Thursday, June 26, 2014

From Biological to Moral Autonomy

What follows is a new section I added to my paper on the biology of autonomy.  In that paper I argue that autonomy is a platonic idea: it is a rationally coherent pattern that is key to understanding a wide range of phenomenon.  Autonomy presents whenever one individual or system begins to operate under its own laws, distinct from some other system the laws of which is its potentially or actually subject to.  Thus the individual man emancipated from his parents and free under the laws of a republic is an example of autonomy.  The first organisms, maintaining themselves by a metabolism increasingly protected against the external environment is another.  In my paper, I try to connect the two examples by showing that evolutionary history can be understood as a history of increasing autonomy.  This history does not proceed smoothly, but involves a number of emergent levels or leaps or transitions, if you will.

The section included below describes three takes on the evolution of autonomy, all of which support my account.  I would add here that this is not a reductionist account.  Higher levels of autonomy must be consistent with lower level laws but they involve new laws of their own that are not reducible to the lower levels.  At some point, increasing dimensions of autonomy allow for increasing degrees of freedom.  

From Biological to Moral Autonomy

In The Natural Selection of Autonomy, Bruce N. Waller argues that “autonomy requires open choices, alternative possibilities, viable options.”  What makes an option viable is more than the existence of alternative paths, choices, etc.  It also requires that the chooser be able to evaluate the outcomes, either before or after making them.  Waller cleverly uses the example of the white-footed mouse which will occasionally take the wrong path in a maze, even though the mouse has learned the correct path to the food.  While this seems counterproductive, in the natural environment always taking the same path may mean missing something even better than the usual reward.  If the mouse finds no food down the alternative path it will quickly revert to its learned behavior.  If it does, it will learn the new route.[1]  

Waller is making a point against the moral theory known as “deep-self compatibilism.”  Human autonomy is not about using reason to discover the true or authentic through life, but about choosing between more and less attractive outcomes.  By using the mouse as an example he indicates that this business of autonomous choosing is not unique to human beings.  Daniel Dennett presents a model of the evolution of mind as “tower of generate and test”, with each new floor of the tower built on top of existing ones[2].   

The ground floor is the home of Darwinian Creatures.  Such creatures are individually hardwired, without the capacity to change in response to their environments; however, they vary from one another and so the better adapted phenotypes will proliferate in a given environment.  So, while individuals may have little or no autonomy, the species (if we may speak of species here) can handle the evolutionary work of autonomy.  
The second floor is home to Skinnerian Creatures.  The individual Skinnerian organism carries around a repertoire of behaviors that can be tested, one after another, against changes in the environment.  The creature will stick with the response that is most successful.  Here we see the emergence of the individual “autonomy as alternatives” that Waller was talking about.  On the third floor we find Popperian Creatures which are capable of modeling the external environment internally, thus reducing some of the risks and investments involved actually trying out possible alternatives.  The model may be partially preloaded in the form of instincts (a chick’s fear of hawk-shaped shadows, etc.) and in more sophisticated creatures may be developed in response to information.  
In Dennett’s account of the evolution of mind, we see natural selection exploring the design space opened up by autonomous organisms and occasionally making quantum leaps to new levels of autonomy.   

Alvaro Moreno and Asier Lasa argue that this evolution depends upon the emergence of internal autonomy or the decoupling of various organic systems from one another.[3] 
Like Dennett, they offer us three stages (or “bifurcations on the evolution of adaptation”).  The first stage, prior to the emergence of nervous systems, involves a decoupling of the metabolism of a living system from its environment.  This is the most basic form of biological autonomy.  The second involves an internal decoupling of the nervous system from the metabolism so that the former can operate independently of the latter, according to its own rules.  This internal autonomy of the nervous systems increases the overall autonomy of the living system.  The third bifurcation involves the decoupling of the autonomic nervous system from the somatic nervous system, so that such systems as circulation and immunity change independently of sensorimotor interactions.  Moreno and Lasa argue that the evolution of mind proceeds as one dimension of the general evolution of more complex animals and that such traits as increasing size, motility, the emergence of skeletons and circulatory systems.  Autonomy may be the single most important concept in macroevolution.

If these accounts of the evolution of mind are correct, then the capacity of human beings to make autonomous choices, individually or collectively, is a result of the emergence of increasingly sophisticated dimensions of autonomy over the course of evolutionary history.  A human person can decide to run before ever she begins to run.  She can begin to run before the autonomic process that control her inner nervous system can anticipate or begin to react to her decision.  However, to understand human autonomy in its full meaning, we must recognize another decoupling or bifurcation.  Just as biological evolution advances by the increasing autonomy of systems internal to the individual organism, so the evolution of social behavior advances by an increasing autonomy between and within social groups.  So one cannot fully understand moral autonomy without coming to grips with the tension between the autonomy of the individual and the autonomy of the tribe. 

[1] Albany, State University of New York Press, 1998: 7. 
[2] Kinds of Minds: Toward and Understanding of Consciousness, New York, Basic Books 1996: 83-90.
[3] “From Basic Adaptivity to Early Mind: The Origin and Evolution of Cognitive Capacities” in Evolution and Cognition (2003) vol. 9, no. 1: 12-24.