Bich L. (2018) Robustness and autonomy in biological systems: How regulatory mechanisms enable functional integration, complexity and minimal cognition through the action of second-order control constraints. In: Bertolaso M., Caianiello S. & Serrelli E. (eds.) Biological robustness: Emerging perspectives from within the life sciences. Springer, Cham: 123–147. https://cepa.info/5659
Living systems employ several mechanisms and behaviors to achieve robustness and maintain themselves under changing internal and external conditions. Regulation stands out from them as a specific form of higher-order control, exerted over the basic regime responsible for the production and maintenance of the organism, and provides the system with the capacity to act on its own constitutive dynamics. It consists in the capability to selectively shift between different available regimes of self-production and self-maintenance in response to specific signals and perturbations, due to the action of a dedicated subsystem which is operationally distinct from the regulated ones. The role of regulation, however, is not exhausted by its contribution to maintain a living system’s viability. While enhancing robustness, regulatory mechanisms play a fundamental role in the realization of an autonomous biological organization. Specifically, they are at the basis of the remarkable integration of biological systems, insofar as they coordinate and modulate the activity of distinct functional subsystems. Moreover, by implementing complex and hierarchically organized control architectures, they allow for an increase in structural and organizational complexity while minimizing fragility. Finally, they endow living systems, from their most basic unicellular instances, with the capability to control their own internal dynamics to adaptively respond to specific features of their interaction with the environment, thus providing the basis for the emergence of minimal forms of cognition.
An approach which has the purpose to catch what characterizes the specificity of a living system, pointing out what makes it different with respect to physical and artificial systems, needs to find a new point of view – new descriptive modalities. In particular it needs to be able to describe not only the single processes which can be observed in an organism, but what integrates them in a unitary system. In order to do so, it is necessary to consider a higher level of description which takes into consideration the relations between these processes, that is the organization rather than the structure of the system. Once on this level of analysis we can focus on an abstract relational order that does not belong to the individual components and does not show itself as a pattern, but is realized and maintained in the continuous flux of processes of transformation of the constituents. Using Tibor Ganti’s words we call it “Order in the Nothing”. In order to explain this approach we analyse the historical path that generated the distinction between organization and structure and produced its most mature theoretical expression in the autopoietic biology of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. We then briefly analyse Robert Rosen’s (M, R)-Systems, a formal model conceptually built with the aim to catch the organization of living beings, and which can be considered coherent with the autopoietic theory. In conclusion we will propose some remarks on these relational descriptions, pointing out their limits and their possible developments with respect to the structural thermodynamical description.
This article revisits the concept of autopoiesis and examines its relation to cognition and life. We present a mathematical model of a 3D tesselation automaton, considered as a minimal example of autopoiesis. This leads us to a thesis T1: “An autopoietic system can be described as a random dynamical system, which is defined only within its organized autopoietic domain.” We propose a modified definition of autopoiesis: “An autopoietic system is a network of processes that produces the components that reproduce the network, and that also regulates the boundary conditions necessary for its ongoing existence as a network.” We also propose a definition of cognition: “A system is cognitive if and only if sensory inputs serve to trigger actions in a specific way, so as to satisfy a viability constraint.” It follows from these definitions that the concepts of autopoiesis and cognition, although deeply related in their connection with the regulation of the boundary conditions of the system, are not immediately identical: a system can be autopoietic without being cognitive, and cognitive without being autopoietic. Finally, we propose a thesis T2: “A system that is both autopoietic and cognitive is a living system.”
Brenner A. (2011) Living life and making life. In: Tymieniecka A.-T. (ed.) Phenomenology/ontopoiesis retrieving geo-cosmic horizons of antiquity: Logos and life. Springer, Dordrecht: 91–102. https://cepa.info/5705
The question “What is life?” has long been a major discussion point in all cultures. Nowadays whilst both Synthetic Biology and the Computer Sciences are trying to create life the question on life is becoming even more important. In oder to answer this question the paper will present the biophilosophy of Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela. The paper aims to display that this biophilosophy is very close to Husserlian phenomenology. It will be shown that a living system is autonomous and an creation by its own and dependent from its environment which is made by the living entity itself. Living entities cannot be understood without their own logos.
Brier S. (2000) Biosemiotics as a possible bridge between embodiment in cognitive semantics and the motivation concept of animal cognition in ethology. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 7(1): 57–75. https://cepa.info/3147
In the context of the question of the emergence of mind in evolution the present paper argues that the concept of linguistic motivation, through the theory of embodiment in cognitive semantics, can be connected with the concept of motivation in ethology. This connection is established through Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied cognitive semantics on the one hand and on the other hand through the theory of biosemiotics. The biosemiotics used is based on C. S. Peirce´s semiotics and the work of J. von Uexkull. Motivation will in this context be understood as a decisive factor in determining which kind of interpretant a living system constructs when perturbed by a significant disturbance in its signification sphere. From this basis the concept of sign stimuli in Ethology, based on the concept of innate release response mechanism (IRM,) is paralleled with the concept of embodied metaphorical categorization based on the concept of idealized cognitive models (ICM). It is realized that we are dealing with motivation on two different levels, that of the linguistic and that of the perceptual-behavioral level. The connection is made through pragmatic language and sign theory viewing language as getting its meaning through language games integrated in cultural life forms and animals signs to get their meaning through sign games and natural life forms. Further connection is made through the common insight of the significant role of embodiment to create signification through the construction of a signification sphere. The later concept is a Peircian biosemiotic conceptualization of von Uexkull’s orginal Umwelt concept.
