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Biologia University Of Chile Casilla 653 Santiago Chile http://www.isss.org/maturana.htm 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, selfconsciousness, 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
1. all together constituting a discrete circular dynamics supported by the continuous flow of the molecules that we usually call metabolites. It was later. 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. As I was drawing a diagram of this circularity. that nucleic acids participate with proteins in the synthesis of proteins. 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. Guillermo Contreras I was highlighting a fact that we of course both knew.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. 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. is an autopoietic system. 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. I exclaimed “This is it!”. namely. 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. Molecular systems exist only in the satisfaction of the structural conditions of molecular existence. 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. In conversation with my friend Dr. 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. 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. 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. took place suddenly at the end of 1963. and I could say that living systems existed only as long as their autopoietic organization was conserved. in 1968 that I began to speak of living systems as closed molecular networks. and because the metabolic network represented there did not constitute in its operation an autopoietic unity. 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.molecular interchange. . Through this understanding my claim became that a living system is a dynamic composite entity. 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. 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. and that proteins participate as enzymes with nucleic acids in the synthesis of nucleic acids. But I did not have the word “autopoiesis” to speak with then.
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 -. 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.Biological phenomena occur in the actual realization of living systems as singular unities. not the elements that compose it. . 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. that exists as a discrete network of conversations realized by persons that change in the course of the years. living systems are not the molecules that compose and realize them moment by moment. As molecular autopoietic systems. and this is basic to their understanding.which is not the case. Another is a club. and stops being a component of it as it stops participating in such dynamics. Autopoiesis is not something that can be called a property of living systems. It is this manner of constitution of living systems as molecular systems that Francisco Varela and I (Maturana and Varela. they are closed networks of molecular productions that exist as singularities in a continuous flow of molecules through them. that exists as the manner in which the air molecules that realize it as a singular entity at any instant flow through it. rather it is their actual manner of being as the organization that constitutes them as singular entities in the molecular space. Yet. that the parts exist for the whole and the whole for the parts. One is a tornado. I shall mention two cases in which it is apparent that what constitutes a dynamic system is its manner of composition. Kauffman 1995). Accordingly. Past and future are explanatory notions introduced by the observer. and only while they do so. as Kant and others have said. Biological phenomena take place in a dynamics that occurs in the present without any operational relation to the past or the future. what I say has a precision beyond what Kant could have said. 1973) connote when we claim that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems in operational terms. The components of any system exist as local entities only in relations of contiguity with other components. Any phenomenon that occurs through the actual realization of the living of at least one living system. 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. 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. while the whole existed for and by means of the parts (Kant1952. So a particular molecule is a component of an autopoietic system only as it participates in the autopoietic molecular dynamics that constitutes it. Their closed dynamics constitute them as separable entities that float in the molecular domain in which they exist. they are its components only as they participate in its composition. 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. 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. The elements that compose a system are not its components by themselves. not in the particular nature of any of the molecular processes that realize them. is a biological phenomenon.
and a claim about how they operate in the pragmatics of their living.4 The living My assertion that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems is neither a definition nor an explanatory proposition. the law of conservation of autopoiesis and the law of conservation of adaptation. but which I did not begin to use with full understanding until the early sixties. What is primarily conserved in the history of living systems is living (autopoiesis and adaptation). 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. 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 . In fact. as I began to describe it in my lectures since 1990. To say that living systems are historical systems. 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. but the continuous conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation as that around which all else is open to change. 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. as I claim that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems I do not make a claim about some particular molecular structure in them. and around which all else is open to change. That is. Thus. These forms are conserved through the reproductive conservation of different manners of realization of autopoiesis in the conservation of adaptation. In this sense the biosphere. is to say precisely that they exist as singular entities in a continuous flow of structural change around the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation. 1. That is. Moreover. As such. 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. a claim about how they arose. 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. 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). and what is secondarily conserved are the different forms of the realization of living. conservation of autopoiesis and conservation of adaptation are constitutive conditions for the realization of living system as such. but I make a claim about the kind of molecular network that constitutes them.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. 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 both relational conditions of the realization of living systems in the medium that must be satisfied for biological process to occur. it is a claim about what constitutes living systems. Thus it is not change that makes biological evolution a historical process. but abstractions of the structural coherences under which the historical process takes place.1. These are. and the domain in which they exist. In these circumstances.
