The attempt to define living systems in terms of goal, purpose, function, etc. runs into serious conceptual difficulties. The theoretical biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela realized that any such attempt cannot capture what is distinctive about them: their autonomy and unity. Goal, purpose, etc. always define the system in terms of something extrinsic, whereas living systems are unique because they maintain their unitary continuity of pattern despite the ceaseless turnover of their components. So, system-closure is a prerequisite of their adequate conceptual comprehension. Maturana and Varela themselves found that system-closure pertains exclusively to their organization, i.e. the set of relations among system-components which unify them. For living systems this comprises the relation between the system-components and the processes which they undergo. This relation is self-referential because it is closed, i.e. it essentially (re)produces itself. \\While this model worked very well in the biological domain, attempts to extend it to the social domain met with serious conceptual obstacles. The reason for this is that Maturana did not make a consistent enough application of it. He understood the components of social systems biologically (individuals, persons, etc.) and the relations between them socially (language). This inconsistency ruptured the system’s organizational closure. Consequently organizational closure (autopoiesis) can be maintained only when both the components of social systems and their processes are of the same type: social. This interpretation can be found in the work of Niklas Luhmann who recognizes that the components of social systems are not persons, individuals, actors or subjects but communicative actions themselves. This preserves the organizational closure of the system and permits the concept of autopoiesis to be used as a powerful instrument of social analysis.
Jakob von Uexküll is mostly known for his concept of Umwelt – the meaningful surrounding of animals. von Uexküll insisted vehemently on the fact that Umwelt vindicated Kant’s subjectivist epistemology in the biological domain. However, we argue that a crucial yet widely overlooked development in von Uexküll’s theory of meaning implies a more radical vision strikingly germane to J. J. Gibson’s own direct realist epistemology-ontology and in tension with his own subjectivist concept of Umwelt. Gibson argued that organism and environment are complementary and meaning is not constructed via a subjective act but is directly available in the world as opportunities for action, namely, affordances. We show that von Uexküll’s notion of “functional tone” is similar to Gibson’s concept of affordance in that it includes action in perception. More important, von Uexküll introduces the musical metaphor of harmony to characterize the relationship between animal and environment. Like Gibson’s reciprocity, harmony implies an unmediated isomorphism between the dispositions of the animal and those of the environment that allows for direct perceptual contact with the world and action upon it.
Mascolo R. (2009) Cambiare il punto di vista: circolarità della vita e pratiche filosofiche [Changing the point of view: the circularity of life and philosophical practices]. Rivista Italiana di Counseling Filosofico 5(5): 65–85. https://cepa.info/372
In this paper we use the theoretical framework of the theory of living systems of Maturana and Varela, which entails a new way of seeing the world and a new way of thinking, a new science of complexity. At the core of the theoretical premise is that we can no longer maintain the division between the observer and observed that is implicit in the atomistic view, but that both observer and observed are interpenetrating aspects of one whole reality. According to Maturana and Varela, we consider cognition as an effective action that involves life in a circular way and where the world is not something that is given to us but something we engage in by living. The paper address the following issues: We consider that every action is embedded in a dynamics of relations that is inextricably part of a systemic dynamics; we put objectivity in parenthesis, so that all views in the multiverse are equally valid and we lose the passion for changing the other; we are responsible for our actions; human beings cannot be controlled in a causal linear way, and there can be no instructive intervention; perception and illusion cannot be distinguished “in the moment of the experience”; we have to listen without prejudice and be aware of the emotions coloring what one is hearing; there are no pathologies in the biological domain and the pain that becomes ing manifest in a therapy is always culturally conditioned.
Mossio M. & Bich L. (2017) What makes biological organisation teleological? Synthese 194(4): 1089–1114. https://cepa.info/4816
This paper argues that biological organisation can be legitimately conceived of as an intrinsically teleological causal regime. The core of the argument consists in establishing a connection between organisation and teleology through the concept of self-determination: biological organisation determines itself in the sense that the effects of its activity contribute to determine its own conditions of existence. We suggest that not any kind of circular regime realises self-determination, which should be specifically understood as self-constraint: in biological systems, in particular, self-constraint takes the form of closure, i.e. a network of mutually dependent constitutive constraints. We then explore the occurrence of intrinsic teleology in the biological domain and beyond. On the one hand, the organisational account might possibly concede that supra-organismal biological systems (as symbioses or ecosystems) could realise closure, and hence be teleological. On the other hand, the realisation of closure beyond the biological realm appears to be highly unlikely. In turn, the occurrence of simpler forms of self-determination remains a controversial issue, in particular with respect to the case of self-organising dissipative systems.
