CEPA eprint 1908 (FJV-1980b)

Describing the logic of the living. The adequacy and limitations of the idea of autopoiesis

Varela F. J. (1980) Describing the logic of the living. The adequacy and limitations of the idea of autopoiesis. In: Zeleny M. (ed.) Autopoiesis: A theory of living organization. North-Holland, New York: 36–48. Available at http://cepa.info/1908
Table of Contents
Introductory remarks
3.1 Introduction
3.2 From Autopoiesis to Organizational Closure
3.3 Descriptive Complementarity
3.3.1 Modes of Explanation
3.3.2 Symbolic Explanations
3.3.3 Complementary Explanations
3.4 Conclusion
Introductory remarks
Varela asserts that the autonomous (autopoietic?) character of living systems does take precedence, both logical and “functional,” over the genetic and reproductive understanding of the individual unity. However, Varela attempts to place autopoiesis in a wider framework by introducing the concept of organizational closure. He views autopoiesis as being only a special case in a much larger class of organizations (characterized by a circular concatenation of constitutive processes): organizationally closed (i.e., recursively or circularly organized) systems. Thus, not all organizationally closed systems are necessarily autopoietic; the notion of the production of components should not be “stretched” beyond the notion of chemical productions. Varela thus limits the concept of autopoiesis to a particular class of biological productions taking place at the level of the cell. Dissipative structures, social groupings and orders, language, and so on are excluded from Varela’s version of autopoiesis. In this sense, Varela ties autopoiesis intimately to a particular physical domain, with a particular type of material components. Systems that renew themselves either too quickly or too slowly, relative to the vantage point of the cell, are characterized only as metaphors of autopoiesis,
Section 3.3, on Descriptive Complementarity, is the most interesting it marks Varela’s transition from process‑oriented to structure‑oriented thinking. He also parts with Maturana, perhaps under the influence of Pattee and Goguen, and admits the complementarity and validity of using the notions of information, program, purpose, and the like as different but still symbiotic modes of explanation. He upholds the duality of the autonomy‑control view of systems. But his arguments are still rather tentative; the issue is far from being resolved. It is this editor’s feeling that his ultimate return to Maturana’s less compromising position is more than probable.
This duality of modes of inquiry is further exemplified through the invoked notions of Erklärung and Verstehen (i.e., “explanation” and 11 understanding” in English, or the “how” and the “why” of science). Varela uses the word “explanation” for both Erklärung and Verstehen, but that is hardly what he means. He is after the complementarity of causal (operational) and teleological descriptions. Or. in Jantsch’s interpretation, after the complementarity of chance and necessity, stochastic and deterministic descriptions. In any case, the complementarity of both modes of inquiry is emphasized, although admitting the post hoc nature of purpose and directiveness would not contradict the notion.
Varela looks at the question of whether or not dissipative structures (using the Belousov‑Zhabotinsky reaction as an example) could be considered as being autopoietic. Where Maturana’s answer is a resounding no, Varela considers them as “serious candidates.” Eigen’s hypercycles (i.e., organizational closure) are viewed as possible precursors of autopoietic cell‑like units. An interesting discussion of the relationship between “structural” and “informational” components (molecules) then follows: there is no difference between them, except that due to the framework of our observation.
The main conclusion of Varela’s paper, after all the detours, is the claim that autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize living systems, but not sufficient to explain living phenomena as perceived by an observer. For that, some sort of symbolic description is necessary. But to view information as a “thing” to be transmitted, taking its symbols at their face value, is too much even for Varela. He is bound to call it nonsense, thus closing the gap with Maturana again.
Admittedly, both Maturana and Varela have reached identical conclusions. To what extent it is necessary to emphasize the difference between the ways of their epistemological expression, and thus to introduce a cleavage in the “paternity claim” for the concept of autopoiesis, is an issue best left for both authors to grapple with. As Jantsch put it, there is a more powerful and beautiful paradigm hidden in the fog than any part of it, pulled out into the sun, can be. Therefore, let’s not pull, but work on thinning the fog!
