Project

OUTONOMY - Fleshing Out Autonomy Beyond the Individual

Goal: Lead by Xabier E. Barandiaran and Leonardo Bich, this philosophy project funded by the Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades (Spain) aims to expand theories of autonomy beyond classical conceptions of the individual by including integrative, relational, collective and environmental dimensions into it.

Date: 1 June 2020 - 31 May 2023

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Project log

Leonardo Bich
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The definitions and conceptualizations of health and the management of healthcare have been challenged by the current global scenarios (e.g., new diseases, new geographical distribution of diseases, effects of climate change on health, etc.) and by the ongoing scholarship in humanities and science. In this paper we question the mainstream definition of health adopted by the WHO -‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO, 1948) - and its role in providing tools to understand what health is in the contemporary context. More specifically, we argue that this context requires to take into account the role of the environment both in medical theory and in the healthcare practice. To do so, we analyse WHO documents dated 1984 and 1986 which define health as ‘coping with the environment’. We develop the idea of ‘coping with the environment’, by focusing on two cardinal concepts: adaptation in public health and adaptivity in philosophy of biology. We argue that the notions of adaptation and adaptivity can be of major benefit for the characterization of health, and have practical implications. We explore some of these implications by discussing two recent case studies of adaptivity in public health, which can be valuable to further develop adaptive strategies in the current pandemic scenario: community centred care and microbiologically healthier buildings.
Leonardo Bich
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Theoretical accounts of development exhibit several internal tensions and face multiple challenges. They span from the problem of the identification of the temporal boundaries of development (beginning and end) to the characterization of the distinctive type of change involved compared to other biological processes. They include questions such as the role to ascribe to the environment or what types of biological systems can undergo development and whether they should include colonies or even ecosystems. In this chapter we discuss these conceptual issues, and we argue that adopting an organizational approach may help solve or clarify them. While development is usually identified with the achievement of an adult form with the capability to reproduce and therefore maintain a lineage, adopting the organizational approach may provide a different strategy, which focuses also on the maintenance of the current organization of the organism. By doing so an organizational approach favors a switch in perspective which consists in analyzing how organisms maintain their viability at each moment of development rather than considering them as going through intermediate stages of a process directed towards a specific goal state. This developmental dimension of biological organization has yet to be given a general and detailed analysis within the organizational theoretical perspective, apart from some preliminary attempts. How a biological organization is maintained through a series of radical organizational changes, and what these changes are, are issues that still require clarification. In this chapter we offer the beginnings of such an analysis of developmental transitions, understood as changes in functionality brought forth by regulatory mechanisms in the context of the continued maintenance of organizational viability at every step.
Leonardo Bich
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Organization figures centrally in the understanding of biological systems advanced by both new mechanists and proponents of the autonomy framework. The new mechanists focus on how components of mechanisms are organized to produce a phenomenon and emphasize productive continuity between these components. The autonomy framework focuses on how the components of a biological system are organized in such a way that they contribute to the maintenance of the organisms that produce them. In this paper we analyze and compare these two accounts of organization and argue that understanding biological organisms as cohesively integrated systems benefits from insights from both. To bring together the two accounts, we focus on the notions of control and regulation as bridge concepts. We start from a characterization of biological mechanisms in terms of constraints and focus on a specific type of mechanism, control mechanisms, that operate on other mechanisms on the basis of measurements of variables in the system and its environment. Control mechanisms are characterized by their own set of constraints that enable them to sense conditions, convey signals, and effect changes on constraints in the controlled mechanism. They thereby allow living organisms to adapt to internal and external variations and to coordinate their parts in such a manner as to maintain viability. Because living organisms contain a vast number of control mechanisms, a central challenge is to understand how they are themselves organized. With the support of examples from both unicellular and multicellular systems we argue that control mechanisms are organized heterarchically, and we discuss how this type of control architecture can, without invoking top-down and centralized forms of organizations, succeed in coordinating internal activities of organisms.
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Emakumea subjektu berria eta ezberdina da filosofian, agian gorpuztuago bizitzeagatik, hilekoetan adibidez, eta filosofiaren izaera zein ekintza interpelatzen ditu. Weilen ildotik esanda, pentsatzeko edo filosofatzeko gogoa eta gaitasuna zapalkuntzak soilik eragozten ditu. MENSTRUATION AND EMBODIED PHILOSOPHICAL SUBJECTS.- Women are a new and different subject in philosophy, perhaps living more embodied, for example in menstruations, and they interpellate the character and actions of philosophy. Following Simone Weil's thinking, we can say that the desire and ability to do philosophy can only be prevented by oppression.
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Etxeberria, Arantza (2022) Hilekoa eta subjektu filosofiko gorpuztua, Jakin, 248: 35-48.
 
