The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Reference request: autopoiesis and hurricanes, fire etc.

Posted in General by Nathaniel Virgo on September 7, 2015

I’m wondering if the readers of this blog can help me out with a reference request. I’m currently putting together a paper about the relationship between autopoiesis and dissipative structures, which is partly following on from conversations that took place on the pages of this blog several years ago. The point is that structures like hurricanes have many of the properties of an autopoietic system – they consist of a network of processes that maintain the system as a unity distinct from its environment, albeit with a blurry boundary – and that this has both practical and philosophical implications that we should pay attention to, especially if we’re enactivists who are interested in the origin of life.

My question is whether the issue of hurricanes (and/or related dissipative structures such as fire) has been directly addressed in previous literature. I’ve been having these discussions with people for years, and I don’t think the idea was exactly new when I started, so I’m interested in tracing its history. Is there anything in the work of Maturana and Varela or their contemporaries that directly addresses this issue? Or is there anything substantial that has been written about it more recently? If so it would be very valuable to know about it, so that I can cite it in my paper.

I would be particularly happy to find an explicit argument that hurricanes (or other dissipative structures) should not be considered as falling within the framework of autopoiesis, or the enactive paradigm more broadly.


15 Responses

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  1. Paulo De JesusPaulo said, on September 7, 2015 at 9:37 am

    You should check this out

    Fritjof Capra, in several books and papers, explicitly addresses this exact issues.

    Gilbert Simondon, in his work on “individuation”, has lots of interesting things to say dissipative structures of various sorts.

    John Collier has for several decades been doing work in this and closely related areas. See this paper, but also have a look at his other work.

  2. Paulo De Jesus said, on September 7, 2015 at 11:11 am

    Wrong link for John Collier, this is the correct one.

  3. Paulo De Jesus said, on September 7, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    It appears my first post wasn’t post for some reason. In it I had suggest the work of Fritjof Capra, both in book form and in article publications, he has been addressing this exact issue for some decades.

    Also have a look at work by Gilbert Simondon;

    Then is the work of John Collier as posted in previous post.

    Hope these are of some help.

    • Nathaniel Virgo said, on September 8, 2015 at 3:02 am

      Thanks, this is all incredibly helpful, I will take my time to read them all.

      (For some reason I had to approve your first post before it would appear – I’ve done that now.)

  4. Paulo De Jesus said, on September 8, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Also, I completely forgot about Mark Bickhard. Although he doesn’t argue for autopoiesis as such he does have arguments for why living systems (what he calls recursive self-maintaining systems) are of a different class to dissipitive structures.

  5. Tom Froese said, on September 8, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    And then there is more recent enactive work on emphasizing the need to go beyond mere structural coupling (a la Maturana) and include the regulation of that coupling as a necessary element of minimal life. I think the first one to emphasize this was Ezequiel Di Paolo in his 2005 paper.

    Looking forward to the resulting paper!

    All the best,

    • Nathaniel Virgo said, on September 9, 2015 at 5:22 am

      Sure, Ezequiel’s paper is a key reference. One of the aims of my paper, if I ever finish it, is to ask how that concept can be operationalised – given a system (such as a cell, or a hurricane), how can we tell whether regulation is happening in that system or not?

      The problem seems to be that the concept of regulation is already at the cognitive level of description, and thus it seems problematic to use it as part of a definition of what it means to exhibit cognition. If we say that a system is regulating something, rather than merely dynamically responding, it seems to imply that we as an observer are already telling a story in which the system is described as an agent acting with a normative purpose. (Namely, keeping the thing that’s being regulated in its desired state.) If hurricanes tend to move towards areas of warmer surface water*, is that a case of regulation of structural coupling, or merely a dynamical change in structural coupling? Right now I find it hard to imagine an answer that is not of the form “no, that is not a case of regulation because the temperature gradient has no normative value for the hurricane” or “yes, that is a case of regulation because the hurricane is an agent for whom a greater temperature gradient has a positive normative value.” Neither is satisfactory if our aim is to determine whether the hurricane is an agent, and so I hope for a better framework for thinking about such questions.

      That said, I do think concepts like regulation, and the possibly closely-related concept of open-endedness, are key to understanding life. My interest is not in drawing a line between what we’re interested and what we’re not. Rather, I’m interested in how these things arise in the first place. If a hurricane does not exhibit regulation of structural coupling then what is the minimal system that does? Can we observe its emergence in a computer simulation, or a test tube, in which no regulation existed before? If so, how can we know we were successful?

      * since hurricanes persist by extracting work from the temperature difference between the sea surface and the upper atmosphere, warmer surface waters are, all else being equal, good for the continued existence of the hurricane, and thus have meaning in terms of its organisation. The question, in di Paolo’s language, is whether this is “meaning for an observer” or “meaning for the system,” with the difference hinging on whether the hurricane itself is able to perceive and act on this normative value. It’s this latter that seems hard to operationalise without knowing whether the hurricane is a perceiving agent in the first place. As for whether hurricanes actually do move towards warmer waters, physical intuition suggests that they might, but this is hard to determine empirically because the motion of a hurricane is largely determined by the prevailing wind, over which it has no control. I once saw a poster presentation claiming to have subtracted the prevailing wind from hurricanes’ motion and showing a net average migration towards warmer areas, but to my knowledge this never became a publication.

