Patterns of Life

Varela F. J. . Patterns of Life: Intertwining identity and cognition . 1997 . Brain Cognition 34: 72–87. Available at

1. Building artificial living beings/objects as a proof for competing claims about different aspects of life and different levels of the living organization. This is the same motivation of artificial intelligence in regards to cognitive science. It is indeed an innovation in science, since physics relied principally on prediction for proof and validation. In these cases we also have validation by construction, quite a different matter.

I have promised that the theory is explicit: the model does as the subject does. This quote from the introduction of the article deals with the same idea: to prove aspects of life by constructing it artificially. That means, like in the case of the firm that one develops a model that shows the behavior of the thing. When this is sufficiently recognized then it must be a firm. This train of thought reminds me of that of Wolfam who considers behavior of a system interesting if it produces interesting pictures, a visual check. This is sufficient because the processes at the basis o our powers of perception are the same as those that generate the behavior in focus.

2. The Autonomy Viewpoint

Proposition 1: Organisms are fundamentally a process of constitution of an identity.

(a) By identity I intend here a unitary quality, a coherence of some kind. It is not meant as a static structural description (it is a process), nor as carrying a mentalistic or psychological connotations (it is identity in a generalized not a personalistic sense).

(b) The nature of this process is always one of a operational closure (Varela, 1979), that is, a circular reflexive interlinking process, whose primary effect is its own production.

(c) It is this operational closure which gives rise to an emergent or global coherence, without the need of a “central controller,” hence the identity I have in mind here is nonsubstantially localized, and yet perfectly able to generate interactions.

(d) An essential key here is, of course, what we have recently learned about “emergent” properties in various complex systems.

(e) Different organisms differ in the kinds of multifarious identity mechanisms they have, due to their unique evolutionary pathways.

One side of the coin is the identity as a kind of coherence emerged from the multitude that is now itself capable of interacting.

Proposition 2: The organism’s emergent identity gives, logically and mechanistically, the point of reference for a domain of interactions.

(a) The living identities are produced by some manner of closure, but what is produced is an emerging interactive level. The interactions have relevance and consequences for the unitary identity, although mechanistically all interactions occur both at component level and unity’s level.

(b) The configurations of a level of interaction for the entire unit creates a perspective from which an interaction can occur. In other words, this is the source for informational, intentional, or semantic values to all living organisms.

(c) This entails that living systems bring forth significance: organisms are autonomous, not heteronomously directed.

The identity determines (is the reference for) which interactions the unity can do.

P1 and P2 say that the identity of an organismic unity ensures that it can both cognize and be cognized.

More precisely defined: An autopoietic system is organized (defined as unity) as a network of processes of production (synthesis and destruction) of components such that these components: (i) continuously regenerate and realize the network that produces them, and (ii) constitute the system as a distinguishable unity in the domain in which they exist.’

The system is a network of processes of production of components that reproduce the network and constitute the system as a distinguishable unity. AP captures processes that generate the identity of the living and makes a distinction possible from non-living: self-produced identity. It will keep in play as long as it can remain operationally closed. All of the above is tricky because it is only about biology.

Second, I take here the view that reproduction is not intrinsic to the minimal logic of the living. Reproduction must be considered as an added complexification superimposed on a more basic identity, that of an autopoietic unity, a complexification which is necessary due to the constraints of the early conditions on a turbulent planet. It is here where particular molecular classes play a key role, such as nucleic acids. Reproduction is essential for the longterm viability of the living, but only when there is an identity can a unit reproduce. In this sense, identity has logical and ontological priority over reproduction, although not historical precedence.’

Can this be an argument to counter the distinction between biological systems and social systems? Because an important comment always is that the ss cannot reproduce because they have no means to reproduce.

For as long as it exists, the autopoietic organization remains invariant. In other words, one way to spotlight the specificity of autopoiesis is to think of it self-referentially as that organization which maintains the very organization itself as an invariant.’

It is in fact the organization itself that is invariant because it manages to keep itself invariant. That which keeps your cells into your body and that which keeps individual persons showing coherent behavior. Add to that, also not new: ‘Every class of entities has an identity which is peculiar to them; the uniqueness of the living resides in the kind of organization it has.’ Waarom een bakker nooit een goede slager wordt.

