Context: In this paper I expand aspects of the generalized bottom-up explanatory approach devised in Part I to expound the natural emergence of composite self-organized dynamic systems endowed with self-produced embodied boundaries and with observed degrees of autonomous behavior. In Part I, the focus was on the rules defined by Varela, Maturana & Uribe (VM&U rules), viewed as a validation test to assess if an observed system is autopoietic. This was accomplished by referring to Maturana’s ontological-epistemological frame and by defining distinctions, concepts, and abstractions necessary to describe dynamic systems in any observational domain. This approach concentrates on pure causation flow rather than on domain-specific interaction mechanisms. Problem: It is essential to analyze the requirements imposed by the VM&U rules on the “intra-boundaries” phenomenology for compliance with the self-production capabilities expected from an autopoietic system. Beyond what is merely implied by the compact wording of the VM&U rules, a key point needs to be addressed explicitly: how to describe some “peculiar” capabilities that the components should be endowed with to participate in new component production (as macro-molecules do in the biological domain) so that system’s self-production can be assessed. Method: Using this approach, I first describe the process of constituting self-organized dynamic structures provided with embodied boundaries. Then I explain how a capability of self-organization emerges and how this results in ephemeral configurations that may evolve into self-regulated long-lasting dynamic system stability within a continuous causation flow inside the boundaries, up to the emergence of some “specialized” subsets of components. This explication allows us to distinguish the medium, the boundaries, and the core of a self-organized dynamic system and to focus attention on the “intra-boundaries” phenomenology that should be at the heart of self-production capabilities, as prescribed by the 5th and 6th VM&U rules. Results: I propose an abstract, domain-free description of the “peculiar” composition and decomposition transformation capabilities that components should possess while subject to state transitions triggered within the “intra-boundaries” causation flow. This is combined with a discussion concerning the “intra-boundaries” causation structure’s possible topological layouts that could be compliant with the 6th rule. Implications: The above-mentioned results allow us to improve our analytic criteria when observing dynamic systems existing in non-biological domains in order to assess their autopoietic nature. They also reveal that the task of consistently identifying possible non-biological autopoietic systems is harder than merely identifying self-organized dynamic systems provided with boundaries and some observable autonomous behavioral capabilities in a given observational domain. More implications will be discussed further in Part III.
Context: There is an ongoing debate about the possibility of identifying autopoietic systems in non-biological domains. In other words, whether autopoiesis can be conceived as a domain-free rather than domain-specific concept – regardless of Maturana’s and Varela’s opinions to the contrary. In previous parts my focus was, among other matters, on the rules defined by Varela, Maturana, and Uribe (“VM&U rules”). These rules were viewed as a validation test to assess if an observed system is autopoietic by referring to Maturana’s ontological-epistemological frame. I concluded that identifying possible non-biological autopoietic systems is harder than merely identifying self-organized dynamic systems that are provided with boundaries and some observable autonomous behavioral capabilities in a given observational domain. This is because no assessment could be valid without examining such systems’ “intra-boundaries” phenomenology and proving actual compliance with the VM&U component production rules. Problem: Any rigorous approach to investigating possible self-production capabilities within a given dynamic system needs to drill down on the composition and physical conditions of the system’s core dynamics. My aim now is to discuss the problem of choosing the adequate spatial and temporal scales to be applied when observing and describing dynamic systems in general. When trying to detect an autopoietic system in a given observational domain, the observer needs conceptual tools to apply rigorously the VM&U rules and decide on the matter. This is particularly useful when dealing with systems with spatially distributed components interacting through cause-effect couplings that are independent of the distance between them, as is the case of social systems. Results: For observing dynamic systems, the choice of appropriate spatial and temporal scales of description is not a trivial operation. The observer needs to distinguish between “instantaneous” phenomena and phenomena possessing extended “durations.” I argue that the observer can easily extend the notions discussed by Maturana and Varela to observational domains where the system’s components do not constitute an entity showing a topological “form” in physical space. Furthermore, I show that a diachronic perspective must be applied by observers to explain component production/destruction mechanisms as the outcomes of processes involving structure-determined coordination over relatively long time intervals. Finally, these considerations lead to establishing a link with Varela’s fundamental concept of autonomy. Implications: The adequate choice of spatial and temporal scales of observation and description are essential (a) to discuss the problem of a possible identification of social autopoietic systems, and (b) to analyze the possibility of designing virtual simulated autopoietic systems in software domains (“computational autopoiesis”).
