Friday, May 30, 2014

Autonomy & the Souls of Organisms

Here is another part of my paper, to be delivered at the annual meeting of the International Political Science Association this July in Montreal. 

Autonomy & the Soul of Organisms

The question “what is a living organism?” does not belong to biology, strictly speaking, at least according to Aristotle.  Though he used the term physics to indicate the subject matter of biology, he argued that this science assumes a common sense understanding of plants and animals: things that come to be and change from an internal source of motion.  To ask what is life comes later, with metaphysics.  We could scarcely ever address the question if we did not know, in some sense, that there were such things as live, grow, and move.  In On the Soul, he argues that the soul (psyche) is what distinguishes living organisms and the soul is the actuality of life in a body with the potential for life.  This distinction between the body as potentiality and the soul as actuality is right on the mark, for it recognizes the astonishing difference between living and nonliving things. 
In a magnificent paper, Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo and Alvaro Moreno point out just how astonishing this is:

Almost nobody will nowadays dispute that: (i) living systems are organized in a radically different way than nonliving systems and (ii) living systems change in time in a radically different way than nonliving systems.  

 In what, exactly, does this radical difference consist?  Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno begin with the concept of individuality.  While all organisms exist within and depend upon “a global network of similar systems,” this does not blur “the key role of individuality.” 

Without a strong idea of individual metabolic organization, it would be very difficult to provide a naturalized account of concepts like functionality, agency, unit of selection, etc., or to make a clear-cut distinction between organisms and other forms of cooperative or “ecological” networks. 

In other words, we must begin, as Aristotle recognized, with the individual organism as it presents itself to common sense.  A living organism is an individual.  Its existence is marked by “preferential partitions,” including especially a boundary between inside and outside, self and not-self.  For a rock, the distinction between inside and outside is a mere matter of a change in molecular density.  For a rock lobster, the difference between inside and outside is a matter of a defended border. 
To defend the word “defended” in that last sentence, allow me a simple joke.  A fellow was trying to discourage his parrot from using profanity.  When it continued to swear despite his admonitions, he put it in the freezer for ten minutes.  When he took the shivering bird out, it exclaimed: “what the Hell did the turkey do?”  The difference between the live parrot and the dead turkey is that the one shivers and the other does not.  To shiver is to try to resist the local environment for the sake of maintaining oneself. 
That tendency toward resistance is what Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno mean by “autonomy”. 

We mean the property of a system that builds and actively maintains the rules that define itself, as well as the way it behaves in the world.  So autonomy covers the main properties shown by any living system at the individual level: (i) self-construction (i.e., the fact that life is continuously building, through cellular metabolisms, the components which are directly responsible for its behavior) and (ii) functional action on and through the environment (i.e., the fact that organisms are agents, because they necessarily modify their boundary conditions in order to ensure their own maintenance as far from equilibrium, dissipative systems). 

What is key here is that autonomy means the establishment of a new set of regulations within the existing ones laid down by the environment.  The organism cannot violate any physical laws; however, it can successfully beat the odds set by the house. 

Apart from a particularly cohesive organization, organisms display a particularly marked impulse or urge to persist in their state of being (Spinoza’s conatus).  It is, therefore, important to understand life at that individual level, and analyze carefully the implications of the emergence in the natural world of systems with that capacity to act for their own benefit, to constitute identities that distinguish themselves from the environment. 

The living organism is an autonomous individual with an agenda of its own.  The slime mold amoeba slouching toward a fruiting body has decided not to accept the script imposed by a bit of decaying log that no longer offers enough sustenance.  The spider crawling across the basement wall is up to something. 
None of this means that the simplest organisms are self-aware or even conscious at all.  It seems very unlikely that a creature without a nervous system, let alone a brain, knows what it is up to.  That it is in fact up to something, that it is trying to maintain itself, that it can succeed and flourish or fail and decay, means that the logic of autonomous agency appears well before the emergence of sentient animals.  It is a Platonic idea, implicit in inorganic matter and expressed in the emergence of life on earth. 
I think that Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno need not have worried that autonomy was “too heavy a word to be part of a 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. 

To argue that applying the term autonomy to simple organisms is anthropomorphic gets the cart before the horse.  Human beings may be more than animals but they are at least animals.  Whatever is special about the human being, it isn’t the capacity for autonomous agency. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Autonomy Biological and Political

