Autopoiesis and Kant’s Theory of Time

Kant had a pretty trippy and extremely fascinating view of time.  (The Hstorical Dictionary of Kant and Kantianism says “innovative,” which I gladly grant.)  For Kant, time is a “pure form of sensible intuition” (Critique of Pure Reason, N. K. Smith trans., 2003, pg. 75), and “[t]ime is nothing but the form of internal sense, that is, of the intuition of ourselves and of our inner senses.  It cannot be a determination of outer appearances; it has to do neither with shape nor position, but with the relation of representations in our inner state” (ibid. pg. 77).  Finally, “[t]ime is therefore a purely subjective condition of our (human) intuition (…), and in itself, apart from the subject, is nothing” (ibid. pg. 77-78).  Given the tradition way of view time, as something in the world, apart from human existence, Kant’s view really is a change of pace (pun intended).  (Unless you have either read Kant or a philosopher influenced by Kant’s notion of time, like Hiedegger, this take will be new to you.)  What fascinates me, qua physicist and scientist, is whether there could be any sort of grounding for Kant’s understanding of time within the sciences.  First, let me explain why a scientist might like this idea.

It came up more than a few times, while I was formally studying physics, that there is a major issue regarding time: If a physical system requires this degree-of-freedom granting capacity, called time, then why wouldn’t there need to be degree-of-freedom granting capacity for it.  The majority of physicists don’t lose sleep over this sort of thing, but the best physicists are the best, because they keep such considerations out in front of them, even if they reside in the back of the mind —a linguistic paradox that makes conceptual sense.  Philosophers of physics are much, much more concerned about this.  In fact, some philosophers propose an “at-at” theory of motion, just to claim that there is no problem, such as in Zeno’s paradox of the arrow.  However, this is a horrible route to take, as it essentially says, “time’s passage, itself, doesn’t need a pace!”  Physicists, in dispute with those who don’t buy the kind of thinking provided by the “at-at” theory, intuitively feel that there should be some natural pace of time’s passage, but, in the end, will often absorb the philosophy of “at-at” theory, if for no other reason than to say, “well, we have no evidence of a pacemaker of time, so there probably is no such thing.”  It’s not intellectual dishonesty, it’s just being a good empiricist.  I would still argue against the “at-at” theory of motion, because there are lots of thinks that indirectly tell scientists that they exist, yet remain empirically hidden.  Time’s sibling, space, is just like time.  In fact, space probably makes things worse, because it is a bit more straightforward how there could be a space that is not contained by another space.  This straightforwardness leads many, possibly erroneously, down the line of thinking that there is no need for a pace of time.  My point would be that time one could imagine time speeding up and slowing down; in fact, it is observed as doing this in relativity, but I mean this in a local frame, too.  The example will be clearer in a bit.

As turns out, I have come across an actually piece of science that proposes a scientific version of Kant’s internal intuition.  It comes in the closing pages of an unlikely philosophically scientific treatise by Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela.  The treatise is called Autopoiesis and Cognition: Realization of the Living (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science).  The book is a systems approach to viewing organisms, in the sense that self-reproducing systems that reproduce functional organization have these cyclical, in-lifecycle self-perpetuating properties that require viewing as a whole.  It is not too much of a leap from Weiner’s cybernetics, and, I am told, autopoiesis is sort of the logical next step after cybernetics.  One of the interesting things about the text is it has a mentality of self-containment, in the sense that the authors are trying to establish that everything about the autopoietic system one unitary thing, the system; this requires a text that is similarly constructed, taking care to package every piece of scientific and philosophical framework within a context that ensures all conceptual bases have been covered (linguistics, cognition, evolution, etc.).  Thus, because the autopoietic system is closed off, and because any stimulus introduced to the system cannot be discerned as being external or internal in origin, it is necessary that time be explained in such a manner that it arises as an intrinsic property of the system.  (Are the Kantians getting excited yet?)  Not only is an autopoietic cyclic due to its organization, but it also possesses the capacity for infinite recursiveness and self-observation (Maturana and Varela pg. 121).  (Here, it seems that Maturana and Varela might side with Sartre over Kant, as far as the transcendence of ego; but that is another blog post.)  The recursion allows for events/interactions (whether stimuli from external to the system or any changes internal to the system) to stand in relation to one another, and be observed in an organized and formatted manner (ibid. pg. 133).  The authors say, “Therefore, sequence as a dimension is defined in the domain of interactions of the organism, not in the operation of the nervous system as a closed neuronal network.  Similarly, the behavioral distinction by the observer of sequential states in his recurrent states of nervous [system] activity, as he recursively interacts with them, constitutes the generation of time as a dimension of the descriptive domain” (ibid. pg. 133).  This is the kind of thinking that is present in the research of cognitive scientists, with whom I meet for regular reading group sessions; and I have been informed that the models they do include this kind of underlying philosophy.  But how?

It should not have been so much a surprise to me, because we use them in physics, too.  They are called phase space diagrams.  Long story short, instead of having a diagram of, say, spatial dimensions, x and z, time is snuck in the backdoor.  The way this is done is by creating a phase space diagram that has axes x and ẋ, where ẋ is the velocity (the first differential with respect to time).  Sadly, this had to be pointed out to me by my good friend, as I had no realized it myself.  I say “sadly,” because it was a great and notably physicist, Henri Poincaré, who invented the diagrams.  At any rate, the time is an implicit feature of the dynamic systems models that are being done by researchers at Indiana University, which is fascinating.  And to think, there actually is a scientific basis for Kant’s very creative theory of time.  What all of this leaves me wondering is whether Maturana and Varela were influenced directly by Kant (or Heidegger) or not.

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Filed under History of Science, Kantian Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics, Physics, Pure Philosophy

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