AUTOPOIESIS, STRUCTURAL COUPLING AND COGNITION

Humberto Maturana Romesin
F. Ciencias Dpto. Biologia
University Of Chile
Casilla 653 Santiago Chile

DRAFT
editorial changes not yet reviewed by author
Purpose
My intent in this essay is to reflect on the history of some biological notions such as autopoiesis, structural coupling, and cognition, that I have developed since the early 1960’s as a result of my work on visual perception and the organization of the living. No doubt I shall repeat things that I have said in other publications (Maturana and Varela 1980 and 1988), and I shall present notions that once they are said appear as obvious truisms. But the reader it is not invited to attend to the truisms, rather he or she is invited to attend to the consequences that they entail for the understanding of biological processes. After all, explanations or demonstrations always become self evident once they are understood and accepted.
KEYWORDS Autopoiesis, structural coupling, cognition, explanations, self-consciousness,
1. Autopoiesis
1.1 Origins of the notion
In November 1960, a first year medical student asked me the question “What began three thousand eight hundred million years ago so that you can say now that living systems began then?” I realized that I could not properly answer that question, so I said “I cannot answer this question now, but if you come back next year I shall propose an answer then.” Thus I accepted the question of the student to be answered later, and as I did so, I accepted also the question for myself. I realized that to answer this question I had to create a living system, either conceptually or practically, because I had to be able to say what kind of systems were living system to be able to say how they began.
While in the attempting to answer the dual questions of what kind of systems are living systems, and of how did they begin so that I could now speak of their origin, it became obvious to me that living systems exist as autonomous entities in the form of self contained closed molecular dynamics of self production, open to the flow of molecules through them. Indeed, one can say that living systems arose in the history of the earth in the moment in which some spontaneous networks of molecular autocatalytic processes became closed upon themselves. This happened when, as a result of their own dynamics, they became singular separable entities that realized their boundaries as a consequence of their own operation, and existed in that way as autonomous totalities in a molecular medium with which they were in recursive molecular interchange. Through this understanding my claim became that a living system is a dynamic composite entity, realized as a unity as a closed network of productions of components such that through their interactions in composition and decomposition the components:
a) recursively constituted the same network of production that produced them, and
b) specified the extension of the network and constituted operational boundaries that separate it as a dynamic unity in a space defined by elements of the kind of those that compose it, is an autopoietic system.
My first full understanding of living systems as discrete self producing molecular networks closed in the dynamics of molecular productions, but open to the flow of molecules through them, took place suddenly at the end of 1963. In conversation with my friend Dr. Guillermo Contreras I was highlighting a fact that we of course both knew, namely, that nucleic acids participate with proteins in the synthesis of proteins, and that proteins participate as enzymes with nucleic acids in the synthesis of nucleic acids, all together constituting a discrete circular dynamics supported by the continuous flow of the molecules that we usually call metabolites. As I was drawing a diagram of this circularity, I exclaimed “This is it!”.
After this event I was impressed to see that although the metabolic charts that usually hang on the walls of biochemistry laboratories show cases of closed molecular dynamics, they do not show the participation of molecules in the realization of a boundary that would make of the molecular network a discrete entity in the molecular space. I think that those metabolic charts did not show autopoiesis because there was no concept of metabolic closure as a central feature of the constitution of a living system as a discrete entity, and because the metabolic network represented there did not constitute in its operation an autopoietic unity. But I did not have the word “autopoiesis” to speak with then.
At the beginning of 1964 I began to say that living systems were constituted as unities as circular closed dynamics of molecular productions open to the flow of molecules through them in which everything could change except their realization as unities as closed circular dynamics of molecular productions open to the flow of molecules through them. It was later, in 1968 that I began to speak of living systems as closed molecular networks, and it was not until 1970 that I choose the word autopoiesis in order to connote the organization of living systems as closed networks of molecular production, and I could say that living systems existed only as long as their autopoietic organization was conserved. I did not think of autopoiesis in an experiential vacuum as I conceived it as an abstraction of what I knew of the molecular biology of the times.
1.2 Molecular systems
If the components of a closed network of productions that recursively constitute the same network of productions that produced them are molecules, then this autopoietic system is a living system that exists in the molecular space in a continuous molecular interchange with the molecular medium that contains it.
Molecular systems exist only in the satisfaction of the structural conditions of molecular existence, thus the satisfaction of all that is required for molecular processes to occur is implicit in the understanding that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems. The fundamental thing that happens in the constitution of a living system as a molecular autopoietic system is its constitution as an autonomous entity that has a singular existence as such in the continuous flow of molecules through it. Biological phenomena occur in the actual realization of living systems as singular unities, not in the particular nature of any of the molecular processes that realize them. Any phenomenon that occurs through the actual realization of the living of at least one living system, is a biological phenomenon.
Biological phenomena take place in a dynamics that occurs in the present without any operational relation to the past or the future. Past and future are explanatory notions introduced by the observer. The notion that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems has been minimized by some biologists under the claim that it is a notion already used by Kant as he thought of organisms as totalities in which each part existed both for and by means of the whole, while the whole existed for and by means of the parts (Kant1952, Kauffman 1995). Yet, what I say has a precision beyond what Kant could have said. I am speaking of how living systems are constituted operationally as singular molecular entities in a way that reveals their dynamic architecture. I am not saying, as Kant and others have said, that the parts exist for the whole and the whole for the parts. I talk of the manner in which the molecular process interconnect with each other so that a living system exists as a totality that appears to an observer as if the parts existed for the whole and the whole for the parts -- which is not the case. The components of any system exist as local entities only in relations of contiguity with other components, and any relation of the parts to the whole established by the observer as a metaphor for his or her understanding has no operational presence. Autopoiesis is not something that can be called a property of living systems; rather it is their actual manner of being as the organization that constitutes them as singular entities in the molecular space.
