Reconstructing Maturana – Metaphysics and method
Dougall C. (2000) Reconstructing Maturana – Metaphysics and method. Kybernetes 29(4): 491–498. Available at http://cepa.info/3088
Table of Contents
Considers some of the puzzles and inconsistencies associated with Maturana’s metaphysics. We argue that such puzzles and inconsistencies largely arise out of difficulties of method and that the clue to their resolution is to be found in Aristotle’s solution to the same problem. Maturana’s claims are reconstructed in this light and in a way which does not materially affect their underlying theoretical grounds, i.e. autopoiesis theory, and dissolves the puzzles and inconsistencies referred to.
Since it was first formulated in the late 1960s autopoiesis theory (Maturana, 1970, 1975, 1978, 1980a, 1980b, 1987, 1993; Maturana and Varela, 1980b, 1987; and Varela et al, 1974) has grown in ways that could hardly have been imagined. It has been variously described as being more a theoretical paradigm than a unified theory (King, 1993: 218), and as a wide, complete, explicatory system, comparable to those of Plato or Leibniz (Glasersfeld, 1990). Researchers from many disciplines have assimilated autopoiesis into their theoretical toolkits and, as Mingers notes, it has triggered debates about the nature of family reality (in psychotherapy), the ontology of law, the self- constitution of social systems, and the grounding of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. All of this on top of debates within its own domain – biology – about the origin of life and artificial systems (Mingers, 1995: 1). Such questions and debates seem on the face of it to be far removed from considerations of the operations of simple physical cells. Nor is it at all clear, at least to this observer, how the two are related. In order to understand or see the connection we need to pay some regard to the particular metaphysics that Maturana has felt the need to elaborate since and as a direct consequence of his “discovery” of autopoiesis. With his metaphysics, however, comes the seemingly more intractable problem associated with his method. The difficulty in this respect is whether his method is powerful enough to secure his conclusions. The answer to this presents us with the familiar Maturanian knot. Maturana’s solution to the problem of method, like his metaphysics, is strikingly Aristotelian. However, where Aristotle can lend support, Maturana’s claims with respect to our biology threaten to undermine it. But if we reject Aristotle’s solution (as his critics suggest we should (Smith, 1996)), and along with it and for the same reasons Maturana’s, the claims raised by biology can be disregarded as having been arrived at in a methodologically unsafe and unsound manner This of course threatens to undermine the autopoietic project and threatens its collapse. These matters are discussed in the following sections.
We take the domain of autopoiesis theory to be metaphysics and not biology. By metaphysics we simply mean considerations with regard to the broad 492 structures of reality (Aristotle’s term for metaphysics is “first philosophy”).
Although it is sometimes taken to be mumbo-jumbo, it is, at heart, a rational project. As Lawson-Tancred (1998: xiii) describes it, the metaphysician or “first philosopher” attempts at least to give grounds for his large conclusions that are not founded either on the appeal to divine authority or on a claim to experience of a privileged kind – from the pig’s ear of our experience the metaphysician fashions the silk purse of his vision of the cosmos. Maturana’s vision and conclusions are large indeed. The world we experience is radically and literally one of our own making, one where nothing pre-exists its distinction and where hallucination is indistinguishable from the “really real.” Mingers for one takes issue with this. Specifically, he argues that the claims Maturana makes from his theories are self-contradictory and are in fact inconsistent on two different levels. First, Maturana advances the claim that all knowledge is relative to the knower (or community of knowers); hence no theory can claim objective truth. Given the self-referential nature of this claim it must equally apply to the claim itself. Second, Maturana’s own theories specifically require that there be an independently existing world. Mingers finds this requirement peppered throughout Maturana’s work in various different guises in the distinctions he makes.