they exist as singularities that operate as simple unities in the domain in which they arise as totalities. 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. That living systems are autopoietic molecular systems entails. but a condition of its existence in the relational space in which it is a totality. The relation between these two domains is not causal. to speak of emergent properties in the constitution of a system is both a mistake and misleading. the behavior that appears is not a feature of the organism. So. Systems as composite entities have a dual existence. 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. the domain in which the system exists as that totality. a new domain arises. 2) A living system as a molecular system is a structure determined system. 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. To say that the constitution of an organism gives rise to emergent behavior would also be a mistake. and in which behavior as a relational dynamics involves both the organism and the medium in which it exists. namely. 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. 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. As a system is constituted as a totality. and of systems in general. and at the same time they exist as composite entities in the domain of the operation of their components. happens in each moment as determined by its structure at that moment. and two. By treating the features that an observer distinguishes in a system as if they were intrinsic to it. then. the domain in which they exist as totalities or organisms. 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. the notion of property obscures the relational nature of these features. that is the domain in which they realize and conserve their identity as multicellular or unicellular singular beings. . Frequently the dual existence of living systems in particular. thus everything that happens in it or to it. 6) Living systems exist in two domains: one. is obscured by the notion of emergent properties. dynamically realizing its operational boundaries as a singular entity that operates as a totality in interactions in a molecular domain. the domain in which they operate as molecular autopoietic systems which is the domain of their realization as composite molecular entities. is a claim about how they exist in their internal composition as well as about how they exist as totalities. To say that autopoiesis is an emergent property would be a mistake. these two domains do not intersect. And the totality arises together with the relational domain in which it exists as such.interchange.
The molecular space is peculiar in that. Or. and whether they were living systems or not. while answering questions about whether there were other autopoietic system in other domains. That is. this was my original claim when I said in my lectures in 1971. produce elements of the same kind as a spontaneous result of their structural dynamics: the interactions between molecules produces molecules through composition or decomposition. and all that happens occurs as determined by the structural coherences inherent in the circumstances in which it occurs. 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. While considering this I found it necessary to insist that living systems were autopoietic systems in the molecular space. is not an explanatory principle. 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. I claim that autopoietic systems exist only in the molecular domain. and we do no find an external cause for it. and later in the first edition of the book "De máquinas y seres vivos" that Francisco Varela and I published in 1973. we are surprised when we see order appearing spontaneously. 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. as I became more aware of the uniqueness of the molecular domain. This attitude blinds us to the spontaneous nature of all processes in the molecular domain in which we exist. In these circumstances. I think. in different words. Later. Autopoiesis occurs only when the dynamic structural architecture of the molecular domain in which it can occur satisfies the conditions for its occurrence. that autopoiesis was both the necessary and sufficient condition for the constitution and realization of living systems. Yet.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. Furthermore. I though that it was perhaps possible that autopoietic systems could exist in other domains different from the molecular one. 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). Indeed. what has happened with the use of the notion of autopoiesis as it has been frequently treated as an explanatory principle. and c) the course of the compositions and decomposition to which the elements of this space give rise in their interactions. This is. In our culture. But the notion of autopoiesis as I have conceived it. the molecular space is a . and that this is so because the molecular domain is the only domain in which the interactions between the elements that define it.1. 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. nothing occurs in the molecular domain through an external cause. is determined at every instant by the dynamic architecture of the composition (the structure) of the interacting elements (molecules). and as I have indicated above. All molecular processes occur spontaneously following a path that arises moment after moment according to the structural dynamics of the different molecules involved. Let me be explicit.
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 . is determined by its structure at that instant. This is not the case for the structure of a system. a living system exists as an autopoietic system in the molecular space. and not by themselves as molecules do. Accordingly. are structure determined systems.1 Structure and organization A structure determined system is a system such that all that takes place in it. Thus. a system conserves its class identity. 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. not through its supra-molecular existence. So. In these circumstances. 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.support to operate as such. In these circumstances. the interactions of the elements of the sub-molecular space do not give rise to composite elements of the same kind.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. We living systems. only as long as its organization is conserved through those structural changes. or happens to it at any instant. the system disintegrates and something different appears in its place. an organism is an autopoietic system through its cellular composition. There are two features of the constitution of structure determined systems that I distinguish with the words organization and structure. as molecular systems. The structure of a system is open to change. if the organization changes. and does not exists independently of the structure in which it is realized. Structural coupling 2. a living system exists also as an organism in the supramolecular 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. (some comments on social systems and ecosystems to be added in the final version of this paper) 2. The conservation of the organization of a system is a condition of existence. 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. even though we are frequently not consistent with the words that we use to refer to them. The organization of a system is only an aspect of the relations included in the structure of the system. and stays the same while its structure changes. 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. But. at the same time. These two features correspond to distinctions that we make in daily life as we handle any system or composite entity. That is. 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.
