J. Scott Jordan (2000) The World in the Organism: Living Systems are Knowledge. Psycoloquy: 11(113) Efference Knowledge (18)

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Psycoloquy 11(113): The World in the Organism: Living Systems are Knowledge

Commentary on Jarvilehto on Efference-Knowledge

J. Scott Jordan
Department of Psychology
3700 W. 103rd t.
Saint Xavier University
Chicago, IL 60655



Jarvilehto challenges information-processing theory and its inherent commitment to stimulus-based, cause-effect models of perception. In its stead, he proposes a field-based systems theory in which traditional psychological concepts such as perception, mind, and consciousness find themselves localized within fields of organism-environment transformation, as opposed to the brain. The consequences of such a conceptual scheme are many. First, it affords a means of conceptualizing perception and action which overcomes the conceptual inadequacies of the representationalism inherent in information-processing theory (IPT), and second, it provides an ontological framework which overcomes the notion of context-independent corpuscular essences (i.e., things) that leads IPT to representationalism.


afference, artificial life, efference, epistemology, evolution, Gibson, knowledge, motor theory, movement, perception, receptors, robotics, sensation, sensorimotor systems, situatedness


1. In his thought experiment involving a motor-only organism, Jarvilehto (1998) describes environment as an energy-gradient, and action as the means by which an organism makes its way through, and ultimately captures, certain portions of that energy-gradient. Such an approach to describing organism-environment coordinations is rather consistent with the approaches proposed by Lotka (1945), Odum (1983), Vandervert (1995), and Kauffman (1995). Lotka, for example, modeled the whole of evolution as the struggle for available energy, and organisms as energy-transformation systems participating in that struggle. Odum, in addition to modeling organisms as energy-transformation systems, further models all of nature as a self-organizing energy-transformation hierarchy, while Kauffman argues that within such a self-organizing network of transformation, individual transformers (i.e., organisms) are able to sustain themselves because they are autocatalytic, the products produced by their energy-transformations feed back into those transformations as fuel.

2. Common to all these theorists is the notion of energy-capture and that energy-transformation organisms are phylogenetically-emergent energy-transformation systems that must intake, transform, and dissipate energy in order to sustain themselves. Given such a description of organisms and environments, what is perception? Jarvilehto states the following:

    "Perception joins new parts of the environment to the organism-
    environment system; thus knowledge is formed by perception through
    a reorganization (a widening and differentiation) of the organism-
    environment system rather than through the transmission of
    information from the environment". (p. 1)

3. According to this account, perception is a transforming field phenomenon, not an informing transfer phenomenon. What is more, such fields of transformation are to be localized, not in the brain, but in the perceptual field in which the brain is nested.

4. In a recent attempt to further examine the implications of a such a field-based approach, Jordan (1998a) argues that in order for such autocatalytically-closed, yet thermodynamically-open systems to sustain themselves, they must be able to specify and dictate which aspects of the energy-field in which they are immersed, are able to cross and not-cross their organism-environment interface (i.e., membrane). Jordan refers to this ability as control, and further defines it as the inherent ability of organisms to actively offset-perturbation to input states. In the case of a single-cell organism, for example, the transformational dynamics of the whole cell are such that if certain of its nested cell-wall proteins are not in a state of transformation we refer to as food intake the whole goes into a state of convulsions we refer to as tumbling. Such tumbling serves to bring the organism to another location, and if the nested cell-wall proteins find themselves in a food-intake state of transformation, the rate of tumbling decreases. Such a dynamic relationship between the whole cell and its nested cell-wall proteins constitutes control: The transformations of the whole serve to offset perturbation to the nested system state we refer to as food intake.

