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What is Autopoiesis?


The term autopoiesis originally stems from biology, but it is used in philosophy and sociology. In this article, I will investigate what autopoiesis is in comparison with neighboring concepts: self-organization, self-reference and self-reflection.

Image by David Zydd+OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay modified by me.

1. Self-organization

If you continue to drop sand at a certain point on a plane, a conic pile will be formed with an angle of inclination constant regardless of the quantity of sand. When the slope becomes steep, an avalanche comes about and makes the slope gentle. A log-log plot of the probabilities of various avalanche sizes versus avalanche sizes follows Zipf’s law. The conic pile with a constant angle of inclination self-organizes through 1/f fluctuation.

This phenomenon is named self-organized criticality. The original Greek meaning of criticality is crossroad or judgment. Each particle of sand stands at the crossroad to select whether to stay or roll down. Each selection seems random but it seems as if the sand pile as a whole judged the selection and organized itself.

As a system means selection, the self-organized sand pile is also a system, which must increase entropy in the environments to organize itself in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. If the friction heat caused by sand particles does not dissipate, the sand pile cannot organize itself. Strictly speaking, self-organized systems do not organize itself completely by itself.

Autopoiesis is a kind of self-organization but not all self-organization is autopoiesis. It is necessary for self-organized systems to have self-reference to be autopoietic systems.

2. Self-Reference

Self-reference is a way of information systems that represent themselves inside themselves. For example,

“This sentence consists of six words."

is a self-reference sentence. It is, however, not an autopoietic self-organization, because it is not the sentence itself but I that wrote this sentence. The language system including me is autopoiesis, but in this case, the self is no more that sentence.

3. Autopoiesis

A living cell during the process of mitosis is an example of an autopoietic system. “3D representation of two mouse daughter nuclei in a late stage of nuclear division” by Lothar Schermelleh. Licensed under CC-BY-SA.

Autopoiesis is a system that enables itself through self-reference. An easy-to-understand example of autopoiesis is reproduction of a living thing, where DNA copies itself. DNA includes not only information to make protein by means of RNA, but also information to duplicate the information itself. This autopoietic loop combining “information of duplication" and “duplication of information" enables the infinite reproduction:

1. Copy information G

2. Copy information of copying information G

3. Copy information of copying information of copying information G


n. Copy information of copying information of copying information….

Nowadays the word autopoiesis is used in literary theories and autopoiesis does not necessarily reproduce a material duplicate. An information system that justifies itself is also autopoiesis. A constitution that says in it, “This constitution is supreme and overrides any laws." is autopoietic. The constitution is supreme, because the supreme constitution says so. This self-justification reproduces its justice by itself. That’s why it is autopoiesis.

You would think that self-justification is not justification at all, because a constitution that you privately make up cannot be supreme even though it includes the article of self-justification, so in order to justify a system it must be an allopoietic systems, namely those justified by another. This is not true of transcendental justification.

4. Self-Reflection

The truth of a judgment lies in that it is consistent with the total network of our knowledge. Then a question arises: how can the total network of our knowledge be justified? The answer of the transcendental philosophy is: It must be justified by itself.

It is a crime for an individual to violate a law, but when all the members of the community agree on changing the law, it is no longer a crime to violate the old law.

You might argue, " Truth cannot be decided by majority, though value can be. The heliocentric system theory was true, though Galileo was persecuted by majority those days." Isn’t the heliocentric system theory true because the contemporary majority considers it to be true?

The transcendental cognitive system that decides what is true or good is a power system. The power system justifies everything including itself. “The power of justification" combined with “the justification of power" makes the system autopoietic, where the power is used to reproduce itself.

The transcendental power system is not real power but ideal power. The real power, such as the Bourbon dynasty, can become corrupt and be brought down, but the ideal power cannot. What is then the ideal power? It is the transcendental subject that constitutes the consistent object. Philosophers call it self-reflection or self-realization to unify the subject indirectly and reflectively through unifying the object. The self-reflection that transcends the individual empirical self-reflection is transcendental self-reflection and it is the ultimate autopoiesis of justification.