CEPA eprint 2724


Beer S. (1980) Preface. In: Maturana H. R. & Varela F. J. (eds.) Autopoiesis and cognition. Reidel, Dordrecht: 63–72. Available at http://cepa.info/2724
Table of Contents
In general
In particular
In contention
This small book is very large: it contains the living universe. It is a privilege to be asked to write this preface, and a delight to do so. That is because I recognize here a really important book, both in general and specifically. Before talking about the specific contents at all, I would like to explain why this is in general so.
In general
We are the inheritors ’of categorized knowledge; therefore we inherit also a world view that consists of parts strung together, rather than of wholes regarded through different sets of filters. Historically, synthesis seems to have been too much for the human mind – where pratical affairs were concerned. The descent of the synthetic method from Plato through Augustine took men’s perception into literature, art and mysticism. The modern world of science and technology is bred from Aristotle and Aquinas by analysis. The categorization that took hold of medieval scholasticism has really lasted it out. We may see with hindsight that the historic revolts against the scholastics did not shake free from the shackles of their reductionism.
The revolt of the rationalists – Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz – began from a principle of ’methodical doubt’. But they became lost in mechanism, dualism, more and more categorization; and they ended in denying relation altogether. But relation is the stuff of system. Relation is the essence of synthesis. The revolt of the empiricists – Locke, Berkeley, Hume – began from the nature of understanding about the environment. But analysis was still the method, and categorization still the practical tool of advance. In the bizarre outcome, whereby it was the empiricists who denied the very existence of the empirical world, relation survived – but only through the concept of mental association between mental events. The system ’out there’, which we call nature, had been annihilated in the process.
By the time Kant was devoting his prodigious mind to sorting all this out, the battle was lost. If the, quoting him, unconscious understanding organizes sensory experience into schemata, while conscious understanding organizes it into categories, the notion of identity remains for Kant forever transcendental.
Now the individual has vanished, in practical terms; as to the assemblage of individuals called society, that too has vanished into a transcendental construct. We have no need to legislate through any consensus of actual people, but only to meet needs that might have arisen from the noumenal will.
And what of science itself? Science is ordered knowledge. It began with classification. From Galen in the second century through to Linnaeus in the eighteenth, analysis and categorization provided the natural instrumentality of scientific progress. Ally this fact with the background of philosophical thought, and the scene is set for the inexorable development of the world view that is so difficult to challenge today. It is a world view in which real systems are annihilated in trying to understand them, in which relations are lost because they are not categorized, in which synthesis is relegated to poetry and mysticism, in which identity is a political inference. We may inspect the result in the structure and organization of the contemporary university.
It is an iron maiden, in whose secure embrace scholarship is trapped. For many, this is an entirely satisfactory situation, just because the embrace is secure. A man who can lay claim to knowledge about some categorized bit of the world, however tiny, which is greater than anyone else’s knowledge of that bit, is safe for life: reputation grows, paranoia deepens. The number of papers increases exponentially, knowledge grows by infinitesimals, but understanding of the world actually recedes, because the world really is an interacting system. And since the world, in many of its aspects, is changing at an exponential rate, this kind of scholarship, rooted in the historical search of its own sanctified categories, is in large part unavailing to the needs of mankind.
There has been some recognition of this, and inter-disciplinary studies are by now commonplace in every university. But will this deal with the problem? Unfortunately, it will not. We still say that a graduate must have his ’basic discipline’, and this he is solemnly taught – as if such a thing had a precise environmental correlate, and as if we know that God knew the difference between physics and chemistry. He learns also the academic mores, catches the institutional paranoia, and proceeds to propagate the whole business. Thus it is that an ’interdisciplinary study’ often consists of a group of dis­ciplinarians holding hands in a ring for mutual comfort. The ostensible topic has slipped down the hole in the middle. Among those who recognize this too, a natural enough debate has ensued on the subject: can an undergraduate be taught ’interdisciplinary studies’ as his basic subject? But there is no such subject; there is no agreement on what it would be like; and we are rather short of anyone qualified to do the teaching. Those who resist the whole idea, in my view correctly, say that it would endanger the norms of good scholar­ship. There is a deadlock.
