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Autopoiesis: A Continuing Blog Series on the Common Good

For other blogs in this series exploring the common good and the potential of an emerging Integral structure of consciousness, please refer to the links included below this post.


The second major shift as we approach the question of the common good through the Integral structure of consciousness is, I believe, that we will increasingly understand it as an emergent property of a self-specifying system—or in other words, not as an externally imposed template of “right conduct,” but as innate “inner knowingness” that emerges within a living system that has achieved the capacity for autopoiesis, or internal self-regulation.

I know this sounds like a barrage of heady concepts, and the science that has put all the pieces together has only been around for the past fifty years or so. But the concept itself is far more ancient—St. Paul already anticipated it in his celebrated teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 when he intuits “We are all members of the one body of Christ.” Fundamentally, it’s as simple as that: diversity within a greater overarching unity. But the scientific technicalities add important details which may prove pivotal to the reshaping of our political and constitutional notions of the common good as we move increasingly onto the Integral playing field

The term autopoiesis itself comes from the Greek roots “auto” (self) and “poeisis,” creation. Self-creation, or in other words, a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. The popular shorthand for this is a “self-specifying system.” A system exhibiting autopoiesis is a self-regulating whole. It has an inside and an outside, a diversification of function within an overall unity, and a capacity to self-monitor, rebalance internally, repair or replace damaged internal structures, and to reproduce itself. It also demonstrates so-called “emergent properties,” capabilities that belong only to the whole and are not assignable to any of the component parts. The watershed I spoke of in the last post—that quantum leap from domino chains of self-repeating molecules to the cell—is precisely the leap into autopoiesis.

…and maybe as well from a nation anchored in individual rights “writ large” to a nation beginning to awaken to an autopoietically generated common good….

While the term “autopoiesis” was formally introduced only in 1972, the evolutionary groundwork had already been laid some three decades earlier by Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. From Teilhard came the first comprehensive articulation of what he calls “the Law of Complexification/Consciousness” as the driveshaft of evolution. In short, he demonstrated across the sweep of a 14-billion-year universe story, that consciousness manifests precisely in tandem with the complexity of the physical structures that supports its manifestation. The more complex the structure, the greater the candlepower of the manifest consciousness shining through it. A human brain, with its trillions of cells all performing diverse functions and capabilities, demonstrates a far greater magnitude of consciousness than, say, an amoeba, with its much simpler brain and nervous system.

For Teilhard, complexification is supremely about diversification within unity. “Unity differentiates, differentiation unifies,” is the signature Teilhardian mantra, and his entire evolutionary trajectory can be encapsulated as the journey “from the unorganized multitude to the unified multiple.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 28). It is not in the return to an original simplicity, but in “harmonized complexity” (HP 186) that the real capacities of consciousness are unleashed. As modern Teilhardian scholar Ilia Delio astutely summarizes, “Consciousness is, in a basic sense, the flow of information across complex levels of relationship. The greater the degree of relationship, the greater the levels of information flow.” (Personal Transformation and a New Creation, Ilia Delio ed., p 118)

This is potentially good news as we explore the prospect of envisioning our American democracy as a self-specifying system. In direct contrast to the “circling the wagons” mentality evident among some of the more conservative political voices today (who would build border walls, deport immigrants of color, and preserve democracy as an Anglophobe mausoleum), Integral evolutionary theory states strongly that diversity is a core structural component of a self-specifying system, and that the growing appearance of “greater degrees of relationship” allows for an even greater strengthening of the capacities for consciousness and self-regulation within the democratic system. Each new component brings its own particularity, yet they all become symbiotic within a greater whole. This is very different from a homogenization of identities. As St. Paul pointed out two millennia ago, legs and arms do not become brains; they are needed as arms and legs. In a dynamic flow system as complex as the American nation, characterized already by a mind-boggling degree of regional and ethnic diversity, the complexification theory reassures us that conscious unity is never achieved through uniformity. Diversity must be maintained and celebrated, but “harmonized” within the greater unity.

Evolutionary theory also reminds us, gently but firmly, that the course we are now set on is irreversible. For Teilhard, emphatically, “the arrow and axis” of evolution led in one direction only: toward a “rise in consciousness” (HP 165) characterized by increasing complexity, greater degrees of relationship, more information flow. Jean Gebser’s version of Integral points toward a new depth and dimensionality of consciousness itself that will gradually allow us to do this, something our mental/rational minds can never quite manage. By whichever map, the bottom line is that the long arc of evolution bends in the direction of the organized multiple, not in a reversion to “the unorganized multitude” (i.e., greater isolationism, separatism, or originalism as commonly understood). It is not a question of if, but only of how.

Emergent Properties

The other important thing to bear in mind in our consideration of autopoiesis is that self-specifying systems display “emergent properties,”—i.e., capacities belonging only to the whole, not to the individual parts. This tendency begins well down the periodic chart—in fact, right from the very beginning. If you take one of the simplest compounds, H20, or water, it is clear that “waterness” does not exist individually on either the hydrogen or oxygen side of the family tree; it comes into being only with the new whole itself, and it exists only within that whole.

The traditional aphorism here is that “the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts.” But this is not just on account of “fellowship,” or “strength in numbers,” but because “greater degrees of relationship” really do create “greater degrees of information flow”—i.e., more manifest consciousness. There is a systemic intelligence that resides only in the whole, in which the individual members participate “severally”—or as we would say in the more technical language of our own time, “holographically.”

My growing suspicion is that the common good as it plays out within the Integral structure of consciousness is exactly that: an emergent property of the whole, in which the individual members participate holographically through their common belonging to the whole. It does not reside in any of the parts individually, but rises dynamically from within the whole itself through the subtle systems of internal communication and self-regulation which characterize all self-specifying systems. The intelligent internal balancing act which ensures its own autopoietic-survival also delineates its common good. This can never be imposed artificially— either from the outside, in accordance with some abstract moral template, or from the inside by some dominant political ideology. It will emerge only situationally, through an intelligent and flexible listening within the whole itself.

“The universe holds together by the whole of itself,” Teilhard wrote presciently in The Human Phenomenon (HP p. 15).  So too, does our American system of government hold together by the whole of itself. I know this is a tall order for those accustomed to thinking of “public virtue”— a.k.a., “the common good”—as a simple aggregation of individual virtue. But what if the common good belongs to an entirely different order of magnitude altogether, inaccessible to any one of us apart from the whole that sustains us, but liberally flowing to us from that deeper intelligence of the whole the moment we stop polemicizing and actually start to listen?

It’s a long shot, but perhaps the only shot we still actually have.


Posts in this series:


The Common Good from an Evolutionary Perspective

Autopoiesis: A Continuing Blog Series on the Common Good

REIMAGINING THE COMMON GOOD: The Common Good as Good, Part 1

REIMAGINING THE COMMON GOOD: The Common Good as Good, Part 2

Constraint and the Common Good




Photo of cells by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Water droplet image by Motti shonak from Pixabay




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