In this paper, we advocate the idea that an adequate explanation of biological systems requires appealing to organisational closure as an emergent causal regime. We first develop a theoretical justification of emergence in terms of relatedness, by arguing that configurations, because of the relatedness among their constituents, possess ontologically irreducible properties, providing them with distinctive causal powers. We then focus on those emergent causal powers exerted as constraints, and we claim that biological systems crucially differ from other natural systems in that they realise a closure of constraints, i.e. a higher-level emergent regime of causation such that the constituents, each of them acting as a constraint, realise a mutual dependence among them, and are collectively able to self-maintain. Lastly, we claim that closure can be justifiably taken as an emergent regime of causation, without admitting that it inherently involves whole-parts causation, which would require committing to stronger ontological and epistemological assumptions.
Context: In this paper I expand aspects of the generalized bottom-up explanatory approach devised in Part I to expound the natural emergence of composite self-organized dynamic systems endowed with self-produced embodied boundaries and with observed degrees of autonomous behavior. In Part I, the focus was on the rules defined by Varela, Maturana & Uribe (VM&U rules), viewed as a validation test to assess if an observed system is autopoietic. This was accomplished by referring to Maturana’s ontological-epistemological frame and by defining distinctions, concepts, and abstractions necessary to describe dynamic systems in any observational domain. This approach concentrates on pure causation flow rather than on domain-specific interaction mechanisms. Problem: It is essential to analyze the requirements imposed by the VM&U rules on the “intra-boundaries” phenomenology for compliance with the self-production capabilities expected from an autopoietic system. Beyond what is merely implied by the compact wording of the VM&U rules, a key point needs to be addressed explicitly: how to describe some “peculiar” capabilities that the components should be endowed with to participate in new component production (as macro-molecules do in the biological domain) so that system’s self-production can be assessed. Method: Using this approach, I first describe the process of constituting self-organized dynamic structures provided with embodied boundaries. Then I explain how a capability of self-organization emerges and how this results in ephemeral configurations that may evolve into self-regulated long-lasting dynamic system stability within a continuous causation flow inside the boundaries, up to the emergence of some “specialized” subsets of components. This explication allows us to distinguish the medium, the boundaries, and the core of a self-organized dynamic system and to focus attention on the “intra-boundaries” phenomenology that should be at the heart of self-production capabilities, as prescribed by the 5th and 6th VM&U rules. Results: I propose an abstract, domain-free description of the “peculiar” composition and decomposition transformation capabilities that components should possess while subject to state transitions triggered within the “intra-boundaries” causation flow. This is combined with a discussion concerning the “intra-boundaries” causation structure’s possible topological layouts that could be compliant with the 6th rule. Implications: The above-mentioned results allow us to improve our analytic criteria when observing dynamic systems existing in non-biological domains in order to assess their autopoietic nature. They also reveal that the task of consistently identifying possible non-biological autopoietic systems is harder than merely identifying self-organized dynamic systems provided with boundaries and some observable autonomous behavioral capabilities in a given observational domain. More implications will be discussed further in Part III.
Open peer commentary on the article “A Critique of Barbieri’s Code Biology” by Alexander V. Kravchenko. Abstract: Kravchenko suggests that to understand the nature and function of language one must approach it as species-specific semiotic activity that has a biological function. However, this approach reduces the semiotic nature of living systems to the language characteristic of the Homo sapiens and it remains unclear how to move from the biological domain to the social and cognitive semiotic domains. I suggest exploring the possibilities of the cybersemiotic theoretical framework, which could provide an alternative in explaining language in terms of levels of semiosis, and conclude with a call for more research into the emergence of semiosis at various levels and into the role of communication.