Shamanism, the Dao, new spirituality, new technology and cultural revolution
Consequences of
Life: A Complexity All Its Own The Importance of Structural Coupling Participation, not Manipulation Mental is Material is Mental From the Organic, to the Personal

  What you will find
  in this section

Our ground-breaking bio-social approach, rooted in Maturana and Varela's powerful theory of the biology of cognition - gives rise to a unique synthesis of the biological, social, cultural and personal levels of human reality. This is the foundation for our integrated account of emotional intelligence and lived reality, with new insights into the generation of language, and the evolution of language and culture. The key concept here is "structural coupling" which is the ground for all bio-social interaction, and the continuous evolution of consensual domain.

Who am I?
I am Michael Roth, the author of all the material on this site. While training as a medical doctor, I was also an alumnus at the famed AntiUniversity of London (1968-1969), and became involved with the alternative psychiatry movement in that era and later.

I worked and studied with the existential psycho-analyst R.D.Laing, and was a founder-member of the Arbours Association (London), which provides alternative care for persons diagnosed with severe mental illness.

My research path has taken me into spheres of philosophy, social politics, linguistics and anthropology - whilst I have continued to seek out a genuine way of relating to other human beings in the troubled milieux of psychiatry, communal living, and twentieth and twenty-first century social and cultural instability.

I have been consistently inter-disciplinary in all of my reading and exploration, and the personal and philosophical insights to which this has given rise are almost always outside the prevailing classifications - or accepted lists of subjects.

The following authors are they whose work I have been most deeply occupied with, at different times in my life. This has often entailed exploring what the actual world feels like, within the patterns and definitions of life offered by these people. I have also written extensively, and often critically, about many of them.


  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Martin Buber
  • Lao Ze
  • St Matthew
  • St Mark
  • St Luke
  • St John
  • Rudolf Bultmann
  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Richard Rorty
  • Robert Pirsig
  • Donald Davidson
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Benedetto Croce
  • Charles Peirce
  • John Dewey
  • A.N.Whitehead
  • J.H.Randall
  • Justus Buchler
  • Martha Nussbaum

Biology, Physiology, Ethology and Cybernetics


  • Mary Douglas
  • Gregory Bateson
  • Milton Ericson
  • R.D.Laing
  • David Cooper
  • Clifford Geertz
  • Victor Turner

Virtual Reality


  • Eugene Gendlin
  • Arnold Mindell
  • M. Scott Peck

I am the foremost exponent of Charlotte M. Bach's ground-breaking theories of emergent evolution, described in my A Bolt From the Bleeding Sky (Dielectric Publications, London, 1984). I continue to work as a psychiatrist and as a researcher into holistic methods of facilitating social change. This used to include facilitation and training sponsored by the organization, Community Building in Britain which developed and disseminated the work of the holistic psychiatrist M. Scott Peck through the 90s and noughties.

I am also involved in an exploratory research group seeking to fuse poetic, practical and fantastical modes of action to create significant cultural/political interventions in the here and now.

emotional intelligence
lived reality
biology, culture, evolution
philosophy, science
systems sensibility
dao and shamanism
applications/ study group
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   Consequences of Auto-poiesis.

   Life - A Complexity All Its Own.
The previous chapter opens up an important new perspective about what it is to be alive, and what it is to be aware. In one stroke it re-configures our sense of what kind of a creature we are, and it opens pathways towards a more intelligent relationship with our fellow creatures. The theory of auto-poiesis offers us glimpses of the spontaneous way in which a living creature becomes progressively informed about the patterns of event within its surrounding milieu. And this is a deeper, subtler, more intricate apprehension of things, than the usual kind of awareness that we recognize at a conscious level.

It is already happening at the most primitive level of life that we can imagine. If we think of planet Earth before and after the emergence of the first auto-poietic entities, we see that a new logic of relationship has entered into the behaviour patterns of atoms and molecules. This is part and parcel of the new form of complexity - which is, in Maturana's phrase, "the organisation of the living". If we think of this from the point of view of a carbon atom - recently captured from the atmosphere by the photo-synthetic activity of a leaf on an apple tree: it has suddenly entered into a new kind of adventure from its previous life in limestone, river, sea and sky. Now it has the opportunity to join in the protein-nucleic acid economy, and in the intricately organised society of the living cell; it may also be destined into the cellular economy of you or me, if we should happen to reach out to eat the apple in which this atom has taken up residence.

