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. 

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