Francisco J. Varela was born in Chile in 1946. He studied biology with Humberto Maturana at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago. Later he received a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University, in 1970. His main interests lie in what McCulloch called “experimental epistemology,” that is, the natural history and possible mechanisms of knowing. F. J. Varela published many papers in the areas of cybernetics, neurobiology, and philosophy of science. In addition to writing the original monograph on autopoiesis, co‑authored with H. R. Maturana, he also published Principles of Biological Autonomy, in 1979. Currently he serves as an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Chile. Address: Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile.
Milan Zeleny
3.1 Introduction
The notion of autopoiesis was proposed by Humberto Maturana and myself (Maturana and Varela 1973)[Note 1] with the intention of redressing what seemed to us to be a fundamental imbalance in the understanding of the living organization. This imbalance was reflected mainly on two fronts of current biological discourse: (1) The unitary organization of living systems was not properly taken into account, and the emphasis was mostly put on genetic analysis and reproductive capabilities. (2) The characterization of the logic of life was construed on the basis of certain chemical species coexisting with “new” added qualities referred to as information (regulation, control, program, and so on).
Our efforts were directed toward showing the following.
(1) The importance of the individual organization is fundamental, and the autonomous character of the living system takes precedence, both logical and functional, over the genetic understanding of the individual as a member of the species. The individual organization can be shown to be one of self‑construction through recursive production of components, and it is this specific organization, autopoiesis, which is at the base of the autonomy of living systems. The most clear paradigm of this autopoiesic organization is the cell and its metabolic net. Once the individual organization is clearly defined, one can attempt to analyze the added complexities that autopoietic systems have undergone in the history of Earth, including their reproductive capacities and higher order aggregations.
(2) Informational and functional notions need not enter into the characterization of the living organization, as they belong to a domain different from the relations that define the system. Thus we proposed a critique to the current use of such notions as unnecessary for the definition of the logic of life, and claimed autopoiesis as necessary and sufficient to define the living organization, and, a fortiori, the phenomenology of the living.
In this paper I intend to review the idea of autopoiesis several years after its, conception and to evaluate what I still consider central and what seems to need further development and modification. I have received a very positive influence from conversations with Howard Pattee; in fact, much of the discussion here is directed at dealing with questions raised by his own work vis‑à‑vis the idea of autopoiesis.
3.2 From Autopoiesis to Organizational Closure
In retrospect, I still see the notion of autopoiesis and its underlying epistemology as a very valuable step., It pointed to a neglecting of autonomy as basic to the living individual and rooted this elusive quality in a mechanism for its identity. This link between definitory relations in a system’s organization, and its identity in the domain in which the components exists, is at the base of the phenomenology of autonomy. It brings out the essential connection between self‑production and the domain of interactions defined by the system’s functioning, so that whatever the domain of interactions is, it is not separable from the system’s workings. This has a number of consequences for the understanding of cognitive domains in biological systems, which were partly analyzed in our original book (Maturana and Varela 1973) and have been extensively explored in other writings (Maturana 1974, 1975, 1979; Varela 1979).
A second significant point brought to the foreground by the notion of autopoiesis was the connection between unitary autonomy and the indefinite recursive or circular nature of the autopoietic organization. In other words, it made it evident that the “self,” in self‑production, pointed to a circular concatenation of process that attained coherence only because of and through its interdependence. Thus, autopoiesis is a particular case of a larger class or organizations that can be called organizationally closed, that is, defined through indefinite recursion of component relations. Much of my own work has been directed toward dealing with closure more explicitly (Varela ERROR: No reference defined for @VF1975, ERROR: No reference defined for @VF1977, 1979; Varela and Goguen 1976; Goguen and Varela, 1979).
This brings me to the first significant point regarding the idea of autopoiesis as I see it now. It is tempting to confuse autopoiesis with organizational closure and living autonomy with autonomy in general. The fact is that the definition of autopoiesis has some precision because It is based on the, idea of production of components. and this notion of pro­duction cannot be stretched indefinitely without losing all of its power. The image that motivated this definition was, of course, that of chemical productions; such an image can be generalized to some extent. An example of this is the computer simulation of a two‑dimensional simple autopoietic system reported elsewhere (Varela et al. 1974; see also Zeleny and Pierre 1976). But in order to say that a system is autopoietic, the production of components in some space has to be exhibited; further, the term production has to make sense in some domain of discourse.