Our reasons for taking up the story of auto-poiesis were not, however, so that we can participate in the imaginary life of a carbon atom. We are trying to gain a better understanding of our own adventures - and this has required us to explore some systems which may be operating, hidden, below the level of our conscious life experience.

In trying to imagine auto-poiesis as a component in our own life, however, we will run up against a disturbing paradox which resonates directly out of the auto-poietic logic. Our problem is that Maturana and his co-workers are insisting that the theory of auto-poiesis specifically excludes instructional interaction. This means there can be no traffic of information across the organism's boundary - and this is in spite of the busy commuter transport system of ions and molecules across that self-same boundary. Informationally, the organism is defined as a "closed system", and yet at the material level it is clearly an open system. The theory stands in dramatic contradiction with our common-sense belief that we humans convey information to one another by means of language, and that we receive information through our five or more senses.

Some paradoxes are just sent to tease and distract us; there are others which open up important new territory for us, if only we can approach them in the right spirit. I suspect that that every significant theory generates some challenging paradox, once we try to marry it up directly with our common-sense understanding(1). (If there were no element of contradiction, the theory would not be any advance upon what we know already.) The question is whether the jarring element - in this case the prohibition on information entering the living system from outside - carries some useful insight, or fruitful challenge. In the case of auto-poiesis, we will find that the theory pushes us towards a diffent conception of how an organism manages to be so well-informed, given the prohibition just mentioned.

The simple solution to the paradox is that information is being generated from within our organism's own patterned activity. The theory asks us to picture the physiological activity as an internally consistent pattern of events, which suffers a continuous barrage of impacts and disturbances from "outside"(2). This provokes the organism into a series of corrections - given its commitment to maintain its internal balances within acceptable limits. The pattern of these corrections is a kind of imprint, or echo, of things that are going on in the environment - but it is a pattern which the organism is generating for itself. This is the structural coupling between organism and environment, which we were looking at in the previous chapter.

We also saw the enrichment of this process which takes place when two organisms(3) come into proximity. In this situation there is a triangular set of couplings: each organism is in a chemical-electric-kinetic dance with its neighbour, and each also has its own separate coupling with the environment. This gives rise to a pattern of interaction which can properly be called "linguistic(4)" - but also named consensual domain by Maturana and co-workers. It is much the richer when organisms have co-evolved in proximity over their billions of years of evolution, and there can be a further gain in intricacy with organisms belonging to the same species. Every new meeting is the opportunity for a re-configuration of the internally-generated information. Each organism is being updated with details of the common environment which, separately, they would not have access to. This is not necessarily a cosy situation. We have intimate relationships between predator and prey, between exploiter and exploited, between the horse and its rider, and the classy French madame with her poodle, not to mention the human and animal kingdom's periodic bouts of relentless competition for resources; all of these generate strongly variant flavours to the consensual domain.

The analogy with language is crucial, and will appear repeatedly as we follow this argument through to the higher levels of our personal organisation and awareness. This is not "language" in the sense of one person communicating their thoughts and feelings through spoken or written words to a willing receiver, a listener or a reader. It is, however, a primitive reading of the situation by the receiver-organism - within a domain where both organisms are structurally coupled to aspects of the environment and to each other. In this relationship, each organism is acting as a living resonator with those aspects of the world it is coupled with, and therefore every discernible shift in the demeanour of the transmitter-organism is potentially a readable signal for the receiver-organism. Already, at this primitive level of interaction we have the relationship of a sign to something signified. (in the previous chapter I gave an illustration from personal experience, in the shuffling of people at a bus stop which signifies - and often at a completely unconscious level - that a bus is approaching from behind me.) The reason this phenomenon is important to us, is that it could well be the biological basis for all the higher and more complex communication systems which we participate in - at an organic, a social and a personal level(5).