Maturana’s metaphysical position can be likened to those of whom Loux (1998: 9) has called “conceptual schemers” and among whose ranks he numbers Collingwood (1940), Korner (1974), Rescher (1973), Putnam (1981, 1987), and Rorty (1979). Notwithstanding their philosophical diversity, what such metaphysicians have in common is a shared metaphysical agenda inherited from Kant, namely, that the metaphysical enterprise is an inquiry into the structure of human thought. This is something quite different from the more traditional Aristotelian view which sees the metaphysical enterprise as an inquiry into the structure of the world. If one takes the view, as Aristotle seems to have, that one mirrors the other, then the outcome will be the same – typically, however, “conceptual schemers” do not believe this. Like Kant, they believe that the world as it really is is something that is inaccessible to us. What we grasp is not the object as it really is independently of our thoughts about it. Rather, what we grasp is the object as we conceptualise or represent it. It is in part at least the product of the conceptual or representational apparatus we bring to bear in doing the thinking To be sure, Maturana does not directly speak of conceptual schemes in the sense referred to above nor does he explicitly articulate a metaphysical agenda in terms of such. However, since all “thinking” is languaging this is not inconsistent with his metaphysical position. Maturana’s conclusions are the same and for the same reasons, although he arrives at them from biology rather than philosophy – all we have access to are the (spoken and unspoken) distinctions we make. This places Maturana squarely within the idealist tradition of metaphysics normally associated with Kant (Mingers, 1995: 93), although Maturana’s position is perhaps more consonant with the more radical species of idealism Loux identifies with, among others, Rorty (1979). We can find the same sort of inconsistency in this neo-Kantian account of the project or agenda of metaphysics as Mingers finds in Maturana’s radical constructivism, namely its destructive self-referential nature. A way out of this metaphysical bind is to concede the point to traditional (Aristotelian) metaphysics and accept that there is such a thing as a subject-independent reality. In this view, our conceptual frameworks, far from screening us of from things as they really are, are on the contrary our routes to such things and our way of gaining access to them. This may not resolve all the difficulties associated with metaphysical arguments of this sort. However, as we shall argue below it saves Maturana’s metaphysics from its worst excesses.
As Aristotle conceived it, the task of first philosophy is to lay bare the broad structures of reality. This is its subject-matter and is precisely that which the departmental sciences properly take for granted. This is also, we argue, how Maturana conceives the metaphysical project – to uncover as far as possible the true nature of reality. In saying this we take it that he shares Aristotle’s opinion that this is not the proper task and subject-matter of the departmental sciences.
Maturanian metaphysics begins with the distinction of unity and in so doing encounters its first major problem, namely how to give an account of such unity. As we suggested above, Maturana’s solution to the problem of unity is strikingly Aristotelian. There is a metaphysical leitmotif running through autopoiesis theory which has its basis in a hylomorphic account of the unity of a subject and whose two key figures are “organisation” and “structure.” We find a similar leitmotif in Aristotle whose two key figures, form and matter, are by analogy the same thing as Maturana’s organisation and structure (we have argued elsewhere (Dougall, 1999) for the equation of these). Aristotle of course faced the same problem of accounting for the unity of a subject made out of different stuffs and his solution can throw considerable light on Maturana’s solution and help us to a clearer understanding of it.
If an individual subject is made up of many parts, how is it that it is one thing and not many? What is it that accounts for its unity? This is how Aristotle was to problematize the issue of unity in books Zeta and Eta of his Metaphysics. His answer is that the individual subject is a unity of its form and matter – his celebrated doctrine of hylomorphism. To understand Aristotle’s account of how unity is achieved we need to understand the distinction he makes between potential (dunamis) and actual (energeia) and how this relates to his form/matter distinction. To use his example, a bronze sphere is a unity of its form (sphere) and matter (bronze). These two seemingly separate things are alike in an important way: the matter is already potentially a sphere while the form is already actually a sphere in itself. When the two are combined a true unity (a sphere) exists. In Aristotle’s vision of nature the form of a thing is ontologically prior to its matter – its form is what it most essentially is – and stands in a relation of teleological dominance with respect to its matter. Conversely, its matter stands in a relation of teleological dependence with respect to its form: the matter is for-the-sake-of the form. Where the unity is a composite the task of unifying its various parts is given to form: the perceptible matter, e.g. flesh and bone, is differentiated into a perceptible unity, e.g. Socrates, Polly the parrot, by the form and the intelligible matter (e.g. gastrointestinal, cardio-vascular) is organised into an intelligible unity in the form. It is only by virtue of its causal powers that form is able to achieve this. Much of this has a familiar Maturanian ring to it. In Maturana’s vision of nature the structure of a unity is already potentially that unity while its organisation is already actually that unity in itself (see Dougall (1999) for a more detailed discussion of this). Where the two are combined a true unity exists whose organisation is ontologically prior to its structure – its organisation is what it most essentially is – and stands in a relation of teleological dominance with respect to it. The task of unifying the various parts of a composite unity is given to organisation: the perceptible structure is differentiated into a perceptible unity by the organisation and the intelligible structure emerges as an intelligible unity in the organisation.
