Autopoiesis and Enaction in the Game of Life
Randall Beer

November 19, 2018, 3:00pm - 4:30pm
Cognitive and Information Sciences, University of California, Merced

COB2 392
5200 N. Lake Road
Merced 95343
United States


University of California, Merced

Topic areas


Enaction plays a central role in the broader fabric of so-called 4E (embodied, embedded, extended, enactive) cognition. Although the origin of the enactive approach is widely dated to the 1991 publication of the book "The Embodied Mind" by Varela, Thompson and Rosch, many of the central ideas trace to much earlier work. Over 40 years ago, the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela put forward the notion of autopoiesis as a way to understand living systems and the phenomena that they generate, including cognition. Varela and others subsequently extended this framework to an enactive approach that places biological autonomy at the foundation of situated and embodied behavior and cognition. I will describe an attempt to place Maturana and Varela's original ideas on a firmer foundation by studying them within the context of a toy model universe, John Conway's Game of Life (GoL) cellular automata. The talk has both pedagogical and theoretical goals. Simple concrete models provide an excellent vehicle for introducing some of the core concepts of autopoiesis and enaction and explaining how these concepts fit together into a broader whole. In addition, a careful analysis of such toy models can hone our intuitions about these concepts, probe their strengths and weaknesses, and move the entire enterprise in the direction of a more mathematically rigorous theory. In particular, I will identify the primitive processes that can occur in GoL, show how these can be linked together into mutually-supporting networks that underlie persistent bounded entities, map the responses of such entities to environmental perturbations, and investigate the paths of mutual perturbation that these entities and their environments can undergo.


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