The analogy extends further because - even at this rudimentary level - we can also see a primitive grammar and logic in operation. The grammar arises from the fact that it is only a proportion of the transmitter-organism's behavioural patterns which "count"(6) as signals for the recipient-organism. Also, what these signals "mean"(6) is entirely dependent upon the interests and the organisation of the recipient-organism. This is a process of selective recognition - of what I want to call the "words" of this proto-language. And there is a subsequent combination of - and an organised response to - the continuing sequence of signals/words from the transmitter-organism. This is an exact parallel with the operations you are performing, in the act of reading the sentences on this page; the "words" have to be combined in an appropriate manner, and there are appropriate conclusions which need to be drawn. The organism, however, does all this at a primitive level - where there is no self-awareness, no distinction between self and other, and no other(7) intelligence dwelling within the process which could conceivably take a perspective upon the process itself. There is, however, a reading of - and an effective response to - each moment of this ongoing life in common.

I am pointing out a similarity between what happens at the primitive, and what happens at the higher levels, of creaturely organisation. We also need to recognize important contrasts - especially in the extreme poverty of shades of meaning, within the world of a simple organism. I have spoken of a sense of physiological discomfort, and its contrast with personal comfort. It may well be that the organism differentiates amongst several kinds of discomfort - but certainly there is nothing resembling our rich differentiation: of the variety of feelings and moods we register, the variety of facts we entertain and discriminate, and the variety of actions we undertake - all under the influence of communications from our fellow creatures. We shall explore this further at a later stage in our study, and see how the different kinds of logic operating in the various fields of art, in science and philosophy, in technical design and manufacture, in plant and animal husbandry, and in warfare and religion, can all be seen as differentiations of a more primitive, or lower-level logic. At the physiological level, there is a basic discrimination between "what fits" and "what does not fit"; or between "what feels better" and "what feels worse". This is a kind of proto-logic in which feeling, judgment and active response are combined in one, undifferentiated decision.

Returning to the schematic situation of two creatures in their common environment, we can summarise our findings as follows: we have a dance of consensual domain, in which the recipient organism's behaviour takes into account something which is brought to it by the pattern of behaviour of the transmitter-organism. Each organism is in turn the transmitter and the recipient, and each of them "knows" more in consequence of their serial interaction. Yet there has been no transfer of information from one to the other. All the information is generated within the individual organism's own auto-poietic organisation, but significantly enriched by the dance of structural coupling. The enrichment - even at this primitive level - has some of the characteristics of formal language.

It may seem as if I have made too much of this veto on direct information transfer. In one way or another, the information is evidently getting into the heart of the creature's organisation - and the reader may be wondering why I make so much fuss about how it found its way in. For example, after the bees have finished their dance, there is a whole new cohort of insects who are able to find their way to the best of the local pollen. What difference does it make whether there is a direct telephone link or not?

The question here, is what kind of communication link this is? The principle I am insisting upon, is the biological autonomy of each participating organism. It means that information is not pumped in from the outside, but is being synthesised on the inside, by the peculiar sensitivity of the auto-poietic system, and according to its own internal principles which (as I have said) bear a definite resemblance to the grammar and logic that infuses human language.

Our tendency to believe that organisms are directly influenced, or instructed, by external events, is closely related to certain other of our beliefs: that we humans directly influence one another, also that we - through our actions - directly influence the passage of events, and that we have direct experience of each other's feelings or intentions. The theory of auto-poiesis would require us to make changes in all of these beliefs. We would need to view every transaction in the biological domain as being mediated through structural couplings - through secret negotiations between our organism, our fellow creatures, and the negotiations which each of us is making with the pattern of events in the world at large. These couplings impose their own logic upon what can, and what cannot, take place; there can be no "direct" influences of any kind. Any influence we think we have, is limited to what the auto-poietic systems, and their higher-level counterparts at other systems levels, will allow. Our attitude to this auto-poietic organisation really needs to be one of surrender, because we have no power outside of it.

