3.3. Understanding as an activity

In the last section, we said that the state of life is characterized by an internal unstable, flowing equilibrium referred to as homeostasis. This implies, among others, to continually intake sufficient quantities of the substances and of the energy needed for the maintenance of life and to discharge the remains of metabolism.

A living thing needs to maintain homeostasis, otherwise it does not survive. The maintenance of homeostasis requires permanent self-regulation, and this self-regulation is the primary activity of a living thing in order to stay in life. Life, therefore, is an active state in nature. a state of permanent movement, at least in the interior of a living thing. If something does not exhibit any movement externally and internally, then we will hardly regard it as living.

Self-movement is thus an essential property of living things. First, there is the movement in the fluid interior of cells; then growth, bodily expansion in space,comes in addition. Growth might have been the first kind of external movement of living things. Prior to growth in a direction, e.g. the growth of green plants towards light, there was growth as such, without direction. The self-activity of growing was the precondition for green plants to develop the ability to grow towards light and, with their roots, into the soil, that is, to respond to information from outside.

Animals do not only grow, most of them are able to actively move along in space. Already some species of bacteria, i.e., simple monads without nucleus are able to quickly move in fluid environment by means of rotating flagella. Also this movement might have originally been without certain direction, as already movement as such is beneficial: In standing water, an immobile living thing’s surrounding becomes more and more enriched with excrement, whereas nutrients become rare. A living thing able to actively move can escape this unfavorable situation.

Many bacteria, however, have receptors by means of which they can detect nutrients or pollutants in their environment. On the basis of this information they (statistically) move in the direction of the increasing concentration of a nutrient or of the decreasing concentration of a pollutant, respectively (chemotaxis). But importantly, it is not the concentration of the nutrient or pollutant which controls the monad’s movement. It is the bacterium’s self-regulation which controls the movement, and the purpose of this control is the maintenance of homeostasis.

Basically, it is an error to believe that the activity of living things is caused or controlled by external factors or stimuli. Activity, active self-regulation for maintaining homeostasis is a primary and essential property of living things. Green plants grow towards light not because the light draws them in this direction – light has not the power to draw solid bodies towards anywhere. It is the plant’s internal self-regulation which controls the direction of growth, and which learned in the course of evolution that growing towards light is beneficial for survival.

Remember, at this point, that living things in themselves combine two aggregate phases, fluid and solid. As (more or less) solid bodies they can grow (think of the role of rigid cell walls for the growth of trees), and if mobile they can move freely in space like a grain of sand blown away by the wind, like a stone rolling downwards a hillside, or like a planet in its orbit.

There is movement of non-living solid bodies everywhere, and each of these movements has its causes by which it is determined: external causes and invariable properties of the moving body like mass, density, or shape. But the movement of natural non-living things has no purpose, no goal. The active movement of living things, by contrast, is mainly determined, driven, and controlled by internal processes the purpose of which is the maintenance of homeostasis, i.e., the maintenance of life.

Since activities and movements of living things have goals or purposes, they can be evaluated on the basis of these goals and purposes and classified as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, as advantageous or disadvantageous for survival and well-being. Likewise, things and events which happen in the environment of a living thing and which have an impact on its well-being are, from the living thing’s perspective, divided into two classes of things and events: good and bad ones.

Therefore, the origin of life with its immanent purpose to preserve the state of life – and not to backdrop into the physically more probable state of non-living matter – entails the emergence of a new polarity in the world: the polarity between the good and the bad, the advantageous and the disadvantageous, and in the behavior of living things between right and wrong. A living thing can do wrong, with danger, anguish, or death being the consequence.

The fact that anguish and death are possible consequences of a living thing’s behavior makes this behavior either right or wrong. So, together with life, also error comes into the world. The polarity of life and death, emerging together with the development of living things from non-living matter results in a polarity of the things and events concerning a living being. These things and events mean pleasure or anguish, weal or woe, survival or death for it. And naturally, the polarity is even more characteristic for events caused by the living being itself. So the contrast between right and wrong, between understanding and fallacy comes about.

When an animal, even a very simple one, behaves right in its world (the world it is concerned by) so that it survives and avoids damage for itself, then we will not say that the animal doesn’t understand its world – even if this understanding is not associated with consciousness. The animal ‘knows’ (without being aware of this knowledge) what information from the environment ‘means’ for its behavior. Semantics, meaning of information comes into the world by the fact that living things are required to actively behave so or so in response to information.

However, can we not say of non-living things as well that events in their environment have a meaning for them? Can we not say: frost means for water that it freezes? The crucial difference here is that an external factor, frost, causes the ‘behavior’ of the water. The water is not active and cannot behave wrong because there is no purpose measured against which one could evaluate the behavior of water as right or wrong.

Now, assume there is a simple animal, maybe an insect which, by means of its sense organs, is able to identify two or three kinds of food as well as two or three kinds of potential danger (I think that’s a realistic assumption). Our animal behaves in the same way when faced with one of that kinds of food; it nears and feeds, and it behaves in the same way when faced with one of that kinds of danger: it flees. Our animal therefore possesses two categories: a category of things to look for, and a category of things to flee.

Living things are able and required to develop categories because they are able and, for the sake of their survival, they need to be able to recognize differences. The basic difference existing for a living thing in its world is the difference between things and events that help the living thing to survive, on one hand, and things and events that threaten its life, on the other hand. These are the first categories; it is the first difference a living thing has to regard in its behavior.

The categories which are property already of simple living things are solely categories of behavior, not of any kind of thinking. These categories, however, are the basis for understanding information, that is, understanding what the differences in forms and structures mean which a living thing is faced with in its world and which it can detect by its receptors or sense organs. The original understanding is, as mentioned, purely behavioral: the ‘right’ activity adventageous for survival and/or preservation of the species.

The opposite of understanding is fallacy in the sense of misunderstanding and in the sense of error, i.e., wrong behavior – but this is one and the same for a plant or animal. The cause of fallacy is always localized in the living thing itself: it lacks (in its structure) the knowledge needed to behave right in response to an information. The question of how a living thing gets such knowledge is subject of the next section.


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