Leonardo Bich
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Living organisms act as integrated wholes to maintain themselves. Individual actions can each be explained by characterizing the mechanisms that perform the activity. But these alone do not explain how various activities are coordinated and performed versatilely. We argue that this depends on a specific type of mechanisms, control mechanisms. We develop an account of control by examining several extensively studied control mechanisms operative in the bacterium E. coli. On our analysis, what distinguishes a control mechanism from other mechanisms is that it relies on measuring one or more variables, which results in setting constraints in the control mechanism that determine its action on flexible constraints in other mechanisms. In the most basic arrangement, the measurement process directly determines the action of the control mechanism, but in more complex arrangements signals mediate between measurements and effectors. This opens the possibility of multiple responses to the same measurement and responses based on multiple measurements. It also allows crosstalk, resulting in networks of control mechanisms. Such networks integrate the behaviors of the organism but also present a challenge in tailoring responses to particular measurements. We discuss how integrated activity can still result in differential, versatile, responses.
Leonardo Bich
added a research item
The new mechanists and the autonomy approach both aim to account for how biological phenomena are explained. One identifies appeals to how components of a mechanism are organized so that their activities produce a phenomenon. The other directs attention towards the whole organism and focuses on how it achieves self-maintenance. This paper discusses challenges each confronts and how each could benefit from collaboration with the other: the new mechanistic framework can gain by taking into account what happens outside individual mechanisms, while the autonomy approach can ground itself in biological research into how the actual components constituting an autonomous system interact and contribute in different ways to realize and maintain the system. To press the case that these two traditions should be constructively integrated we describe how three recent developments in the autonomy tradition together provide a bridge between the two traditions: (1) a framework of work and constraints, (2) a conception of function grounded in the organization of an autonomous system, and (3) a focus on control.
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Edited collection ebook on the topic.
Leonardo Bich
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This paper discusses the epistemic status of biology from the standpoint of the systemic approach to living systems based on the notion of biological autonomy. This approach aims to provide an understanding of the distinctive character of biological systems and this paper analyses its theoretical and epistemological dimensions. The paper argues that, considered from this perspective, biological systems are examples of emergent phenomena, that the biological domain exhibits special features with respect to other domains, and that biology as a discipline employs some core concepts, such as teleology, function, regulation among others, that are irreducible to those employed in physics and chemistry. It addresses the claim made by Jacques Monod that biology as a science is marginal. It argues that biology is general insofar as it constitutes a paradigmatic example of complexity science, both in terms of how it defines the theoretical object of study and of the epistemology and heuristics employed. As such, biology may provide lessons that can be applied more widely to develop an epistemology of complex systems.
Leonardo Bich
added a research item
This paper discusses the epistemic status of biology from the standpoint of the systemic approach to living systems based on the notion of biological autonomy. This approach aims to provide an understanding of the distinctive character of biological systems and this paper analyses its theoretical and epistemological dimensions. The paper argues that, considered from this perspective, biological systems are examples of emergent phenomena, that the biological domain exhibits special features with respect to other domains, and that biology as a discipline employs some core concepts, such as teleology, function, regulation among others, that are irreducible to those employed in physics and chemistry. It addresses the claim made by Jacques Monod that biology as a science is marginal. It argues that biology is general insofar as it constitutes a paradigmatic example of complexity science, both in terms of how it defines the theoretical object of study and of the epistemology and heuristics employed. As such, biology may provide lessons that can be applied more widely to develop an epistemology of complex systems.
Leonardo Bich
added a research item
This paper explores the use of model organisms in studying the cognitive phenomenon of decision-making. Drawing on the framework of biological control to develop a skeletal conception of decision-making, we show that two core features of decision-making mechanisms can be identified by studying model organisms, such as E. coli, jellyfish, C. elegans, lamprey, etc. First, decision mechanisms are distributed and heterarchically-structured. Second, they depend heavily on chemical information processing, such as those involving neuromodulators. We end by discussing the implications for studying distinctively human decision-making.
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Miguel Aguilera
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Inspired by models of self-organized criticality, a family of measures quantifies long-range correlations in neural and behavioral activity in the form of self-similar (e.g., power-law scaled) patterns across a range of scales. Long-range correlations are often taken as evidence that a system is near a critical transition, suggesting interaction-dominant, softly-assembled relations between its parts. Psychologists and neuroscientists frequently use power-law scaling as evidence of critical regimes in neural and cognitive activity. Critics, however, argue that this methodology operates at most at the level of an analogy between cognitive and other natural phenomena. This is because power-laws do not provide information about a particular system's organization or what makes it specifically cognitive. We respond to this criticism using recent work in Integrated Information Theory. We propose a more principled understanding of criticality as a system's susceptibility to changes in its own integration, a property cognitive agents are expected to manifest. We contrast critical integration with power-law measures and find the former more informative about the underlying processes.
Leonardo Bich
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We advance an account that grounds cognition, specifically decision-making, in an activity all organisms as autonomous systems must perform to keep themselves viable—controlling their production mechanisms. Production mechanisms, as we characterize them, perform activities such as procuring resources from their environment, putting these resources to use to construct and repair the organism's body and moving through the environment. Given the variable nature of the environment and the continual degradation of the organism, these production mechanisms must be regulated by control mechanisms that select when a production is required and how it should be carried out. To operate on production mechanisms, control mechanisms need to procure information through measurement processes and evaluate possible actions. They are making decisions. In all organisms, these decisions are made by multiple different control mechanisms that are organized not hierarchically but heterarchically. In many cases, they employ internal models of features of the environment with which the organism must deal. Cognition, in the form of decision-making, is thus fundamental to living systems which must control their production mechanisms. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Basal cognition: conceptual tools and the view from the single cell’.
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Criticisms of the "container" model of pregnancy picturing female and embryo as separate entities multiply in various philosophical and scientific contexts during the last decades. In this paper, we examine how this model underlies received views of pregnancy in evolutionary biology, in the characterization of the transition from oviparity to viviparity in mammals and in the selectionist explanations of pregnancy as an evolutionary strategy. In contrast, recent evo-devo studies on eutherian reproduction, including the role of inflammation and new maternal cell types, gather evidence in favor of considering pregnancy as an evolved relational novelty. Our thesis is that from this perspective we can identify the emergence of a new historical individual in evolution. In evo-devo, historical units are conceptualized as evolved entities which fulfill two main criteria, their continuous persistence and their non-exchangeability. As pregnancy can be individuated in this way, we contend that pregnant females are historical individuals. We argue that historical individuality differs from, and coexists with, other views of biological individuality as applied to pregnancy (the physiological, the evolutionary and the ecological one), but brings forward an important new insight which might help dissolve misguided conceptions.
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Leonardo Bich
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We have been awarded a scholarship for a PhD student to develop her/his PhD with us on the topics of the research project “OUTONOMY: fleshing out autonomy beyond the individual”. We are searching for a dedicated, smart, philosophically minded, technically skilled and collaborative person willing to start a research career with us at the IAS-Research Group a the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). Deadline to submit your expression of interest is October 10th!
 