Let us see what this might look like in practice. First we shall consider the situation in which we make something happen - it may be through giving orders to someone, or it may be through manipulating materials: we are driving a car, cooking a lamb chop, or buying an apple pie at the market. We have an impression of being in control of what is happening - feeling that we have a direct leverage over a compliant, biddable world. So here I am, walking up to a market stall, nicely dressed and with money in my pocket. I address the stall-holder, who is a mature, casually dressed, extremely attractive woman with highlighted-blonde hair and grey-green eyes (irrelevant details, perhaps, but ones I happen to notice): "I'd like one of those apple pies please"; I speak in complete confidence that she is going to give me a pie and ask for my money. My expectation will be fulfilled, however, if and only if the various co-operative processes which underly this transaction, are each being fulfilled in their own proper time and place. These are processes which are, as a matter of fact, broadly outside my control, and outside my awareness. At the limit, all of them are rooted in a biology which I am taking for granted, and rarely give credit to.

Here are some of the things which might go wrong with this interaction. (None of these is very likely to happen, I have to admit, but this is because the circumstance of the stallholder and the buyer in the real world is a very stable institution. In other words, this is an interaction which takes place millions of times every day, all over the world; and it is pre-arranged in such a way that it arouses strong expectations of the normal thing that is supposed to happen, together with strong dispositions within us to make this normal thing be the thing that actually happens. Thus I am about to describe some unlikely accidents. This is for the purpose of demonstrating the vulnerabilities which inhere in our seemingly simple arrangement - and bringing out its dependency upon our careful pre-arrangements. (We may also note the inevitable biological underpinnings, beneath the pre-arrangements.)

1. I expect my spoken language to communicate effectively, so that I will be accepted as a "normal" customer. But suppose I am a non-English speaker, who mistakenly pronounces "apple pies" as apláy-pis (with the emphasis on the syllable "pláy"). This is a simple enough mistake, but it will likely wreck our communication altogether. Or another possibility: the stall-holder has recognized me as a wanted criminal, whose face only yesterday evening was being flashed up on a million TV screens over the country. Then my expected co-operation, as between stall-holder and customer, unravels completely while she makes up excuses to keep me talking, at the same time as she activates an emergency button to call the police.

2. Certain kinds of brain malfunctioning can cause altogether different syllables to issue from my mouth from the ones I intend. This is an uncommon condition, to be sure, but it serves to highlight the general fact of my utter dependence upon the smooth functioning of underlying physiological processes for all of my effective decisions(8).

3. If the stall-holder and I were characters in Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" it is highly likely that my identical twin has previously taken advantage of this very same stall-holder. So she is now expecting "me" to make good on my passionate invitation to marriage earlier this morning. My very approach to her - in which I affect not to recognize her as anything but the delightful and attractive stranger and pie-seller she is - is, to her, a painful affront to her emotional sensibilities.

This last example - in which another human being faces me with fury in her eyes and with some firm expectation of some definite behaviour from me (an expectation that is not being met) - carries us over to another common type of situation, in which I am the object of the other person's feelings and intentions. We had another example in a separate section of this work, where I beheld the angry expression on Peter's face as he asked me for his car keys(9). Peter's whole manner seems to be saying that he holds me responsible, and I had better do something about it! A third example: at the party last night, I registered (almost subconsciously) the subtle disapproval on my wife's face, and I suddenly felt that the fourth glass of wine I had poured myself, was an exceedingly bad idea. If questioned, I might be willing to admit: Clara really doesn't want me to have another drink!

In all these cases I just seem to know what the other person is thinking and feeling, and I make an intelligent guess at what they want me to do. This is usually called "intuition". We must pause to wonder, however, how I could possibly be in possession of correct information about the other person's state of mind. In practice I readily take such knowledge for granted; the other person's mental state appears to me a simple matter of fact, which I spontaneously take into account in my handling of everyday situations.

The theory of auto-poiesis casts this interaction in a very altered light. It may well be that my readings of the other person's state of mind are true in all relevant detail; but whether I am correct or mistaken, my reading must be wholly dependent upon the operation of structural couplings between my organism and that of the other person. This means my intuitions are based on innumerable repeated interactions in the past, with habitual readings coming into play according to a hidden logic - unconscious and out of reach. I may be responding to the subtlest of material information (a tiny twitch of the corner of the mouth, a subliminal whiff of pheromone, the linked rhythm of another person's movement with my own) - but there is a hidden team of interpreters lurking somewhere in the recesses of my brain, working away to translate a series of signals into an ongoing reading of the actual situation in real-time. Even the situation where my fevered imagination has conjured up the whole thing - a delusion, then, rather than an intuition - this is neither more nor less accessible to conscious reasoning, scrutiny or control.