As molecular autopoietic systems, living systems exist in the continuous flow of molecules through them in their realization as closed networks of molecular process that exist as movable singularities in a molecular space. Accordingly, and this is basic to their understanding, living systems are not the molecules that compose and realize them moment by moment, they are closed networks of molecular productions that exist as singularities in a continuous flow of molecules through them. Their closed dynamics constitute them as separable entities that float in the molecular domain in which they exist. It is this manner of constitution of living systems as molecular systems that Francisco Varela and I (Maturana and Varela, 1973) connote when we claim that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems in operational terms.
Of course living systems are not unique in being entities that are not the components that realize them at any instant because they exist as dynamic unities in the continuous flow of the elements that compose them. I shall mention two cases in which it is apparent that what constitutes a dynamic system is its manner of composition, not the elements that compose it. One is a tornado, that exists as the manner in which the air molecules that realize it as a singular entity at any instant flow through it. Another is a club, that exists as a discrete network of conversations realized by persons that change in the course of the years, but which remains the same club as long as the network of conversations that defines it is realized and conserved through the interactions of the persons that are its members at any moment. The elements that compose a system are not its components by themselves, they are its components only as they participate in its composition, and only while they do so. So a particular molecule is a component of an autopoietic system only as it participates in the autopoietic molecular dynamics that constitutes it, and stops being a component of it as it stops participating in such dynamics.
1.3 Conservation and historical processes
The notion of conservation is a fundamental notion of which I was aware since I was a medical student in the early fifties, but which I did not begin to use with full understanding until the early sixties. In fact, it was when I began to think on how to answer the question about the origin of living systems that it became obvious to me that that which we usually call relations of conservation are not features of the process in which we see them, but abstractions of the structural coherences under which the historical process takes place. As such, the notion of conservation has heuristic value because it reveals operational coherences in the structural (relational) matrix of the dynamic architecture of the domain in which a process takes place. Thus, in 1978 I began to speak of two relations (or laws) of conservation in the domain of biology that defined the course that different biological processes necessarily had to follow in order to happen at all. These are, the law of conservation of autopoiesis and the law of conservation of adaptation. These are both relational conditions of the realization of living systems in the medium that must be satisfied for biological process to occur. That is, conservation of autopoiesis and conservation of adaptation are constitutive conditions for the realization of living system as such.
Historical processes occur moment after moment following a path constituted at every instant in the conservation of something that connects the successive moments in it, and around which all else is open to change. To say that living systems are historical systems, is to say precisely that they exist as singular entities in a continuous flow of structural change around the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation. Thus it is not change that makes biological evolution a historical process, but the continuous conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation as that around which all else is open to change. What is primarily conserved in the history of living systems is living (autopoiesis and adaptation), and what is secondarily conserved are the different forms of the realization of living. These forms are conserved through the reproductive conservation of different manners of realization of autopoiesis in the conservation of adaptation. Understanding the participation of the dynamics of conservation makes possible the understanding of living systems and their history so that one can say now how they began millions of years ago. In this sense the biosphere, as I began to describe it in my lectures since 1990, is a historical wave front of co-evolving living systems in the systemic reproductive conservation of both autopoiesis and adaptation (Maturana and Mpodozis 1992 and 1999).
1.4 The living
My assertion that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems is neither a definition nor an explanatory proposition, it is a claim about what constitutes living systems, a claim about how they arose, and a claim about how they operate in the pragmatics of their living. That is, it is a claim that I have generated as an abstraction from the observation of how living systems on earth operate as unities and are constituted as autonomous molecular entities in the domain of the processes that molecular biology has revealed. Moreover, as I claim that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems I do not make a claim about some particular molecular structure in them, but I make a claim about the kind of molecular network that constitutes them, and the domain in which they exist. In these circumstances, the claim that living systems exist as singular autonomous molecular autopoietic unities through interactions in a medium with which they are in a continuous molecular interchange, is a claim about how they exist in their internal composition as well as about how they exist as totalities. Systems as composite entities have a dual existence, namely, they exist as singularities that operate as simple unities in the domain in which they arise as totalities, and at the same time they exist as composite entities in the domain of the operation of their components. The relation between these two domains is not causal, these two domains do not intersect, nor do the phenomena which pertain to one occur in the other The generative relation between the two as seen by an observer is a historical relation. And the totality arises together with the relational domain in which it exists as such.
That living systems are autopoietic molecular systems entails, then, several conditions that all biologists know even though they do not always fully consider their consequences:
1) Living systems exist as singular entities that operate as totalities in interactions in the medium where each conserves its individual identity under the form of a unicellular or a multicellular organism.
2) A living system as a molecular system is a structure determined system, thus everything that happens in it or to it, happens in each moment as determined by its structure at that moment.