Modern philosophy, like its ancient predecessor, is haunted by a central problematic.  The ancients had a great deal of trouble with the concepts of coming-to-be and change.  For something to change, it must become other than it already is; yet if it does so, how has it not been destroyed and replaced by something new?  For something to come to be, it must come to be out of what it is or out of what it is not; yet both are impossible.  It cannot come to be out of what it is, for what already is cannot come to be.  It cannot come to be out of what it is not, for there is nothing there for it to come to be out of. 
That these problems seem rather silly to us‑mere word games, as it were‑is because Plato and Aristotle largely resolved the problematic, albeit in somewhat different ways.  Plato’s Socrates resolved it by supposing a distinction between visible objects and invisible but knowable ideas.  As a tree seems to grow from small to large as we approach it from a distance, without that particular tree actually changing at all, so we recognize a variety of trees coming into being and changing because there is one knowable thing, the idea of a tree, standing behind all of them.  That or something like that, Socrates insisted, is how things are. 
Aristotle resolved by positing three things necessary for change and coming to be: a quality or formal identity, its opposite or privation, and a substratum.  Thus a cold, blue metal becomes what it is not‑hot and red‑when you heat it, and yet remains what it is‑iron‑through the process.  Likewise, a living organism comes to be from what it is not‑whatever it is eating‑and yet remains what it is because it incorporates the preexisting materials.  While Aristotle’s solution is much more palatable to modern thinkers, both he and his teacher worked essentially the same strategy: resolving an irresolvable tension by assuming that the thing to be explained exists along at least two dimensions: one of form and one of material. 
The modern problematic is perhaps best stated in its original, Cartesian form.  The human being seems to be two things at once: res extensa, a body, extended in time and space, and res cogitans, a mind, invisible, intangible, and weightless.  Cartesian dualism is pervasively taught by philosophy teachers but almost never accepted.  This is because it seems impossible to resolve the problem of interaction: if mind consists of a non-physical substance, whatever that might mean, how does it interact with matter?  Similarly, while it is easy to understand how one physical thing emerges out of another, from what and how does the non-physical mind emerge?  However, if modern thought largely rejects Cartesian dualism, it has not freed itself from the Cartesian dilemmas.  To take but one case, consider identity theory in the philosophy of mind.  According to this position, mind states are brain states.  Thus my pleasure as I eat an ice cream sundae (with my special bourbon chocolate sauce!) just is a particular pattern of neurons firing in my brain.  The more or less obvious problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anything in my brain that looks, tastes, or smells like an ice cream sundae. 
Almost all modern theories of mind remain trapped in these confines.  Just as ancient monists tried to resolve the dilemma by arguing that change and diversity were illusions, so modern eliminative materialists have argued that mental states do not actually exist.  Such theories are, I submit, symptoms of frustration. 
In this essay, I will attempt something similar to Socrates’ strategy in the Republic.  There he presents an account of justice in the soul by articulating justice in a political regime.  This is legitimate, on the supposition that justice is the same thing, the same idea, in an individual mind as in a political community.  I will focus on the idea of autonomy, proceeding under a similar supposition.  Autonomy is a vital concept both in biological and political thought.  It is the focus of some philosophers of biology who propose that it is essential to explaining what living organisms are and how they differ from non-living matter.  It is obviously important to descriptive political science and normative political theory. 
I will argue that autonomy is best understood as a Platonic idea.  Whether in a single cell, resisting the influences of its environment, or in a group of hunter gathers, resisting the influence of a bully, it is the same idea.  My Platonism will be grounded in evolutionary history.  I submit that this approach will point us toward a resolution of the modern problematic and hence toward a richer and more robust understanding both of mind and matter.  I will also suggest that it helps us towards a healthy and substantial understanding of political liberty. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hans Jonas

Several students and faculty members have formed mini-academy at Northern.  We have been reading and discussing an essay a week.  Last week we read Leo Strauss’ essay on liberal education.  Our meeting was an example of what Strauss was talking about. 
Next week we will discuss an essay chosen by yours truly: “Life, Death, and the Body in the Theory of Being,” by Hans Jonas.  You can read it for free online at the link above and, if your library has Jstore, you can download it.  It’s magnificent.  I first read it in a collection of essays by Jonas‑The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology.  If I were to judge a book not only by its precision, clarity, purity, and depth, but also by its timeliness, it might be the best book I have ever read. 
In the essay, Jonas gives us a history of human thought that encompasses the most pressing matter for both philosophers and for all human beings.  He divides the history of thought into three eras. 
In the first and longest, human beings thought that everything was alive: not only people, pad feet, and plants, but also rocks, streams, and the heavenly objects.  As the oak flourishes and withers, so the moon waxes and wanes. 
In the third, human beings (or at least, the tribe of scientists and philosophers) largely agree that everything is dead.  The kosmos is full of matter in motion, colliding and transforming in purely mechanical ways.  Even living organisms are composed of molecules, which are as dead as boiling porridge. 
Between these two eras, dualism was dominant.  Jonas finds its origins in Gnosticism specifically and Christianity more generally.  In this view, body and soul are distinct substances.  The material world is dead while all genuinely living things are possessed of an immaterial soul.  It reaches its clearest expression in the work of Rene Descartes, who substituted mind for soul. 
Jonas argues that all three positions are inherently unstable, subject to a problematic.  The animism of the first period could not account for death.  It could only make an uncomfortable peace with it by the cult of the funeral and the tomb.  The dualism of the second period allowed materialism to expand its sway over all the kosmos outside the mind, just at the moment when our understanding of the kosmos was expanding across vast distances.  Sooner or later the prophylactic wall that dualism built around the mind was bound to be breached.  That led to the third period, which was enormously successful in modeling complex phenomena. 
However, the tables then turned.  As animism could not comfortably account for death, so materialism cannot comfortably account for life.  How is it possible that, in a dead world, there should be things that struggle and resist and care one way or another? 
Jonas thinks that two of the more important positions in ontology‑materialism and idealism‑are attempts at evasion.  Materialism simply pretends that life doesn’t exist while idealism pretends that there is nothing but mind.  Both the materialist and the idealist account of life are essentially lifeless.  They miss the most important phenomenon. 
Jonas thinks that a philosophical biology must revise our view of matter to show that it is potentially alive and our view of soul to show that it is actually material.  I am very certain that he is right.