A Tutorial

Part Three

Kent Palmer Ph.D.

copyright 1996 Kent Palmer, all rights reserved

published in the email list 960116

1. Sophist-ication

Our crude approximation of autopoietic theory as Existential Biology has given us a beginning point for exploration that shows how ontology intersects with autopoietic theory. In fact, we can if we were unkind attribute the whole theory to a kind of sophism. In other words like the sophist described by Plato, the autopoietic theorist has found a hole that he can go down, which has so many exists that he can never be found. This is because every possible relation between essence and existence in the Western philosophical tradition may be applied as a basis of interpreting the Autopoietic Theory. There is in other words an inexhaustible supply of interpretations of autopoiesis. We will not attempt to rehearse those here. But instead we will attempt to understand what Being _IS_ by introducing some of the insights of contemporary Continental philosophy and hopefully approach some understanding of it's relation to existence in the process.

Consider this. If organisms are just machines then there is something lacking, i.e. an explanation of their emergent properties. But if they are more than machines then we have created some non-reducible substance such as elan vital of Bergson which is mystical and inexplicable. Thus if we answer that they are machines then we have said too little and if we say that they are not machines then we are led to say too much. Autopoiesis picks a point right between these extremes and says that the very existence of the autonomous individual organism carries with it something that allows the emergent properties to be explained by without appealing to the essences of the species forged over time by evolution. But understanding how this may be so means we have to invert the normal relations that exist between the individual and the species in biology. So we get a paradigm shift which leads to fascinating insights into the nature of organisms, but which also throws us back onto the old unresolvable and enigmatic relation between essence and existence.

After all the distinction itself arose out of a clash of cultures. The Greeks were Indo-europeans and had something called Being in their language, while the Semitic Arabs had no such thing as Being in their language but instead had the concept of existence. The Arabs latched onto the Aristotelian texts and became pre-eminent interpreters of them. This caused them to distinguish finely between being which they translated as Kun (to make) which is active and means more than persistence AND existence (wujud) which was meant something different to them, something more like concrete reality, or what the Buddhists call Thusness or Suchness. Thus the Arabs had to invent a word for Being which is beyond concrete existence in order to compare the Greek ontology to their own natural linguistic interpretation of things in a world without Being. But when all this came back into the Western Philosophical tradition after the dark ages it meant we introduced the Arab concept of existence for which we had no precedent in our language. In other words for the Arabs Kun (Being) is a made up technical term, while for us Indo-europeans existence is a made up technical term. This means that the very quandary and enigma of the relation between essence and existence comes from the clash of cultures with very different ways of looking at things. In other words it is about as deep a distinction as you can get which is not just a difference in terms but a whole difference in the way we look at the world, with and without Being.

The whole question as to whether autopoietic theory is merely sophistry really rests on what we take the difference between essence and existence to amount to in the end. If essence and existence is not taken to be a significant distinction then autopoietic theory collapses into a set of illusory distinctions. If we do take it to be significant but cannot resolve what it means then autopoietic theory becomes an unsolvable enigma. If we instead find a way to understand the relation between essence and existence that reconciles the clash of worldviews then autopoietic theory becomes meaningful and ultimately will allow us to understand things about the nature of the world that remain incomprehensible. But in all this the philosophical underpinnings of autopoiesis are crucial if we are to avoid sophistry.

2) Ontological Difference

So we now begin the climb up the staircase of the meta-levels of Being. Fortunately it is not a long climb. But each step is very important to understand thoroughly. So we start where Heidegger started by explaining the concept of Ontological Difference. In other words in order to understand Being it is necessary to understand the distinction between Being and beings. Being is an attribute of everything that is different from the things themselves in each case. We can understand this when we begin by interpreting Being as presencing. Under this interpretation we see that presencing of something is different from the thing made present. Presence is the basic determinate of Being. But Being may stand under many different interpretations. But if we do not first distinguish Being from the beings that participate in it then it is impossible to even begin to understand the nature of Being.

