Publication 3102

Hoffmeyer J. (1998) Surfaces inside surfaces. On the origin of agency and life. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 5(1): 33–42. Fulltext at
Von Foerster has suggested the Mobius strip as a topological representation of the kind of logic pertaining to self-referential cybernetic systems. The Mobius strip offers the conceptual categories of an outside interior and an inside exterior. It is suggested that these categories are realized in natural cybernetic systems through semiotic loops integrating self-reference and other-reference. Autopoiesis and semiosis are supplementary categories. Living systems may be seen as consisting essentially of surfaces inside other surfaces. The closure of a membrane around some autocatalytic chemical reaction system is an attractive candidate for a first step towards the origin of a living system. A spheric surface defines an inside-outside asymmetry and opens the possibility for communicative activity across the membrane. If some modest kind of co-operation arose in populations of closed surfaces these surfaces might become interfaces for real communication. Two further steps would be needed for these surfaces to become true anticipatory biological systems. The surface and its internal autocatalytic system would have to produce a written (digital) record of its own components, and the surface would have to devise means for controlling the translation process whereby components are produced. Only in this way can the surface become a temporal being, an autonomous agent capable of making distinctions and engaging itself in future-oriented internal or external modification. Such a system has been termed a code-dual system (Hoffmeyer and Emmeche, 1991).


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