PAGE] [CURRICULUM VITAE]
[DRAFTS AND SKETCHES]
Questions about cell biology / organization environment boundaries
William P. Hall
17 April 2005
The last week's discussion on autopoiesis-dialognet has been interesting, as several of the
topics are central to the paper I am currently working on, focusing on the autopoietic basis of
biological systems. Peter Bond's latest contribution on "organization and structure" -
especially his paper on "Technology as Knowledge, as paradigm, as culture, and as an ecology of
and Steven Hoath's latest on "questions about cell biology" are particularly relevant.
I'm currently assembling ideas relating to applications of the following questions relating to
cellular forms of life (i.e., cells to colonial organisms and biological species) from a number of
- What is autopoiesis in a physical sense?
- What self-productive and self-regulatory processes work to distinguish and maintain autopoietic
systems as distinct systems from the physical media in which they occur?
- What kind of "cognition" do these processes consist of?
- What kind of "knowledge" do autopoietic systems require in order to maintain their
organizations through time?
- What is an observer? How does an observer distinguish and describe its own autopoiesis?
- How does an observer distinguish and describe another autopoietic system?
This project extends the approach introduced in my paper just published in The Learning
Organization 12(2):169-188 (eprint available on - http://www.hotkey.net.au/~bill.hall/TheBiologicalNatureshortrevjmf1bh3.pdf).
This is based on analyzing the nature of cognition and "knowledge" in autopoietic systems
in the epistemological framework provided by Karl Popper's theory of knowledge based on a concept of
three worlds or ontological domains. In to trying to account for/describe the growth of knowledge
within autopoietic systems in physically materialistic terms, my research has faced some very
interesting epistemological issues relating to observers and observations that also greatly troubled
Maturana and Varela.
As I was only dimly beginning to understand in my Learning Organization paper, Howard Pattee's
concept of epistemic cuts provides a robust physical foundation for Popper's three worlds and
defining the various forms of knowledge that can be formed within autopoietic systems. A brief
sketch is presented below. This is followed by a working bibliography of papers relating to the
epistemological issues raised by Pattee's ideas.
World 1 is the dynamic reality that exists independently from the cognition of any observer.
However world 1 includes observers and their cognitive processes within this dynamic reality.
In the sense that I believe world 1 exists independently from my perceptions of it, I am a realist
even though I fully accept that all my knowledge of this reality is constructed within my
Autopoietic entities are complex dynamic systems that emerge within the framework of universal
laws and constraints of world 1. Hugo Urrestarazu has made an excellent start towards describing
what autopoiesis looks like in this world (http://autopoietic.net/boundaries.pdf).
The existence and growth of knowledge is purely a consequence of the existence and evolution of
complex, autopoietic systems. Existence and evolution of complex systems takes place in W1.
Knowledge that persists in the structure of autopoietic systems consists of those persistent aspects
of the autopoietic system's structure that enable the system to survive perturbations through
Following Pattee and his student Luis M Rocha, there is an ontological or epistemic
"cut" between the real world (W1) and the representation or map of that world in the
active cognition of autopoietic entities that guides their regulatory responses to that world. The
"cut" separates the world that is from some form of observation or representation of that
For reasons elucidated by Popper, Maturana and Varela, and the radical constructivists such as
von Glaserfeld and Riegler, world representations in the autopoietic systems cannot reasonably be
exact and perfect in all respects. The processes of autopoiesis reflect the existence of a form of
semantic (or organizational) closure the incorporates enough experience of from a history of
existence that the autopoietic entity in some way "knows" what it has to do in order to
self-regulate its autopoiesis in response to perturbations in the world. However, where the world
representations do reflect regularities in existence, Popper and the other evolutionary
epistemologists, and Pattee and Rocha have shown that the process of "blind variation" and
error elimination will lead to the growth of increasingly more functional representations of those
At this level, the knowledge is dispositionally representational - basically as a consequence of
the inheritance of various regularities of structure and dynamics within the autopoietic system that
reflect regularities of world 1. This is the only kind of knowledge available to newly emerged
In this Popperian framework, I would regard technological infrastructure described by Peter Bond as
belonging in world 2. Technology comprises tools that extend our reach or cognition. Technology is
as much a part of human dispositional "knowledge" as are the cells of our brains, muscles
and digestive systems.
Where this representational knowledge becomes codified (e.g., in nucleic acids, language, writing
etc.) a second epistemic cut is created between the dispositional dynamics of the autopoietic entity
and encoded representations of the "knowledge" used to guide and regulate that
dispositional dynamics. Codification establishes Popper's world 3.
In world 3 the knowledge is not dispositional, as it is normally encoded via arbitrary
regularities in a physical substrate that is energetically neutral or "degenerate" with
regard to the semantic content of the coded information carried by the substrate, and can persist in
stable form through time - in some cases even independently of the autopoietic entity that encoded
the knowledge. The semantic meaning of the code is determined by its impact on the structure of the
autopoietic system when the code is transcribed and translated into components that are dynamically
active within the autopoietic structure.
Obviously a great deal more work will be required work out how these ideas are applicable to
different focal levels of autopoietic systems based on living cells (e.g., monera, eukaryotes,
multicellular organisms, colonial and social organisms, and biological species). However, I am
confident that the ideas above are the key clues to understanding the origins and evolution of the
various kinds of knowledge-based systems and activities in living things.
In the following bibliography, almost all of the cited references are available electronically,
either directly through the Web (where I have given URLs) or via on-line services available to major
research libraries. In my case I am able to achieve access thanks to an honorary fellowship provided
to me by Monash University's Faculty of Information Technology.
Additional Bibliography on the Epistemology of Autopoietic Cognition
(building on refs in my Learning Org paper)
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- Atmanspacher H. 1997. Cartesian cut, Heisenberg cut, and the concept of complexity. World
Futures 49, 333-355.
- Atmanspacher, H. 1999. Ontic and epistemic descriptions of chaotic systems. In: Proceedings of
CASYS 99, ed. by D. Dubois, Springer, Berlin 2000, pp. 465-478 - http://www.igpp.de/english/tda/pdf/liege.pdf
- Atmanspacher, H. 2004. Quantum theory and consciousness: An overview with selected examples.
Discrete Dynamics in Nature and Society 1:51-73 - http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/S102602260440106X
- Atmanspacher, H. 2004. Quantum Approaches to Consciousness, The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Winter 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), - http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2004/entries/qt-consciousness/
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probabilistic dynamical laws. In: Foundations of Probability and Physics, ed. by A. Khrennikov.
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Information, ed. by L. Castell and O. Ischebeck. Springer, Berlin pp. 301-321 - http://www.igpp.de/english/tda/pdf/cfvw.pdf
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Scale Systems: Theory and Applications, ed. by N. T. Koussoulas and P. Groumpos, Elsevier,
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