“Agency & Life” Workshop, Syros, 04-05 July 2023

The Complex Systems and Service Design Lab is happy to host the “Agency & Life” workshop in Syros.

The workshop will in hybrid form. Physically, it will be held at the Department of Product and Systems Design Engineering, University of the Aegean (Konstantinoupoleos 1, Ermoupoli, Syros, Greece). Interested parties can also attend remotely, through Zoom:

Workshop Program

Day 1 – Tuesday 04 June

09:30 – 09:45

Welcome & Introduction

09:45 – 11:00

Johannes Jaeger: An evolutionary account of relevance realization

Johannes Jaeger
Freelance Researcher, Philosopher, and Educator
Project Leader, JTF “Pushing the Boundaries”, Dept of Philosophy, Uni Vienna
Associate Faculty, Complexity Science Hub (CSH) Vienna
Scholar, Ronin Institute

The way organismic agents come to know the world, and the way algorithms solve problems, are fundamentally different. The most sensible course of action for an organism does not simply follow from logical rules of inference. Before it can even use such rules, the organism must tackle the problem of relevance. It must turn ill-defined problems into well-defined ones, turn semantics into syntax. This ability to realize relevance is present in all organisms, from bacteria to humans. It lies at the root of organismic agency, cognition, and consciousness, arising from the particular autopoietic organization of living beings. In this talk, I will show that the process of realization is beyond formalization. It is simply not amenable to algorithmic solutions. This implies that organismic agency (and hence cognition as well as consciousness) are at heart not computational in nature. Instead, I show how the process of relevance is realized by an adaptive evolutionary dialectic, which manifests as a metabolic and an ecological self-manufacturing dynamic. It is a constructive, meliorative process that enables the agent to keep a grip on its arena, its reality. To be alive means to make sense of one’s world. This kind of ecological rationality is a fundamental aspect of life, and a key characteristic that sets it apart from non-living matter.

11:00 – 11:30

Coffee Break

11:30 – 12:45

Matteo Mossio: From agency to adaptive agency and cognition: explanatory challenges in autonomy theory

Matteo Mossio
Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques (IHPST)
CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne

Autonomy theory provides an original understanding of biological agency, which broadly refers to the interactive capacities of self-determining organized natural systems. In general terms, explaining actions means locating a specific behavior in the organizational graph, and describing how it is produced by the system and how it contributes to maintaining the system.
Such an explanatory strategy does not work to account for the appearance of new agential capacities, with respect to which autonomy theory can however appeal to evolution by natural selection. And yet, appealing to natural selection also does seem to fall short in those situations where individual organisms are able to perform new adaptive responses to first-time challenges. While adaptivity as an overall capacity can possibly be understood as an evolved capacity, in what terms does autonomy theory account for the emergence of each new adaptive behavior? How can an autonomous system generate behaviors in a goal-directed way?
The question of the explanatory role of autonomy seems also relevant in relation to those behaviors – let’s tentatively call them “cognitive” – that do not contribute, prima facie, to biological self-determination (e.g. smoking, playing chess, wandering around…). Here, the problem seems somehow reversed when compared to adaptive agency: how does autonomy theory make sense of the appearance of behaviors that seem to promote only indirectly, do not promote at all (are neutral) or even conflict with individual autonomy?
The talk will attempt to clarify the nature of these challenges, and to figure out possible research directions.

13:00 – 15:00

Lunch Break

15:00 – 16:15

Samir Okasha: The concept of agency in biology: meanings and motivations

Samir Okasha
University of Bristol, UK

Biological agency has received much attention in recent philosophy of biology. But what is the motivation for introducing talk of agency into biology and what is meant by “agent”? Two distinct motivations can be discerned. The first is that thinking of organisms as agents helps to articulate what is distinctive about organisms vis-à-vis other biological entities. The second is that treating organisms as agent-like is a useful heuristic for understanding their evolved behaviour. The concept of agent itself may be understood in at least four different ways: minimal agent, intelligent agent, rational agent, and intentional agent. Which understanding is most appropriate depends on which of the two motivations we are concerned with.

16:15 – 16:45

Coffee Break

16:45 – 18:00

Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo: Agency before life: primordial (metabolic, ecological, and evolutionary) reasons to conceive protocells as minimal agents

K. Ruiz-Mirazo 1,2
1. Biofisika Institute (CSIC, UPV/EHU)
2. D. Philosophy, University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), SPAIN