Against this background, let us consider Autopoiesis, and try to answer the question: ’What is it?’ The authors say: “Our purpose is to understand the organization of living systems in relation to their unitary character”. If the book deals with living systems, then it must be about biology. If it says anything scientific about organization, it must be about cybernetics. If it can recognize the nature of unitary character, it must be about epistemology – and also (remembering the first author’s massive contribution to the under­standing of perception) it will be about psychology too. Yes, it is indeed about all these things. Will you then call this an interdisciplinary study in the field of psychocyberbioepistemics? Do so only if you wish to insult the authors. Because their topic has not slipped down the hole in the middle. Therefore it is not an interdisciplinary study of the kind defined. It is not about analysis, but synthesis. It does not play the Game of the Categories. And it does not interrelate disciplines; it transcends them. If, because of my remarks about Kant, this seems to say that it annihilates them, then we are getting somewhere.
For there resides my belief in the book’s general importance. The dissolu­tion of the deadlock ’within the disciplinary system that I described above has got to be metasystemic, not merely interdisciplinary. We are not interested in forming a league of disciplinary paranoids, but (as Hegel could have told us) in a higher synthesis of disciplines. What emerges in this book is not classifiable under the old categories. Therefore it is predictable that no university could contain it, although all universities can and now do contain interdisciplinary institutions – because, in that very word, suitable obeisance is paid to the hallowed categories, and no one cares if the answers slip down the hole in the middle. As to the prediction that universities cannot contain this kind of work, I have often see it fulfilled. In the present case it is falsified, and I offer heartfelt congratulations to the University of Chile.
I say ’heartfelt’ for this reason. In the mounting pile of new books printed every year that are properly called scientific, one may take hold of one’s candle and search like a veritable Diogenes for a single one answering to the honest criteria I have proposed for a metasystemic utterance. There is only a handful in existence at all, which is not surprising in view of the way both knowledge and academia are organized. And yet, as I have also proposed, herein lies the world’s real need. If we are to understand a newer and still evolving world; if we are to educate people to live in that world; if we are to legislate for that world; if we are to abandon categories and institutions that belong to a vanished world, as it is well-nigh desperate that we should; then knowledge must be rewritten. Autopoiesis belongs to the new library.
In particular
The authors first of all say that an autopoietic system is a homeostat. We already know what that is: a device for holding a critical systemic variable within physiological limits. They go on to the definitive point: in the case of autopoietic homeostasis, the critical variable is the system’s own organization. It does not matter, it seems, whether every measurable property of that organizational structure changes utterly in the system’s process of continuing adaptation. It survives.
This is a very exciting idea to me for two reasons. In the first place it solves the problem of identity which two thousand years of philosophy have succeeded only in further confounding. The search for the ’it’ has led farther and farther away from anything that common sense could call reality. The ’it’ of scholasticism is a mythological substance in which anything attested by the senses or testable by science inheres as a mere accident – its existence is a matter of faith. The ’it’ of rationalism is unrealistically schizophrenic, because it is uncompromising in its duality – extended substance and thinking sub­stance. The ’it’ of empiricism is unrealistically insubstantial and ephemeral at the same time – esse est percipi is by no means the verdict of any experiencing human being.
The ’it’ of Kant is the transcendental ’thing-in-itself’ – an untestable inference, an intellectual gewgaw. As to the ’it’ of science and technology in the twentieth century world of conspicuous consumption … ’it’ seems to be no more than the collection of epiphenomena which mark ’it’ as consumer or consumed. In this way hardheaded materialism seems to make ’it’ as insubstantial as subjective idealism made it at the turn of the seventeenth century. And this, the very latest, the most down-to-earth, interpretation of ‘it’ the authors explicitly refute.
