In the theory of autopoiesis is what we “are” defined by what we have learned. The main slogan in autopoiesis is: life is learning and vice versa, learning is life.
The theory of autopoiesis was developed by the Chilean neurobiologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Their main textbook is called: The Tree of Knowledge, the Biological Roots of Human Understanding. According to autopoiesis everything, including all, is defined and limited by our biology, even our understanding. Our biological basis is the bottom line for all that we can do and also may know. This is an important notion. The bottom line is that our biological basis indicates the limits of what we can know and recognize. This may at first sight not be so clear, because after all, we have all kinds of tools invented to circumvent our biological limitations. Thus we know that ultraviolet light exists thanks to our scientific knowledge and tools, while in real life its visibility is nil. Yet it is important also to recognize our biological limitations. What we accept as knowledge must be biologically possible in principle, to be experienced and our biological possibilities here are the border, beyond which no knowledge is possible, though it is not excluded that for beings with another biology other possibilities are open.
I will explain the theory below insofar as it is of interest for our topic: A human being is a living system. He seems to have come into this world with relatively little luggage, at least with less hardwired behaviour than animals. This living system, we call it a person, has the opportunity to learn almost anything. This learning process continues and will never stop until the person dies. A newborn baby is not yet a human being. A baby has the characteristics with which we recognize it as human (organization). And so we have learned to distinguish between cats and humans. We assume that a baby has the potential to become an adult human being, in the common sense of this word, but in its structure, the content of what it is, it is at birth not yet so (structure). Indeed, it is our structure that makes us truly human in the sense that it determines the possibilities of functioning in society. Normally, a child has the ability to learn to become a human being, especially by its very plastic brain. You can learn it any kind of knowledge, to do the most difficult physical actions such as playing a musical instrument or a circus act, or the most difficult languages. There is however an important condition, which is that it needs to have the capacity to adapt its structure so that it can be said that he learns. These capabilities are biologically determined and limited. This process goes so far that as a human baby does not grow up in a human environment it will not become human. In order to become human, a human environment is essential. A famous example is the wolf children, found in India around 1920. These children were raised in a wolf pack and had become wolves. A human baby can only become a human being when he grows up as a human in a human environment. This is essential circular.
To make this even more clear I will give another example. You as a reader have learned English. You are more or less well versed, depending on your level of education, but the ability to read this text does not mean that you can read any book which is particularly complicated in the English language or on a technical subject. It takes additional exercise to get to that level.
This learning process is done in interaction with the environment. In this process an event that is perceived by the person is called a perturbation (perturbation). A perturbation is an interaction with the environment in a structural coupling (structural coupling) that triggers a change in the system. The perturbation does not provide for this change, but “triggers”, that is, it is the reason for the system to work on the compensation for this perturbation. Perturbations are detected by the system, that is to say, the human person, and processed. This processing is the treatment of the perturbation in such a way, that the system continues to exist, and that the coupling with the environment is maintained (conservation of adaptation). This is done in such a way that the next time that the same perturbation is detected, the system will be able to compensate (better) for the perturbation. Behaviour is the coordination of the system to compensate for the constant flow of perturbations and to maintain the structural coupling with the environment and then adapt. In this way, the system learns, as could be said, looking as an observer from the outside. Among the perturbations there are some, seen by the system as a threat to the structural coupling with the environment and that, therefore, place high demands on the maintenance of coupling, and on the conservation of adaptation. If these are observed, the system apparently does not always have adequate response readily available. This is for example the case with conflict.
As an example from ordinary reality: he who has learned to swim, has learned to compensate for the perturbation of falling into the water and will have a better chance of surviving. Who has learned a martial art may be better suited to survive when faced with a robbery. This applies not only to physical capabilities but also to mental activities such as learning a language and doing a training of any sort. In autopoiesis nothing is excluded as a perturbation, which when it is compensated for by the system appears to have been a learning tool. The system, the next time that same perturbation is observed, can say that it has learned something (cognition). In everyday life, every human being is constantly busy to compensate for the perturbations of the environment that he perceives, and by adapting he proves that he is learning. But sometimes it happens that a perturbation can not be compensated, and then the conservation of adaptation in danger and thus the structural coupling with the environment and ultimately the person and his life. It may be clear that there are perturbations that can not be compensated for, because of the biological parameters of the human body may not be able to learn to compensate for these perturbation. Being thrown from a tower can not be compensated in any known way! (Structural determination). Here, it is the physical impossibility to compensate for the perturbation. You can not learn to fly. To fall into the water is dangerous if you cannot swim, but if you have learned to swim, you have learned to compensate for a potentially dangerous perturbation. We learn in life to compensate for countless perturbations, but some of them, especially for the perturbations that lead to conflict it appears in everyday life that it is very difficult to learn how to compensate. Perhaps you recognise the observation that some people do not seem to learn from their conflicts because they seem to have the same type of conflict over and over. Many readers may also be able to make the observation about friends who marry again, that the new partner turns out to be only the blonde, or more or less athletic version of (one of the) former partners, but that finally the problems in the new marriage remain the same. Apparently the previous divorce as produced the learning material, but this was not adequately processed and the person has not learned or learned too little, and then the full story will go in the reprise. Conflicts that are not resolved often seem to come back structurally, sometimes in a slightly different package, but essentially these are the old conflicts. And you might also “enjoy” yourself in noticing, if there is a conflict that comes back again, when you think: It happens to me again!
This yields to the conclusion that to compensate properly for the perturbations is something that must be learned, and it is also true that, just only when you have learned, it will only be possible to compensate for the perturbation. You can only swim when you have learned it, and you can only resolve conflicts when you have learned how. It follows that only what the system has already learned, so what has already been incorporated into the structure, is suitable to use as a compensation for a next perturbation. In other words, the response to a perturbation is not determined by the perturbation, but by the structure of the system that is trying to compensate for the perturbation. Putting this another way: Not what happens to me, but my structure, so that what I have learned, determines my possible reactions. This is an important notion. The conflict challenges you to develop new repertoire of conduct, but you can only act with what has already been learned. This means that if you have not learned to compensate for a certain perturbation, it is also very difficult to do it properly at that time. If you have not learned to swim, falling into the water is dangerous and you run the risk of drowning. This is also the case in conflicts. We generally have not learned to properly handle them, and it often takes quite a long time to learn anything that works just a little. Usually we “drown” in our conflicts until we have learned to cope. And we all know that for many people this seems to take a long time.