3) Each living system as a molecular system is constituted as a closed network of molecular productions in which the molecules produced through their recursive interactions constitute the same closed network of molecular productions that produced them, dynamically realizing its operational boundaries as a singular entity that operates as a totality in interactions in a molecular domain.
4) Living systems as molecular systems are constitutively open to the flow of molecules in the continuous realization of the recursive closed self-producing dynamics that constitutes them as singular entities.
5) Everything that happens in the history of living systems occurs through their realization as singular entities that exist as organisms while in interactions with the medium in which they operate as totalities.
6) Living systems exist in two domains: one; the domain in which they exist as totalities or organisms, that is the domain in which they realize and conserve their identity as multicellular or unicellular singular beings, and two; the domain in which they operate as molecular autopoietic systems which is the domain of their realization as composite molecular entities.
Frequently the dual existence of living systems in particular, and of systems in general, is obscured by the notion of emergent properties. By treating the features that an observer distinguishes in a system as if they were intrinsic to it, the notion of property obscures the relational nature of these features. All the characteristics that we as observers distinguish in a system pertain to the relational space in which it operates as we distinguish it, and are dimensions of its existence in that space. So, to speak of emergent properties in the constitution of a system is both a mistake and misleading. As a system is constituted as a totality, a new domain arises, the domain in which the system exists as that totality. To say that autopoiesis is an emergent property would be a mistake. To say that the constitution of an organism gives rise to emergent behavior would also be a mistake; the behavior that appears is not a feature of the organism, but a condition of its existence in the relational space in which it is a totality, and in which behavior as a relational dynamics involves both the organism and the medium in which it exists.
1.5 Not an explanatory principle
One of the basic conceptual difficulties in understanding living systems as autonomous autopoietic systems arises from our cultural training that leads us to think in terms of external causes to explain the occurrence of any phenomenon. This attitude blinds us to the spontaneous nature of all processes in the molecular domain in which we exist. All molecular processes occur spontaneously following a path that arises moment after moment according to the structural dynamics of the different molecules involved. That is, nothing occurs in the molecular domain through an external cause, and all that happens occurs as determined by the structural coherences inherent in the circumstances in which it occurs. In our culture, we are surprised when we see order appearing spontaneously, and we do no find an external cause for it. When that happens the conceptual difficulty entailed is frequently avoided or denied by resorting to some explanatory principle that is used without full awareness as if it were the external cause of that unexpected order.
This is, I think, what has happened with the use of the notion of autopoiesis as it has been frequently treated as an explanatory principle. But the notion of autopoiesis as I have conceived it, and as I have indicated above, is not an explanatory principle. Autopoiesis occurs only when the dynamic structural architecture of the molecular domain in which it can occur satisfies the conditions for its occurrence.
Furthermore, I claim that autopoietic systems exist only in the molecular domain, and that this is so because the molecular domain is the only domain in which the interactions between the elements that define it, produce elements of the same kind as a spontaneous result of their structural dynamics: the interactions between molecules produces molecules through composition or decomposition. Indeed, this was my original claim when I said in my lectures in 1971, and later in the first edition of the book "De máquinas y seres vivos" that Francisco Varela and I published in 1973, that autopoiesis was both the necessary and sufficient condition for the constitution and realization of living systems. Later, while answering questions about whether there were other autopoietic system in other domains, and whether they were living systems or not, I though that it was perhaps possible that autopoietic systems could exist in other domains different from the molecular one. While considering this I found it necessary to insist that living systems were autopoietic systems in the molecular space. Yet, as I became more aware of the uniqueness of the molecular domain, I realized that it is only in the molecular domain that systems like living systems can exist because it is only in this domain where autopoiesis can take place. Let me be explicit.
The molecular space is peculiar in that,
a) it is constituted by dynamic composite entities (the molecules) that as a result of their interactions produce through composition and decomposition elements of their same kind (that is new molecules),
b) the composition and decomposition of the elements of this space (the molecules) occurs while these elements exist as composite entities under thermal agitation that operationally constitutes the energy for their composition and decomposition, and
c) the course of the compositions and decomposition to which the elements of this space give rise in their interactions, is determined at every instant by the dynamic architecture of the composition (the structure) of the interacting elements (molecules).
In these circumstances, the molecular space is a space in which all that happens in it in terms of structural dynamics occurs without any external guidance or support as a spontaneous architectural dynamics. Or, in different words, the molecular space is a space in which all that happens in it at any instant occurs following a course determined and guided by the structure of the elements that constitute it in a dynamics that is proper to it as a dynamic architecture. There is no other domain like this in which the interactions of the elements that define it generate through composition and decomposition elements of the same kind without external support. Thus, the interactions of the elements of the sub-molecular space do not give rise to composite elements of the same kind. The elements of the supra-molecular space constitute entities that exist as totalities in a different domain than the molecular domain and exist as dynamic entities through the spontaneous dynamic architecture of the molecular components that realize them, and not by themselves as molecules do. So, I claim that the elements of neither the sub-molecular nor the supra-molecular domain cannot by themselves give rise to autopoietic systems as singular entities constituted as closed networks of productions of components that do not need external- support to operate as such.
Accordingly, a living system exists as an autopoietic system in the molecular space. But, at the same time, a living system exists also as an organism in the supra-molecular space where it arises as a totality through its interactions as a whole while it is constituted and conserved as a dynamic supra-molecular singularity through the autopoiesis of its cellular components. That is, an organism is an autopoietic system through its cellular composition, not through its supra-molecular existence.