Frankly, I do not see how the definition of autopoiesis can be directly transposed to a variety of other situations, social systems for example. It seems to me that the kinds of relations that define units like a firm (Beer ERROR: No reference defined for @BS1975) or a conversation (Pask 1977) are better captured by operations other than productions. Such units are autonomous, but with an organizational closure that is characterizable in terms of relations such as instructions and linguistic agreement. The basic consequences of closure remain the same as in the particular case of autopoiesis, but the specifics change, that is, the kinds of defining relations. Unless a careful distinction is made between the particular (autopoiesis and productions) and the general (organizational closure and general computations), the notion of autopoiesis becomes a metaphor and loses its power. This is what has happened, in my view, with the attempts to apply autopoiesis directly to social systems. It seems both more precise and parsimonious simply to preserve the emphasis on autonomy and indefinite recursion (or self‑reference) and to define subclasses of organizationally closed systems corresponding to the phenomenological domain under consideration; autopoiesis seems mostly adequate to the domain of cells and animals.
3.3 Descriptive Complementarity
In AS we argued that the notions of information and purpose are dispensable. This is because the living organization could be defined without resorting to such notions, and thus, the explanation underlying the living phenomena need not include them as constitutive components. Further, we argued, such notions cannot enter into the definition of a system’s organization because they pertain to the domain of discourse between observers. Information and purpose can only enter for pedagogical purposes. They do not enter into an operational explanation, for which autopoiesis is complete, that is, based on distinctions of component properties that generate a phenomenic domain.
In retrospect, I believe this question needs further development. I still hold to be valid the criticism of the naive use of information and purpose as notions that can enter into the definition of a system on the same basis as material interactions [e.g., in Miller’s (1965) definition of living systems].
But there are limitations on our original presentation, stemming from the fact that we did not take our criticism far enough to recover a non‑naive and useful role of informational notions in the descriptions of the living phenomena. It criticized without a corresponding Aufheben.
The analysis is AS was based on the assumption that operational explanations are, in some sense, intrinsically preferable and sufficient. This now seems to me wrong in two senses that I shall try to make clear.
(1) It gives the operational explanation an epistemological status not compatible with the very intention of the criticism leveled against the naive use of information. (2) It neglects the fact that informational terms, although belonging to a different category of explanation than the operational terms used in autopoiesis, can still be used as valid explanatory terms, and that furthermore, different modes of explanation can coexist.
There was, evidently, a need in AS to overemphasize a neglected side of a polarity. Similarly, I have argued elsewhere that autonomy cannot, in fact, be conceived without a complementary consideration of how the system is also controlled in a dual context; in particular, autopoiesis and allopoiesis are complementary rather than exclusive characterizations for a system (Varela ERROR: No reference defined for @VF1977; Goguen and Varela 1979). What I argue here is that an operational explanation for the living phenomenology needs a complementary mode of explanation to be complete, a mode of explanation that I shall refer to as symbolic.[Note 2] A presentation of this expansion from the views expressed in AS has to begin with a very brief consideration of what is at the base of our tendency to prefer purely operational explanations and to relegate informational terms to the category of “purely pedagogical.”
3.3.1 Modes of Explanation
Our preference for (purely) operational explanations is precisely thata preference. Such preferences come from a community of inquiring individuals, a scientific community that, through the inheritance of a tradition, comes to agree on certain criteria of validity relative to certain values or intentions (Radnitzky 1973). The preference for “casual” explanations in the common sense of contemporary science comes from a predominantly manipulative and technological orientation present in science over the last 150 years. Given such a preference, operational explanations came to be the explanations: nonoperational explanations hold no power for manipulation and prediction. Prediction, in fact, is the symptom of a successful explanation in this kind of philosophy, so that causality and prediction are a triumphant duo that characterizes modern science.