Their ’it’ is notified precisely by its survival in a real world. You cannot find it by analysis, because its categories may all have changed since you last looked. There is no need to postulate a mystical something which ensures the preservation of identity despite appearances. The very continuation is ’it’. At least, that is my understanding of the authors’ thesis – and I note with some glee that this means that Bishop Berkeley got the precisely right argument precisely wrong. He contended that something not being observed goes out of existence. Autopoiesis says that something that exists may turn out to be unrecognizable when you next observe it. This brings us back to reality, for that is surely true.
The second reason why the concept of autopoiesis excites me so much is that it involves the destruction of teleology. When this notion is fully worked out and debated, I suspect it will prove to be as important in the history of the philosophy of science as was David Hume’s attack on causality. Hume considered that causation is a mental construct projected onto changing events which have, as we would say today, associated probabilities of mutual occurrence. I myself have for a long time been convinced that purpose is a mental construct imported by the observer to explain what is really an equilibrial phenomenon of polystable systems. The arguments in Chapter II appear to me to justify this view completely, and I leave the reader to engen­der his own excitement in the discovery of a ’purposelessness’ that nonetheless makes good sense to a human being – just because he is allowed to keep his identity, which alone is his ’purpose’. It is enough.
But that salute to the authors is also self-congratulation, and I turn quickly aside. If a book is important, if at any time and from any source information is received, then something is changed – not merely confirmed. There are two arguments in this book that have changed me, and one of them effected its change after a profound inward struggle. Perhaps this part of the Preface should be printed as an epilogue: if I am not saying enough to be understood in advance of the reading, then I am sorry. It is too much to hope that the reader will return.
People who work with systems-theoretic concepts have often drawn atten­tion to the subjective nature of ’the system’. A system is not something presented to the observer, it is something recognized by him. One of the consequences of this is that the labelling of connections between the system and its environment as either inputs or outputs is a process of arbitrary distinction. This is not very satisfatory. For example, a motor car in action is evidently a system. Suppose that it is recognized as ’a system for going from A to B’; then the water in the radiator is evidently an input, and displacement is evidently an output. Now consider the following scenario. Two men approach a motor car, and push it towards a second motor car. They then connect the batteries of the two cars with a pair of leads, and the engine of the first car fires. They disconnect the leads, and run the engine hard in neutral gear. We can guess what they are doing; but how is the objective scientist going to describe that system? Displacement is evidently an input, and one output is the rise in temperature of the water in the radiator. In case my example sounds too transparent, note that Aristotle thought that the brain was a ’human radiator’, namely an apparatus for cooling the blood. Note also that he was right.
The fact is that we need a theoretical framework for any empirical in­vestigation. This is the raison d’être of epistemology, and the authors make that point. In the trivial example I have just given, we need to know ’all about motor cars’ before we can make sense of the empirical data. But it often happens in science that we know nothing at all about our ’motor cars’, and sit there scratching our heads over data that relate to we know not what. There is a prime example of this in current scientific work, which is so embarrasssing that scientists in general pretend that it is not there. I am referring to the whole field of parapsychology – to the mass of data which seems to say: precognition, telepathy, telekinesis exist. But we flounder among statistical artifacts, and lack the theoretical framework for interpretation. This is made clear in the very name of ESP – ’extrasensory perception’ which, if one thinks about it, constitutes an internal contradiction of terms.
Autopoiesis as a concept propounds a theoretical framework within which to cope with the confusion that arises from the subjective recognition of ’the system’ and the arbitrary classification of its inputs and outputs. For the authors explain how we may treat autopoietic systems as if they were not autopoietic (that is, they are allopoietic) when the boundaries of the system are enlarged. Moreover, autopoietic systems may have allopoietic components. These ideas are immensely helpful, because our recognition of the circum­stances in which a system should be regarded as either auto- or allo-poietic enables us to define ’the system’ in an appropriate context. That is to say that the context is the recursion of systems within which the system we study is embedded, instead of being the cloud of statistical epiphenomena generated by our attempt to study it.
