online: 15 october 2003

14 october 2003 the chain saw and the dummy

17:17 Outdoor cafe after autumn closing time - but a kindly employee allowed me to buy a cake.

I can hear a power saw cutting timber nearby. There is a baby's dummy on the ground (an artificial nipple to keep a baby quiet). How is it that human ingenuity outdoes nature - is that explained by the theories of natural selection and of autopoeisis*? I doubt it. The chain saw and the dummy - the words remind me of The Dynamo and the Virgin** - I wonder if, or how, these things connect?

How is it that one part of nature is not only aware of nature, and invents explanations of its own presence, but physically transcends itself, or imagines it does? I'm remembering the bone needle, made with crude stone implements***, that was used by the people who made the cave drawings 20 or perhaps 40 millennia ago. That's the process I'm thinking about - the use of natural, or semi-natural things to make less natural ones (and to make things with which one can make things). In that ability is everything that concerns me here - the basis of human life and culture. Perhaps we will never understand it fully - but people will certainly proceed beyond the present limits of thought and action - beyond the present idea of what's possible.

As I wrote the wind grew strong. It is shaking the branches of a huge plane tree above me. It looks over 100 years old. One day it will fall - with or without a chain saw...

...but it wasn't a chain saw I heard - it was the sound of someone using an electric sander to smooth the wooden table tops.

18:14 I stop to look at the wind ruffling the water of the viaduct pond - and to look up at the mackerel sky - a dappled pattern of grey and pink and yellowish clouds beneath pale blue. Again I feel energised and restored.

*As far as I understand it (which is far from totally), autopoiesis is a name for the ability of ourselves, as part of nature, to evolve explanations of nature and to extend it - 'artificially' as we say. The name means 'self-making' (The word 'poetic' comes of a Greek word meaning 'making').

The term 'autopoiesis' came of the effort of Hubert Maturana to understand the link between natural selection and thought. In one of his early publications I find (by intuitive and random choices of page number) the following statements (which seem to me to give the self-referential flavour of his theory, perhaps even the gist of it?):

' does living organization give rise to cognition in general and to self-cognition in particular?' (page 3, chosen intuitively)
'...the validity of what I say at any moment has its foundation in the validity of the whole theory, which, I assert, explains why I can say it. Accordingly, I expect the complete work to give foundation to each of its parts, which thus appear justified only in the perspective of the whole. '(page 4, chosen randomly)
The quotations are from Humberto R Maturana, Biology and Cognition, Biological Computer Laboratory Report No. 9.0, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinios, 1 November 1970, UILU-ENG-70-300.

I've not read the complete theory. It appears in:
Humberto R. Maturana & Francisco J. Varela, Autopoesis and Cognition,edited by D. Reidel, Vol. 42: Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Dordrecht 1980, ISBN: 90-277-1015-5, 90-277-1016-3 .

**'The Dynamo and the Virgin' occurs in Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, edited and introduced by Jean Gooder, Penguin Books, London 1995, ISBN 0140445579. He describes himself comparing the image of the Virgin Mary with that of an electricity generator - the old world of Christian belief with the new world of science and technology:

he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.

***There is a digital diary entry about the pre-historic needle but I cannot find it at the moment.

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