Humberto Maturana

Autopoiesis,Structural Coupling and Cognition
Cybernetics & Human Knowing
vol.9, no 3-4, 2002 pg 23

Autopoiesis and Structural Coupling

Living systems are molecular autopoietic systems.
What we scientists distinguish as "phenomena of the natural world" occur spontaneously. As such the natural world is in its spontaneous presence the proof of its own existence. Natural phenomena occur when they occur, and we human beings as observers distinguish them, as we distinguish what we do, as we distinguish what happens in us or with us. An observer attempts to explain only those of his or her experiences (phenomena) which do not seem obvious to him or her. In order to do so, he or she resorts to the coherence is of his or her experiences and uses them to propose a generative mechanism under the operation of which the phenomena that he or she wants to explain will appear or result spontaneously.

The theory of autopoiesis says that whenever the adequate dynamic structural conditions occur in the molecular domain for molecular autopoietic entities to arise, they will arrive spontaneously and a living system will appear as if out of nowhere. If in addition the conditions for the systemic reproduction of the molecular autopoietic system occur, the result will be the spontaneous beginning of a lineage of molecular autopoietic systems.

pg 24
Many scientists and philosophers are not aware that explanations are propositions of generative mechanisms or processes that give rise to in the living of the observer to the experience (phenomenon) to be explained, and thus think that explanations have to be reductionist propositions in which what is explained is presented in more fundamental terms. But explanations as propositions of generative processes are constitutively not reductionist propositions.

There are still other difficulties for the full understanding all the implications of the claims that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems, and that they can be seen to be so when one observes the cellular metabolism as a systemic whole. These other difficulties have to do with two other claims that I have made: that a living system does not have input or outputs, and that the observer cannot see the organisation of the system directly because the organisation of a system is the configuration of relations that makes and defines a system as a singular totality through its conservation in the historical flow of its structural dynamics.

The relation between a living system and the medium in which it exists is a structural one in which living system and medium change together congruently as long as they remain in recurrent interactions. I have called this relation structural coupling. And I have shown that a living system flows in its living in the path of conservation of structural coupling with the medium that makes it possible. The living occurs in the path of structural changes that continuously result of the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation or structural coupling.

Unless we see how it is that living systems do not have input and outputs, it is not possible to understand cognition as a natural phenomenon, nor can we see that that which we call cognition in a living system is that which we see or consider as its adequate behaviour or operation in the domain in which we observe it.

Unless we see that the living system does not have inputs or outputs, we cannot see that the effective operation of a living system in its living which leads us to claim that "the living system knows what to do in its domain of existence", result from its operating in a domain of structural coupling that has arisen with it in the course of its epigenesis. Moreover, if we do not understand that living systems do not have input and outputs, we cannot understand how the domain of structural coupling of a living system as the domain in which it realises its living (autopoiesis), is indeed its domain of cognition.


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