(some comments on social systems and ecosystems to be added in the final version of this paper)
2. Structural coupling
2.1 Structure and organization
A structure determined system is a system such that all that takes place in it, or happens to it at any instant, is determined by its structure at that instant. We living systems, as molecular systems, are structure determined systems. There are two features of the constitution of structure determined systems that I distinguish with the words organization and structure. These two features correspond to distinctions that we make in daily life as we handle any system or composite entity, even though we are frequently not consistent with the words that we use to refer to them. In these circumstances, I shall consistently use the word organization to connote the configuration of relations between components that define the class identity of a composite unity or system as a totality or singular entity. I shall consistently use the word structure to refer to the components and the relations between them that realize a system or composite entity as a particular case of a particular class.
The organization of a system is only an aspect of the relations included in the structure of the system, and does not exists independently of the structure in which it is realized. In these circumstances, a system conserves its class identity, and stays the same while its structure changes, only as long as its organization is conserved through those structural changes. The conservation of the organization of a system is a condition of existence, if the organization changes, the system disintegrates and something different appears in its place. This is not the case for the structure of a system. The structure of a system is open to change, and can change in two ways:
1) structural changes through which the organization of the changing system is conserved; I shall call these changes of state
2) structural changes through which the organization of the structurally changing system is lost, not conserved; I shall call these disintegrative changes
In changes of state the operational characteristics of the system change while it conserves it class identity. In disintegrative changes, as the original system disappears, something else arises in its place.
2.2 Congruent change
The structure of a structure determined system changes both as a result of its internal structural dynamics and as a result of its interactions. The structural changes arising as part of the internal dynamics of a structure determined system follow a course that arises determined at any moment by the structure of the system at that moment. The structural changes triggered in the interactions of a structure determined system arise moment after moment determined by its structure also, but they follow a course that is generated moment after moment by the succession of encounters with the medium in which the system participates. The same applies to the medium as a structure determined system that changes following a course that arises in the interplay of its own structural dynamics and the structural changes triggered in it by the systems that interact with it. As a consequence, in this process the structure of the living system and the structure of the medium change together congruently as a matter of course, and the general result is that the history of interactions between two or more structure determined systems becomes a history of spontaneous recursive coherent structural changes in which all the participant systems change together congruently until they separate or disintegrate. I have called this structural dynamics, including the structural coherences between the interacting systems that results from it, structural coupling.
All living systems, as well as the non-living medium with which they interact recursively, are structure determined systems that change together congruently, forming the biosphere as a network of multidimensional structural coupling. Indeed, living systems and their conditions of living, whichever these may be, exist in a network of continuous structural coupling, and change together congruently in a process that spontaneously lasts as long as the autopoietic organization of the living systems is conserved. In these circumstances, a living system lives only as long as its internally generated structural changes occur with conservation of autopoiesis, and its encounters in the medium do not trigger in it a disintegration. Disintegration does not happen as long as there is an operational dynamic congruence between the medium and the living system through which the living is conserved. I call the operational coherence between the living system and the medium in which it exists, adaptation.
A living system lives only as long as its organization and its relation of adaptation to the medium are conserved. Or, in other words, the life history of a living system courses as a spontaneous flow of continuous structural changes that follow the path or course in which the living system conserves autopoiesis and adaptation in its domain of existence. I call this process ontogenic structural drift. We biologists do not easily see that adaptation is a constant and not a variable because we usually treat it as a variable in the evolutionary discourse.
The most fundamental result of the dynamics of structural coupling is that a living system is never out of place while living. I call the place that a living system occupies in the realization of its living its niche. As a living system lives in the conservation of adaptation in its niche, it will always appear knowing how to live until it dies: living systems are never out of place, or more or less adapted, while living. As a living system it lives in its niche in the spontaneous conservation of adaptation and autopoiesis, the niche is also its cognitive domain.
Precisely because an organism, as a system, exists as an architectural dynamics in the present that it is realized moment after moment according to the local structural coherences of its components, that there is no general organizational principle or force guiding the operation of its components. Further, the organism is not a whole by itself, rather it results as a whole in the relational space in which it is conserved as an autopoietic system through its interactions in its niche. And it is precisely because living systems exist in this way, that the wholeness of a particular organism is defined through the conservation of its particular manner of being as a result of its operation in structural coupling in its niche. What constitutes the identity of a living system as a particular organism is the manner of living conserved in it through structural coupling.
2.3 Conservation of organization
A system arises in the moment in which the organization that defines it, as well as the relation of adaptation in the medium that makes possible the realization and the conservation of that organization, begin to be conserved. Systems arise, exist, and are conserved spontaneously in this manner. Moreover, the medium in which a system exists, also arises spontaneously with it as a new phenomenal domain defined by the system or systems that constitute it through their existing in it. In fact, all systems arise in this way from a background, that seen from the perspective of the coherences of their existence, was unordered or chaotic. That is, a system arises and exists in the constitution of the dynamics of interactions that realizes and conserves both the system and its domain of existence through their recursive interactions.
