sitemap The Observer #3 -- 10 March, 1993

The Observer

Number 3: 10 March, 1993

"Everything said is said by an observer"

An electronic forum
Autopoiesis & Enactive Cognitive Science

Randy Whitaker


A new resource for those interested in Autopoiesis!
Foundational Principles of Autopoietic Theory Applied to the 'Game of Life', by Barry McMullin



A week ago, I was trying to answer a question about autopoietic theory, and I made recourse to "The Bible" -- Autopoiesis and Cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1980). I flipped to the back to locate the topic in the index and zero in on enlightenment when ---- WHOA!!!! No subject / topic index!!!! FAN! (the all-purpose Swedish curse-word ;-) ) Well, this was about the 1000th time this has happened, and I finally resolved to DO something this time. (NOTE: This resolution explains the relatively long period between issues 2 and 3 of The Observer) The result is a large topical index to Autopoiesis and Cognition, containing some 950+ entries and running over 1200 lines in raw ASCII format. Once I got into it, I decided to index the **** out of it. ;-)

This index will be distributed to all those on my mailing list as a Special Issue (next one -- no. 4) of The Observer. It will be in raw ASCII format, and you can re-format it as you will. This index will then become the latest of the text resources I maintain for distribution on request.

So anyway, you now know that although I've been silent for a couple of weeks, I haven't exactly been negligent of my duties.

-- Randy



Barry McMullin has sent in a note in which he asks the forum to comment on the applicability of autopoietic / enactive principles to software artifacts. This is of importance because the field called "artificial life" (a-life / alife) is setting out to do to Life what AI (Artificial Intelligence) claimed to be doing with "intelligence" over the last 25 years or so -- i.e., simulating / replicating, etc., the phenomenon on computers. The issues Barry raises are of interest to us all, whether or not we are particularly interested in alife. Why? Because the questions he poses force us to consider how one could interpret artificial systems in terms of autopoietic / enactive principles.

I would like to think that the posing of these questions marks the beginning of some serious dialogue here in The Observer -- something we can all "sink our teeth into". ;-)

As Barry says, he has some opinions on these issues. I do, and I trust that many of you out there have some also. What I propose to do is this -- I will wait until at least Issue no. 5 of The Observer before addressing (or, hopefully, assembling incoming mail addressing...) Barry's questions. Issue no. 4 of The Observer (still at least one week away) will be a "special issue" containing my index for Autopoiesis and Cognition. This means that all you folks have at least 2 weeks to mull over Barry's questions and respond to them.


Barry McMullin

This note is intended to stimulate a technical thread on The Observer. I do this partly to encourage others to do likewise; but mainly because I have some genuine conceptual difficulties which I hope some of you may be able to sort out. Please comment either via follow-up notes to The Observer, or directly to me (I will then summarise, as appropriate).

The notions of organization and structure are fundamental to autopoietic theory; yet I find I am not always clear on their meaning---never mind the more advanced concepts such as autopoiesis and organizational closure. So I should like to consider a simple framework in which I feel unsure of how these terms should be interpreted, and ask you for your views.

I consider John Conway's so-called Game-of-Life (C-Life in what follows). I am going to presume that you are already familiar with this (but I include the main references at the end of this note). I may say that there are several things below which I leave quite vague: I do this deliberately, because I am interested to see what aspects or factors others take to be significant in attempting to answer the questions I ask.

In the C-life universe we can recognise and identify a variety of entities (unities? systems?). There are the individual cells, or cell-automata. There are sets of cells. There are cell states. There are "patterns" of cell states.

Certain patterns of cell states have a degree of stability or robustness (I won't say "autonomy" - not yet at least!). They may exhibit a dynamics reminiscent of a finite state automaton; indeed Chris Langton has called such patterns (in C-Life and other cellular automata) virtual automata ("virtual" because they need not, and in general do not, consist of a fixed set of "real" or "physical" automata; this is "virtual" in the computer science sense of "virtual machine").

For the moment I shall consider only three very simple such patterns:

(a) Block: this is a completely static pattern on a fixed set of cells.
(b) Blinker: this is a dynamic pattern, but the total set of cells involved is fixed.
(c) Glider: this is a dynamic pattern which "moves", i.e. the set of cells involved changes continuously, and without limit (in principle at least).

Now, for each of these kinds of entity or system, I would like to know the answers to the following questions:

(i) What is its structure?
(ii) What is its organization?
(ii) What is its boundary?
(iii) Is it organizationally closed?
(iv) Is it autopoietic?

I should also be interested in a more general prior question, which is this: do these questions have definitive answers at all? And if not, why not?

I have, of course, got some views of my own on the answers to these various questions - but I would prefer to hear some other opinions before going out on any limbs!

--- Bye for now, Barry.

Barry McMullin, School of Electronic Engineering, ++ Dublin City University, Dublin 9, IRELAND. ++ ++ E-mail: McMullinB@DCU.IE Phone: +353-1-704-5432 FAX: +353-1-704-5508

Some references to Conway's Game-of-Life:

Gardner, M., Mathematical Games: The Fantastic Combinations of John Conway's New Solitaire Game 'Life', Scientific American, vol. 223, no. 4 {October 1970}, pp. 120-123.

Gardner, M., Mathematical Games: Cellular Automata, Self-Reproduction, The Garden of Eden and the Game of 'Life', Scientific American vol. 224, no. 2 {February 1971}, pp. 112-117.

Berlekamp, E. and Conway, J. H. and Guy, R., Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays, Academic Press, New York, 1982.