Friday, April 25, 2014

The autonomous organism

The philosopher of biology, Ernst Myer, famously argued that biology is an autonomous science.  He meant by that not that biology had a distinct set of principles from physics and chemistry (for example) but that it had additional principles that could not be derived from those more basic sciences. 
This claim will stand or fall, I think, on a distinct but much more exciting claim: that autonomy is essential to understanding what a living organism really is.  Biology is the study of living organisms.  It is proved remarkably difficult to what those two key terms‑life and organism‑mean.  Since an organism is composed of the same physical constituents as non-living matter, so that if you break down the animal into organs and the organs into cells and the cells into subcellular molecular mechanisms, eventually you come to something that is dead rather than alive, what does it mean to say that the organism is alive? 
John Dupré § and Maureen A. O’Malley [“Varieties of Living Things: Life at the Intersection of Lineage and Metabolism” (Philos Theor Biol (2009) 1:e003))] put the matter this way:
In this paper we shall highlight a tension in standard discussions of characteristics of life, which tend to prioritize one or other of two fundamental but very different features of living things: the capacity to form lineages by replication and the capacity to exist as metabolically self-sustaining wholes. We suggest that this tension can best be resolved by seeing life as something that arises only at the intersection of these two features: matter is living when lineages are involved – directly or indirectly – in metabolic processes.
Dupré and O’Malley distinguish two “fundamental but very different features of living things”.  One is the tendency of living things to form lineages.  The word tendency is necessary because, obviously, many living things fail to reproduce and many lines of descent reach dead ends.  On the other hand, every actually organism that actually exists or has ever existed at any time is the latest in an unbroken line of successful breeders. 
The other fundamental feature of living things is “the capacity to exist as metabolically self-sustaining wholes”.  Organisms are wholes, which is to say that they are composed of distinct parts which operate to some degree independently of one another; yet the operation of the parts is somehow controlled by the whole.  Dupré and O’Malley argue that the dilemma‑which is it: lineages or self-sustaining wholes?‑can best be answered “yes.”  Living organisms are self-sustaining wholes that form lineages and lineages are unbroken lines of self-sustaining wholes. 
This strikes me as dead spot on, but what exactly is a “self-sustaining whole”? 
Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo and Alvaro Moreno [“Autonomy in evolution: from minimal to complex life” Synthese 1 Feb 2011] argue that autonomy is the main concept that is necessary to understand “the traditional Cartesian gap between the physical and cognitive domains,” as well as “the nature of the organization of individual living entities” and that “autonomy is also fundamental to explaining major evolutionary transitions.”  That’s a tall order for one concept, but perhaps this Platonic idea is up to the task. 
I can scarcely do justice to this fascinating paper, but let this be my short summary.  Living organisms are autonomous in so far as they maintain themselves by resisting both external and internal forces, swimming, as it were, this way and that but always a bit against the current.  The organism thus extends itself between the boundaries of inside and outside, self and other.  The organisms lays down a law for itself and struggles to be law abiding. 
I submit that this may tie together the most basic, metaphysical meaning of autonomy, with the moral and political meanings. 
Autonomy may initially appear too heavy a word to be part of a general definition of life. Originally used in the context of law and sociology (in the sense of self government, from the Greek polis) or human cognition and rationality (in the sense of a cognitive agent that acts according to rationally self-generated rules, cf. Kant), for many it will sound like a high-level concept, with too many non-strictly-biological connotations.
Broadly speaking, autonomy is understood as the capacity to act according to self-determined principles. It might also mean that a given ontological or phenomenological level is relatively independent with respect to others, because it is ruled by its own norms (Moreno et al. 2008). However, the idea of autonomy can adopt a more specific, minimal sense [“basic autonomy,” as we have called it (Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno 2000, 2004)] related to the capacity of a system to self-define, to construct its own identity.
It is in this more basic sense that autonomy proves relevant for the definition of life, since it provides the necessary explanatory power to account for the complex material organization underlying any living organism; namely, its metabolism
That ties together everything I want to talk about in my paper on autonomy. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Consciousness, Free Will, and Evolution