Understanding this changed me. The second change involved the intellec­tual struggle I mentioned earlier, and it concerns the authors’ views on the information flowing within a viable system. In the numbered Paragraph (iv) of Section I of Chapter III they say: ’The notion of coding is a cognitive notion which represents the interactions of the observer, not a phenomenon operative in the physical domain. The same applies to the notion of regula­tion’. On first reading, this seemed to me plainly wrong. In the numbered Paragraph (v) of Section 3 of Chapter IV they say: “Notions such as coding, message or information are not applicable to the phenomenon of self-re­production”. Wrong again, I considered; indeed, outrageous – especially when taken with this remark from the first sentence of Section 3: ’reproduction… cannot enter as a defining feature of the organization of living systems’. Finally, in the numbered Paragraph (ii) of Section 3 of Chapter V, the authors say; ’A linguistic domain … is intrinsically non-informative’. Surely that is finally absurd?
All of this is totally alien to what we (most of us working in cybernetics) have believed. Information, including codes and messages and mappings, was indeed for us the whole story of the viable system. If one thinks of reproduction, for example, as the process of passing on a DNA code from an aging set of tissues to an embryonic set of tissues, then the survival of the code itself is what matters. The tissues of each generation are subject to aging and finally death, but the code is transmitted. The individual becomes insignificant, because the species is in the code. And that is why identity vanishes in an ageless computer program of bits – a program that specifies the hydrogen-bonded base pairs that link the sugar-phosphate backbones of the DNA molecule.
The whole outlook turns out to be wrong, and the book must speak for itself on this score. But it is an extraordinarily condensed book, which is why this preface is inordinately long. I do not know whether the authors’ arguments about information led me to understand their concept of auto­poiesis, or vice versa. What I am now sure about is that they are right. Nature is not about codes: we observers invent the codes in order to codify what nature is about. These discoveries are very profound.
What is less profound but equally important is the political consequence of this crisis about identity. The subordination of the individual to the species cannot be supported. “Biology cannot be used any more to justify the dispensability of the individual for the benefit of the species, society or mankind, under the pretense that its role is to perpetuate them.” After that, the world is a different place.
In contention
The authors know it, and they draw the immediate inference. It is to say that scientists can no longer claim to be outside the social milieu within which they operate, invoking objectivity and disinterest; and in truth we have known this, or ought to have known it, ever since Hiroshima. But again this book gives us the theoretical basis for a view that might otherwise shroud something fundamental in a cloak of mere prudence. “No position or view that has any relevance in the domain of human relations can be deemed free from ethical and political implications, nor can a scientist consider himself alien to these implications”. However, the authors go on to say that they do not fully agree between themselves on the questions this poses from the vantage point of their own work on autopoiesis – and they refuse to discuss them further (numbered Paragraph (iv) of Section 2 of Chapter V).
This seems to be because they do not resolve the question (posed a little earlier) whether human societies are or are not themselves biological systems. At this point, then, I ask to be relieved of the tasks of comment and inter­pretation; I ask for permission actively to enter this arena of discussion – where the angels fear to tread. For I am quite sure of the answer: yes, human societies are biological systems. Moreover, I claim that this book conclusively proves the point. This is a delicate matter, because presumably at least one of the originators of autopoietic theory disagrees, or is less than sure. Nonetheless, I have read the book many times; and one of those readings was exclusively devoted to validating this contention against the authors’ own criteria of autopoiesis at every point.
The outcome, to which I was admittedly predisposed because of my own work, says that any cohesive social institution is an autopoietic system – because it survives, because its method of survival answers the autopoietic criteria, and because it may well change its entire appearance and its apparent purpose in the process. As examples I list: firms and industries, schools and universities, clinics and hospitals, professional bodies, departments of state, and whole countries.