and its encounters in the medium do not trigger in it a disintegration. as well as the non-living medium with which they interact recursively. a living system lives only as long as its internally generated structural changes occur with conservation of autopoiesis. As a consequence. are structure determined systems that change together congruently. In these circumstances. forming the biosphere as a network of multidimensional structural coupling. 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. it will always appear knowing how to live until it dies: living systems are never out of place. In disintegrative changes. while living. living systems and their conditions of living. I have called this structural dynamics. and change together congruently in a process that spontaneously lasts as long as the autopoietic organization of the living systems is conserved. 2. 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. as the original system disappears. 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. As a living . The most fundamental result of the dynamics of structural coupling is that a living system is never out of place while living. adaptation. All living systems. I call the operational coherence between the living system and the medium in which it exists. in this process the structure of the living system and the structure of the medium change together congruently as a matter of course. whichever these may be. not conserved. I call this process ontogenic structural drift. A living system lives only as long as its organization and its relation of adaptation to the medium are conserved. including the structural coherences between the interacting systems that results from it. 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. 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. Indeed.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. something else arises in its place. As a living system lives in the conservation of adaptation in its niche. Or. I call the place that a living system occupies in the realization of its living its niche. structural coupling.2) structural changes through which the organization of the structurally changing system is lost. in other words. The structural changes triggered in the interactions of a structure determined system arise moment after moment determined by its structure also. or more or less adapted. 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. I shall call these disintegrative changes In changes of state the operational characteristics of the system change while it conserves it class identity. exist in a network of continuous structural coupling.
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. occur in their happening as actual discrete singular entities. 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. that there is no general organizational principle or force guiding the operation of its components. and are conserved spontaneously in this manner. 2. In fact. the medium in which a system exists. But mathematical formalisms do not by themselves create an understanding of the phenomena that an observer helps to explain through them. That is. that seen from the perspective of the coherences of their existence. 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. forced me to generate a conceptual frame that would allow me to say what I wanted to say. the organism is not a whole by itself. 2. Systems arise. I think that they are evocative notions. Precisely because an organism. Further.system it lives in its niche in the spontaneous conservation of adaptation and autopoiesis. all systems arise in this way from a background. What constitutes the identity of a living system as a particular organism is the manner of living conserved in it through structural coupling. Living systems. as do systems in general. Moreover. . And it is precisely because living systems exist in this way. as well as the relation of adaptation in the medium that makes possible the realization and the conservation of that organization. In this same context one can say that biological phenomena occur on the edge of chaos. was unordered or chaotic. A mathematical formalism is a conceptual and operational system that reveals the relational coherences of the space that it defines.3 Conservation of organization A system arises in the moment in which the organization that defines it. exist.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. not in the formalisms that an observer may use to think about them. exists as an architectural dynamics in the present that it is realized moment after moment according to the local structural coherences of its components. to say that does not say what kind of systems living systems are. Nowadays there is much concern with the development of notions such as complexity and chaos. the niche is also its cognitive domain. as a system. because one can use some mathematical formalisms as evocative metaphors. begin to be conserved. However. 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. 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. notions that are frequently used as explanatory principles. and that the formalisms associated with them permit computations in domains that are operationally isomorphic with those formalisms. also arises spontaneously with it as a new phenomenal domain defined by the system or systems that constitute it through their existing in it.
one does not know what the observer accepts when he or she accepts a particular generative mechanism as an explanation. 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. 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. 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. and the second. aware or not aware of his or her doing so. That the formal condition in an explanation entails the proposition of a generative mechanism. phenomenal reductions. The informal condition is arbitrary. the informal condition. The formal condition has a fixed form. The informal condition is fluid. and cannot constitute. the form of a generative mechanism. the notion of structural determinism is at the same time the conceptual and the operational fundament of all explanations. it can be anything that the observer uses in his or her listening in an explicit or implicit manner. Yet. The notion of structural determinism does not arise as an ontological assumption about a domain of transcendental realities. we live as many domains of explanations as we live domains of experiential coherences that we use to explain our experiences. 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. I call the first of these two conditions the formal condition. 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. The four operations are: 1) The description of what an observer must do to experience the experience to be explained. and is what formally defines an explanation as such. As such. 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. we live as many domains of structural determinism as we live domains of operational coherences as human beings. All that I have just said is valid for scientific explanations. Accordingly.The notion of structural determinism is an abstraction that the observer makes from the coherences of his or her experiences. what is peculiar of science as an explanatory domain is the particular informal condition that scientists put in their listening. . as a condition that has to be satisfied by the generative mechanism proposed for him or her to accept it as an explanation. Further. 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. and that I shall hence forth call the criterion of validation of scientific explanations. 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. explanations do not constitute.