This triumphant duo, however, has to be viewed in a historical perspective. Alongside operational explanations, another equally outstanding tradition has existed that asserts the validity of finalistic or teleological explanation, where the terms of explanation are not “whys” but “what fors.” These two traditional modes of explanation are best characterized with the German nouns Erklärung and Verstehen, usually translated as explaining and understanding (von Wright 1971).
Now, the intention behind a Verstehen‑type explanationis not manipulation, but understanding, communication of intelligible perspective with regard to a phenomenic domain. Typical examples are teleological explanation in Aristotle or the vitalist explanations of the 18th century. To the extent that their main orientation is to understand and communicate this understanding, such explanations are fundamentally different in orientation from the operational explanation. It is, as we said, a historical fact that Western science took a very strong stand preferring operational explanation since the time of Galileo, and in fact, made Verstehen‑typeexplanations into an enemy, to be banned forever from science.
From our perspective, at the end of this 20th century, sufficiently removed from the Age of Enlightenment, things look rather different. As I see it, four major developments have contributed to altering the preference for purely operational explanation. First, the great renovation inside physics, the model for logical empiricism, after the constitution of quantum mechanics and its variegated epistemological problems, that makes both naive causality and naive objectivity completely inadequate. Second, the rise of biological science that introduced into science the need to consider phenomena of unbounded complexity relative to physical sciences. The epitome of this development is the history of genetics, the Watson‑Crick model, intertwining both structural components and the apparent need for a “coding” description. Third, the extensive development, linked to the use of biological concepts of cybernetics and systems theory in the area of design and prescription of systems, where the notions of communication and purpose are at the core of what is not only the main subject, but many of its daily consequences such as computers and complex systems of regulation in human services. Finally, and in much more subdued form for the world of science, the reawakening in the European schools of thought, of the importance of the Verstehen‑type explanation in human affairs.
All these developments in the span of time elapsed since the end of the 19th century forces us willy‑nilly to a reevaluation of what we mean by our preference for operational explanations and, in fact, what we mean when we intertwine such explanatory modes whether talking about a computer program or an animal dance.
What, I submit, is essential to understand in this relationship is that both forms of explanation refer to modes of description relative to some perspective of the observer—or rather, we should say, of an inquiring community. In the causal description the fundamental assumption is the phenomena occur through a network of nomic (lawlike) relationships that follow one another. In the communicative explanation the fundamental assumption is that phenomena occur through a certain order or pattern, ‘but the fundamental focus of attention is on certain moments of such an order, relative to the inquiring community. Thus these modes of explanation are exclusive and contradictory only to the extent that one assumes that laws of nature are prehensible independent of an inquiring community, whereas that the other assumes that no nomic patterns are discernible in the world.
Both demands are, of course, inessential to preserve the power of each alternative view of a recorded phenomenon. If we can provide a nomic basis to a phenomenon, an operational description, then a teleological explanation only consists of putting in parentheses the intermediate steps of a chain of causal events and concentrating on those patterns that are particularly interesting to the inquiring community. Accordingly, Pittendrich introduced the term teleonomic to designate those teleological explanations which assume a nomic structure in the phenomena, but chose to ignore intermediate steps in order to concentrate on certain events (Ayala ERROR: No reference defined for @AJ1970). Such explanations introduce finalistic terms in an explanation while assuming their dependency in some nomic network, hence the name teleonomic.
3.3.2 Symbolic Explanations
As we discussed in AS, the connection between an operational description such as autopoiesis and a finalistic description lies in the observer who establishes the nexus. Thus, we concluded that purpose plays no causal role in autopoiesis and therefore no role in the description of the system’s organization. The same conclusion was valid for the notion of message, information, and code. What is significant in both of these classes of notions—purpose and information—is that the observer chooses to ignore, the causal connection between classes of events and to concentrate on the ensuing relationships. This is an important idea, and it is insufficient to discuss it as merely a pedagogical maneuver. This possibility of choosing to ignore intervening nomic links is at the base of all symbolic descriptions. What is characteristic of a symbol is that there is a distance, a somewhat arbitrary relationship, between signifier and signified. This is very immediate in human discourse: words and their contextual meaning have such a remote and involved historical and structural mode of coupling that any effort to follow such nomic connecting is hopeless. Thus in order to understand language, we do not trace the sequence of causes from the waveform in the air to the history of the brain operations, but simply take it as a fact that we can understand. And precisely because we cannot make everything reducible to causal explanation, since we live and grow inside language, human life has the openness it has.