Now, the history of biology is, of course, marred by the traditional opposition between the mechanist/reductionists on the one hand and holist/vitalists on the other, a heritage from the biological problem-space of the 19th century. One of the specific contributions of the study of self-organizing mechanisms – of which autopoiesis is a specific instance – is that the traditional opposition between the component elements and the global properties disappears. In the simple example of the cellular automaton illustrated above, it is precisely the reciprocal causality between the local rules of interactions (i.e., the components rules, which are akin to chemical interactions) and the global properties of the entity (i.e., its topological demarcation affecting diffusion and creating local conditions for reaction) which is in evidence. It appears to me that this reciprocal causality does much to evacuate the mechanist/vitalist opposition and allows us to move into a more productive phase of identifying various modes of self-organization where the local and the global are braided together explicitly through this reciprocal causality. Autopoiesis is a prime example of such dialectics between the local component levels and the global whole, linked together in reciprocal relation through the requirement of constitution of an entity that self-separates from its background. In this sense, autopoiesis as the characterization of the basic pattern of the living does not fall into the traditional extremes of either vitalism or reductionism.’

This explains the micro-to-macro aspect of the autopoiesis theory. And theref roe the diffusion of the distinction between the components and the newly emerging unity from the networks of processes.

It is ex-hypothesis evident that an autopoietic system depends on its physicochemical mileu for its conservation as a separate entity, otherwise it would dissolve back into it. Whence the intriguing paradox proper to an autonomous identity: the living system must distinguish itself from its environment, while at the same time maintaining its coupling; this linkage cannot be detached since it is against this very environment from which the organism arises, comes forth.

I have used the formula of Ashby to show that an a is required to do the calculations and that a is not part of S. And so I concluded that a, if it cannot be part of S, can only be a part of the environment, and so the system in focus exists distinct from its environment yet maintaining its coupling.

In defining what it is as unity, in the very same movement it defines what remains exterior to it, that is to say, its surrounding environment. A closer examination also makes it evident that this exteriorization can only be understood, so to speak, from the “inside”: the autopoietic unity creates a perspective from which the exterior is one, which cannot be confused with the physical surroundings as they appear to us as observers, the land of physical and chemical laws simpliciter, devoid of such perspectivism.’

The system creates its own (not to be confused with ours) perspective on its environment. The fundamental difference is that, different from the environment, the system is active.

However, on the other hand the sucrose gradient and flagellar beat are interesting to analyze only because the entire bacteria points to such items as relevant: their specific significance as components of feeding behavior is only possible by the presence and perspective of the bacteria as a totality. Remove the bacteria as a unit, and all correlations between gradients and hydrodynamic properties be’

How can this be translated to the case of a firm? What does the behavior of a firm point at? And if the firm weren’t there (were removed from the scene) then what would their environment return to? This is in fact a question that might belong to the proof of existence of the firm. The answer would be of the category of: If the firm were removed from the scene then the people included by its ideas would return to their normal non firm-induced behavior and as a consequence the firm would no longer be recognized as a firm.

I believe that this truly dialectical relationship is a key point. In fact, it might appear as so obvious that we do not appreciate its deep ramifications. I mean the important distinction between the environment of the living system as it appears to an observer and without reference to the autonomous unity – which we shall call hereafter simply the environment – and the environment for the system, which is defined in the same movement that gave rise to its identity and that only exists in that mutual definition – hereinafter the system’s world.

I call the environment as it is perceived by us the observer the environment of the system. And I call the part of that environment which is relevant for the system its milieu. The formulation for the environment must change to the environment with the definition that part of the world that us the observer perceives as a possibly relevant background for the system?? But this implies that the milieu is not a subset of the environment, it can be a different set. Varela calls our world in which we perceive the system’s existence the environment and and the system’s environment he calls its world.

The difference between environment and world is the surplus of signification which haunts the understanding of the living and of cognition, and which is at the root of how a self becomes one.’