Primordial biogenesis is a very long and convoluted process in which diverse physical-chemical transformations and constraints become increasingly intertwined, eventually taking the shape of biological organisms: namely, prokaryotic cells performing matter-energy exchanges with their environment, in continuous internal metabolic turnover, ecological interaction with other cells and in trans-generational, long-term and open-ended evolution. From this general genealogical perspective on life (applicable to our primitive Earth or to any other planet in the habitable zone), I will explain why autonomous protocells must arise at relatively early prebiotic stages, as a key enabling condition to get such an intricate and multidimensional process going, so it leads to LUCA (or a similarly complex microbial population). Given the far-from-equilibrium nature of those primary proto-cellular realizations of autonomy, they should not only involve the functional activity and integration of endogenously produced molecular components (i.e., the constitution of ‘minimal metabolisms’, with an intrinsic potential for whole-system re-production) but, at the same time, also rudimentary mechanisms to capture and manage external resources and, therefore, they should display functional activity on their local, surrounding medium. I will describe various putative mechanisms, extending ideas from previous work, to illustrate/support these preliminary claims. Then, taking that foundational asymmetry between system and environment (which is at the very heart of the concept of ‘agency’) as a starting point, I will defend that the development of increasingly robust and efficient –though still infra-biological– expressions of autonomy will naturally require more sophisticated control strategies, both inwards and outwards. Inwards, because proto-cellular organization is forced to deal with a wider and wider ‘phenotypic space’ (namely, a larger and larger number of possible dynamic states/behaviours available to it); outwards, because system-environment interactions are critical for survival, and not just in relation to the inert medium (source of perturbations, as well as matter/energy supplies, of course), but to other active protocells in the population (first ‘proto-ecological’ relationships). In this context, the emergence of regulation (understood as the appearance of ‘second-order’ control mechanisms — i.e., constraints operating on constraints) is of central importance. And it is here that I will argue, more specifically, that regulatory mechanisms should unfold to address, concurrently, both dimensions of the problem: achieving higher internal metabolic efficiency and broader capacity to modulate functional interactions with the environment, bringing about adaptive forms of agency. Finally, I will reason why all this would be impossible to accomplish, in practice, without ‘systems evolution’ already going on at the level of protocell populations — like we started to model in but still in need for further exploration and characterization.

Day 2 – Wednesday 05 June

10:00 – 11:15

Fred Keijzer: How to slice the evolutionary steps towards mind? Why agency may not cut it

Fred Keijzer
University of Groningen, NL

Articulating a detailed lineage explanation for the evolution of mental phenomena is an important scientific and philosophical goal. Calcott’s notion of a lineage explanation involves two requirements: continuity and production. Continuity holds that the distances between subsequent evolutionary stages should be minimal, avoiding significant gaps. Productivity implies that each step has to be an adapted functioning organism. Looking at animal minds, a lineage explanation is expected to specify a sequence of evolutionary steps from a chosen starting point to an end point. Here, I will focus on the transition from proto-animals to early bilaterians. My question concerns the role agency might play in specifying potential lineage explanations for this evolutionary trajectory. Within organizational approaches, agency is a crucial phenomenon that helps to connect life and mind more generally. However, for a lineage explanation agency may remain too general and coarse to differentiate the separate and specific steps that make up plausible lineage explanations.

Visual Perception, Minimal Representation, and the Emergence of Cognitive Functions within a Biological Organization

11:15 – 11:45

Coffee Break

11:45 – 13:00

Argyris Arnellos: Visual perception, minimal representation, and the emergence of cognitive functions within a biological organization

Argyris Arnellos
University of the Aegean

Based on neurophysiologically-informed behavioral studies, I argue in detail that one of the simplest cases of organismic behavior based on low-resolution spatial vision–the visually-guided obstacle avoidance in the cubozoan medusa Tripedalia cystophora–implies a minimal form of representation. I further argue that the characteristics and properties of this form of constancy-employing structural representation distinguish it substantially from putative representational states associated with mere sensory indicators, and I’ll also reply to some possible objections from the liberal representationalists camp by defending and qualitatively demarcating the minimal nature of this case. Then, I analyze the specific functional role of this minimal form of (cognitive) activity in the specific (and relatively early) type of nervous system, arguing that though this role is only understandable within a biological organization, yet it is not reducible to the underlying biological functionality. Finally, I’ll briefly discuss the implications of this thesis within a naturalistic framework of agency.

13:00 – 15:00

Lunch Break

15:00 – 16:15

Alvaro Moreno: Where mind begins: an evolutionary approach to conscious agency

Alvaro Moreno

The aim of this article is to discuss several problems in the distribution map for conscious organisms and suggest a different strategy to address their evolu­tionary development. I will analyze the different role of the body plans of vertebrates and invertebrates and how they harness the possibilities of evolution of the brain— in some cases blocking, in some others enabling its complexifica­tion and corporal integration. I discuss the case of the evolution of coleoid cephalopods, showing the achievements and limitations of these special invertebrates. I will argue that only the specific body plan of vertebrates has permitted an open complexification and diversification of consciousness because it has favored an increasing integration between brain and body.

16:15 – 18:00

General Discussion

All times are in local greek time (EEST / GMT +3)

This workshop is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, project “Integration and individuation as key properties in the origin of agency and cognition” of the “Agency, Directionality, and Function” cohort.