where it was expressed just in a general manner.

Doesn’t this mean, that simulations kind of 1) are dead ends?

14.10.2012 12:10 Russell Standish

Not so much. I have some speculative remarks along these lines towards the of my 2000 paper “Evolution in the Multiverse”.

Also implicit in my view of complexity as information outlined in my 2001 paper “Complexity and Emergence”, and also in the more pragmatic 2003 paper “Open-ended artificial evolution”, is that the question of generating an “observer” endemic to the system become crucial. But I haven’t written about it – its more as embryonic thought at this stage. As I mention, Jim Crutchfield has taken a hard-nosed objectivist approach to emergence, which I think must contain a kernel of what is required to do this.

I’m not sure which of Jim’s paper to recommend, but perhaps:

J. P. Crutchfield and M. Mitchell, The evolution of emergent computation, PNAS November 7, 1995 vol. 92 no. 23 10742-10746.

or maybe J. P. Crutchfield (1994) Physica D, 75, 11-54.

Of more recent papers, I was particularly impressed by Anil Seth (2010), Artificial Life 16, 179-196.

In Internet

Seth, A.K. (2010). Measuring autonomy and emergence via Granger causality Artificial Life. 16(2):179-196

J. P. Crutchfield, The Calculi of Emergence: Computation, Dynamics, and Induction, Physica D 75 (1994) 11-54.

A message to the biosemiotic list

ER 17.02.2013 13:26

First it would be necessary to say what a cosmology we consider. Tallis considers physicalism when there is some matter that develops itself according to some laws. A good example from Hawking’s book to this end is Game of Life. There are simple rules that leads to complex self-reproducing structures. By the way Game of Life have been generalized to continuum, for example look at this simulation


Could we say that creatures in the movie determine themselves their surroundedness? In my view, in this case clearly not. In this particular case, Umwelt could be just fantasy in eyes of an external observer.