Thus we come to the conclusion that purpose and symbolic understanding are interrelated in a manner parallel to that of the favored pair of operational explanation and prediction. Under “symbol” we here subsume all its forms, such as code, message, and information.
So far we have argued that operational and symbolic descriptions do not contradict each other, since they belong to different levels of descriptions among a community of observers. Unless we keep clear in our minds that by changing modes of explanation we also change the frame of reference in which we operate, the whole issue becomes muddled. If not, teleonomic–symbolic terms can be reduced to an operative component, as, say, in specifying the components of a system through only one component (DNA), a typically useless form of reductionism. The two modes of explanation are distinct, yet they can be related without reducing one to the other.
The question we now want to ask is whether we need both forms of explanation? Can we not be satisfied with only operational explanations of a phenomenon? In the case at hand, these questions would amount to asking whether the autopoietic characterization is enough to explain the entire phenomenology of living systems. In a sense, in AS we have already shown that, indeed, the autopoiesis of each individual suffices to generate all of the phenomenology of the autonomy of living systems, and that, through their coupling and complexification, we can see in them the foundation for evolutionary and historical phenomena. Thus, in principle, all biological phenomena can be reduced to autopoietic mechanisms.
This, however, is reminiscent of the statement that all of the history of the universe could be determined if only we knew the positions and momenta of all the particles of the universe so that their future trajectories could be calculated. These kinds of assertions are, above all, epistemological. What we are saying in the case of autopoiesis is that if we could follow all the appropriate contingencies, the biological phenomenology would unfold from the autopoietic mechanism. What is obvious, however, is that this assertion, although it points to the sufficiency of autopoiesis as an operational explanation, says nothing about whether it is cognitively possible or satisfactory. Let us examine this in more detail.
We must raise, at this point, the question whether dissipative chemical structures, such as the Belusov‑Zhabotinsky reaction (Tyson 1976), should be included among autopoietic systems. At the least, they are serious candidates. However, from the little we know of studies in the origin of living systems and protocellular systems, the mere production of a boundary through a chemical dynamics can hardly be a sufficient condition to be a precursor to cellular systems. A fundamental issue here, as pointed out by Pattee (1972), is the reliability of component specification versus the variability available for selection. Selection and evolution cannot exist without reproduction. Autopoietic systems can become reproductive systems, as we discussed in AS. However, their reproduction can become evolutionarily interesting only if (1) the process of specification of components is reliable so that there is continuity of structures through time, and (2) they are flexible enough to generate variety of components for selection to operate.
Living systems actually evolved through an appropriate combination of processes of specification and constitution, paradigmatically seen in the coupling between nucleic acids and proteins. Nucleic acids fulfill an essential role in specifying the protein components of cells, which are mostly responsible for processes of constitution and order. This is neatly seen in Eigen’s (197 1) work on the early evolution of living systems, where the minimum structure capable of generating a sequence of cell‑like units takes the form of “hypercycle” (i.e., organizational closure), where there are “informational” components (i.e., nucleic acid) and “structural components” (i.e., proteins). Of course, the “informational” molecule is in no way different from any other molecule, its process of interaction from that of chemical species. The reason the name “informational” comes up at all is that we can change the time scale of our observation, consider the realization of these units through several generations, and observe the continuity and reliability of their process of specification of components in an evolutionary process. In other words, we abstract or parenthesize in our descriptions a number of causal or nomic steps in the actual process of specification, and thus reduce our description to a skeleton that associates a certain part of the nucleic acid with a certain protein segment. Next we observe that this kind of simplified description of an actual dynamic process is useful in following the sequences of reproductive steps from one generation to the other, to the extent that the dynamic process (i.e., the kind responsible for bonding, folding, and so on) stays stable. This seems to be the origin of the idea of genetic material as the central element of study for evolution and historical processes in biology. A symbolic explanation, such as the description of some cellular components as genes, betrays the emergence of certain coherent patterns of behavior to which we chose to pay attention. Pattee has discussed the physical basis of these reliable dynamic patterns in terms of constraints (1972).
