Autopoiesis Revisited


Autopoiesis principally dealt with determining the essence of living beings to start off with, thus calling to attention a clarification between organization and structure. This distinction was highlighted with organization subtending the set of all possible relations of the autopoietic processes of an organism and structure as a synchronic snapshot from the organizational set that was active at any given instant. This distinction was tension ridden, for a possibility of a production of a novel functional structure was inhibited, and especially so, when the system had perturbations vis-à-vis the environment that housed it. Thus within the realm of autopoiesis, a diachronic emergence was conceivable only as a natural drift. John Protevi throws light on this perspective with his insistence on synchronic emergence as autonomous, and since autonomy is interest directed, the question of autopoiesis in the social realm is ruled out. The case of understanding rejection of extending autopoiesis to the social realm, especially Varela’s rejection, is a move conceived more to move beyond autopoiesis, rather than beyond neocybernetics as concerned with the organizational closure of informational systems, lest a risk of slipping into polarization should loom large. The aggrandizing threat of fascistic and authoritarian tendencies in Varela were indeed ill-conceived. This polarity that Varela considered later in his intellectual trajectory as comprising of fragments that constituted the whole, and collectively constructed, was a launch pad for Luhmann to enter the fray and use autopoiesis to social systems. Autopoiesis forms the central notion for his self-referential systems, where the latter are characterized by acknowledging their referring to themselves in every operation. Autopoietic system while organizationally closed nevertheless references an environment, background or context. This is an indication that pure auto-referentiality is generally lacking, replaced instead by a broader process of self- referentiality which comprises hetero-referentiality with a reference to an environment. This process is watchful of the distinction between itself and the environment, lest it should fail to take off. As Luhmann says that if an autopoietic system did not have an environment, it would be forced to invent one as the horizon of its auto-referentiality.

A system distinguishes itself from the environment by boundaries, where the latter is a zone of high-degree complexity, the former is a one of reduced complexity. Even Luhmann’s system believes in being interest-driven, where the communication is selective with the available information to the best of its efficiency. Luhmann likens the operation of autopoiesis to a program, making a series of logical distinctions. Here, Luhmann refers to the British mathematician G. Spencer Brown’s logic of distinctions that Maturana and Varela had identified as a model for the functioning of any cognitive process. The supreme criteria guiding the “self-creation” of any given system is a defining binary code. This binary code is taken by Luhmann to problematize the auto-referential system’s continuous confrontation with the dilemma of disintegration/continuation. Importantly, Luhmann treats systems on an ontological level, that is, systems exist, and this paradigm is attempted to be changed through the differential relations between the system and the environment.

Philosophically, complexity and self-organizational principles shifts trends into interdisciplinarity. To take a case of holism, emergentism within complexity abhors a study through reductionism. Scientifically, this notion of holism failed to stamp its authority due to a lack of any solid scientificity, and the hubristic Newtonian paradigm of reductionism as the panacea for all ills came to stay. The rapprochement was not possible until a German biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy shocked the prevalent world view with his thesis on the openness of living systems through interactions with the surrounding systems for their continual survival. This idea deliberated on a system embedded within an environment separated by a boundary that lent the system its own identity. Input from the environment and output from the system could be conceived as a plurality of systems interacting with one another to form a network, which, if functionally coherent is a system in its own right, or a supersystem, with the initial conditions as its subsystems. This strips the subsystems of any independence, but determinable within a network via relations and/or mapping. This in general is termed constraint, that abhors independence from relations between the coupled systems (supersystem/subsystem). If the coupling between the systems is tight enough, an organization with its identity and autonomy results. Cybernetics deals precisely with such a formulation, where the autonomy in question is maintained through goal-directed seemingly intelligent action in line with the thoughts of Varela and Luhmann. This is significant because the perturbations originating in the environment are compensated for by the system actively in order to maintain its preferred state of affairs, with greater the amount of perturbations implying greater compensatory actions on the part of the system. One consequence of such a systemic perspective has gotten rid of Cartesian mind-matter split by thinking of it as nothing more than a special kind of relation. Such is the efficacy of autopoiesis in negotiating the dilemma surrounding the metaphysical question concerning the origin of order.


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