November 3rd, 2013

A sermonette for All Souls Day 2013

Descartes tried to prove the self from doubting the world. He failed; for where is the self in the pure stream of sensations? In truth, the self and the world are a distinction. If there is no world, there is no self to experience it. Similarly, the moral self is not self-created from the vacuum in some heroic autopoiesis. It is allowed to emerge in childhood by the continual struggle of parents and other caregivers to maintain a space of safety and freedom within which the young person can grow. The soul needs love as a plant needs water.

As adults, our sphere of autonomy is ipso facto an abnegation of others from interference. Our rights, fundamental and contingent, are duties of others to refrain from certain actions towards us and obligations to carry out others; duties we in turn bear towards them, and to the yet unborn. The autonomous moral agent is a member of a society of such. We may choose, in extremis, to act as moral agents in the midst of asocial anarchy and oppression. Such people are heroes by exception, not rule.

Contract, the basis of economic life, cannot be self-justifying either. The obligation to perform our promises, as it derived historically from gift exchange, is founded in reason either in morality or force of law. The individualist attempt to make contract the basis of law and ethics inverts this order, making a nonsensical heresy. Friday, Saturday or Sunday make the business week possible.

The self may be rational by nature but effectively so only by nurture. Language was for Darwin “an instinct to acquire an art”. So too the arts, science, technology, law, and government are learnt from our predecessors and contemporaries. We all stand like Newton on the shoulders of giants – and of millions more ordinary pygmies. Even blogging without readers is vanity.

Some say the entire material creation is a kenosis, a self-emptying of God; the cosmos is a stream of bubbles in the divine champagne, and even the extinction of the self would be the collapse of one bubble into an ocean of light.

Thank you, everybody past and present, for letting me be me.

7 Responses to “Us”

  1. DGM says:

    I think your use of autopoiesis is incorrect. Do you mean autogenesis?

    Autopoisis refers to a “system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself”. (Wikipedia)
    It is not self creation out of nothing.

    I am also suspicious of your use of “kenosis”. It does not refer to creation.

    • Ken Rhodes says:

      Au contraire, James’ use in the phrase “heroic autopoeisis” is both literally and figuratively correct.

      Wikipedia does not bother with the philosophical ideal, focusing instead on the reality of the physical world. Hence your phrase “Autopoesis REFERS to…” OTOH, autopoesis MEANS literally “self creation.” It is used in reference to the real physical world to describe systems and organisms that “create” themselves by reproduction and/or self-extension.

      However, “heroic autopoesis” would be something that created itself out of nothing. Spontaneous coming-into-existence. A logical paradox, but an interesting backwards extension of the religious notion of creation to answer the question “If God created all this, then who created God?”

      • Ed Whitney says:

        Autopoiesis for Maturana and Varela is never out of a vacuum. Their discussion of language is a strong departure from describing it as a medium of communication of information. As “languaging beings” (yes, the verb is intentional), we live in networks of conversation; we do not transmit information to one another, but we exist in a flow of living together in recursive coordinations of behavior. The emergence in childhood of a moral self is not done by specifying a code through the transfer of moral information; it arises in a recursive fashion between the child and the caregiver. The caregiver is changed by the child and the child is changed by the caregiver. The struggle of parents to maintain a safe space changes its configuration of operations as the child behaves and speaks; both child and parent live in networks of coupled relations of daily living.

        The YouTube of Maturana which comes up first on Google has a lecture at a conference in which some of his approaches become apparent. There, he uses a metaphor that he used at a conference back in about 1986 or so. The external environment does not specify how an organism reacts; the environment triggers patterns of activity which are structurally determined by the way the organism is made. When you have a tape recorder and you push “play” and nothing happens, you do not go to the doctor and ask him or her to examine your finger, because you know that what happens when you push the play button is determined by the structure of the tape recorder. In the flow of our lives, when A and B interact, both A and B change their configurations and orient themselves anew at every moment. Recursive processes beget phenomena which cannot be deduced in advance, because something new emerges. Both Maturana and Varela were always fond of citing a line from a poem of Antonio Machado, “Caminante, no hay camino; se hace camino al andar.” Traveler, there is no road; the road is laid down by walking.

        Before Francisco Varela died, he was spending time with the Dalai Lama, not as a conversion away from his life’s work, but because the road which he laid down by walking led him there (and the Dalia Lama to him). It was a long way from where he started as he needed to find a safe place away from Santiago in the early 1970s. I am glad that this post appeared today (having been born myself on the Day of All Souls). I have pulled out those books which have been gathering dust for 25 years. Maybe this time the flow will be something new.

  2. Ed Whitney says:

    Autopoiesis is an approach to theoretical biology developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, two Chilean researchers back in the 1970s or so. Autopoietic systems (self-making systems) differ from allopoietic systems (such as the production of computers in a factory assembly line).

    It is very difficult reading, but one of its preoccupations is to distinguish and to avoid confusions between different domains operate at different levels of cognition. Its developers were looking for a way to consider biological phenomena as a concatenation of processes of production which constitute living systems separately from a consideration of the properties of components of living systems.

    For example, an accidental collision of two running animals is not a biological phenomenon (even though it may have great biological consequences for the animals which run into one another); this belongs to the domain of statical phenomena of relations between components of biological phenomena. On the other hand the bodily contact of two animals in courtship is a biological phenomenon, because it belongs to a theory of the processes of production of that constitute unitary autopoietic systems.

    The domains of experiences of an observer are to be distinguished from the domain of operations of a system being observed. For example, Maturano and Varela consider a pilot who is making a landing at night using only his instruments. The pilot does not have access to the outer world and must function only as a controller of the values of the variables displayed in his flight instruments. When he steps out of the plane, he is greeted by his friends who, as observers, describe his marvelous success in guiding his plane through the treacherous terrain in the night and fog. But in the domain of the system they were observing, the pilot was occupied with maintaining the readings of his instruments within specified limits.

    These biologists were trying to create a new path of knowledge, considering that Descartes and other rationalists had begun with methodological doubt and had become lost in mechanism, dualism, and categorization, losing any understanding of relation altogether. The modern university, the descendent of rationalism, was generating categorized knowledge exponentially, but it was all happening inside a giant trap. Doctorates in the sciences must have their basic disciplines, as if such things corresponded to things in the real world, as if God made some kind of distinction between physics and chemistry. The purpose of autopoiesis was to “understand the organization of living systems in relation to their unitary character.”

    All of the above is drawn from Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition, which appears to remain in print. Damned if I will ever understand it, but the book has the virtue of being fairly slim and compact. Both biologists often spoke at conferences which attracted a wide variety of people from different walks of life, and Maturana is still with us. Family therapists, for example, were quite fond of their approaches to whole systems. James’ post has activated memories which now motivate me to look for resources about autopoiesis which have lain dormant for far too long. There is at least one Maturana talk on YouTube which may be rewarding to look at.

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