Nowadays there is much concern with the development of notions such as complexity and chaos, notions that are frequently used as explanatory principles. I think that they are evocative notions, and that the formalisms associated with them permit computations in domains that are operationally isomorphic with those formalisms. A mathematical formalism is a conceptual and operational system that reveals the relational coherences of the space that it defines. It is because of this that one can use mathematical formalisms to compute changes of states in systems whose operational coherences appear isomorphic to the relational coherences that they specify. But mathematical formalisms do not by themselves create an understanding of the phenomena that an observer helps to explain through them. In this same context one can say that biological phenomena occur on the edge of chaos, because one can use some mathematical formalisms as evocative metaphors. However, to say that does not say what kind of systems living systems are, nor how they exist in the new domains that arise as their operation as totalities begins to be conserved in the flow of their structural coupling with the medium that arises with them. Living systems, as do systems in general, occur in their happening as actual discrete singular entities, not in the formalisms that an observer may use to think about them.
2.4 Explanations
The development of the insight that led to my abstraction of the notion of autopoiesis from the biological molecular dynamics known to me during the years 1960 to 1966, forced me to generate a conceptual frame that would allow me to say what I wanted to say.
The notion of structural determinism is an abstraction that the observer makes from the coherences of his or her experiences. As such, the notion of structural determinism is at the same time the conceptual and the operational fundament of all explanations. The notion of structural determinism does not arise as an ontological assumption about a domain of transcendental realities, it arises as an abstraction that grasps the operational coherences of our living as human beings as we use the coherences of our experiences to explain our experiences. Accordingly, we live as many domains of structural determinism as we live domains of operational coherences as human beings. Further, we live as many domains of explanations as we live domains of experiential coherences that we use to explain our experiences.
An explanation entails two conditions that must be satisfied together:
1) the proposition of a structure determined process that if it were to take place in the structural domain in which it is proposed, the result would be that the observer would live the experience to be explained as a result of that process
2) the acceptance by an observer of such a proposition as doing what it claims to do because it satisfies some other conditions that the observer puts through his or her listening.
I call the first of these two conditions the formal condition, and the second, the informal condition. The formal condition has a fixed form, the form of a generative mechanism, and is what formally defines an explanation as such. The informal condition is fluid, it can be anything that the observer uses in his or her listening in an explicit or implicit manner, aware or not aware of his or her doing so, as a condition that has to be satisfied by the generative mechanism proposed for him or her to accept it as an explanation. The informal condition is arbitrary, yet it is the satisfaction of this in the listening of the observer that makes him or her accept some particular generative mechanism as an explanation.
That the formal condition in an explanation entails the proposition of a generative mechanism, has two consequences:
a) the phenomenon explained and the mechanism that gives origin to it take place in different operational (phenomenal) domains that do not intersect
b) as a direct consequence of the above, explanations do not constitute, and cannot constitute, phenomenal reductions.
That the informal condition in an explanation should be arbitrary also has two main consequences:
a) there are as many different kinds of explanations as there are different informal conditions put by the observer in his or her listening
b) if the informal condition that an observer puts in his or her listening is not made explicit, one does not know what the observer accepts when he or she accepts a particular generative mechanism as an explanation.
All that I have just said is valid for scientific explanations. Yet, what is peculiar of science as an explanatory domain is the particular informal condition that scientists put in their listening, and that I shall hence forth call the criterion of validation of scientific explanations. This criterion of validation can be made fully explicit as a set of four operations that an observer must realize in his or her living. What is remarkable is that these four operations are made with no assumption about the existence of an independent reality because what is explained is the experience of the observer with the experiential coherences of the observer. The four operations are:
1) The description of what an observer must do to experience the experience to be explained.
2) The proposition of a generative mechanism such that if it is allowed to operate the result in the observer is the experience that he or she wants to explain.
3) The deduction from all the operational coherences implicit in point 2, of other possible experiences of the observer, and of what he or she should do to live them.
4) The realization of what has been deduced in point 3, and if it happens as deduced, point 2 becomes a scientific explanation.
The criterion of validation of scientific explanations presented above is not an idiosyncratic reformulating of what scientist and philosophers usually call the experimental scientific method. The epistemological fundaments implicit in the criterion of validation of scientific explanations and in the experimental scientific method are quite different, even though they seem to lead to the same result, namely, a scientific explanation. These differences can be presented as follows: the criterion of validation of scientific explanations does not entail the implicit or explicit assumption of the existence of a reality independent of what the observer does as it only involves the experiential coherences of the observer. Thus an explanation reveals and gives rise to an expansion of those experiential coherences. The experimental scientific method entails the implicit or explicit assumption that there is a reality independent of the observer and his or her doings. The observer expects the reality to confront his or her explanations presented as expressions of the phenomena to be explained in more fundamental terms. I claim that we scientists say that we apply the experimental scientific method, but what we do is to follow the criterion of validation of scientific explanations.
Accordingly, what I say is that scientific explanations do not explain an independent reality, but explain the experiences of the observer. Moreover, I say that the observer in fact explains his or her experiences, using his or her experiential coherences to fulfill, in his or her experiential domain, the criterion of validation of scientific explanations. Furthermore, I claim that the observer itself is explained in this way as it exists as a biological process (Maturana, in Maturana and Varela, 1980).