3) Pure Presence

The first and most universal interpretation of Being is Pure Presence. This is the interpretation that has been handed down within our tradition as the most prominent. In other words when something is purely present with no absence touching it then it is said to have Being. So for instance, St Augustine talks about the infinitesimal moment of the present and says that only that which exists in the present has Being. This means pure presence is like a snap shot that is frozen because it takes a picture of the infinitesimal moment. This basic idea has stood unchallenged (for the most part) in our tradition up until this century.

It is important to understand pure presence because that is the realm in which scientific theorizing mostly takes place. The theorist attempts to arrange all the facts into a single snap shot that can be used to explain whatever phenomenon he is studying. He assumes that the whole theory is available for mental manipulation at once. He assumes the role of a transcendental subject toward a fully available transcendental object and figures that the coherences between the two are made possible by God. Or at least that is how the story goes in the Kantian model. Different philosophical systems construe the pure availability of what is purely present differently. But science as a whole is firmly rooted in this kind of Being and does not question that in the least.

4) A new kind of Being arises

This picture of a world with only one kind of Being began to dissolve soon after the turn of the century with the work of Husserl and Peirce. Husserl for the first time decided to look at what actually went on in consciousness when we thought about geometry or logic. He developed a method and terminological apparatus based on Transcendental Idealism of Kant and began exploring his own consciousness and what actually occurred as he thought. He found that the phenomenological consciousness was a pretty strange place, but what was most interesting of all he found functions of consciousness that went beyond the workings of induction and deduction. He called this new function eidetic intuition (i.e. essence intuition). He noticed that it was possible, and in fact common to grasp essences directly instead of building them up through the use of induction and deduction. This phenomena had not been noted before and showed a way to solve some of the age old philosophical conundrums because essence perception pointed toward the existence of a new mode of Being within consciousness that allowed it to grasp the world in a way that was not just logical.

Peirce discovered something similar when he isolated abduction as a mode of reasoning that produces hypotheses and also discovered the strata of Signs that existed beneath the surface of formalisms. But the insights of Perice were not developed because he did not gain tenure as a professor and influence students as Husserl did. Out of Husserl's teaching work came the school of phenomenology and as his ideas spread engendered the movement of existentialism. In other words there were some, like Sartre who saw this new mode of Being as existence. But others within the school stuck to the basic phenomenological line that saw this new philosophical disciple as the study of essences.

It was Heidegger that first used the new mode of Consciousness as the basis of a philosophy. He sharply distinguished between the present-at-hand and ready-to-hand modes of Being-in-the-world in his book BEING AND TIME. He took the argument out of the realm of consciousness and firmly placed it where it belonged in the realm of ontology. He in effect showed that this new kind of Being was very old, and in fact could be found in the Greek texts under the gloss of Aleithia (Uncovering), which was the Greek concept of Truth.

And it was realized that the new kind of Being related to Heraclitus' view of the world as continuous flow as opposed to the view of Parmenides that was taken up by Plato and Aristotle that the world was a static plenum. Thus we can call the new kind of Being PROCESS BEING, as it means that everything in the world is a process of unfolding. As we look back on the history of philosophy we can now see that many times philosophers attempted to point toward this realm of unfolding, as Hegel did, with his dialectics. but the problem was that all the theories that indicated it were couched in the mode of pure presence, so that the indications did not capture the actual phenomena of continuous unfolding.

Here we will use the idea of the temporal gestalt as a means of understanding Process Being. A tree starts as a seed and grows to its full height, if all goes well, and then eventually declines and dies. The whole gestalt of the process of that unfolding is its Process Being. Snapshots of each moment of growth show it as it is purely present in that moment. Thus we can take this series of snap shots and make a film, but the film does not do justice to the whole of the temporal gestalt that lies behind the film. The film is an illusory continuity that we produce out of purely present moments. But beneath the illusory continuity there is the actual organization of the phenomena in time based on its genesis.

