The boundary separating system and environment is not like a physical, spatial boundary that can looked across or traveled across. It is more accurately described as a horizon, and horizons are ever-receding. The system can assume that something exists or awaits beyond the horizon, but whatever it is can never be reached. Indeed, every system operates on the assumption that something else is out there–something other than itself or something other than now. A social system, as communication, expects continuity. It makes no sense to make an offer of communication when no response is expected. If I offer someone money, for example, I expect them to accept or decline the offer. No response at all is inconceivable because for the other person to stand there and do nothing would be interpreted as declining the offer.
Inevitably, we are confronted with a paradox in the search for unity, that is, with the demand to continue. For observers are autopoietic systems that can only produce their operations on the assumption that other operations will follow. The world is therefore an endless world, a “horizon” always holding out the prospect of other possibilities.
(A Systems Theory of Religion, 50)
This is also why consciousness cannot conceive of its own death or ending. It cannot operate without the assumption that something else is always coming.
What we know of society is an observation, and every observation has a horizon. As I sit in this room typing, I cannot see the whole room. The only way to see the whole room would be step outside of it–and broaden my horizon. If I listen to the room or try to smell the room, that’s a different observation. There is no reason to privilege vision, but auditory, tactile, olfactory, and taste each have their own horizons.
If I observe society through a theoretical lens, that’s a cognitive observation, and I tap into the science function system. Another question is, Who or what observes society? Society observers itself. Or more specifically, subsystems of society observe society. One subsystem that observes society is the science system, or more specifically sociology. Science observes society through the distinction of true/not-true. And science, like all autopoietic systems, has a memory; it remembers what is true and forgets what is not true or no longer true. Science has forgotten, fortunately, that the Earth is in the center of the cosmos, that animals don’t have emotions, that men are smarter than women, and so on. Of course, we can say they these things were never true, but it’s more interesting to say they have been forgotten.