The living under its own double look

Abstract: The double look offers an astonishing perspective on the living, capable of overturning our usual concepts about it, but above all of recognizing the origin of these two sets of concepts, the classic and the revolutionary, which are not contradictory but complementary. I describe an application to medical therapy and in particular to cancer.

The downward look

The downward look is the one we commonly use. It is the look of identification, categorization and approximation. What does identify mean? It involves making one of our mental representations coincide with a subject present in sensory space. These representations have taken up residence in our minds; they look for themselves in the environment; thanks to them, we are not forced to reconstruct the image of a subject each time it presents itself. Note, however, that rarely used they fade. Insidious forgetting. But there remains a trace, which results in the impression of familiarity when the subject presents itself again, or the knowledge of the existence of a word without being able to say it.

To identify a subject it is necessary to bring it back to benchmarks, aspect, mobility, context. The mind uses these criteria to specify the category of the subject and, if they are rich enough, assign it a specific identity. For example, the presence of small red balls on a tree allows us to classify them in the ‘fruit’ category; if we have already met it we will know how to identify it as ‘lychee’. Identification is thus the result of a categorization process, but why also talk about approximation?

What is the point of approximating?

No object is strictly identical to another, however most of the time we do not need to identify it too personally. No point in giving a proper name to each of the lychees present on the tree. While it is an imperative for our fellow human beings. Each close human must be individualized. Our mental sheet about them is even enriched with a multitude of criteria on their character, passions, expectations, to frame their random behavior and thus make the representation effective.

The approximation is much more marked for the individual lychee than for human. It is of course still very strong for humans, who are a being clearly superior in complexity, but I am talking here about the approximation authorizing the separation of individuals from each other. Strong, it makes lychees indistinguishable from each other; weak, it allows independent images for each human.

A look with incremented focal length

We never become sufficiently aware of this variability of approximation in our downward look. Lychees are physically just as independent entities as humans, but the downward look does not select them that way. It approximates more. Its focus changes according to its interest, according to the representations which sit at its origin. It may be interested in atoms, and seek to identify them one by one (if it is lucky enough to have access to an electron microscope); the next moment it discusses its research and this look completely mocks the atoms of its interlocutor. Yet they are there, as individualized as under the eye of the electron microscope.

The downward looks thus wanders through the levels of complexity of a subject to establish at each level a useful approximation of the elements which constitute it. This approximation is accompanied by an arbitrary naming of the elements. What we call ‘atom’ has no meaning for subatomic constituents, only concerned with their interactions. Likewise, the image we have of a person only has meaning for us, as an approximation. The person in question never feels this way.

The downward look flattens complexity

Our representations of things, which cover their successive levels of constitution, exist in a unique neural space within our mind. Systems are surimposed (superimposed and entangled) in the essence of things, but their models are juxtaposed in our minds, in the form of dedicated neural networks. The mind naturally flattens the complexity of things because of its intimate way of functioning. It is capable of unfolding this organization, jumping from one level to another with the help of its representations, but not of experiencing itself as things, as the constitutive fusion that they really are.

This is a major point of the approximation. Even if we have a theory perfectly adapted to describe a complex level, the mind only simulates a relational language specific to this level. It has no access to the reality of the thing.

A limited but major look

With these limitations, what purpose does the downward look serve? Identification and categorization obviously have a major interest in organizing our environment and acting on it. If the identification is correct, the chances that our predictions will succeed increase and our actions will be followed by the expected effect. The downward look is thus called teleological, from the Greek telos (end, goal) and logos (discourse). It is the look oriented towards an objective, an action. It realizes our desires, hence its natural spontaneity in our consciousness, where our desires play freely.

If I summarize the advantages and disadvantages of the downward look, it is therefore the effector of our will on the world, but tends to make an approximation of it and to flatten its complexity. It simplifies it to focus our efforts on the essential points in order to achieve the goal. Everything else is swept under the carpet of approximation. But the downward look can nevertheless emerge from this blindness by jumping to the underlying level of complexity, under the carpet, and specifying what is taking place there. It is a “jumping” look, which passes from one level of examination to another, without being able to merge them together into an overall experience.

What is the only authentic experience?

Only one experience of this kind, surimposed, is accessible to the downward look: that of one’s own functioning, which includes the physical, biological, and topological neural levels. The fact that we do not experience this experience as quantum, chemical or electrical, but as indescribably conscious, corresponding to the concept of qualia, demonstrates that multiple levels of organization of neurons are added to their physiology. Major clue to believe that the experience lived by any thing, living or inanimate, is not reducible to the theory we have of it. No matter the mathematical precision of the models and the accuracy of the instruments, our measurements remain an approximation of what the thing is in essence. This is the teaching of the “phenomenon” consciousness.

Understanding the characteristics of downward look resolves important dilemmas about how this phenomenon plays out in others. The conscious impression, the space from which the downward look starts, is therefore a succession of surimposed approximations from sensory excitations to thoughts. Each brain creates an absolutely unique impression. What brings our human consciousnesses together is, on the one hand, the similarity of brain anatomy and the specialized functions it supports, inscribed in genetics. But what brings us even closer is the depth of complexity achieved by stacked networks, driven by education. The more a conspecific has an intelligence close to yours and the more she has received a similar education, the more her phenomenal consciousness probably resembles yours.

