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De máquinas y seres vivos una teorìa sobre la

This is a bold brilliant provocative and puzzling work It demands a radical shift in standpoint an almost paradoxical posture in which living systems are described in terms of what lies outside the domain of descriptions Professor Humberto Maturana with his colleague Francisco Varela have undertaken the construction of a systematic theoretical biology which attempts to define living systems not as they are objects of observation and description nor even as in teracting systems but as self contained unities whose only reference is to them selves Thus the standpoint of description of such unities from the 'outside' i e by an observer already seems to violate the fundamental requirement which Maturana and Varela posit for the characterization of such system namely that they are autonomous self referring and self constructing closed systems in short autopoietic systems in their terms Yet on the basis of such a conceptual method and such a theory of living systems Maturana goes on to define cognition as a biological phenomenon as in effect the very nature of all living systems And on this basis to generate the very domains of interac tion among such systems which constitute language description and thinking


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    Wow I've never felt so mentally humbled in the shadow of a biologist In the realm of arrogant physicists and mathematicians biologists are seen as the housewives of science keeping things clean and tidy while the real men do the work I've met enough intelligent biologists to know that this is only the case most of the time but Maturana is a giant I feel no shame in admitting that this was one of the most difficult books I've slogged through and that I'd often spend 10 15 minutes on a single page That said it was worth the slogMy reactions to this book are a mixture of the following three three letter phrases wow duh and wtf? The wows were accompanied by large scale synaptic migrations as my paradigms regarding life and cognition were scrambled The duhs were my response to Maturana's incessant repetition of ideas only a Baptist alligator wrestler from the Deep South would argue with evolution is a blind and local process biological systems are recursive blah blah blah This might however be as unfair as accusing Shakespeare of adhering to every stereotype in Western literature as I'm pretty sure Maturana was an early pioneer in the still fledgling field of theoretical biology and that many works I've read since are derived from his ideas The wtf?s were in response to Maturana's needlessly complicated lexicon of undefined terms It seems like he and Varela went off and lived in a forest for 20 years shielded from civilization and developed their own strange and impenetrable vocabulary that only they understandThe wows occurred almost exclusively during the first essay of this book The Biology of Cognition I was much less impressed by Autopoiesis probably because the central idea of this book recursion has since spawned a closet industry of books ranging from masterpieces of human thought to crackpot theories on how Gödel’s theorem proves that God invented the internetAs usual for books that woo me I'll reserve my fifth star for another few weeksmonths to see if my infatuation with the ideas in this book is nothing than a teenage fling or something truly special and lastingFinally the following are the main ideas I drew from the two essays These notes are mainly to aid my aging memory but you're free to treat it as a poorly executed synopsis My criticisms of the text follow afterwards Cyclical Autopoietic Systems A living organism is a cyclical system whose pieces provide for their own synthesis and maintenance call this process autopoiesis The disruption of this cycle destroys the organism This cycle relies on the environment it continually makes predictions about the environment by requiring and expecting certain resources If these predictions fail the organism may die One goal of an organism is to expand its environmental requirements and thus predictions into broad classes rather than very specific conditions In this way the organism becomes robust to environmental change These cycles autopoietic systems may be nested smaller cycles being the components of larger ones There may even be level mixing in which interactions play roles on multiple levels There is some wiggle room in which an autopoietic system can be perturbed and yet still carry out its autopoietic self genesis That wiggle room constitutes the cognitive domain It is the space of biological deformations that do not destroy an organism As autopoiesis defines an organism the relations between the components that constitute that organism are far important than the components themselves Organisms are fundamentally ontogenic Development is not a process that culminates in an organism The organism is the entire spatio temporal pattern that includes development Domain Distinction An organism's niche is not a subset of the environment an observer describes The niche is defined in terms of the organism's domain of interactions with its environment The observer necessarily describes the environment in terms of his own domain of interactions This is a major barrier to explanation and understanding An organism may interact with its environment in ways unobservable to others An organism may perhaps dysfunctionally interact with its environment in ways unobservable to it but observable to others Communication is the orienting of one organism to a particular internal state by another organism Note that the cognitive domains of the two organisms are different so it makes no sense to speak of information transferred in the absolute Absolute denotation of communication exists only in the mind of an observer who notices a relation in his simultaneous interactions with both organisms Two organisms may only communicate if their cognitive domains have significant overlap Otherwise they are incapable of orienting one another to corresponding appropriate internal states Neural Systems Only that which leaves a signature on the nervous system may enter the cognitive domain That which does not affect the brain is invisible to the organism Interactions that leave the same neural signature are indistinguishable to an organism be they between the organism and its environment or between internal cognitive states It is possible however that an external observer may be differentially affected by similar interactions and be quite capable of distinguishing them Neural systems can give a representation to pure relations expanding the cognitive domain to include abstract ideas With this pure relations may begin to independently interact with one another Interesting view of a neuron spatial system of possibly overlapping affector and collector areas Neural systems function in the present The past only plays a role to the extent that it leaves a signature in the brain that carries on to the present In general for the past and predicted future to play a role in cognition they must be abstracted and represented The brain is local in interaction but not representation Computation proceeds physically via matter affecting matter interaction is local Ideas stimuli and other neural states are distributed across the brain representation is not local Internal states represent spatiotemporal interactions with an organism's sensory service and subsequent internal activity There are at least three time scales to consider Immediate stimuli transiently affect neural activity Lifetime repeated stimuli permanently affect the organization of a neural system learning Evolutionary evolutionary pressures affect the base genetic model that prescribes an organism's development Neural systems change continuously and non predictively For a system to evolve between two states the intermediate states must be accessible and viable Interesting domain in which to study neurons the IO domain Fix I vary parameters and watch O change Fix IO examine reduced parameter space that preserves that particular IO relation Questions What are the fundamental units of the nervous system? What are the fundamental units of any information processing system? That is what should we treat as primitives in order to explain what neural systems do? That said the 40 year old essays do contain some outdated material namely the oft repeated doctrine that neurons are deterministic Neurons are not deterministic Their input output mappings are pretty friggin' stochastic owing at the very least to the fact that channel dynamics dip into the quantum world of chemical reactionsI also suspect that the reason Maturana and Varela resort to such a tangled web of undefined jargon is that many of their ideas are less developed than the Olsen twins warning my bag of pop culture references has not been replenished since the mid 90s First how exactly does autopoiesis define unique topological boundaries for an organism? If the autopoietic cycle that defines an organism is so deeply interwoven with the environment how does one separate organism and environment? Every organism relies on its environment for resources How to draw structural boundaries is obviously much clearer to Maturana and Varela than it is to my feeble brain Second Maturana and Varela stress that our descriptions of the functioning of organisms are fundamentally flawed due to the domain distinction problems mentioned in the notes above Why is their description of autopoiesis immune from these mistakes? Why are they so certain that autopoiesis is the definitive characteristic of life when they argue throughout the text that the true character of organisms is forever unknowable in our restricted cognitive domains?