Note that in switching from one mode of description (the processes determining the autopoiesis of an individual) to a symbolic description (dealing with the evolutionary sequences of autopoietic structures), we perform a leap in time that betrays our radical change in perspective. What we rediscover is the classical duality between physiological time and evolutionary time. Both seem necessary if we are to have a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenology of living systems. If we do not accept the change from a causal description, the actual handling of evolutionary phenomena, which depends on questions of reliability and reproduction, becomes literally impossible to comprehend. How are we to conceive and think at all about sequences of autopoietic units in purely operational terms, where all the components participate in the specification of the unit, if we can hardly do so for a single individual? We must reduce our explanation to a explanation in symbolic terms embodied in the idea of genome and proceed from that form of noncausal, symbolic description to cover the evolutionary phenomena by adding perhaps new causal notions such as natural selection. In other words, it is true that all historical and evolutionary phenomena are ultimately reducible to the coupling of autopoietic units to their ambients. However, this is true on purely logical grounds. For the cognitive capabilities of the observer‑community, purely causal explanations are in no position to satisfy the degree of detail we need for ontogenetic and phylogenetic explanations, and a change in explanatory mode is mandatory. Thus, autopoiesis is, on logical grounds, necessary and sufficient to characterize living systems, as claimed in AS. What is incomplete here is that autopoiesis is necessary but not sufficient to give a satisfactory explanation of the living phenomena on both logical and cognitive grounds.
3.3.3 Complementary Explanations
When we say that teleonomic-symbolic explanations are not really necessary, it seems to me that we are succumbing to a prejudice of our historical tradition that it is time to revise, because in actual practice we cannot do without both operational and symbolic explanations. Our preference for causal explanations seems to be rooted in the understanding that “causes” are “out there” and reflects a state of affairs independent of the describer. This is, by the very argument used in AS, untenable. Operational causes and “laws of nature” are modes of descriptions adopted by inquiring communities for some intentional purpose (such as manipulation and prediction), and they specify modes of agreement and thus of coupling with the environment. However, ultimately, an operational description results only from one mode of agreement between an inquiring community, and in no way has an intrinsically superior status to a symbolic explanation. They just have different consequences: a symbolic explanation generates a form of agreement in the inquiring community, and thus a coupling with the environment that is not so dramatically visible in manipulation, but is more visible in more diffuse modes of relationships. A good example is the form in which Darwinian thought has modified our entire view of human affairs—not through manipulation but through an agreement about issues that are central to man’s image, such as origin and descent. It is very unfortunate that operational explanations are normally indentified with explanations. Both modes of explanation are, ultimately, in the domain of discourse of the observer‑community, and their only difference lies in the mode in which they generate agreement.
It seems to me that there are tremendous advantages to maintaining this duality of explanations in full view. By staying with purely operational descriptions, we are forced to use other descriptive modes in a rather sloppy and careless way, as is typical in molecular biology. This kind of attitude is a remnant of a strong epoch of logical positivism, with its insistence on methodological monism.
At the other extreme, the vitalist attitude, or, more importantly, the system‑theoreticians attitude, which takes information as “stuff,” is equally misguided. This attitude is interesting, for it has taken the same kind of methodology implicit in operational descriptions and applied it to a domain where it simply does not work. This is typical in computer science and systems engineering’ where information and information processing are in the same category as matter and energy. This attitude has its roots in the fact that systems ideas and cybernetics grew in a technological atmosphere that acknowledged the insufficiency of the purely causal paradigm (who would think of handling a computer through the field equations of thousands of integrated circuits?) but had no awareness of the need to make explicit the change in perspective taken by the inquiring community. To the extent that the engineering field is prescriptive by design, this kind of epistemological blunder is still workable. However, it becomes unbearable and useless when exported from the domain of prescription to that of description of natural systems, in living systems and human affairs. To assume in these fields that information is some thing that is transmitted, that symbols are things that can be taken at face value, or that purposes and goals are made clear by the systems themselves is all, it seems to me, nonsense. The fact is that information does not exist independent of a context of organization that generates a cognitive domain, from which an observer community can describe certain elements as informational and symbolic. Information, sensu strictu, does not exist. Nor do, by the way, the laws of nature.
