Notes On An Epistemology For Living Things

Notes On An Epistemology For Living Things

di Heinz Von Foerster (1972)

While in the first quarter of this century physicists and cosmologists were forced to revise the basic notions that govern the natural sciences, in the last quarter of this century biologists will force a revision of the basic notions that govern science itself. After that “first revolution” it was clear that the classical concept of an “ultimate science”, that is an objective description of the world in which there are no subjects (a “subjectless universe”), contains contradictions.

To remove these one had to account for an “observer” (that is at least for one subject): (i) Observations are not absolute but relative to an observer’s point of view (i.e., his coordinate system: Einstein);

(ii) Observations affect the observed so as to obliterate the observer’s hope for prediction (i.e., his uncertainty is absolute: Heisenberg).

After this, we are now in the possession of the truism that a description (of the universe) implies one who describes it (observes it). What we need now is the description of the “describer” or, in other words, we need a theory of the observer. Since to the best of available knowledge it is only living organisms which would qualify as being observers, it appears that this task falls to the biologist. But he himself is a living being, which means that in his theory he has not only to account for himself, but also for his writing this theory. This is a new state of affairs in scientific discourse for, in line with the traditional viewpoint which separates the observer from his observations, reference to this discourse was to be carefully avoided. This separation was done by no means because of eccentricity or folly, for under certain circumstances inclusion of the observer in his descriptions may lead to paradoxes, to wit the utterance “I am a liar”.

In the meantime, however, it has become abundantly clear that this narrow restriction not only creates the ethical problems associated with scientific activity, but also cripples the study of life in full context from molecular to social organizations. Life cannot be studied in vitro, one has to explore it in vivo.

The question before us “The Unity of Man: Biological Invariants and Cultural Universals” cannot be approached in the earlier, restricted frame of mind, should the answers we may come up with be testimony of our own awareness of our own biology and culture.

In contradistinction to the classical problem of scientific inquiry that postulates first a description-invariant “objective world” (as if there were such a thing) and then attempts to write its description, here we are challenged to develop a description-invariant “subjective world”, that is a world which includes the observer. This is the problem.

However, in accord with the classic tradition of scientific inquiry which perpetually asks “How?” rather than “What?”, this task calls for an epistemology of “How do we know?” rather than “What do we know?” The following notes on an epistemology of living things address themselves to the “How?” They may serve as a magnifying glass through which this problem becomes better visible.

II. Introduction The twelve propositions labeled 1, 2, 3, . . . 12, of the following 80 notes are intended to give a minimal framework for the context within which the various concepts that will be discussed are to acquire their meaning. Since Proposition Number 12 refers directly back to Number 1, Notes can be read in a circle. However, comments, justifications, and explanations, which apply to these propositions follow them with decimal labels (e.g., “5.423”) the last digit (“3”) referring to a proposition labeled with digits before the last digit (“5.42”), etc. (e.g., “5.42” refers to “5.4”, etc.).

Although Notes may be entered at any place, and completed by going through the circle, it appeared advisable to cut the circle between propositions “11” and “1”, and present the notes in linear sequence beginning with Proposition 1.

Since the formalism that will be used may for some appear to obscure more than it reveals, a preview of the twelve propositions (in somewhat modified form) with comments in prose may facilitate reading the notes.

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