The experimental scientific method entails the implicit or explicit assumption that there is a reality independent of the observer and his or her doings.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. a living system arises in it. but explain the experiences of the observer. the criterion of validation of scientific explanations. 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. in Maturana and Varela. I claim that the observer itself is explained in this way as it exists as a biological process (Maturana. They say that a scientific theory must have empirical support. 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. but what we do is to follow the criterion of validation of scientific explanations. Yes. is to know when one has indeed answered it. all biological phenomena arise or may arise as a direct or indirect historical consequence of their operation as such. 3) The deduction from all the operational coherences implicit in point 2. two things are claimed: 1) that as a molecular autopoietic system arises in the molecular space. and if it happens as deduced. Moreover. Accordingly. I claim that we scientists say that we apply the experimental scientific method. a scientific explanation. even though they seem to lead to the same result. and the criterion that tells when the explanation has been fulfilled. Thus an explanation reveals and gives rise to an expansion of those experiential coherences. 2. using his or her experiential coherences to fulfill. 4) The realization of what has been deduced in point 3. The epistemological fundaments implicit in the criterion of validation of scientific explanations and in the experimental scientific method are quite different. and of what he or she should do to live them. what I say is that scientific explanations do not explain an independent reality. 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 observer expects the reality to confront his or her explanations presented as expressions of the phenomena to be explained in more fundamental terms. In the claim that autopoiesis in the molecular space is the organization of living systems. in his or her experiential domain. 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. 1980). and. namely. The power of scientific explanations rests on the fact that it constitutes at the same time both the procedure that generates the explanation. I say that the observer in fact explains his or her experiences. indeed! But. . point 2 becomes a scientific explanation. 2) that as a molecular autopoietic system arises. of other possible experiences of the observer. Furthermore.5 Grounds for the claim The main difficulty that one encounters in the attempt to answer any question.
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. If in addition the conditions for its systemic reproduction occur. and that they can be seen to be so when one observes the cellular metabolism as a systemic whole. Thus. quite on the contrary. he or she resorts. open to the flow of molecules through it. as I have indicated above. Let us consider first the claim about the absence of inputs and outputs. Further. all that occurs in them or to them. and we human beings as observers distinguish them as features of our experiences. happens . the phenomena that result from the conservation of molecular autopoiesis in the constitution of lineages of living systems will also happen spontaneously. An observer attempts to explain only those of his or her experiences (phenomena) which do not seem obvious to him or her. natural phenomena occur when they occur. 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. occur spontaneously. are not reductions to simpler terms epistemologically objectionable. as I have said above. That is. the theory of autopoiesis says that whenever the adequate dynamic structural conditions occur in the molecular domain for molecular autopoietic entities to arise spontaneously. 2. and that such a claim is a scientific claim. and scientific explanations in particular. As such the natural world is in its spontaneous presence the proof of its own existence. 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. explanation and phenomenon take place in different non-intersecting domains (Maturana 1990). and then in English as part of a book published in 1980 with the title. propositions of generative processes such that if they take place they give rise as a result to the experience that is being explained. But there are still other difficulties for the full understanding of all the implications of the claims that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems. namely: that a living system does not have inputs or outputs. In these circumstances. These difficulties have to do with two other claims that I have made. In these circumstances. a living system will appear. But explanations are constitutively not reductionist propositions.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. And in order to do so. 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. they are. we claim that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems. "Autopoiesis and cognition". As living systems are structure determined systems. and that they would not occur if molecular autopoiesis were interrupted.6 Implications of the claim What we scientists distinguish as phenomena of the natural world. find the claim that explanations in general. Many people who consider that explanations have to be reductionist propositions. 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 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.1 What is “to know”? . This is why an observer cannot claim that he or she sees something as if it existed in itself. 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. one cannot understand how the domain of structural coupling of a living system. is made by him or her in his or her domain of structural coupling as a human being. that an observer cannot see the organization of a system directly. the living system can only trigger in the medium a structural change determined in the structural dynamics of the medium. therefore. if one does not understand that living systems do not have inputs or outputs. 3. and Maturana and Varela 1988). an external agent acting upon a living system does not specify what happens in it as a result of its action. Any distinction that an observer makes. 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. because it is the configuration of relations between components conserved through these structural dynamics that constitute its organization as a system. 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. as the domain in which it realizes its living (autopoiesis). and cannot be properly claimed to be an output of the organism because it "tells" nothing about itself to the medium. 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. that he or she thinks is an autopoietic system. This is why not just anything that an observer distinguishes or sees as a "part" of a system. 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). The same happens to the medium that contains them to the extent that the medium is also a structure determined system. Such external agent can only trigger in the living system a structural change determined in it. is a component of that system as an autopoietic system. it is not possible to understand cognition as a natural phenomenon. The same happens as the living system impinges upon the medium. It is in this sense that I claim that a living system does not have inputs or outputs. only the results of the operation of an autopoietic system as such can tell an observer that it is an autopoietic system. Accordingly. is indeed its domain of cognition (Maturana 1980. namely. something is a component of a system only if it participates in its composition.determined in their structure. independently of his or her doings in distinguishing it. As I said above. Thus also. Cognition 3. An external agent. The second claim. If one does not see how it is that living systems do not have inputs and outputs. Accordingly. and the observer can only know it through its operation as it defines itself. 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. No doubt the whole situation is circular in the sense that a system defines itself. then. 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.