5. Such an approach has implications for perception and action because it reveals that organisms control their inputs; not their outputs. What is kept in a particular state via perturbation offset is the systems inputs (i.e., the state of the nested cell-wall proteins). The outputs (i.e., tumbling motions) constitute the systems means of controlling its inputs. The distinction proves useful, because although the cell controls its inputs, it is forever a proximal control system. Nothing in the cell pre-specifies cell-gradient relationships beyond the cells membrane. As living systems phylogenetically scale-up however, they must be able to control increasingly distal organism-environment relationships (Jordan, 2000). They must be able to pre-specify some aspect of the distal events they need to produce. A lion chasing a Zebra, for example, must be able to engage in proximal control (i.e., it must be able to control its immediate propulsion as a whole) and distal control (i.e., it must be able to constrain proximal control toward anticipated distal zebra locations). This distal control is what Jordan (1999) refers to as perception, and he defends this claim empirically by citing research which indicates that the distal state one is attempting to produce at any given moment, is resident within perceptual content. Kerzel, Jordan, and Msseler (2000), for example, found that the perceived final location of a linearly moving stimulus is further in the direction of stimulus motion if subjects track the stimulus via pursuit eye-movements versus fixate a stationary fixation cross during presentation of the moving stimulus. Further, Jordan, Stork, Knuf, Kerzel, and Msseler (2000) utilized circular stimulus trajectories, and the pursuit/fixation discrepancy was replicated. In a follow-up experiment, central fixation was required of all subjects, and stimulus offset was produced by either the computer program (i.e., induction) or a button press by the subject (i.e., intention). Intention localizations were further in the direction of stimulus motion than induction localizations. Finally, a further experiment revealed these perceptual differences to be due to the intention to stop the stimulus, not the act of pressing the button.

6. Collectively, these data indicate that ones immediate intentions (i.e., distal effect plans) are, to some extent, resident within perceptual content. Though this is not consistent with information-processing approaches which model perceptual content as post-stimulus representation construction, it is completely consistent with the notion of perception as distal control. In order for a lion to capture a zebra, the lion must be equipped with nested transformation systems (i.e., sensors or transducers) whose transformation states can (1) be modulated by energy states that propagate through a medium and find themselves transformed by the dynamics of that medium (e.g., electromagnetic radiation), and (2) be modulated by internal states of the lion that specify the distal states to be attained (i.e., the efferent influences on receptor activity reported in Jarvilehto's target article). In addition, the lion must have the ability to control these sensor/transducer transformations, it must be able to offset perturbation to its specified distal states and it does so via proximal control systems (i.e., action). This means, essentially, that both perception and action function according to the control of input. Action controls proximal body-in-space-time inputs, while perception specifies the distal body-in-environment states the action systems are to control. Perception is about distal transformation and control, not post-stimulus representation construction.


7. An advantage of focusing on fields of nested energy-transformation, as opposed to internal information processing, is the ability of field-based concepts to avoid the ontological pitfalls inherent in IPT. The epistemological underpinning of IPT is based on a neo-Lockian commitment to primary and secondary qualities, and the notion that the mind, or the brain, constructs complex representations of non-phenomenal objects that exist in the space outside the viewer (i.e., the environment). Perception, then, resides in the brain and constitutes, for the most part, an illusion. What is most real, according to such an epistemology, is the non-phenomenal material essences that give rise to representations.

8. Of course, such an epistemology gives rise, rather quickly, to radical skepticism. And though many current philosophers of mind hide this skepticism in property philosophy and the notion of objective and subjective properties, they never seem to quite understand that the terms objective and subjective are ultimately adjectives that modify the meaning of a noun; namely, phenomenology. Saying that a rock experience entails subjective and objective properties is not to say that the objective properties reside outside phenomenology. Objective properties are simply those aspects of our phenomenology we feel do not depend on us and reveal more about something outside of ourselves, than something within ourselves.

9. Though some may feel such Spinozan thinking to be out-dated and absurd given the advent of modern science, quantum theory teaches us that statements about objects cannot be made at the ontological level, for objects ultimately exist in local contexts (Atmanspacher & Kronz, 1999). In other words, it is inappropriate to speak of objects as constituting context-independent corpuscular essences. If we want to make any ontological statements at all, we should use a language that recognizes the context- dependent nature of objects. This might prevent researchers from phrasing the consciousness question as follows: How do non-phenomenal material essences give rise to phenomenology? The question can only be asked if one first assumes, from phenomenology, the existence of non-phenomenal, context-independent corpuscular essences (Jordan, 1998b). Phenomenology comes first. Materialism follows, shortly thereafter.

