Tuesday, May 10, 2011

complex Tao levels 2-3: Autopoiesis of Tao

The model of Operational Closure of a system, introduced by Maturana and Varela as one of the fundamental characteristics of all the living systems, however is not sufficient as minimum complete set of description. Since the complexity of the living systems it is expected that a single type of description would not be enough but would be necessary a plot of more descriptions at different levels to obtain a minimum complete synthesis.
In the early 70s, and particularly in 1972, Humberto Maturana, subsequently with Francisco Varela, has introduced the concept of autopoiesis or autopoietic system.

What property, then, must have a system to be called truly alive?

We can make a clear distinction between living and non-living systems?

What is the exact connection that exists between self-organization and life?

These were the questions which arose Humberto Maturana, a chilean scholar of neurosciences, in the sixties. After six years of studies abd research in the biology field in England and USA, where he collaborated with the McCulloch group at MIT and was strongly influenced by cybernetics, in 1960 Maturana returned to the University of Santiago. Here he specialized in neurosciences and, in particular, in understanding color perception. As a result of this research, in Maturana mind take form two key questions. As he reminded later: "I found myself in a situation where my academic life was divided, and I turned in the research of the answers to two questions which appear to conduct in two opposite directions" that is:

"What is the organization of the living?"
"What happens in the phenomenon of perception?""

Maturana struggled with these two questions for almost a decade, and thanks to his genius will find a common answer to both. In this way he made possible the unification of two systemic thought traditions which had occupied of the cartesian separation from different point of view. While organicists biologists explored the nature of the biological form, the cybernetics tried to understand the nature of the mind. At the end of the 60s, Maturana realized that the key to the two enigma was in the comprehension of the "organization of the living". In the autumn of 1968 Maturana was invited by Heinz von Foerster to join his interdisciplinary group by the University of Illinois and to attend a congress about cognition in Chicago some months later.This gave him an ideal opportunity to present his ideason cognition as a biological phenomenon. Which was, therefore, the Maturana central intuition?
As he put it:

"The investigations of the color perception led me to a discovery which was extremely important to me: the nervous system operates as a closed network of interactions, in which every change of the relations of interaction between some components always result in a change in the relations of interaction of the same or other components."

From this discovery Maturana drew two conclusions which give him the answers to the fundamental questions he worked. He hypothesized that the circular organization of the nervous system was the base organization of all living systems:

"Living systems ... [are] organized in a causal closed circular process which allows the evolutionary change in the way circularity is maintained, but not the loss of the circularity itself".

Since all the changes in the system happen into this base circularity, Maturana claimed that the elements which determine the circular organization che gli elementi che determinano l'organizzazione circolare must also be produced and maintained by it. He concluded that this network scheme, where any components has the function to help to produce and transform other components maintaining at the same time the global network circularity, constitutes the true "organization of the living".
The second conclusion that Maturana drew of the circular closure of the nervous system equals to a radically new conception of cognition. He suggested that the nervous system not only self-organize itself but it continuosly refers to itself, so that the perception cannot be regarded as a representation of an external reality but should be considered as a continuous creation of new relationships into the neural network:

"The activity of nerve cells do not reflect an environment independent of the living organism and thus do not allow the construction of an outside world that actually exists"

According to Maturana, the perception, and more generally the cognition, do not represent an extenal reality but rather they specify one through the process of organization of the nervous system. Starting from this premise Muturana performed then a radical step postulating that the process itself of circular organization - with or without a nervous system - is identical to the process of cognition:

"Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This declaration applies to all organisms, with or without a nervous system"