and the origin of learned knowledge is ontogenic. and independently of its individual life history. Yet. 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. but our assessment is the same: namely. if on the contrary. Instinctive and learned knowledge thus differ only in the historical circumstances of their origin. Indeed. Therefore. . and b) that it is through that dynamic structural congruence that the living system conserves its living. Because whatever occurs to or in a living system occurs in it as a structure determined system determined by its structural dynamics. has been learned. and if all that occurs to them and in them arises in them at every instant determined by their structure at that instant. is to know? If living systems are structure determined systems. hence there is no information. 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. when we see it operating in a manner that we consider adequate for the domain in which we behold it. 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. human or not. then. we claim that the knowledge exhibited by it is instinctive. 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. The origin of instinctive knowledge is phylogenic. any attempt to explain the adequate behavior. if we see a living system behaving according to what we consider is adequate behavior in the circumstances in which we observe it. It does not matter if the living system observed is an insect or a human being.The understanding of structural determinism brought with it for me the question of cognition as I asked myself: "If structural determinism is the case. are doing now as you read what I have written. We may ask ourselves whether the knowledge that the living system exhibits is learned or instinctive. that in daily life we call cognition. 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. We’re usually not aware of this situation. what. reader. we claim that the knowledge that such operational congruence shows. is doomed to fail. and there is no computation. that is the kind of assessment that you. the process that we distinguish in daily life either as learned or as instinctive knowing. 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. even though in daily life we ascribe knowledge to any living being. 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 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. In other words. is structural coupling. Knowledge is an assessment made by an observer who sees the organism shifting what it does as it changes in coherence with its medium. What we see in such circumstances. I claim that the process which gives rise to the operational congruence between an organism and its niche. we claim that it knows.
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. That is. arise in language in the same manner as any other object arises in language. Our living in language does not violate structural determinism in general.3. and self. 1993). 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. 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. taken outside of that flow. not in any particular gesture. We human beings language while operating in the domain of structural coupling in which we coexist as languaging beings with other languaging beings.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. It is like the movement seen in a film that exists as such only as long as the film runs. as there are dimensions of structural coupling in which we can live in coordinate our coordinations of behavior. We exist and operate as human beings as we operate in language. saying “nose” as she touches the baby's nose (see Verden-Zöller in Maturana & Verden-Zöller. 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. objects arise as aspects of our languaging with others. If to be conscious means to be aware of something as it exists . 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. or attitude. languaging is our manner of living as human beings. That is. 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. Gerda VerdenZöller has shown that this is the way self consciousness arises in human babies when the languaging mother plays with the baby. Dr. we human beings can in fact live with each other in as many domains of shared objects. The body. then he or she can claim that the beings are beginning to operate in a domain of awareness of parts of their own body. sound. for example. and through this. Thus selfconsciousness 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. we human beings exist in structural coupling with all the other living and not living entities that compose the biosphere. Living in languaging is living a domain of shared objects in interobjectivity. As we language. Language occurs in the flow of coordinations of coordinations of behaviors. they do not exist by themselves. or domains of interobjectivity.2 Language We human beings exist as observers in language as we operate in the domain of structural coupling to which we belong. in the cosmos. 3. Accordingly. therefore. 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). It follows that we humans can generate and.