Brier S. (2001) Cybersemiotics and Umweltlehre. Semiotica 134(1/4): 779–814. https://cepa.info/4800
Excerpt: I want to show how important Uexküll’s Umwelt idea was for Konrad Lorenz ethology, how Maturana and Varela’s autopoietic concept of cognitive domain is an attempt to give a modern second order cybernetic and functionalistic development of important aspects of Uexküll’s idea with its biological theory of the observer in a general system’s evolutionary framework. Interestingly, Luhmann extended this theory into the social and linguistic domain, making it the foundation of a general theory of communication and cognition. But even this cybernetics theory of the living system’s cognition and communication do not have a true phenomenological theory of signification/semantics, which was immanent in Uexküll’s concept. Hence I work to unite second order cybernetics with Peirce’s pragmaticist semiotics within the area of biosemiotics, combining them with Wittgenstein’s language game theory and Lakoff s cognitive semantics in order to make a new transdisciplinary framework for information, cognitive, and communication sciences. I call this new framework Cybersemiotics.
Brocklesby J. & Mingers J. (2002) Autopoiesis and the theory of viable systems. In: Ragsdell G., West D. & Wilby J. (eds.) Systems theory and practice in the knowledge age. Springer, Boston MA: 257–264. https://cepa.info/5714
This paper examines the application and usage of the idea of autopoiesis – a theory of living systems – within the context of viable systems theory. The paper is part of a broader consideration of how, at the social and organisational level, the relationship between these two sets of ideas about might be rethought and reconfigured to produce more comprehensive insight into the nature of the relationship between systems and the environments in which they are embedded (see, for example, Brocklesby, 2001).
Damiano L. (2016) Autopoiesis: Three research directions for future developments. In: Luisi P. L. (ed.) The emergence of life. Second edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 135–139. https://cepa.info/7847
Excerpt: My current research work on autopoietic biology relies on one of its most discussed and, in my view, promising operations: leading the two central questions of cognitive biology – i.e., “What is life?” and “What is cognition?” – to converge in one theoretical solution. Maturana and Varela conceptualized life and cognition as expressions of the distinctive form of autonomy characterizing biological systems. They defined this property as autopoiesis, and identified it as the capability of these systems to exercise on themselves an activity of self-production through an internal process of permanent (re-)constitution of their elemental components. In line with the emergentist approach developed by the early studies on biological autonomy, the two researchers referred this property not to single components, but to the organization of living systems, that is, to the functional correlation integrating the components in the dynamic units that these systems constitute. This approach defined the main theoretical issue addressed by autopoietic biology: characterizing the organization of biological systems, that is, hypothesizing a form of organization able to generate and maintain their autopoiesis – their self-production. Maturana and Varela offered a rigorous solution to this issue at the level of the minimal living system, providing the description of an organizational mechanism supporting the self-productive dynamics of the cell – its topological self-distinction included. This theoretical result, expressed in the notion of autopoietic organization, conveys the Santiago School’s most innovative contributions to the disciplinary areas related to cognitive biology – results on which my research work draws.
Emmeche C. (1998) Defining life as a semiotic phenomenon. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 5(1): 3–17. https://cepa.info/3100
The paper investigates a semiotic conception of life. As a notion or general idea of life it is seen as a member of a set of definitions bordering science proper and philosophy of nature, here called ontodefinitions. The received view of definitions in science (according to which definitions of life are virtually non-existent or meaningless to pursue) is criticised, and the semiotic notion of life is related to the emergent character of a simple living system. Defining life as biosemiotic processes seems to imply the emergence of functionality as a kind of “biological meaning” in the physical world. The relevance of definitions is context-dependent, and one such context is Artificial Life (AL) research. A “strong version” of Artificial Life claims it possible to synthesize and thus realize life computationally or by other means. If life should be defined in terms of semiotic processes intrinsic to nature, then semiosis must be required to take place in any system that realizes life.
Emmeche C. (2001) Does a robot have an Umwelt? Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll. Semiotica 134(1/4): 653–693. https://cepa.info/4718
I will investigate the plausibility of three theses: (1) The Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll, even though his theoretical biology was often characterized as being thoroughly vitalist, can in the context of contemporary science, more adequately be interpreted as a branch of qualitative organicism in theoretical biology. Qualitative organicism is a position which claims, first, a kind of middle road position, that is, on the one hand, there are no mysterious or non-material vital powers in organisms (non-vitalism), but on the other hand, the characteristic properties of living beings cannot be fully accounted for by physics and chemistry because these properties are nonreducible emergent properties (emergentism); second, that some of these emergent pro- perties have an experiential, phenomenal, or subjective character which plays a major role in the dynamics of the living system. Modern bio- semiotics (inspired by C. S. Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll, instituted by Thomas A. Sebeok) is a kind of qualitative organicism. (2) This position sheds light on recent discussions in cognitive science, artificial life, and robotics about the nature of representation and cognition – indeed genuine semiotic questions as they deal with the role of information and signs for any system that has the property of being ‘animal-like,’ that is, systems that move by themselves and seem to be guided by a kind of entelechy or, in modern but shallow terms, a behavioral program. (3) Particularly, qualitative organicism allows us to approach the question of whether a robot can have an Umwelt in the sense that Jakob von Uexküll used the term (a subjectively experienced phenom- enal world) The eventuality of a positive answer to this question, i.e., a claim that a robot indeed can have an Umwelt, seems counterintuitive to the extent that a robot may be seen as – to use a bewildering word – an incarnation of the mechanical and reductionist world picture to which Jakob von Uexküll was so strongly opposed. But certain ideas and concepts may sometimes lead us to unexpected consequences, which threaten our cherished metaphysical assumptions, and we should try to face such questions with an open mind.