If this view is valid, it has extremely important consequences. In the first place it means that every social institution (in several of which any one individual is embedded at the intersect) is embedded in a larger social institu­tion, and so on recursively – and that all of them are autopoietic. This immediately explains why the process of change at any level of recursion (from the individual to the state) is not only difficult to accomplish but actually impossible – in the full sense of the intention: ’I am going completely to change myself’. The reason is that the ’I’, that self-contained autopoietic ‘it’, is a component of another autopoietic system. Now we already know that the first can be considered as allopoietic with respect to the second, and that is what makes the second a viable autopoietic system. But this is in turn means that the larger system perceives the embedded system as diminished – as less than fully autopoietic. That perception will be an illusion; but it does have consequences for the contained system. For now its own autopoiesis must respond to a special kind of constraint: treatment which attempts to deny its own autopoiesis.
Consider this argument at whatever level of recursion you please. An individual attempting to reform his own life within an autopoietic family cannot fully be his new self because the family insists that he is actually his old self. A country attempting to become a socialist state cannot fully become socialist; because there exists an international autopoietic capitalism in which it is embedded, by which the revolutionary country is deemed allopoietic. These conclusions derive from entailments of premises which the authors have placed in our hands. I think they are most valuable.
Then let me try to answer the obvious question: why do not the authors follow this line of development themselves, and write the second half of the book (as I hope they eventually will) – which would be about the nature and adaptation of social institutions, and the evolution of society itself? Well, to quote their sentence again: “Our purpose is to understand the organization of living systems in relation to their unitary character”. This formulation of the problem begs the question as to what is allowed to be a called a living system, as they themselves admit. “Unless one knows which is the living organization, one cannot know which organization is living”. They quickly reach the conclusion however (Subsection (b) of Section 2 of Chapter 1) that “auto­poiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems”. Then they display some unease, quoting the popular belief: ”... and no synthetic system is accepted as living”.
The fact is that if a social institution is autopoietic (and many seem to answer to the proper criteria) then, on the authors’ own showing, it is neces­sarily alive. That certainly sounds odd, but it cannot be helped. It seems to me that the authors are holding at arms length their own tremendously important discovery. It does not matter about this mere word ‘alive’; what does matter is that the social institution has identity in the biological sense; it is not just the random assemblage of interested parties that it is thought to be.
When it comes to social evolution then, when it comes to political change: we are not dealing with institutions and societies that will be different to­morrow because of the legislation we passed today. The legislation – even the revolution – with which we confront them does not alter them at all; it proposes a new challenge to their autopoietic adaptation. The behavior they exhibit may have to be very different if they are to survive: the point is that they have not lost their identities.
The interesting consequence is, however, that the way an autopoietic system will respond to a gross environmental challenge is highly predictable – once the nature of its autopoiesis is understood. Clever politicians intuit those adaptations; and they can be helped by good scientists using systems-theoretic models. Stupid politicians do not understand why social institutions do not lose their identities overnight when they are presented with perfectly logical reasons why they should; and these are helped by bad scientists who devote their effort to developing that irrelevant logic.
In an era when rapid institutional change is a prerequisite of peaceful survival in the face of every kind of exponentially rising threat, it seems to me that the architects of change are making the same mistake all over the world. It is that they perceive the system at their own level of recursion to be autopoietic, which is because they identify themselves with that system and know themselves to be so; but they insist on treating the systems their system contains, and those within which their system is contained, as allopoietic. This is allowable in terms of scientific description, when the input and output surfaces are correctly defined. Nonetheless it is politically blind to react towards the container and contained systems in a way which makes such a model evident, because at these other levels of recursion the relevant systems perceive themselves as autopoietic too.
This statement seems to be worth making. I could not have made it so succinctly without the language developed in this book. I could not have formulated it at all without the new concepts that Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela have taught me. I thank them both very much, on behalf of everyone.
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