Any entity so constituted as a unity of Maturanian organisation and structure is organisationally closed. Maturana takes this to mean such a unity is a closed network of processes that does not require making reference to anything external to itself both in its constitution as such a unity in the space of such processes and in the realisation of its ontogeny. This is the starting point and ultimate grounds of Maturana’s metaphysical claims. It is also the seed of his metaphysical inconsistency of the sort described by Mingers. We argue that such inconsistencies in fact dissolve with a clearer appreciation of the method appropriate to the sort of discourse Maturana engages in. It is to a discussion of this we now turn.
In elaborating the implications of autopoiesis for those entities whose lot autopoiesis is, Maturana’s focus turns from that of the biologist to that of the metaphysician or first philosopher. If we take the business of science to be explanation, then as a metaphysician Maturana distinguishes between:
an explanation;a scientific explanation; andthe criterion of evaluation of a scientific explanation.
He then seeks to explain these. Maturana poses the question, “what counts as an explanation?’. In answering this we note first of all, if somewhat trivially, that explanations are always answers to questions posed. Thus, in answering the question “what are we?” we might give the answer as “a collection of atoms.” If such an answer were accepted by a community of observers in virtue of its having some basis in common belief then it counts as explanation to the question posed. Qua such it explains, but it does not constitute the being of or experience of the explanandum. Rather, explanations of this sort take place in what Maturana calls “a metadomain with respect to that which they explain” (Maturana, 1987: 326).
While pointing to something whose basis lies in common belief may be regarded as an adequate answer to “what is an explanation?,” it would not be acceptable, at least to Maturana, as a definition of what a “scientific” explanation is. Based on his observations (which are also self-observations) of what “modern scientists do,” Maturana sees it as possible to extract “an operational (and hence, experiential) specification of what constitutes a scientific explanation as the criterion of validation of what they claim are their scientific statements” (Maturana, 1987: 328). This “criterion of validation of a scientific explanation” is the joint satisfaction in the observer’s domain of existence of four operational criteria. What these operational criteria amount to in sum is the proposition that all (scientific) explanation is re-creation. This proposition is made operational or concrete in what Maturana calls a “generative mechanism” which, when allowed to operate, gives rise as a consequence of its operation to the phenomenon explained to be witnessed (re-created) by the observer. We have argued elsewhere (Dougall, 1998) that this generative mechanism is the aitiai or “causes” in autopoiesis theory and so shall not repeat such arguments here in any detail. Briefly, they are the material, formal, efficient, and final causes of the Aristotelian doctrine which we present (using Moravcsik’s (1975) terminology) in Table I. This, in part, is Maturana’s scientific method which for want of a better term we can call “generative.” If we grant for the moment the argument that the generative method may be adequate in securing the principles and conclusions of a departmental science, it is not at all clear that it is equally adequate in the case of metaphysical science. How, for example, can the generative method secure the principles and conclusions that:
there is no such thing as an ontic reality;that nothing pre-exists its distinction; andthat living things are composites of their organisation and structure.
In fact, we argue that when Maturana’s focus shifts from that of the field biologist to that of the metaphysician, his method shifts to dialectic.
Aristotle:ConstitutiveDistinguishingAgentiveTelic(materialformalefficientfinal)Maturana:StructureOrganisationRelations of productionManner of existence
Table 1. Aitiai as generative mechanism
Like Plato (who seems to have invented the term to describe the sorts of systematic argument found in the Socratic dialogues), Aristotle believed that dialectic is also a method for reaching positive conclusions; hence his claim that it is a road to objective first principles (Irwin, 1995: 8). Dialectical argument proceeds from an examination of commonly held beliefs and proceeds to a more coherent view of these beliefs solving the puzzles revealed by our examination of the beliefs along the way. In Aristotle’s terminology we begin with what is known and clearer to us (i.e. particulars) and proceed to what is clearer and better known by nature (i.e. universals). For example, an examination of our beliefs regarding perception and what is “really real” may lead us to the conclusion and hence to the proposition that there is no ontic reality.
The problem of dialectic, however, is well-known and to the extent that it is a real problem it casts doubt on the security of any principles and conclusions arrived at via this method. Simply put, as a method dialectic may not be powerful enough to support its conclusions. Hence, for example, any proposition or principle regarding the non-existence of an ontic reality is suspect from the very first.