Context: In previous papers, I suggested six rules proposed by Varela, Maturana and Uribe as a validation test to assess the autopoietic nature of a complex dynamic system. Identifying possible non-biological autopoietic systems is harder than merely assessing self-organization, existence of embodied boundaries and some observable autonomous behavioural capabilities: any rigorous assessment should include a close observation of the “intra-boundaries” phenomenology in terms of components’ self-production, their spatial distribution and the temporal occurrence of interaction events. Problem: Under which physical and components’ relational conditions can some social systems be properly considered as autopoietic unities compliant with the six rules? Results: Dynamic systems can be classified according to “degrees of autonomous behaviour” that they may acquire as a result of the emergence of organizational closure (i.e., autonomy. Also, the different “degrees of attainable systemic autonomy” depend on the “degrees of autonomy” shown by a system’s dynamic components. For human social systems, a necessary balance between individuals’ autonomy and the heteronomous behaviour brought about on people by social norms (laws, culture, tradition or coercion) sets limits to the “degree of systemic autonomy” that human organizations may acquire. Therefore social systems, defined as dynamic systems composed of physical agents, could not attain the high “levels of systemic autonomy” ascribable to autopoietic systems without constraining the autonomy of agents to “levels” that are incompatible with spontaneous human behaviour. Also, social organizations seen as composed of physical agents interacting in physical space cannot be construed as autopoietic systems. Alternatively, if seen as composed of “process-like” entities, where agents participate as actors within processes, some social systems could be described as autopoietic wholes existing in the abstract space in which we distinguish interactions between processes, provided that we can assess compliance with the rules for some specific cases. Implications: These conclusions contribute to the debate on the possible autopoietic nature of some human social systems and to grasping the opportunity to shift focus to the more interesting issue of the “degrees of systemic autonomy” that human organizations could acquire (if needed) without imposing unbearable limitations on the autonomy of human actors. Also, the conceptual framework of this explanatory approach could be used in practical terms to assist the development of new dynamic modelling languages capable of simulating social systems.
Excerpt from the introduction: As everybody here knows, autopoiesis is a neologism, introduced in 1971 by H. Maturana and myself to designate the organization of a minimal living system. The term became emblematic of a view of the relation between an organism and its medium, where its self constituting and autonomous aspects are put at the center of the stage. From 1971, until now much has happened to reinforce this perspective. Some of the developments have to do with the notion of autopoiesis itself in relation to the cellular organization and the origin of life. Much more has to do with the autonomy and self-organizing qualities of the organism in relation with its cognitive activity. Thus in contrast to the dominant cognitivist, symbol-processing views of the 70's today we witness in cognitive science a renaissance of the concern for the embeddedness of the cognitive agent, natural or artificial. My intention rather, profiting from the position of opening this gathering, is to try to indicate some fundamental or foundational issues of the relation between autopoiesis and perception. Whence the title of my talk: a biology of intentionality. Relevance: Since the crisis of classical cognitive science has thrown open the issue of intentionality, in my eyes autopoiesis provides a natural entry into a view of intentionalty that is seminal in answering the major obstacles that have been addressed recently.
Translators’ note: Parts of this Preface were translated and published in the special issue of Systems Research dedicated to Heinz von Foerster, under the title “The early days of autopoiesis: Heinz and Chile” (Systems Research, Vol. 13 N. 3 pp 407–416). The present text is the first full translation of the Preface that Varela wrote in Paris 1994. This translation is the result of a collaboration between Alberto Paucar-Caceres, Roger Harnden and Karina Cornejo. In his preface, Varela gives a fascinating account of the origins of the notion of autopoiesis, from his personal point of view, the main actors involved and the its historical context in Chile.
Abstract: We argue that the significance of the spatial boundary in autopoiesis has been overstated. It has the important task of distinguishing a living system as a unity in space but should not be seen as playing the additional role of delimiting the processes that make up the autopoietic system. We demonstrate the relevance of this to a current debate about the compatibility of the extended mind hypothesis with the enactive approach and show that a radically extended interpretation of autopoiesis was intended in one of the original works on the subject. Additionally we argue that the definitions of basic terms in the autopoietic literature can and should be made more precise, and we make some progress towards such a goal.
This paper attempts to put forward an aesthetic theory of nature based on a biosemiotic description of the living, which in turn is derived from an autopoietic theory of organism (F. Varela). An autopoietic system’s reaction to material constraints is the unfolding of a dimension of meaning. In the outward_ Gestalt_ of autopoietic systems, meaning appears as form, and as such it reveals itself in a sensually graspable manner. The mode of being of organisms has an irreducible aesthetic side in which this mode of being becomes visible. Nature thus displays a kind of transparency of its own functioning: in a nondiscursive way organisms show traces of their_ conditio vitae_ through their material self-presentation. Living beings hence always show a basic level of expressiveness as a necessary component of their organic mode of being. This is called the_ ecstatic_ dimension of nature (G. Böhme, R. Corrington). Autopoiesis in its full consequence then amounts to a view reminding of Paracelsus’ idea of the_ signatura rerum_ (C. Glacken, H. Böhme): nature is transparent, not because it is organized_ digitally_ as a linguistic text or code, but rather because it displays_ analogically_ the kind of intentionality engendered by autopoiesis. Nature as a whole, as “living form” (S. Langer), is a symbol for organic intentionality. The most fundamental meaning of nature protection thus is to guarantee the “real presence” of our soul.
Open peer commentary on the target article “Luhmann and the Constructivist Heritage: A Critical Reflection” by Eva Buchinger. > Upshot: Buchinger’s review of Luhmann’s theoretical framework leads to a conclusion that Luhmann’s consolidation of a kaleidoscopic array of sources represents his primary innovation. However, this conclusion bypasses the question of whether Luhmann’s admirably fused result actually reflects viable – or even valid – applications of those sources he purports to integrate. I shall illustrate grounds for doubt on this question with specific regard to the construct Luhmann most centrally adopted – autopoiesis.