2.5 Grounds for the claim
The main difficulty that one encounters in the attempt to answer any question, is to know when one has indeed answered it. The power of scientific explanations rests on the fact that it constitutes at the same time both the procedure that generates the explanation, and the criterion that tells when the explanation has been fulfilled. Some authors have criticized the notion that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems as unscientific on the ground that Varela and I have claimed that the condition of autopoiesis cannot be observed directly as a feature of the living system because it occurs in the flow of its changing present as a historical process. They say that a scientific theory must have empirical support. Yes, indeed! But, what constitutes an empirical support or demonstration in scientific explanations is the actual observation that the satisfaction of the criterion of validation of scientific explanations in the domain in which it is claimed has been fulfilled.
In the claim that autopoiesis in the molecular space is the organization of living systems, two things are claimed:
1) that as a molecular autopoietic system arises in the molecular space, a living system arises in it, and;
2) that as a molecular autopoietic system arises, all biological phenomena arise or may arise as a direct or indirect historical consequence of their operation as such.
Accordingly, the scientific demonstration of the claim that living systems are in fact molecular autopoietic systems would be either to show that all the molecular processes in them course constituting a closed network of molecular productions that realizes the autopoietic organization, or to show that all biological phenomena would necessarily occur as either a direct or an indirect consequence of the operation of molecular autopoietic systems, and that they would not occur if molecular autopoiesis were interrupted. Francisco Varela and I show that the latter is the case in a book that we called "De Máquinas y Seres Vivos" and that we first published in 1973 in Spanish, and then in English as part of a book published in 1980 with the title, "Autopoiesis and cognition". Thus, we claim that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems, and that such a claim is a scientific claim.
2.6 Implications of the claim
What we scientists distinguish as phenomena of the natural world, occur spontaneously. As such the natural world is in its spontaneous presence the proof of its own existence. That is, natural phenomena occur when they occur, and we human beings as observers distinguish them as features of our experiences. An observer attempts to explain only those of his or her experiences (phenomena) which do not seem obvious to him or her. And in order to do so, he or she resorts, as I have said above, to the coherences of his or her experiences and uses them to propose a generative mechanism under the operation of which that which he or she wants to explain will appear or result spontaneously. In these circumstances, the theory of autopoiesis says that whenever the adequate dynamic structural conditions occur in the molecular domain for molecular autopoietic entities to arise spontaneously, a living system will appear. If in addition the conditions for its systemic reproduction occur, the phenomena that result from the conservation of molecular autopoiesis in the constitution of lineages of living systems will also happen spontaneously. In these circumstances, what is the proof that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems? I claim that the proof is the actual closed dynamics of the network of molecular productions and transformations that becomes apparent when one observes the cellular metabolic processes as a systemic whole, open to the flow of molecules through it.
Many people who consider that explanations have to be reductionist propositions, find the claim that explanations in general, and scientific explanations in particular, are not reductions to simpler terms epistemologically objectionable. But explanations are constitutively not reductionist propositions, quite on the contrary, they are, as I have indicated above, propositions of generative processes such that if they take place they give rise as a result to the experience that is being explained. Further, explanation and phenomenon take place in different non-intersecting domains (Maturana 1990). But there are still other difficulties for the full understanding of all the implications of the claims that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems, and that they can be seen to be so when one observes the cellular metabolism as a systemic whole. These difficulties have to do with two other claims that I have made, namely: that a living system does not have inputs or outputs, and that the observer cannot see the organization of the system directly because the organization of a system is the configuration of relations that makes and defines a system as a singular totality through its conservation through the flow of the structural dynamics of the system.
Let us consider first the claim about the absence of inputs and outputs. As living systems are structure determined systems, all that occurs in them or to them, happens determined in their structure. The same happens to the medium that contains them to the extent that the medium is also a structure determined system. Accordingly, an external agent acting upon a living system does not specify what happens in it as a result of its action. Such external agent can only trigger in the living system a structural change determined in it. An external agent, therefore, does not and cannot be claimed to constitute an input for the living system because it "tells" nothing to the living system about itself or about the medium from which it comes or about to itself. The same happens as the living system impinges upon the medium; the living system can only trigger in the medium a structural change determined in the structural dynamics of the medium, and cannot be properly claimed to be an output of the organism because it "tells" nothing about itself to the medium. It is in this sense that I claim that a living system does not have inputs or outputs, and that its relation with the medium is that of structural coupling as long as it lives in interactions with the medium in a structural dynamics in which both living system and medium undergo congruent structural changes until the living system dies (Maturana 1998). If one does not see how it is that living systems do not have inputs and outputs, it is not possible to understand cognition as a natural phenomenon, and one does not see that that which we call cognition is the effective operation of a living system in a domain of structural coupling. Moreover, if one does not understand that living systems do not have inputs or outputs, one cannot understand how the domain of structural coupling of a living system. as the domain in which it realizes its living (autopoiesis), is indeed its domain of cognition (Maturana 1980, and Maturana and Varela 1988).
The second claim, namely, that an observer cannot see the organization of a system directly, is related to the first and to the fact that an observer cannot directly see the components of a system because these arise as such through their participation in the relations of composition of the system. Any distinction that an observer makes, is made by him or her in his or her domain of structural coupling as a human being. This is why an observer cannot claim that he or she sees something as if it existed in itself, independently of his or her doings in distinguishing it, and must in fact use what he or she does in the doing of the distinction to describe what he or she has distinguished and how it operates. Of course all biologists know this as they know that they must use their interactions with the entity that they have distinguished to characterize it.