It is possible (and some people are lucky enough to have this happen for much of the time) that these readings are uncannily accurate. The other possibility is always waiting in the wings, however: that I may be seriously mistaken about the other person's actual state of mind. Such misreadings can repeat themselves and continue for days, or months, or years, without ever being confronted or questioned. For one reason or another, the opportunity is simply not coming up, for the underlying intuitions and habitual readings to undergo revision or correction. This is sometimes called "paranoia" - but more often it is just the normal, sad, mixed-up failure to connect; it passes for interaction in the real world, yet it leaves all the participants secretly wondering why they feel so alone and unfullfilled. This, according to our theory, is just another consequence of the hidden working of structural couplings.

If we accept that this broad picture is valid, we are propelled into a drastic revision of our approaches to managing or controlling the situations we are in the midst of. Our life - as we shall be exploring in some detail in the chapter which follows - can be depicted as an intricate array of auto-poietic systems. These are essentially self-governing systems, and they do not respond well to direct control or instruction of any kind. Each has its own law and its own logic, and successful interaction depends on a flexible joining in - on the same basis of structural coupling as it is already operating within us, and all around us.

The impulse to try to control things as if from the outside, is largely mistaken. Instead we are asked to recognize that we are already inside this array of self-governing systems and structural couplings. It is a question of recognizing our place in the pattern, and finding ways to work from here, where we actually are. And this needs to be in a spirit of negotiation, mutual accommodation and friendly persuasion - not through force or manipulation. The only way to solve Peter's problem with the car keys was to really listen to him. The only solution to the enraging comedy of errors is for everyone to know the truth: that there are identical twins in the story who are acting independently. My problem with the pie-seller may only be settled if we are willing to own up to our feelings of love for one another.

This is not to be read as an idealistic homily, but as a practical demand. The theory of auto-poiesis is telling us: this is the only way to make things better. It also makes it clear that there can be no substitute for a detailed engagement with the actual situation we are in: with the fine grain of the landscape of fact, feeling and action, and also with the footprints and shadows of other systems levels, those dimensions of our reality which are not immediately offered within our conscious reach. In other sections of this work, we shall start to open up the detail, and the multiple levels, in ways that are simple and clear to our untutored awareness but fully attuned with the theoretical framework we have been developing here.

Before we follow the argument in this direction, however, there is another consequence of the concept of structural coupling which we need to consider. It enables an important re-orientation, in respect of what is material and what is mental, within our experience of the world. For it accounts for this curious fact:- though the material and mental domains seem quite distinct from one another in principle, when we are in the flow of live action it is not possible to draw any meaningful line between the two.

We shall consider the flight of this pigeon which has just flapped its way past my window. This appears to be a material fact, which includes the bird's expenditure of energy, its competency in flying, and its location at a different place from where it was before. All this belongs to the life of the bird, and the life of the universe. (I am merely an incidental observer who has had no material influence upon the course of events.) Yet we also have to do with the following mental states: my observation of the bird's flight path; my recognition of it as a pigeon in flight; my choice to bring these details to the notice of my readers. These mental states have a life of their own, and are as self-contained as the separate life of the pigeon over there. They do not even require the pigeon to exist - my observation, recognition and choice could equally well stand for an imaginary pigeon I dreamed up, just in order to have something to talk about. So we seem to have a dual material and mental organisation of events - each distinct from the other - and yet with a statement like "a pigeon has flapped past my window" there is a complete ambiguity as to whether this is a description of the pigeon or of my observation. The same ambiguity appears in respect of a vivid dream, which may simulate reality to the point of being indistinguishable from it.

Everyday experience is an intricate dance of shifting viewpoints - an interlacing of actuality, desire, dream, and carefully laid plans. There is also the mutual reading of mine and other people's points of view. Here are some of my previous thoughts about this, reprised from another section of this work:-

"Suppose you and I are both looking at an elephant. In the immediacy of actually seeing it, I have no reason to make any distinction between the elephant that I see, and my experience of seeing the elephant. But from your point of view these are entirely different things: one has to do with the elephant and the other has to do with me. A similar shift of viewpoint also happens if I start to question or reflect upon the way I have responded to some situation. Something that first appeared as a concrete reality gets redescribed as a process of experience."

