Friday, April 15, 2011

Autopoiesis and Praxogenesis

I am particularly taken with the work of Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana (1970, 1974, 1975, 1980, 1981 ...). When you see a body of work that leads to a coherent alternative epistemology described with economy and elegance, it is these artifacts that inspire the researcher.

Of course, there is the opposite effect of becoming intimate with such work too. Maturana's writing is described as difficult, that having a new perspective, it generates new language, and so a new form of reading without assumptions is required. New thought, involves new mind, and a seeing with new eyes - yet with a tired set of old eyes, what do we often see? What we find is the question the work uniquely answers, is often asked and answered - without making any real use of its true benefits.

And yet this is poetic, as the extent of beneficial value in a change to the world may be initially evidenced by how completely it is ignored or actively reframed. For if there was no thought barrier there to change, why the quest? Joseph Campbell (1991) poignantly describes the Hero's Return in such terms, saying:

"You try to find a means to deliver what you have found as the lifeboon in terms and in proportions that are proper to the world's ability to receive. It requires a good deal of compassion and patience. Look for the cracks in the wall and give only to those who are ready for your jewel."(p. 82)

This made me reflect how in the truth of Maturana's theory of structural-coupling in autopoiesis is the effect that the history of experiences, the forms of paradigms of practice, the way language is seen, and the pre-assumptions of perceptions (i.e. reliance on the observer description) - means this work cannot be adequately seen. Yet it does not change its truth.

Let's consider for a moment the implications of autopoiesis, structural coupling and praxogenesis. With regret I will use a simplified form, as otherwise there is no alternative to quoting the original work from Maturana and Varela (1970, 1974, 1999) in its entirety, which is sufficient and complete in itself.

a) the entity forms and has internal changes as part of its functions that maintains its identity; - formation of entity
b) the entity's functions have perturbations requiring a change in structure to maintain identity; - entity and structure structural coupling
c) the recurrence of the perturbations means the entity changes with changes in the state of its medium; - entity and medium structural-coupling
d) the entity has interactions with the space of relations of its functions and responds structurally; - sensory perception
e) the recurrence of the interactions and the structural response triggers a entity-level response; - sensori-motor action
f) the recurrence of the embodied action has spatio-temporal correspondence to changes in the medium of the entity; - semantic coupling
g) the embodied action of the entity effects perturbations or contributions in the medium of the entity; - entity-medium co-enaction
h) the entity and another entity create interactions in the space of relations of each of their functions; - semantic sensation
i) the entities establish a mutual (consensual) domain of recurrent interactions with corresponding structure changes; - entity-entity structural coupling
j) the embodied action of the entity corresponds to embodied actions in the structurally coupled entity; - mutual co-enaction
k) the recurrence of mutual embodied action effects perturbations or contributions in the medium of the entities; mutual entity-medium coupling
l) the recurrent interactions between entities in a shared medium becomes a linguistic domain; - semantic co-enaction
m) the entity recursively interacts with the linguistic domain of its embodied mutual interactions; - self-observation
n) the entity recursively interacts with the semantic description of its embodied-co-enactions; - self-awareness
o) the entity responds in embodied-action with the semantic description of its co-enactions; - self-determination
n) the entities respond in embodied-actions in their consensual domain with the semantic description of their co-enactions; - self-enaction
p) the mutual embodied actions of the entities effects perturbations or contributions in the medium; - semantic-medium structural coupling
q) the recurrence of the embodied consensual action with recursive reflection enables medium aware actions; - entities-medium co-enaction

The effects continue, as entities, their domains of interactions, environments of creation, co-enact and interact in an ecology of evolving simplicity - devoid of observer descriptions as a necessity. As sensori-motor coupling, leads to embodied action, which creates enactive co-enaction - the context for interactions is altered recursively. The result is that the origin of formation is found in the qualities of the structure of the domains of cognition. A first orientation to a particular phenomenon becomes a sensory predisposition, which enacts recurrent actions, and recursively the world is made thus in the direction of embodied perception. The origin of existence is found, when seen as the entire sequence as one event, in first actions (i.e. genesis in praxis ~ praxogenesis). The embodied actions causes the environment of perception. Evolution is, we find ultimately, caused by orientation.

The simplest example I can think of is of two birds nesting, the interaction of their actions within that domain in seeking and feeding on insects to feed their young mitigates the effects of the insects on the trees and enables the recurrence of nest building sites and these interactive domains become, over time, an ecology of forms.

The distinction made in Maturana's characterisation is that evolutionary natural selection is a consequentialist description in the domain of the observer. As the environment does not cause a change in the entity, only triggers a change that is mediated by its cognitive structures (Mingers, 1995) , evolution rather than being environment dependent, is entity dependent. Evolution and environmental enaction is dependent on entity cognitive structure.

In Niklas Luhmann's Ecological Communication extensions of autopoiesis into the social domain of radical constructivism clarifies how the 'environment' is an object in the linguistic domain of the social system. The one thing not described when we speak about the environment is the physical medium in which we are situated that is outside language. This is a description in semantic-coupling that is unavailable to us from within. The sustainability-environment debate is a conversation that occurs solely within the language of the social entity. Luhmann, mentions, but does not deal with, psychic-autopoiesis (the co-enaction of individual cognitions), and fortunately this is now being dealt with in the field of psychological panarchy.

The implications of this are simple, profound and radical.

Our semantic domains (i.e. talking about the environment) as a product of our cognitive domains (i.e. thinking about the environment) will determine if our viable medium for living (i.e. our actual environment) becomes hostile or benign for the conditions of our existence.

In answer to this question of our mutual co-enactive fate... perhaps the future history of our species (as observed by a later passing observer - or our children's, children's, children, depending on our proficiency) will be our only Witness.

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