The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Discussion on autonomy

Posted in General by Tom Froese on November 21, 2006

A few people have agreed that we should hold a seminar on the notion of autonomy, perhaps next week. Since there is going to be no Alergic seminar after this week’s Life and Mind meeting, maybe it would be a good idea for those interested in guiding the presentation to meet up afterwards in order to discuss the format. As far as I remember that means Eduardo, Nathaniel, and me…

Sometime last week me and Nathaniel also came up with the idea that we could perhaps make use of the work that we put into this by coming up with a combined paper on autonomy for the next ECAL. I talked to Fernando and he seems to welcome the idea of having some good philosophical papers in the proceedings! ;-)

What would interest me is how we could justify the claim that organisms with their self-producing organization can be said to be somehow free from complete physical determination. In other words, what does it mean to say instead that the autopoietic organization constrains and is constrained by matter? I think Ezequiel might have touched on this issue in his last paper on adaptivity, but I’m still not completely clear on this reversed form/matter relationship.



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  1. Fernando Almeida e Costa said, on November 22, 2006 at 6:34 pm

    Tom doesn’t mention it, so I am doing it now: I think it would be a great idea to have an associated event on the Philosophy of Life and Mind piggy-backing ECAL. Perhaps this could emerge from our seminars…? Just a thought.


  2. Nathaniel said, on November 27, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to justify the claim that organisms are somehow free from complete physical determination, as they are physical objects that are just as much or as little physically determined as anything else, at least on the level of atoms. It’s only on a more macroscopic level of description that it becomes reasonable to say that the system as a whole determines its own behaviour. This is as true for a perfect gas as for an organism, but with the difference that the macroscopic behaviour of a gas is completely predictable (plus or minus tiny fluctuations of a known magnitude) whereas that of an animal depends (to a greater or lesser extent) on the individual organism.

    In my opinion we should try to understand what the concept of autonomy means in a physically determined universe, and I think that the distinction between microscopic and macroscopic physics is important for such a project.

  3. tomfroese said, on November 28, 2006 at 10:21 am

    I agree that it is important to understand what we mean by autonomy in a physically determined universe.

    However, if I understand you correctly you seem to say that the global behavior of a gas has an effect on the local level of particles. I always thought that a gas is only a convenient approximation and that we could know the global behavior of the system if we had knowledge of all constitutive local particles. Is this correct?

    If this is the case then I would say that an organism is fundamentally different from a gas in that its behavior as a unity cannot be reduced to the component level in this manner.

  4. Nathaniel said, on December 7, 2006 at 4:29 pm


    It is correct that the temperature/pressure description of a gas is a convenient approximation and that we could know the global behavior of the system if we had knowledge of all its constitutive local particles. It is not the case that the global behaviour of the gas (its changes in temperature and pressure) can affect the beahviour of the individual particles, though: the reason that the global behaviour is predictable is that if one considers all the possible ways in which the atoms of the gas might be arranged, the overwhelming majority of them will all do the same thing in terms of temperature and pressure.

    It could be the case that when you look at the gas all of the atoms are on one side of the container and none on the other, meaning that there is a huge pressure imbalance across the container. But (assuming the gas has been left alone for a while) this is overwhelmingly unlikely — not because the pressure difference per se drives atoms into a smooth distribution but just because there are a lot more ways the atoms could be arranged in a roughly uniform manner then in which they are all on one side of the container. Unfortunately, when speaking loosely we often do say that the pressure difference drives the smoothing out of the particles, because that’s how it tends to appear, but one shouldn’t infer any kind of downward causation from this. Each atom only undergoes local interactions with other individual atoms.

    But in an organism this is the case as well. Each particle only ever undergoes locally determined interactions (they have to be local because of relativity) with other particles (and never with the organism as a whole). This is just what it means to say that we live in a physically determined universe. It just isn’t the case that the atoms that happen to be making up an organism behave in anything other than a physically determined way, and to say otherwise is to bring in a kind of vitalism that theories like autopoiesis or the dynamical approach are designed to avoid. If you could look at an organism on the atomic level you would be able to reduce its behaviour to the component level in the sense that the organisms behaviour is nothing but a property of the trajectories of all the atoms in the organism+environment system as a whole.

    What you would not have, however, is a good explanation of its behaviour, because the explanation would take the form “well this atom bounced off this one and went over here, then this one swapped an electron with that one, then…” just as if you did the same thing with a gas you would lose the simple explanation in terms of temperature and pressure.

    I’d be happy to concede that there is a sense in which the behaviour of an organism cannot be reduced to the component level, but only if either
    a) by “reduce” you mean “produce an effective and useful explanation,” rather than just the upward causal relationship between the behaviour of the organism’s components and that of the organism itself, or
    b) by “component level” you mean something on a larger scale than atoms, e.g. by “components” you mean something like cells or organs.
    With either or both of these caveats in place then the statement is true but without them it is false.

  5. tomfroese said, on January 11, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    Let me see if I can come up with a coherent way of describing why I think that the behavior of an organism cannot be reduced to the behavior of its constitutive components.

    First of all, it would probably be more correct to say that the organism distinguished as a simple unity cannot be reduced to the organism distinguished as a complex unity. In the first case we observe the organism as a biological identity, and in the second case we observe it as a physical (chemical) system.

    Indeed, it is because we can distinguish the organism in these two distinct phenomenal levels that I say that one level cannot be reduced to the other. In fact, we should probably avoid talking about upward, downward, or reciprocal causality in this respect.

    I agree with you that it is wrong to say that the organism as a simple unity can directly interact with a component of itself as a complex unity. That would be to confuse two distinct and non-overlapping phenomenal domains.

    Nevertheless, the question still remains how these two domains are related with each other. Maturana prefers to talk about a relationship of mutual constraints, and I generally like that description: the “global” state and the “local” states constrain each other. In such a case, would you still say that the changes in local state can be fully explained without reference to the global state of the system?

    Of course, in what manner this constraining takes place in an organism would have to be determined on a case by case basis by observing correlations between the two phenomenal domains in which it can be distinguished.

    If we imagine an observer that can only distinguish the domain in which the organism exists as a complex unity, but cannot distinguish the domain in which the organism exists as a simple unity, then the phenomena of life would likely remain unnoticed. As Jonas says: even if God was a mathematician that would not be enough to know life; life can only be known by life!

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