Thus, by putting these two modes of explanation, historically antagonistic, into a dualistic perspective, we gain in power of explanation. Moreover both modes of explanation are significantly modified. On the one hand, teleonomic‑symbolic explanations cannot be adduced without embedding them in a nomic substrate that can, in principle, account for them, that is, a network of processes that is abstracted in the process of defining a symbol. This is clearly seen in the transition from the name teleological to the name teleonomic: No goal or purpose is assumed without a frame of abstracted chain of events from which we are abstracting.
On the other hand, the causal explanation is also modified, for it no longer holds its position of methodological king and must make way for nonoperational explanations as equally valid. This amounts to no more and no less than a change in the authority images of our inquiring community; it has nothing to do with standards of science or a romantic revolution. To neglect this shift in authority implies, to say the least, a sloppy use of symbolic explanations in the natural sciences and a split between natural and human sciences in which the role of communication and understanding gains a central importance in disfavor of causal mechanisms for which we cannot possibly hope. In brief, then, the dual interplay between these two modes of explanation is the fertile road, which can be taken when and only when both are related to each other in a generative form by making explicit where the change of frame of reference occurs.
An elementary case of such dualistic operation is apparent in our understanding of the origin of life and in the use of genetic material as an explanatory device in evolution and development. By way of another example, consider the interaction of hormone molecules with the receptor surface of a cell. This kind of interaction is best described by abstracting the actual process of interaction and the detailed description of the autopoietic dynamics and phrasing them in terms of a symbol (or signal) with a regulatory effect, a description that emerges through a contracted account of the autopoietic dynamics of the individual cell. At the risk of being repetitive, I ask that you notice that there is nothing in the hormone molecule that is informational; its symbolic content is given first by the kind of dynamics determined by the autopoietic unity and its domain of interactions and second by the observer who wishes to follow a certain coherence in the individual dynamic and thus chooses to contract a long and complex sequence of nomic chains.
To regard this cell‑hormone interaction in any sense as “intrinsically” informational, or to assume that the organism is “picking up information” from the environment, would be fundamentally wrong. But it seems equally wrong not to see in these kinds of events the beginning of symbolic interactions so prevalent in higher organisms and man or the importance of their continuity with operational explanations.
3.4 Conclusion
This chapter is intended as a review of the idea of autopoiesis. It briefly pointed at those aspects of autopoiesis that still seem valid and useful, some of the subsequent work sparked by the idea, and some of its most important limitations. Most of the discussion centered on the question of the role and validity of explanatory terms based on the notions of information and purpose, or symbolic explanations. The basic conclusion is that autopoiesis, as an operational explanation, is not quite sufficient for a full understanding of the phenomenology of the living, and that it needs a carefully constructed complementary symbolic explanation.
I have put strong emphasis on duality and complementarity and on the need to make explicit the interdependency of alternative perspectives. I am convinced that this is a central theme that needs substantially more work in systems science and, conversely, that clarifying this basic issue has consequences for many fields in science at the empirical and theoretical level (Goguen and Varela 1979). Not to make explicit the ways in which the observer‑community participates in the constitution of a phenomenon is not only to forsake a complete understanding, but to be stuck with bad science.
This work has been partially supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, through a fellowship to the author.
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There are some obvious similarities with what Pattee calls the complementarity between dynamic and linguistic modes of description (Pattee 1977). There are also some significant differences.
1 am eschewing the obvious question raised by the foregoing discussion: When are we entitled to say that a symbolic description is admissible for a process? I shall not attempt to go into this important point here (see Varela 1979).
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