What about non-humans?

Every animal brain also experiences a unique conscious experience, all the more foreign as its cerebral organization differs from ours and all the less profound as the neural networks form a more succinct complexity. Until then it is easy to agree on the existence or not of a consciousness outside humanity.

It is more difficult for living things without a brain, or even any neurological system, such as plants, and for tiny single-celled beings. What could their experience consist of, if the phenomenon still deserves to use this term? It’s a tricky leap to take. However, we have just seen that the experience is not really based on the neurons themselves, which are also individually unicellular beings, but on their propensity to establish topological relationships, which increases the complexity of the representations formed by their synchronized graphs.

Can the inanimate be a seat of experience?

The neurons thicken an experience that basically exists in any network of relationships. Any information system arriving at an approximation of its own constitution forms an emergence which is the only obvious support for an experience “lived” by the system. Which would lead us to say, for example, that a body made of more or less agitated molecules experiences a degree of heat in a fundamental way, on its emerging side.

I do not want to dwell in this article on this difficult crossing for our classic conception of the world. The most important thing is to understand that our downward look is attached to these types of experiences. It sees the “properties” of things. It experiences heat and not the agitation of molecules. It establishes a categorization and an approximation of things by these properties. Bodies at different temperatures but within a high range will all be placed in the ‘hot’ category by the downward look.

A world of individual things

When this look describes the world, it sees multiple and independent entities, “living” because they are mobile and autonomous, “inanimate” because they are fixed or in a predictable movement. Our educated look can peer into the interior of a living entity and see “organs”. Approximation on what is basically a set of specialized cells. Cells themselves appear as such when looking down through a microscope, but are also systems of organelles and biomolecules already organized into multiple levels of complexity.

Although it comes from mechanisms, the downward look sees itself as a source. It is paradoxically result and origin, as an emergent approximation, a whole above the parts. It is a concept, a specific configuration, which is sought in the incoming data from the network. “Organ” does not have the same meaning for the organ itself and for the “organ concept” present in our mind.

The sometimes mystical drift of the downward look

The downward look thus populates the world with its representations, objects, stars, animals and plants, land and water, various energies. It places the effector role in these entities. It is the horse that gallops and not its muscles. It is the muscle fibrils which contract and not the myosin molecules which slide on those of actin. Etc.

The way we spontaneously apprehend the world is like this. The downward look is at work and the way in which it decides what is effective in reality comes from its own functioning. It itself is perched at the top of the pile of neural interactions and experiences itself as independent of these excitations. It grants similar independence to the entities it categorizes in the world. It even tends, among the mystics among us, to grant a similar, universal consciousness to these entities. But we have seen that this confuses our mental representations and the world a little too much.

The upward look

The upward look is very different. It strives to start from the micromechanisms of things and no longer from the result. Why do I say “strives”? The upward look is only a simulation. Impossible for it to experience itself like the mechanisms. There are only representations about them. The upward look is a theory of ontology, from the Greek ontos (what is) and logos. Ontology is the discourse of the being of the thing, but the theory about it is indeed a discourse of the mind, which thus simulates the being of the thing without being able to access its essence. Our knowledge came together, organized into a model, and we sent the model into the depths of complexity to see how it behaves. Does it correctly simulate the organization of the world or not? We keep the theories validated by experience and throw away the others.

The effort of the upward look is to believe that one’s current theory is more solid than the others. You have to base your confidence somewhere, and the networks of the upward look function like those of the downward: representations that seek themselves out in the world. The scientist who concerns herself with philosophy gains humility; she knows that her theories are a simulation of the world and not the world in itself. The only space where she is truly in the world in itself is, as we have seen, within her conscious experience.

The other major look

The major advantage of the upward look is to give voice to the mechanisms of the world. In the intimate relationship between the self and the non-self, the upward look speaks for the non-self. Knowledge consists of fleshing out this language.

This is an incredible advantage. By making the world speak sincerely, we bring it back to us. It obeys our desires better. The materialist is strongly integrated into the material world, through the very precise representations she has of it, and does not consider herself independent of it. And certainly the world obeys her. Unsurprisingly, in our societies, power belongs to materialists. The most mystical among us are forced to compromise a little with materialism in order to regain power and survive.

How to make your materialism and spiritualism work together?

If the upward look remarkably dismantles the mechanisms, it is not in itself a driver of complexity. The pure materialist does not construct a spiritual, fantastical or artistic universe other than summary. Too embedded in the reality of things. Generally, power, for the materialist, is put at the service of stereotypical desires, of simplified ideals. She applied to herself the strict models she uses for matter.

Do not read this description as criticism or mockery of existing characters! I am only specifying here the characteristics of downward and upward look, both present in varying proportions in each of us. No one is strictly materialist or spiritualist. Note in passing that true spirituality is an evolution of the materialist mind and not a set of alternative concepts about the world, tagged too early on a mind empty of effective material representations (and this is a real criticism of overly sectarian educations). We must begin by bringing the reality of the world to ourselves, then extend our personal spiritual complexity on top of it.