and molecules are molecules -. It is in this sense that living systems are living systems. but we do not have to do everything that is possible. In the origin of humanness the self must have arisen in the same manner that it arises in a modern human babies. We do not see that in doing so we are making a choice. is our cultural refusal to accept . So. or develop all the concepts. when we say “I am speaking about myself”. 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 seems to me that the main difficulty that biologists have in accepting that the notion of autopoiesis connotes the organization of the living. not engage in all the reflections.g. as Dr. That is. There is always another realm that may arise. to say that something arises as the observer brings it about in his or her distinction in language by specifying its condition of constitution. we can generate many new worlds but we do not have to do so. Moreover. We are living in a culture that acts as if we should do everything that we imagine as possible. not reality because reality is an explanatory notion invented to explain experience. 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. 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. 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.as real or objective entities in their respective domains of existence. and that we should be responsible for it. It is in this sense that we as observers can claim that molecules arise as the conditions of their constitution apply. And this is so precisely because the self arises in interobjectivity. is to say that something exists in the same domain of existence in which the observer operates as a living system. Verden-Zöller shows that all objects arise in the mother/child relations of play. We feel as we feel with any object in the domain of shared objects that we live with others. how could a human being become aware of him or herself. Due to their manner of arising. Accordingly. What follows is said under this understanding. 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. or build all the technologies. 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 selfconscious languaging beings Indeed. or “I. Epistemology and conclusions In my view the central theme of cognition is the explanation of experience. feelings are secondary to language. 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. 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 selfdistinctions.independently of the being that is aware of it. (the sections on Language and Consciousness will be expanded in the final version of this paper) 4.
Boston. Krohn. edited by D. R. BCL Report 9. Biology of cognition. R. In our culture we like to explain with causes and principles that are external to that which is explained. References Kant. This claim cannot be dismissed on epistemological grounds. Finally I think that an epistemological difficulty that is commonly present is that the mistake of using autopoiesis as an explanatory principle. Publicación Ocacional N 46 .that things. This is a fundamental move away from a domain of transcendental ontologies to a domain of constitutive ontologies. 42 Kauffman. The Critique of Judgment. 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. At Home in the Universe. 1980. M. 1988.0. it is a claim that has operational validity as a living system exists in the operational domain (the molecular domain) in which that happens. 1990. Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. systems. G. Origen de las Especies por medio de la Deriva Natural. (eds. 1995. They forget or ignore that what explanations indeed do is to propose generative mechanisms such that if they were allowed to operate. Biologists have frequently ignored the notion of autopoiesis and the theory of cognition that it supports (Maturana 1970 and 1980). 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. London Maturana. relations. H. 1952. H. Mpodozis. 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. And although that is a cognitive claim. R. In: Selforganization: portrait of a Scientific Revolution. H. in Autopoiesis and Cognition. I. University of Illinois Maturana. Science and Daily Life: The Ontology of Scientific Explanations . Reidel Maturana. Dordrecht. Biology of Cognition. W. To conclude. Department of Electrical Engineering. Kuppers. 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. Biological Computer Laboratory. of Psychology (issue on Constructivism) 9(1): 25-82 Maturana. 1992.. R. Philosophers have frequently objected to it because it relates abstractions and pragmatics (Scheper and Scheper 1998). because it does not seem to be pragmatic enough. and that to do so they relate abstractions and pragmatics. H. by Maturana and Varela. H. 1970. R. In. Irish J. 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. they would generate as a consequence of their operation that which they intend to explain. and entities in general. Oxford University Press Maturana. appears epistemologically unacceptable. J. arise as existing in the instant in which the conditions of their constitution take place. This is why to say that a living system exists by itself.) Kluwer Academic Publishers. "Great Books of the Western World" Vol. S. I also think that sometimes scientists and philosophers do not see that explanations do not replace that which they explain.
. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural. M. G. Boston and London Maturana. 3-12 . H.. 1972.Maturana. Carl Auer Verlag. J. Chile Maturana. Varela. Varela. H. Mpodozis. F. 1988. 1993. Liebe und Spiel. R. Shambhala New Science Library..J. Verden-Zöller. R. 1999. J. Origin of Species by means of Natural Drift. R. Scheper 1996. W. G. Hamburg Scheper. R. In press Maturana. De Máquinas y Seres Vivos Editorial Universitaria. The Tree of Knowledge. Behavioral Science. 41. H. die Vergessene Grundladge des Menschlichkeit. F. H.. C. vol.. Autopsy of Autopoiesis. G.
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