Merleau-Ponty in THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION attempted to translate Heidegger's ontological argument into psychological terms and found that pure-presence or the present-at-hand correlates with pointing and process being or the ready-to-hand correlates with grasping. Already Heidegger had pointed out that our technological infrastructure has the kind of Being called Ready-to- hand. We do not notice it until it breaks down. Take the example of writing with a pencil. As we write we do not notice the pencil (or keyboard) but our mind is on the ideas (illusory continuities) that we want to convey in our writing. But when the pencil breaks (computer crashes) then out attention is brought back abruptly to the technological infrastructure of our projects within the world.

Thus Husserl (and perhaps Peirce) ushered in a new era in philosophy by the discovery of a different mode of consciousness through their phenomenological methods. Heidegger and then Merleau-Ponty expanded upon this hard won ground by creating philosophies and psychological interpretations of the new ways of being-in-the-world. But of course besides giving us new realms to explore in philosophy, this expanded our view of the world and how it works, and also opened up the possibility that Being had several or perhaps infinite different modes. So the gold rush was on attempting to find and define these new modes philosophically. It turned out in retrospect that this unfolding of the different modes of Being occurred like a symmetry breaking, so that each new mode was at a higher meta-level than the last, and the series of symmetry breakings was not infinite but ceased after the fourth because it hit a fundamental human limitation to think beyond the fourth meta-level.

5. Biology and Physics in a new world.

Biological processes are all temporal gestalts. Therefore you would think that biologists would embrace the new kind of Being immediately and begin to weave it into their theories as the means by which the difference between biology and physics may be understood. Physics in the Newtonian era gave us the model that defined the universe and its constituents as purely present particles that developed under the equations of the dynamical laws. Thermodynamics because it was messy was pushed to the background. But what we find is that even though Physics has moved on to the quantum era that has realized its own version of the temporal gestalts underlying phenomena, biologists are still trying to conform to an old version of science rooted in pure presence. So we do not see many theories in biology that present biological processes as rooted in process being. In fact most of the progress in this regard has been had in Physics where quantum processes have caused physicists to rethink the Newtonian models based on pure presence radically in order to have any comprehension of what is going on at the quantum micro-level. In fact, Whitehead's PROCESS IN REALITY was the first major step in the direction of a purely process oriented philosophy. Unfortunately, this philosophy was embodied in a formulation that was purely present and so it undercut itself. But we find that physics has given rise to the work of several formulations that understand things in terms of processes at a fundamental level, and so biology is left in a position where it needs to catch up. The rise of autopoietic theory is a step in that direction. It imagines the creature in fundamentally different terms where the process of living and the process of evolution intersect somehow.

However, are we to follow Sartre and understand the new mode of Being as an embodiment of existence. If we were we could imagine the Biological Existentialism of Autopoiesis as being directly related to the Existentialism of Sartre. But the problem with this is that once we discovered a new modality of Being-in-the-world, the door was opened to finding more, which is exactly what happened. Identifying the new mode of Being with existence slams that door on further kinds of Being. Instead we must wait for the door to close itself. Then that is where we are likely to find the basis of existence as opposed to essence. As it was Husserl identified the new modality with essences, and so Sartre was merely reversing Husserl applying Hegel's viewpoint. But as we see from later developments both of these views are wrong. As we move up the meta-levels of Being our views of essence and existence change. At each level the pair take on a new relationship. For instance, until we discovered process being essences were static constraints on the individual thing that made it what it was. But once we discover that the genesis of the thing in its temporal gestalt is important then we see that the essence is no longer static. Now we have to speak of the thing essencing forth as it unfolds into existence. The unfolding of the essence makes it necessary to see the existent thing as dynamic as well. Instead we are forced to look at it as an eventity which exists simultaneously in space and time and is dynamic. So at the level of Process Being we find that we have eventities essencing forth as they unfold and then fade from existence. When we apply this to biology we see that the species is not just the culmination of the development of the creature but is also a conferring of a whole genetic process from birth till death of a creature that lives in four dimensional spacetime.