Aristotle seems to have recognised the problem with dialectic. According to Irwin, his solution was to distinguish between what Irwin calls “pure dialectic,” which is simply argument from commonly held opinions and beliefs, and “strong dialectic,” which is a more critical type of argument. In the case of the former, any premisses are admissible so long as they express common beliefs. In the case of the latter only those premisses we have good reasons for accepting other than their basis in common belief are admissible. Since, as we have argued, Maturana’s method is also dialectical he faces the same problems Aristotle faced in this respect. His solution, we argue, is strikingly similar In answering the question “what is a scientific explanation?” Maturana distinguishes between what we might call a “lay observer” and what he calls a “standard observer” and, although he does not always make it explicit, the “standard” referred to is the standard or norms of acting or behaviour of that particular closed cognitive domain to which the standard observer belongs.
What distinguishes scientists, and therefore standard observers (and therefore, Maturana), from lay observers “is that they are careful to avoid confusion of phenomenal domains when applying the criterion of validation of scientific statements in the praxis of living” (Irwin, 1995: 328). Where his discourse is metaphysical, part and parcel of Maturana’s being “careful to avoid confusion of phenomenal domains” lies, we argue, in his employing “strong” dialectic to secure his arguments.
Maturana’s metaphysical pronouncements are both conclusions and propositions of autopoiesis theory broadly conceived. We take as examples of such pronouncements not only his “nothing pre-exists…” one-liner, but also his claim that as unities we are composites of our organisation and structure. Such are (objective) first principles of Maturanian science. In reaching them Maturana’s method is dialecticallt is also, we argue, strong dialectic in the sense that we have used that term above.
The outcome or result is a set of statements, conclusions, or propositions which are more secure than they otherwise might have been.
Irwin suggests that with respect to philosophical arguments we have not found any clearly accepted alternative to dialectic (Irwin, 1995: 484) and that Aristotle’s “pure/strong” distinction is at least a workable solution to the problem it raises (this is not uncontroversial and is a matter of debate among Aristotelian scholars (Irwin, 1995; Smith, 1996)). If Irwin is correct in his assessment then what Maturana may very well have done is demonstrate that any solution of method still leaves untouched the issue of our biology; hence we are no further forward at least in this respect – Aristotle never considers that it might be our biology and not simply our method that poses problems in establishing objective first principles. Yet if this is the case why does Maturana bother with what we take to be his version of the pure/strong distinction in the first place? Our answer is that as a scientist Maturana is compelled towards the elaboration of (objective) first principles and conclusions – the alternative not only leads to the death of scientific argument but threatens to relegate his statements to the level of non-science. Maturana argues that science does not reveal an independent reality. Rather “reality” is determined by the observer in the constitutive act of “bringing forth” in his or her praxis of living. Based on our discussion we feel justified in modifying Maturana’s claims in this respect. The science Maturana engages in and speaks of in this context is metaphysical science, the “universal science” of first philosophy.
The reality brought forth by the metaphysician in his or her praxis of living as a “standard” observer is a reality brought forth in scientific explanation. Qua such it is brought forth in “strong” dialectic. Qua such it is revealed as being independent, external and (objective) insofar as the dialectical method allows.
In this light we can revisit what we have taken to be Maturana’s metaphysical inconsistencies and note that they dissolve with a clearer appreciation of his solution to the problem of method. Maturana claims that science does not reveal an independent reality. Maturana, however, does not adequately, or even at all, distinguish between the departmental sciences, e.g. biology, physics, etc., and metaphysical science. If his claim relates solely to the departmental sciences then it cannot be challenged.
As we have argued above, it is not the task of the departmental sciences to reveal the broad structures of reality – this is the task of first philosophy, the universal science. Viewed in this light Maturana’s claim can be uncontroversially accepted – the departmental sciences do not reveal an independent reality. If Maturana’s claim is taken to apply to metaphysical science then a different picture emerges. In this context and from the perspective of the lay observer (and indeed a standard observer) relying solely on pure dialectic this claim similarly cannot be challenged. The real issue in this respect, however, is whether or not metaphysical science through strong dialectic reveals an independent reality. Aristotle took a positive view on this issue. In the light of our discussion such a positive view is entirely consistent with autopoiesis theory qua metaphysics. The negative view is not.
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