‘Its world is where a system becomes and it begets its identity. Once it has become a unity then it internally develops a significance concerning its world that is in a surplus over what we can tell about it: ‘There is no food significance in sucrose except when a bacteria swims upgradient and its metabolism uses the molecule in a way that allows its identity to continue’.

What the autopoietic system does – due to its very mode of identity – is to constantly confront the

encounters (perturbations, shocks, coupling) with its environment and treat them from a perspective

which is not intrinsic to the encounters themselves.

I must try to adapt this to the making of distinctions and then the erasing of them. But that seems to be very close to the adaptation processes: once a distinction is made then how does the organism ensure that it cannot damage it? It can only make itself and so it makes itself so that it is not damaged. If this is a temporary thing of its present AP organization it is adaptation and if its operational closure changes then it is accommodation: ‘If we invert our perspective, this constant bringing forth of signification is what we may describe as a permanent lack in the living: it is constantly bringing forth a signification that is missing, not pregiven or pre-existent.’

The source for this world-making is always the breakdowns in autopoiesis, be they minor, like changes in concentration of some metabolite, or major, like disruption of the boundary. Due to the nature of autopoiesis itself – illustrated in the membrane repair of the minimal simulated example above – every breakdown can be seen as the initiation of an action on what is missing on the part of the system so that identity might be maintained.’

This I know but it is well-written in the sense of the breakdown of AP.

In brief, this permanent, relentless action on what is lacking becomes, from the observer side, the ongoing cognitive activity of the system, which is the basis for the incommensurable difference between the environment within which the system is observed and the world within which the system operates. This cognitive activity is paradoxical at its very root. On the one hand the action that brings forth a world is an attempt to reestablish a coupling with an environment which defies the internal coherence through encounters and perturbations. However, such actions, at the same time, demarcate and separate the system from that environment, giving rise to a distinct world.

Quote this! How adaptation and accommodation erase the differences with the environment. Very important contribution to that part of the actual business processes.

In brief, the term cognitive has two constitutive dimensions: first its coupling dimension, that is, a

link with its environment allowing for its continuity as individual entity; second its interpretative

dimension, that is, the surplus of significance a physical interaction acquires due to the perspective provided by the global action of the organism.

How do I understand this?

It introduces an explicit alternative to the dominant computationalist tradition in the study of cognitive properties for which the central idea is that of processing an external information successively elaborated to reconstitute a centralized representation. This fundamental paradigm of the digital computer program will not do for biology, nor for AI. I have raised this point to caution the reader against the force of many years of dominance of computationalism and the consequent tendency to identify the cognitive self with some computer program or high level computational description. This will not do. The cognitive self is its own implementation: its history and its action are of one piece.

This is an important argument against the use of computationalism as a framework of theorizing. But I’m not using computation in this sense, but in the sense of Wolfram and Dodig (I remember?). The system is its history and its capabilities at the present point. It is what it is capable of. It is not a set of rules inscribed in it, it is its rules.

Ordinary life is necessarily one of situated, embodied agents, continually coming up with what to do faced with ongoing parallel activities in their various perceptuomotor systems. This continual redefinition of what to do is not at all like a plan, stored in a repertoire of potential alternatives, but enormously dependent on contingency, improvisation, and more flexible than planning. Situatedness means that a cognitive entity has – by defini-tion – a perspective. This means that it is not related to its environment “objectively,” that is independently of the system’s location, heading, attitudes, and history. Instead, it relates to it in relation to the perspective established by the constantly emerging properties of the agent itself and in terms of the role such running redefinition plays in the system’s entire coherence.

This can be a useful addition in the part of the nomads. Situated as a perspective of the system which is different from an objective perspective. An ongoing instantaneous plan of what to do which seems to be intentional, given the situation of its environment at that point.

However, this coupling is possible only if the encounters are embraced from the perspective of the system itself. This amounts, quite specifically, to elaborating an interpretation relative to this perspective. Whatever is encountered must be valued one way or another – like, dislike, ignore – and acted on some way or another – attraction, rejection, neutrality. This basic assessment is inseparable from the way in which the coupling event encounters a functioning precept–motor unit, and it gives rise to an intention that unique quality of living cognition.’

I like this one for the reference to the perception (Like&c.) as well as the reference to the action (Attraction&c.).