There is no doubt that this way to identify the cognition with the life process is a radically new conception; after published his ideas in 970 Maturana began a long collaboration relationship with Francisco Varela, a young student of neuroscieces of University of Santiago, who has been his student. Maturana tells that their collaboration began when Varela,  during a conversation, proposed to find a more formal and complete description of the circular organization concept. They decided immediatly to work on a complete verbal description of the Maturana idea before to attempt to built up a mathematical model and began inventing a name for it autopoiesis. Auto, of corse, means "by itself" and refers to the autonomy of self-organizing systems; and poiesi - from greek poiesis, from which derives also the word "poetry" - means "production". Therefore autopoiesis means "production of itself". Since they have coined a new word, without a history, they had no problems to use it as a technical term to indicate the distinctive organization of living systems. Two years later, Maturana and Varela published their first formulation of the autopoiesis concept in a long paper and within 1975, together with their colleague Ricardo Uribe, had developed a corresponding mathematical model for the simplest autopoietic system: the living cell.
Maturana and Varela begin the essay on autopoiesis defining their "mechanistic" approach to distinguish from vitalistic theoris on the nature of life: "our approach will be mechanistic: no forces and no pronciples will be put forward that is not in the physical universe"
The next sentence, however, immediatly clarify that the authors do not comply with the Cartesian mechanism, but they think in systemic terms:
"However, our problem is the organization of the living, and so our interest does not focus on the properties of components, but on processes and relations between processes realized through the components"
The authors define even better their position through the basic distinction between "organization" e "structure/pattern", which has been an implicit theme along the history of the systemic thought  which was not explicity formulated untill the development of cybernetics. Maturana and Varela make this distinction crystal clear.
The organization of a living system, they explain, is the whole of the relations among components (the system elements) which define the system as belonging to a certain class (for example a bacterium, a cat or a human brain). The description of this organization is an absctract of relationships and does not define the componenets. The authors hyphotesize that the autopoiesis is a general organization scheme, common to all the living systems, whatever is the nature of their componentsi.
The structure/pattern of a living system, on the contrary, is constituted by the real relations among physical components. In other words, the system pattern is the physical embodiment of its organization. Maturana and Varela emphasize the fact the the organization of a system is indipendent from the properties of its components, so that a certain  organization may translate in a physical pattern in many different ways, through many different components types.
After clarifying that their interest is addressed to the organization and not to the pattern, the authors give the definition of autopoiesis, the common organization of all living beings:

It is a network of production processes, where the function of any components is to share to the production or to the transformation of other components of the network. In this way, the entire network "continuosly produces itself'. It is produced by its components and in turn produces its components.
"In living systems the product of their operation is their own organization"

Which is the concept of Operational Closure. In other words:

An autopoietic machine (system) is a machine organized (defined as a unit) as a network of production (transformation and distribution) processes of components so that:
(i) through their interactions and transformations they continuously regenerate and realize the process (relations) network which has produced them, and
(ii) constitute (the machine) as a concrete unit in the space where (the components) exist, specifying the topological domain of its realization as a network.
[...] the space defined by an autopoietic system is self-contained and cannot be described using dimensions of another space. When we refer to our interaction with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system in the space of our manipulations and we make a description of this projection.

An important characteristic of living systems is that their autopoietic organization involves the creation of a boundary which specify the network operational domain and defines the system as a unit .

Creation of a cellular membrane from the internal dynamic metabolism and, vice versa, the cellular membrane allows the creation of the autopoietic internal domain for cellular metabolism

An image of a human buccal epithelial cell obtained using Differential Interference Contrast (DIC) microscopy
According to Maturana and Varela, the autopoiesis concept is necessary and sufficient to define the organization of living systemsi. However, this definition does not include any information on the physical constitution of the system components.
The autopoiesis becomes therefore the combination between the complementarity of structure-pattern and organization and the operational closure of the system. The process of life born from the
co-emergence between an autopoietic system and the environment in a process which Maturana identifies as cognitive:
"Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organism, with or without a nervous system"
This particular interpretation of cognition as the life process is called "Santiago Theory of Cognition", and has been further elaborated particularly by Francisco Varela in the field of cognitive sciences. To understand the properties of the components and their physical interactions, should be added to the abstract description of the system organization a description of its pattern in the language of physics and chemistry. The clear distinction between these two descriptions - one in terms of pattern and the other in terms of organization - make possible to join the models of self-organization which refers to the structure (as those of Prigogine and Haken) and the models which refer to the organization (as those of Eigen and of Maturana and Varela) in a coherent theory of living systems.

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