The modern concept of autopoiesis emerged within biological discourse, was picked up in sociology, and is increasingly present in debates within the philosophy of science. With ontological as well as epistemological implications, it touches religious understandings of God's action in the world and images of the original as well as ongoing creation. It promises to bridge natural and cultural processes.
While the problem itself was already described in the late eighteenth century by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), the term autopoiesis was coined in the 1970s by the Chilean theoretical biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco J. Varela in order to denote the operative closure of living systems and their ability to produce themselves. Any cell that, by means of molecular processes, reproduces its own building blocks on which it at the same time depends, operates on an autopoietical basis. These molecular elements are part of a complex network of components, which is on the one side constantly reproduced and maintained, and on the other side simultaneously the very basis of this operation.
As a result of this autonomy and operative closure, autopoietic systems lack any immediate contact with their environment even though they are energetically open systems and are forced to produce "order from noise" within this environment. In this regard, the theory of autopoietic systems replaces older ideas of a causal input and output across the border of systems, as well as stimulus/response models.
In reacting to their own inner states, autopoietic systems are self-determined. They are not independent of their environment, but if they respond to it they do it in a nondeterminate way. The environment can only stimulate system-specific processes and states. In epistemological contexts this opens up the possibility of developing an empirical theory of knowledge, which relativizes widespread ontological presuppositions since "reality" is the product of inner-systemic processes of the observer. On the other hand, autopoietic theories also suggest an ontology of multiple autonomous and interdependent levels of reality.
While Varela wants to restrict the concept of autopoiesis to cell systems, immune systems, and nerve systems, Maturana has extended it to human societies and epistemological issues, thereby providing support for radical constructivism. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) introduced the concept into the social sciences in order to characterize the self-referential operative closure of social systems and psychic systems. Social systems consist of communication, and psychic systems of thoughts. Neither can reach into their environment, but are open to it because of their self-referential closure.
The concept of autopoiesis has been criticized by some Christian theologians because it challenges not only the idea of a teleology immanent to nature but also the notion of total passivity and dependency in creation theology. It seems to replace the very idea of a creatio ex nihilo.
However, the concept was constructively used by Niels H. Gregersen in order to overcome the breach between God's activity and the self-productivity of God's own creatures. By distinguishing self-constitution in the sense of a theological ultimate beginning (creation de novo ) from constituted autopoiesis as ongoing self-creative creativity based on self-constitution, Gregersen describes God as being creative by supporting and stimulating autopoietic processes. Autopoiesis can illuminate the theological notion of God's continuous creation, of providence in nature, and particularly of God's blessing. Within this context of creation the notion of autopoiesis resonates with God's self-giving nature and with the Christian notion of God's internal trinitarian self-realization.
See also Constructivism; Creatio Continua; Creatio ex Nihilo; Divine Action; Providence; Self-organization
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