That the observer cannot directly see the organization of a system does not invalidate the notion of organization or the fact that the organization must be inferred from the history of interactions of the system and from its structural dynamics, because it is the configuration of relations between components conserved through these structural dynamics that constitute its organization as a system. Accordingly, then, only the results of the operation of an autopoietic system as such can tell an observer that it is an autopoietic system. Thus also, the participation of an element in the relations of composition that constitute a system is what tells the observer whether the element is or is not a component of that system. This is why not just anything that an observer distinguishes or sees as a "part" of a system, that he or she thinks is an autopoietic system, is a component of that system as an autopoietic system. As I said above, something is a component of a system only if it participates in its composition.
No doubt the whole situation is circular in the sense that a system defines itself, and the observer can only know it through its operation as it defines itself.
3. Cognition
3.1 What is “to know”?
The understanding of structural determinism brought with it for me the question of cognition as I asked myself: "If structural determinism is the case, what, then, is to know? If living systems are structure determined systems, and if all that occurs to them and in them arises in them at every instant determined by their structure at that instant, and if all that the external agents that impinge on them can do is to trigger in them structural changes determined in them by their structure at the moment of their interactions, what is to know?
That which we human beings call cognition is the capacity that a living system exhibits of operating in dynamic structural congruence with the medium in which it exists. It does not matter if the living system observed is an insect or a human being. We may ask ourselves whether the knowledge that the living system exhibits is learned or instinctive, but our assessment is the same: namely, if we see a living system behaving according to what we consider is adequate behavior in the circumstances in which we observe it, we claim that it knows. What we see in such circumstances, is: a) that the living system under our attention shows or exhibits a structural dynamics that flows in congruence with the structural dynamics of the medium in which we see it, and b) that it is through that dynamic structural congruence that the living system conserves its living.
We may ask how did the living system arrived at having the dynamic structure that allows it to operate in dynamic structural congruence in the medium or circumstances in which it happens to live. If we come to the conclusion that the living system attained that dynamic structural congruence with the medium or circumstances in which it lives as a result of its development as the kind of living system that it is, and independently of its individual life history, we claim that the knowledge exhibited by it is instinctive. Yet, if on the contrary, after our research we come to the conclusion that the dynamic structure through which the living system operates in dynamic structural congruence with the medium has arisen in the course of its individual history as a result of its interactions in the medium, we claim that the knowledge that such operational congruence shows, has been learned. Instinctive and learned knowledge thus differ only in the historical circumstances of their origin. The origin of instinctive knowledge is phylogenic, and the origin of learned knowledge is ontogenic. Therefore, I claim that the process which gives rise to the operational congruence between an organism and its niche, the process that we distinguish in daily life either as learned or as instinctive knowing, is structural coupling.
In other words, any attempt to explain the adequate behavior, that in daily life we call cognition, as if it were the result of some computation made by the nervous system on the data or information that the sensors obtain of an external objective world, is doomed to fail. Because whatever occurs to or in a living system occurs in it as a structure determined system determined by its structural dynamics, hence there is no information, and there is no computation. Knowledge is an assessment made by an observer who sees the organism shifting what it does as it changes in coherence with its medium. We’re usually not aware of this situation, even though in daily life we ascribe knowledge to any living being, human or not, when we see it operating in a manner that we consider adequate for the domain in which we behold it.
Indeed, that is the kind of assessment that you, reader, are doing now as you read what I have written, and you will either accept or reject what I have said as revealing knowledge according to whether what I say agrees or does not agree with what you consider adequate behavior in the domain in which you are attending to what you are reading of what I have written.
3.2 Language
We human beings exist as observers in language as we operate in the domain of structural coupling to which we belong. That is, we human beings exist in structural coupling with all the other living and not living entities that compose the biosphere, and we operate in language as our manner of being in the present in the flow of our interactions in structural coupling as integral components of the biosphere. Our living in language does not violate structural determinism in general, nor our condition as structure determined systems.
Language is a manner of living together in coordinations of coordinations of behavior that arises in living together (Maturana 1988). We exist and operate as human beings as we operate in language; languaging is our manner of living as human beings. Language occurs in the flow of coordinations of coordinations of behaviors, not in any particular gesture, sound, or attitude, taken outside of that flow. It is like the movement seen in a film that exists as such only as long as the film runs. We human beings language while operating in the domain of structural coupling in which we coexist as languaging beings with other languaging beings. As we language, objects arise as aspects of our languaging with others, they do not exist by themselves. That is, objects arise in language as operations of coordinations of coordinations of behavior that stand as coordinations of doings about which we as languaging beings recursively coordinate our behavior.
I shall call the domain of objects that arises in our co-participation in the coordination of coordinations of behaviour a domain of shared objects. It follows that we humans can generate and, therefore, exist as languaging beings in as many different domains of objects as domains of coordinations of coordinations of behavior we can generate in our living in structural coupling in the biosphere, and through this, in the cosmos. Accordingly, we human beings can in fact live with each other in as many domains of shared objects, or domains of interobjectivity, as there are dimensions of structural coupling in which we can live in coordinate our coordinations of behavior. Living in languaging is living a domain of shared objects in interobjectivity.
