Autopoiesis

Introduction #

The concept of autopoiesis, developed by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the early 1970s, represents a significant turning point in the fields of biology, cognitive science, and systems theory. Autopoiesis, meaning “self-creation,” describes the self-sustaining and self-organizing nature of living systems. Blow we explore the foundational ideas of autopoiesis, its influence on the development of second-order cybernetics, and its philosophical connections to Mahayana Buddhism. By examining the interdisciplinary impact of autopoiesis, we can appreciate its profound implications for understanding life, cognition, and consciousness, also finding an interesting point of connection between Buddhist studies and cybernetics.

Autopoiesis: The Concept #

Autopoiesis was first introduced by Maturana and Varela in their seminal work, “Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living” (1980). They defined autopoiesis as the process by which a system produces and maintains its components, which in turn regenerate the system’s organization. This self-referential loop ensures the system’s continuity and identity. In essence, an autopoietic system is autonomous, operationally closed, and capable of self-regulation.

Maturana and Varela’s work diverged from traditional views of life that focused on genetic information and metabolic processes. Instead, they emphasized the importance of the relational dynamics that sustain a living system. As Maturana and Varela stated, “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition” (Maturana and Varela, 1980, p. 13).

Influence on Cybernetics #

The introduction of autopoiesis marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of cybernetics, particularly in the transition from first-order to second-order cybernetics. First-order cybernetics, pioneered by Norbert Wiener and others, focused on feedback mechanisms and control systems in machines and organisms. Second-order cybernetics, however, emphasized the observer’s role in defining and interacting with systems.

Heinz von Foerster, a key figure in second-order cybernetics, integrated autopoiesis into his work, recognizing its implications for understanding self-referential and self-organizing systems. Von Foerster argued that observers are part of the systems they study, thus highlighting the importance of reflexivity and subjectivity in scientific inquiry (von Foerster, 2003). Autopoiesis provided a conceptual framework for exploring how systems maintain their coherence and adapt to changing environments.

Connections to Mahayana Buddhism #

The philosophical underpinnings of autopoiesis resonate with key ideas in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly the concepts of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and emptiness (śūnyatā). Dependent origination asserts that all phenomena arise in interdependence with other phenomena, rejecting the notion of inherent, independent existence. Similarly, autopoiesis emphasizes the relational and interdependent nature of living systems.

Maturana and Varela themselves acknowledged these parallels, drawing connections between their biological insights and Buddhist philosophy. In “The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding” (1987), they wrote, “We can recognize in the Buddhist tradition a remarkable convergence with our understanding of the biology of cognition” (Maturana and Varela, 1987, p. 248).

Moreover, the concept of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism aligns with the idea of operational closure in autopoietic systems. Emptiness denotes the absence of intrinsic essence, suggesting that entities exist only in relation to others. Operational closure, similarly, implies that an autopoietic system is defined by its interactions and internal dynamics rather than by external determinants.

Implications and Conclusion #

The concept of autopoiesis has had far-reaching implications across various disciplines. In cognitive science, it has informed enactive and embodied approaches to understanding mind and consciousness, as seen in the work of scholars like Evan Thompson and Alva Noë. In organizational theory, autopoiesis has influenced models of self-managing and adaptive organizations, such as Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model.

By bridging biological, cognitive, and philosophical perspectives, autopoiesis offers a holistic framework for exploring the complexity of life and consciousness. Its connections to Mahayana Buddhism further enrich this framework, providing a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary lens for understanding the interdependent nature of existence. Maturana and Varela’s concept of autopoiesis represents a significant turning point in our understanding of living systems. Its influence on second-order cybernetics and its philosophical resonance with Mahayana Buddhism underscore the profound interconnectedness of life, cognition, and consciousness. As we continue to explore these connections, we gain deeper insights into the nature of existence and the processes that sustain it.

References #

Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Shambhala Publications.

von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition. Springer-Verlag.