My digression mainly serves to show the essential complementarity of the two perspectives. They don’t see the same thing. The world is at the confluence of these two views. To amputate one is to be half blind. The reductionist scientist only sees with one eye, and so does the mystic.


But let’s return to the living. How does it appear when looking up? Very different from the previous look. The elements of life are no longer seen as result-entities but as parts of a system of relationships. A bacterium is less a ‘unicellular being’ than a ‘bacteria among others’. An organ is less ‘seat of a function’ than ‘part of a set of interactive functions’.

The upward look does not see stable structures, only symbolic elements in a constantly evolving system. It is not interested in the global properties of the system. When the scientist uses her upward look, she seeks to refine a descriptive model, making fun of where the system is heading. The researcher who is too focused on this view is accused of neglecting the applications of her discoveries, by the funder who is on the contrary focused on her downward, utilitarian, effective view.

Phylogeny of life

It is of course with an upward look that we can better trace the history of things. Instead of imposing our personal story on them, born from the fantasies of the imagination, we give voice to the mechanisms: What have you done from the beginning? Impossible of course to go back to a hypothetical ultimate beginning; what matters is being in the right direction. The ancestry goes from the least complex to the most complex. The whole is born from the parts. It is by starting with the smallest knowns that we better understand what is established at the top of the pile of successive whole(s): our own mind.

Stamps for life but no real passport

Before arriving there, have we taken a cardinal step, which would make it possible to clearly declare that we have passed from the inanimate to the living? Not really. Certainly we can declare major stages for living things, such as the self-replication of molecules, or the formation of micelles isolating an intrinsic environment. But it is the downward look that speaks like this. It is it which strives to categorize life because it is more convenient that way. Classifying an entity as living has the advantage of forcing us to enrich our representations, because its behavior will be less predictable.

The upward look, on the living, always only sees elements in relation. The models lose precision, because it becomes difficult to integrate the increasing variability of elements, less standardized as the complexity of life increases. But this is a problem inherent to the method and the limitations of computing power. Reality calculates perfectly and its direction is always ascending.

Life, agitation at all levels

At the intersection of the two perspectives, what we observe and which best defines living things is an increase in complexity among the entities described. Life is an increasing thickness of complexity. With our greater mental depth, we are much more alive than a bacteria and even an animal with a simpler brain. This corresponds to our intuition and even our daily experience of life, where we feel more alive, personally, depending on the degree of complexity of the mental tasks at hand.

A definition of life as a progressive quality is therefore more profitable than a binary categorization. It makes it possible to disperse the entities around us into a greater number of cases and to promote sustainable decisions in matters of ethics. To what extent should a living being be protected? It depends on how strongly alive it is…

Application in medicine

By going back better into the history of things, we can also better correct it. The upward look is essential for therapeutics in medicine. It is still underutilized. It is the downward look that takes precedence. The pain felt, represented, takes priority over the causes of nociception. The function of the organ takes priority over its cellular mechanisms. The cancerous tumor, its image as an invader, takes priority over the reasons for the anarchic multiplication of its cells. Even in biology, therapy often consists of reestablishing the normal operating model of a physiological level, rather than looking into the underlying levels for why it has gone wrong.

Of course the objectives are important: cancel the pain felt, restore the function of the organ, remove the tumor. But let us note that if we could act preventively on the real root of the problem, the underlying complexity would never have been destabilized. No symptoms would have appeared. The presence of a symptom is already a failure in therapy. It points out that our models do not go far enough, are not realistic enough.

The archaic theory of cancer

This is why we must give power back to the upward look. Experimental medicine has worked on this but is still very encumbered by the downward look. Take for example the archaic theory of cancer, which is controversial. It says that cancer cells simply return to their primitive state, the former independence they enjoyed before joining together as an organism. In this light, cancer is not a process that invades the body but on the contrary leaves it, refusing to comply with the rules. Unfortunately it cannot escape outside, and this poses problems of competition for space and resources.

The tumor is not an entity in itself, a new ‘organ’. It is the colony resulting from one or more cells which have decided to return to anarchy. Cancer cells are disorganized, having abandoned the use of the genetic code which allows others to act in concert within the body. They are an outlaw gang, not a coordinated army. Their victory resulted in the total destruction of the organism and not in the establishment of a new “tumor” power.

A upward theory for a threatened personality

This theory should serve by default as a reference for research, because it is the most ontological. Its interest in the psychological care of cancer patients is not negligible. It is less depressing for a tumor carrier to know that she is neither the seat of natural fragility nor the victim of environmental aggression, but rather in a sort of social revolt inside, and the police doesn’t care. It’s a more personal development, easier to adopt. I am not the target of a nuclear attack from a hostile environment but rather of an intimate social revolution. My cells no longer agree to live in harmony. To meditate rather than to get angry. A cancer patient can benefit from the multiplication of views on her illness.

If this can be useful…


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