One of the great problems with contemporary debates over free will is that two distinct and fundamental philosophical questions are frequently (almost always) confused.  One is the question whether the ubiquitous human intuition of an open future is metaphysically viable.  Do I really have choices that are not already made yet, in the sense of being predetermined by the state of the Kosmos before I make the choice?  The second is whether human consciousness is part of the chain of causation leading to human actions.  Did I drop the hot object because it hurt?  Or was my conscious pain merely an epiphenomenon, generated by the underlying physical processes but having no consequences of its own? 
This has been a persistent concern of mine for some years.  Tonight I have been reading Eckart Voland’s interesting article: “We Recognize Ourselves as Being Similar to Others: Implications of the “Social Brain Hypothesis” for the Biological Evolution of the Intuition of Freedom.”  Voland clearly regards our intuition of freedom as an illusion and sets out to explain how we came by it.  His thesis is that it is a byproduct of modeling the intentions of other persons.  Here is a bit from the abstract:
If, as the “social brain hypothesis” alleges, the main selective pressure among primates is on generating social knowledge about one’s cooperators and competitors, then it is the knowledge about others and not the knowledge about oneself that is the scarce cognitive resource. It is beneficial to make the others predictable and to form hypotheses about their probable behavioral tendencies. This is done by behavior reading and mind reading and by classifying the recurring stochastic patterns in everyday language as the “will.” Thus, the idea of free will emerged first as a social attribution and not as an introspectively gained insight.
I strongly suspect that Voland is right on the specific question.  It seems to me more than likely that the human sense of self and of deliberation (and particularly moral deliberation) emerged in tandem with a “theory of mind,” which is to say, a recognition that other persons have minds like “mine”.  However, I do not see how this thesis is required, let alone advanced, either by determinism or epiphenomenalism. 
Here is how Voland begins his essay:
The human psyche, with its ability to feel, think, and act, is a deterministic system. In the current discussion, this thesis is primarily supported by arguments informed by neurobiology.
I have long regarded determinism as one of the myths of modern science.  The problem with all myths is not that they are false but that they cannot be verified and that the reason for believing in them has nothing to do with their veracity.  It may well be that the state of the Kosmos at any moment, T1, rigidly determines the state of K at T2.  How one could know that is beyond me, and it is not a necessary assumption for any science.  All the scientist needs to suppose is that T1 determines some part of T2 within some specified margin of error. 
I will pass here on the question of why so many want to believe in something that is unverifiable and unnecessary.  I will point out that when Voland speaks of neurobiology, he has in mind certain findings that indicate that the brain makes up its mind before the mind becomes conscious of making a decision.  Again, this may be true; however, it is an argument not for determinism but for epiphenomenalism. 
Voland makes a pitch for the proposition that genuine freedom cannot have evolved. 
Contrary to other claims: Freedom does not evolve, and what is more: Freedom could not evolve, because if we assume that organisms which could make use of the freedom to not obey the biological imperative were created by a whim of nature, then natural selection would disfavor these genotypes to the degree that they were to make use of this freedom, and the endless game of evolution would proceed without them. Freedom here is understood in the sense of the indeterministic libertarian intuition of being able to behave in other ways, if one only wanted to do so.
To prevent a widespread misunderstanding: The antithesis of determination is indetermination and not flexibility. Humans, perhaps like no other species, are capable of special behavioral flexibility, which in turn is carried by special cognitive abilities designed for this purpose. This allows humans, more than other organisms, to adequately deal with situations that are new to them and to cope with unusual requirements (Kanazawa, 2004). This changes nothing, however, with regard to the fact that all of the knowledge of how requirements are to be mastered already must exist in the form of certain strategies of perception and thinking in the organism, completely within the meaning of Kant’s a priori (Heschl, 2001). There is no room in this system for a libertarian freedom of the will, i. e. the capacity to act differently under identical conditions and to cause behavior while oneself being uncaused.
This strike me as altogether wrong.  “Flexibility” means precisely not obeying “the biological imperative.”  It means this in two ways.  One is that the biological, preprogrammed imperative must be responsive to different situations.  The organism must be able to zig and zag in ways that cannot be fixed ahead of time. 
The other is that organisms that disobey “the biological imperative” may be the ones that flourish when the environmental niche has changed.  Evolution has engineered a vast number of modes of flexibility.  The most pervasive is genetic diversity, of which, the most interesting is sexual reproduction.  Is it not obvious that consciousness is precisely the most sophisticated form of flexibility?  Let us suppose that all conscious creatures are capable of some measure of freedom, in the sense of making choices that are not governed by deterministic rules.  That would allow such creatures to be very flexible in their responses to the environment. 
How then to keep such creatures honest in a Darwinian sense?  The obvious answer is to bribe them.  This is the function of pain and pleasure, discontent and happiness.  Rather than giving precise instructions to sentient animals, evolution was content to give them parameters.  Do whatever you want so long as you survive long enough to reproduce. 
This is the only account, as it seems to me, that explains why it hurts when I pick up something that is very hot.  If consciousness is really an epiphenomenon, produced by but not effecting biological processes, then it is a very odd phenomenon.  It is analogous to the occasionalism that you find in dualistic theories.  It doesn’t seem like a winner.