Shades of Meaning

Structural coupling explains this shifting landscape as follows: each individual who interacts with this elephant already has the pattern of his or her internal states coupled with the pattern of material impacts received from the elephant. There is a level of instinctive, animal cognition where there can be no distinction between "the elephant in here" and "the elephant out there" - there is only the auto-poietic dance. Once there is a coherent and fairly robust "elephant dance" going on in my internal world - once I have got to know something about elephants, in other words - it becomes possible for me, with the complex brain which I as a mammal have been blessed with, to interact with my imaginary, my remembered and my desired elephants. My brain is interacting - entering into structural coupling with - some of its own internal patterns. Added to this, we also have the interaction of many different observers of the elephant - thus there is a complex set of couplings and consensual domains in operation. The dancers are dancing with the dance, and not only with each other. Two important results of this, which we touched upon in the previous chapter, are: our concept of the elephant existing in its own right and my own felt experience of the elephant as another being, distinct from myself.

Within this scenario there are high levels of ambiguity in what we should count as experience, and what we should count as concrete reality. This ambiguity is an intrinsic feature of "the landscape of fact and feeling". I have designed this concept to stand equally, and ambiguously, for the objective landscape, and for the mental landscape. The ambiguity in the concept is intended to mirror the ambiguity in our experience. In actual use, the concept will have one of three possible tendencies, depending upon the context and our intention of the moment. First, it may highlight some feature of the landscape as "stubborn fact"(10); secondly, it may be pointing to my own subjective organisation of what I see or feel; thirdly, it may participate in the "naive realism" which takes appearances at face value, embracing the ambiguity as if it simply did not matter whether we have the material or the mental aspect in focus (this applies to my first view of the elephant, in the example quoted above; it also characterises a great deal of the unreflective experience of each of us).

There is another expression, derived from quantum physics, which aptly describes the state of affairs in which all three of the tendencies I just outlines, are equally and simultaneously operative. This is mutual entanglement. In the situation of multiple structural couplings which was illustrated by the imaginary, desired, expected, and mutually perceived elephants - the multi-dimensioned "elephant dance" - we can see that real and imaginary elephants - and you, and me, are all mutually entangled in this continuing (over hundreds of thousands of generations) shared life of humans and elephants.

So it is, that this calculatedly ambiguous concept: The Landscape of Fact, Feeling and Action is capable of orienting us more accurately to the dance that is actually going on - than our artificially precise(11) concepts which aspire to being "scientific". Such concepts are misleading because they are lifeless, and they are insensitive to the subtleties of our actual dance.

The Play of Perspectives

There is one more revolutionary consequence of auto-poiesis which we should look at before we move on to explore the links between auto-poiesis and our actual experience. The theory of auto-poiesis introduces the natural phenomenon of perspective into the field of biological enquiry. This is already implicit in our earlier discussion about the life of the pigeon for itself and the life of the pigeon in me, and also in the sketch of different points of view upon the elephant - and the multiple participants in life amongst the elephants. We shall now look more closely at the issue of perspective in its own right.

I have kept insisting that - at the level of the auto-poietic organisation - the creature itself does not know anything about the world outside itself. Nevertheless, the creature is complexly attuned with its physical milieu in the ways we have been exploring. This amounts to a real appreciation of complex traits of that milieu - all experienced in terms of the creature's state of physiological comfort and its aroused hunger and other transactional needs. Every creature, in this sense, has its own unique perspective on the common milieu.

We have also seen that from another creature's vantage point, the first creature tends to manifest in its behaviour, relevant traits of the common environment - such that the perspective of the second creature may be enriched by the perspective of the first. This means that even the simplest ecologies embody a complex play of perspectives amongst all the creatures participating in it. This is the prototype for the type of interaction that is implicit in our personal status as intelligent observers of the creature in question. We can now recognise this as another instance of the play of perspectives. Seeing it this way, we can also ask ourselves the question: is this a mutual encounter, or is it in some important sense one-sided? The correct answer to this question depends upon whether or not the object of our observations has noticed our presence.