10. Such questions do not arise within the field theories of Jordan and Jarvilehto, for by conceptualizing in terms of fields of transformation as opposed to matter, things, or context-independent essences, their theories never run into the need for representationalism. Everything referred to as a thing is ontologically assumed to be comprised of nested fields of transformation; nested space-time events; in short, nested order. Organisms, therefore, are themselves, encapsulated, or embodied, states of nested order. Their states of transformation are emergent from, refer to, and dependent upon, the fields of transformation from which they emerged. In short, they are embodied world. Seen in this light, they have no need for representation. They do not need to represent the world in order to be about the world. They are necessarily about their world. What they need do, rather, is put themselves in positions that allow themselves to be transformed by the fields of transformation in which they are nested, thus allowing them to engage in effective proximal and distal control.

11. In addition to overcoming representationalism, the field theories of Jordan and Jarvilehto propose an answer to the supposed Hard Problem of consciousness studies; that is, Why are qualia like they are? The answer, however, is not based on translation rules from the material to the phenomenal realm. Rather, the answer derives from Jordan and Jarvilehtos commitment to neutral monism, and the understanding that ontological statements must ultimately avoid corpuscular concepts. By describing reality as nested fields of transformation, one implies that nested fields transform one another. As a result, one can never claim that a given field of transformation is solely about itself, for every field of transformation carries with it the transformations in itself that have been brought about by its interaction with other fields of transformation. In short, everything is about everything, and nothing is about itself. Organisms are autocatalytic fields of transformation that are capable of control. The of-ness or aboutness of consciousness, therefore, is not a phenomenal effect caused by non-phenomenal, context- independent material essences. Rather, it is the maintained or controlled-context inherent in the nested fields of transformation that constitute organisms. It is maintained context. It is controlled aboutness.


Atmanspacher, H., & Kronz, F. (1999). Many realisms. In J. Jordan (Ed.) Modeling consciousness across the disciplines. Baltimore: University Press of America.

Jarvilehto T (1998) Efferent influences on receptors in knowledge formation. PSYCOLOQUY 9(41) http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?9.41 ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/1998.volume.9/ psyc.98.9.41.efference-knowledge.1.jarvilehto

Jordan, J. S. (2000). Consciousness and Volition: The anticipatory specification of embodied aboutness. Proceedings of Tucson IV: Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, Arizona.

Jordan, J. S. (1999). Cognition and spatial perception: Production of output or control of input? In G. Aschersleben, J. Muesseler, and T. Bachmann (Eds.), Cognitive contributions to the perception of spatial and temporal events (pp. 69-90). North Holland: Elsevier.

Jordan, J. S. (1998a). Intentionality, perception, and autocatalytic closure: A potential means of repaying psychologys conceptual debt. In J. S. Jordan (Ed.) Systems theories and a priori aspects of perception (pp. 181-208). North-Holland: Elsevier

Jordan, J. S. (1998b). Recasting Deweys critique of the reflex-arc concept via a theory of anticipatory consciousness: Implications for theories of perception. New Ideas in Psychology, 16(3), 165-187.

Jordan, J. S., Stork, S., Knuf, L., Kerzel, D., & Msseler, J. (2000). Intentionality in perception/action space. Attention and Performance XIX: Common Mechanisms in Perception and Action. Organized by the Wolfgang Prinz & Bernhard Hommel: Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research, Munich Germany. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Kauffman, S. (1995). At home in the universe. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kerzel, D., Jordan, J. S., & Msseler, J. (2000). The role of perceptual anticipation in the localization of the final position of a moving target. Manuscript submitted for publication

Lotka, A. J. (1945). The law of evolution as a maximal principle. Human Biology, 17, 167-194.

Odum, H. T. (1988). Self-organization, transformity, and information. Science, 242, 1132- 1139.

Vandervert, L. (1995). Chaos theory and the evolution of consciousness and mind: A thermodynamic-holographic resolution to the mind-body problem. New Ideas in Psychology, 13(2), 107-127.

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