3.3 Self-consciousness
When an observer sees a flow of coordinations of coordinations of behavior through the coordinations of coordinations of doings on the body of languaging beings, then he or she can claim that the beings are beginning to operate in a domain of awareness of parts of their own body. The body, and self, arise in language in the same manner as any other object arises in language. The operation of self-consciousness is the reflexive distinction of a self in language that takes place as an operation that constitutes our body and our being as an object in interobjectivity. Dr. Gerda Verden-Zöller has shown that this is the way self consciousness arises in human babies when the languaging mother plays with the baby, for example, saying “nose” as she touches the baby's nose (see Verden-Zöller in Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 1993). Thus self-consciousness arises as an operation of coordination of coordination of behavior that takes place in the mother/child play which constitutes self-awareness of the nose as the nose arises as an object in interobjectivity in the recursive coordinations of behavior of the baby with the mother.
This is not seen easily when one thinks that language takes place as a symbolic operation that refers to entities that can be distinguished because of their independent existence. If to be conscious means to be aware of something as it exists independently of the being that is aware of it, how could a human being become aware of him or herself, if he or she is not an entity that exists independently of him or herself? It is because of this difficulty that we speak as we refer to ourselves as if we had a dual existence (e.g. when we say “I am speaking about myself”, or “I, in my true self”) The problem generated in this duality dissolves as we understand that language consists in living together in coordinations of coordinations of behaviors that arise in the flow of living together in recursive interactions.
No doubt we feel in an act of self-distinction the same way that we feel when we distinguish something that for an external observer has the quality of being an entity independent from the distinguisher. We feel as we feel with any object in the domain of shared objects that we live with others. And this is so precisely because the self arises in interobjectivity. as Dr. Verden-Zöller shows that all objects arise in the mother/child relations of play.
Feelings take place as an aspect of our self-distinction in language as in the coordination of coordinations of behaviors the distinction of relations among the body distinctions expands the domain of interobjectivity into a meta-domain of self-distinctions. Due to their manner of arising, feelings are secondary to language. In the origin of humanness the self must have arisen in the same manner that it arises in a modern human babies, namely in the flow of the coordinations of coordinations of behaviors that bring about the body and its parts as shared objects in interobjectivity through the mother/child play. Accordingly, I say that self-consciousness is a simple recursive operation in languaging that constitutes an open ended possibility for the continuous arising of new worlds that we may live as we recursively live as self-conscious languaging beings
Indeed, we can generate many new worlds but we do not have to do so. There is always another realm that may arise; but we do not have to do everything that is possible, not engage in all the reflections, or develop all the concepts, or build all the technologies. We are living in a culture that acts as if we should do everything that we imagine as possible. We do not see that in doing so we are making a choice, and that we should be responsible for it.
(the sections on Language and Consciousness will be expanded in the final version of this paper)
4. Epistemology and conclusions
In my view the central theme of cognition is the explanation of experience, not reality because reality is an explanatory notion invented to explain experience. Moreover, we explain experience with the coherences of experience as we exist in languaging as a domain of coordinations of coordinations of doings as we operate as observers. So, to say that something arises as the observer brings it about in his or her distinction in language by specifying its condition of constitution, is to say that something exists in the same domain of existence in which the observer operates as a living system. That is, the entities that an observer distinguishes have the concreteness of the operations with which the observer distinguishes them through his or her operation as a living human being. It is in this sense that living systems are living systems, and molecules are molecules -- as real or objective entities in their respective domains of existence. It is in this sense that we as observers can claim that molecules arise as the conditions of their constitution apply. What follows is said under this understanding.
It seems to me that the main difficulty that biologists have in accepting that the notion of autopoiesis connotes the organization of the living, is our cultural refusal to accept that things, systems, relations, and entities in general, arise as existing in the instant in which the conditions of their constitution take place. We as observers can claim that a living system arises in the moment in which autopoiesis begins to take place and lasts as long as its autopoiesis is conserved. And although that is a cognitive claim, it is a claim that has operational validity as a living system exists in the operational domain (the molecular domain) in which that happens. In our culture we like to explain with causes and principles that are external to that which is explained. This is why to say that a living system exists by itself, and that to explain living systems consists in proposing the generative mechanism that gives rise to a living system as a consequence of its operation in a different domain than the domain of its components, appears epistemologically unacceptable. But such a statement is valid and sound epistemologically in the domain in which one is aware that explanations constitute the proposition of generative mechanisms. In these circumstances the claim that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems can only be dismissed by showing that there are biological phenomena that do not directly or indirectly entail molecular autopoiesis. This claim cannot be dismissed on epistemological grounds.
Biologists have frequently ignored the notion of autopoiesis and the theory of cognition that it supports (Maturana 1970 and 1980), because it does not seem to be pragmatic enough. Philosophers have frequently objected to it because it relates abstractions and pragmatics (Scheper and Scheper 1998). I also think that sometimes scientists and philosophers do not see that explanations do not replace that which they explain. They forget or ignore that what explanations indeed do is to propose generative mechanisms such that if they were allowed to operate, they would generate as a consequence of their operation that which they intend to explain, and that to do so they relate abstractions and pragmatics. Finally I think that an epistemological difficulty that is commonly present is that the mistake of using autopoiesis as an explanatory principle.
To conclude, I wish to insist in that the epistemological shift in the notions of autopoiesis and the biology of cognition that I have developed lies in abandoning the question of reality while turning to explain the experience of the observer with the experience of the observer. This is a fundamental move away from a domain of transcendental ontologies to a domain of constitutive ontologies.
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