The distinction between the behaving-organism's perspective and that of we who observe this behaviour, is a radical one. It is the contrast between the internal order of the auto-poietic system - for instance the intricate physiology of the living cell which I am observing under a phase-contrast microscope - and the whole set of impacts which this system has upon the world around it. At the very least, the cell is presenting a surface for the reflection and scattering of light, such as to present its characteristic appearance to my practised biologist's eye. It is also releasing powerful toxins into the surrounding medium - toxins with the power to bring about the death of any adjacent human nerve cells if the creature had succeeded in invading anybody's brain, as the friendly Treponema pallidum used to do on a regular basis all over the world, before the discovery of Penicillin.

The encounter of myself and the Treponema is merely an illustration of how two perspectives operate simultaneously, in the formation of one single encounter. Of more interest, perhaps, is the encounter of human beings, and the complex perspectival events which arise from this. We have already had some sense of this, in the stories of Michael and the Pie-seller, and Michael, Peter and the car keys. We shall return to this topic after we have explored what kind of a home the theory of auto-poiesis might find for itself, within our own personal perspective - of the landscape of fact, feeling and action.


1. We have only to recall some of Newton's basic principles: that a moving object will continue to move in the same direction forever, unless some outside force comes along to bring about a deviation. And that any fixed object we push against pushes back with an equal and opposite force against us. This is all counter to common sense, but it opened up three centuries' worth of scientific and technical development.

2. We must not forget that the terms "inside" and "outside" are relevant to the observer's perspective - in other words you and I studying the life of the creature and trying to make sense of it. I continue to insist, with Maturana and his colleagues, that the organism itself knows only the pattern of its own activity. There will be further use of scare-quotes in this chapter, as we repeatedly shuffle between our own perspective, from the outside as interested observers of the organism and its surrounding milieu, and our imagined perspective from within the auto-poetic organisation.

3. A thoughtful reader will detect a definite simplification in the argument here; for I am choosing to ignore the fascinating story of the evolution of multicellular organisation - now believed to have taken place in the Pre-cambrian and Cambrian epochs of our planet's history. A strict treatment of the questions I am addressing here would need to treat multicellular organisation as a distinct level of system - above the auto-poietic but below the levels we shall start to trace out in the chapter after this one. See Gabrielle Walker's BBC Broadcasts: An Earth Fit For Life

4. Note that "linguistic" here does not mean that primitive organisms converse with one another in anything like the way human beings are able to do. We are following Maturana in assuming that the simple organism cannot really know that anything exists outside its own organisation (this is another way of saying that it is a closed system, informationally). This means that conversation is out of the question - the primitive form of linguistic activity is more like a dance of mutual attunement. This activity would thus be the pre-condition for the development of human language over a several billion year evolutionary epoch.

5. This refers to three "systems levels" which I sketch out in the section entitled Layers of System, and is further elaborated in the section: From the Organic to the Personal.

6. The scare quotes are a reminder that, from the organism's own point of view there is no such thing as "counting", "meaning" - or indeed of signifying or reading. We, as observers who are familiar with all these concepts, can see these relationships illustrated in the behaviour of the organisms we observe. We recognize that these creatures are doing something like we do, when we let things count for us, when we let them mean something to us, and so on.

7. Human beings are always at the ready to clarify their meanings, or question the other person's meanings: I thought you meant.... I didn't mean.... Do you seriously believe...? Did you mean "funny-peculiar or funny-ha-ha?

8. This will be explored further in the chapter which follows. See page @@@

9. link to this section

10. See the earlier discussion in Chapter Three: "The web of fact and feeling?"

11. The potential examples of this are legion; here are just two:- Bipolar Disorder (often described as a "chemical imbalance" yet actually meant to refer to a whole pattern of life - as if this could be reduced to a chemical fact); Projection (the use of this word entails the claim that the utterer has access to an objective reality which the "projector" is violating by "putting" their own "subjective" constructs "out there" when "really" they belong "in the head". I apologise for this salad of italics and scare-quotes - but this accurately mirrors the absurdity of the widely-used concept of projection.)
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