      • Paulo De Jesus said, on September 9, 2015 at 12:55 pm

        I think you put your finger on a very important issue here, one which I personally think still needs considerable more work from the enactive community. As Tom points out Ezequel’s paper is an important one in this context. Though in my opinion the move from structural organisation/regulation to intrinsic meaning is done a bit too hastily. The issue here is that, as you correctly point out above with the hurricane example, the concept of regulation is in this context a psychological/phenomenological level description. The problem here comes straight from Jonas, who argues for mind and value on the grounds that we (human organisms) have direct and undeniable access to our own embodied meaningful experiences. These lived experiences then allow us to recognise/judge/understand a certain class of system (adaptive self-regulating systems) as intrinsically meaningful. Meaning for the system rather than meaning merely for the observer of the system. This argument has become crucial for enactivism but it has several problems.

        Now, even if one is happy with this line of argument, adopting it has some undesirable consequences for a life-mind continuity thesis. Most important of which being the fact that the mentality of other organisms/systems appear to become mere watered-down analogues of human mentality. There is a kind of inherent anthropocentrism/anthropomorphism underneath the Jonas argument which I think is problematic and which sits rather uncomfortably within the life-mind branch of enactivism.

        Fred’s (Cummins) recent paper on autonomy and agency is particularly important here. He draws a distinction between autonomy (an organisational property of a certain class of system) and agency (an observer-relative property ascribed by an observer to a certain class of system). He goes on to convincingly argue in my opinion that enactivists routinely conflate the two. Thus a hurricane could reasonably be regarded as autonomous, in that it has mechanisms which enable it to regulate its couplings but not an agent because it doesn’t exhibit all the relevant properties which enables an observer to recognize it has such. The argument connects with the Jonas line of argument but differs in that it recognizes a distinction between autonomous mechanisms and agent behavior. Agency is an observer relative property not an intrinsic consequence of autonomy. Moreover, there are no contradictions here, only the explanation of a phenomena from two different perspectives.

  6. Ezequiel said, on September 9, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Alvaro Moreno and colleagues have been working recently on the concept of biological regulation (and biological function). A paper just out: Leonardo Bich , Matteo Mossio, Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo, Alvaro Moreno, (2015) Biological regulation: controlling the system from within, Biology and Philosophy.

    I recently browsed a book chapter discussing conceptual issues and misinterpretations related to autopoiesis by Pablo Razeto-Barry. He apparently argues in some detail why a candle flame, or a soliton wouldn’t count as autopoietic. But the thing is that it’s in Spanish. He’s written a few things in English but I couldn’t find anything with the same content, so I guess he’s not published this discussion elsewhere. Here’s the link anyway:

    Relevant passages seem to be close to Figures 5 and 6. To be honest, I started reading this but haven’t finished it so I don’t vouch for this being interesting or really relevant. It might be. At least he’s biting the bullet and discussing such cases.

    There’s a relevant passage on page 2 of John Stewart’s contribution to the 2010 Enaction collection. For him the issue is also one of exerting control or regulation on boundary conditions.

    John also mentions the work of Simondon, which I must say is very relevant to clarify these questions. In a nutshell, the processes of individuation, whether natural or technical, always involve transactions and balances between a milieu full of potentialities and a process that transforms parts of this milieu into individuated forms with less potentialities. But the organization of these individuated forms can bear different degrees of inner coherence (roughly, how tied together the different functions played by different parts are). A living system, for Simondon, is a system in an ongoing, unfinished process of individuation, which in a strong sense is able to keep renewing the sources of potentialities out of pre-individual aspects of itself as a material entity and of its surroundings (regulation again). I’m not saying this immediately resolves the issue, but I find his ideas provide good conceptual handles for furthering the discussion.

  7. Nathaniel Virgo said, on September 12, 2015 at 3:57 am

    By the way, does anyone in this thread know of a good secondary reference for understanding Simondon? It certainly seems like it’s saying things that are very relevant to the arguments I want to make, and I took inspiration from it a long time ago when I started all this. But it’s written in a style that assumes familiarity with a great deal of philosophical background without providing references to it, to the extent that I can’t be sure if it’s really saying anything like what I think it’s saying. If someone has written about Simondon’s ideas in a way that puts them in a broader context, or expresses them in terms more readily accessible to scientists rather than philosophers, it would be very helpful to know about it.

    • Paulo De Jesus said, on September 12, 2015 at 9:20 am

      There has been several recent studies on Simondon’s work published in English over the last few years. But I guess, this most recent work is perhaps the most relevant in this context.

  8. Tom Froese said, on October 30, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    I really like the way Ezequiel paraphrases Simondon’s view of life: “A living system, for Simondon, is a system in an ongoing, unfinished process of individuation, which in a strong sense is able to keep renewing the sources of potentialities out of pre-individual aspects of itself as a material entity and of its surroundings (regulation again).”

    It includes some of the key themes I have recently been thinking about regarding the phenomenon of life: its incompleteness and open-endedness as two sides of the same coin! Nathaniel and I tried to express something similar a while back in this paper: Froese, T., Virgo, N. & Ikegami, T. (2011). Life as a process of open-ended becoming: Analysis of a minimal model.

    I haven’t read Fred’s recent paper on the distinction between autonomy and agency, but we’ve had some conversations about this distinction. I still have the impression that we need to find a notion of agency that is not just observer-relative. If we fail to do so, we fail to explain our existence as agents that are not merely externally determined and defined. In other words, saying that agency is observer-relative is fine, but then the question is merely shifted to another problem: what is an observer? For me, these are all just different ways of referring to the subjectivity inherent in life.

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