Leonardo Bich
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Both physiological and evolutionary criteria of biological individuality are underpinned by the idea that an individual is a functionally integrated whole. However, a precise account of functional integration has not been provided so far, and current notions are not developed in the details, especially in the case of composite systems. To address this issue, this paper focuses on the organisational dimension of two representative associations of prokaryotes: biofilms and the endosymbiosis between prokaryotes. Some critical voices have been raised against the thesis that biofilms are biological individuals. Nevertheless, it has not been investigated which structural and functional obstacles may prevent them from being fully integrated physiological or evolutionary units. By contrast, the endosymbiotic association of different species of prokaryotes has the potential for achieving a different type of physiological integration based on a common boundary and interlocked functions. This type of association had made it possible, under specific conditions, to evolve endosymbionts into fully integrated organelles. This paper therefore has three aims: first, to analyse the organisational conditions and the physiological mechanisms that enable integration in prokaryotic associations; second, to discuss the organisational differences between biofilms and prokaryotic endosymbiosis and the types of integration they achieve; finally, to provide a more precise account of functional integration based on these case studies.
Xabier E. Barandiaran
added 2 research items
We are currently witnessing the emergence of new forms of collective identities and a redefinition of the old ones through networked digital interactions, and these can be explicitly measured and analyzed. We distinguish between three major trends on the development of the concept of identity in the social realm: (1) an essentialist sense (based on conditions and properties shared by members of a group), (2) a representational or ideational sense (based on the application of categories by oneself or others), and (3) a relational and interactional sense (based on interaction processes between actors and their environments). The interactional approach aligns with current empirical and methodological progress in social network analysis. Moreover, it has been argued that, within the network society, the notion of collective identity (Melucci, 1995) in the political field must be rethought as technologically mediated and interactive. We suggest that collective identities should be understood as recurrent, cohesive, and coordinated communicative interaction networks. We here propose that such identities can be depicted by: (a) mapping and filtering a relevant interaction network, (b) delimiting a set of communities, (c) determining the strongly connected component(s) of such communities (the core identity) in a directed graph, and (d) defining the identity audiences and sources within the community. This technical graph–theoretical characterization is explained and justified in detail through a toy model and applied to three empirical case studies to characterize political identities in party politics (communicative interaction in Twitter during the Spanish elections in 2018), contentious politics in confrontation (in Twitter during the Catalan strike for independence 2019), and the multitudinous identity of Spanish Indignados/15 social movement (in Facebook fan pages 2011). We discuss how the proposed definition is useful to delimit and characterize the internal structure of collective identities in technopolitical interaction networks, and we suggest how the proposed methods can be improved and complemented with other approaches. We finally draw the theoretical implications of understanding collective identities as emerging from interaction networks in a progressive platformization of social interactions in a digital world.
Leonardo Bich
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Project summary and main research lines
The concept of autonomy, understood as the capacity of a system to set up and follow the norms of its own functioning, is of central relevance to contemporary science and society. Recently, the increasing acknowledgement of the deep interconnectedness, mutual dependence and multi-scale embeddedness of several natural and social phenomena, has directly challenged the very idea of autonomy, together with those of individuality and identity, and the possibility of its applications to scientific and social challenges.
Building on top of 25 years of philosophical and trans-disciplinary research at the IAS-Research Center for Life, Mind and Society of the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), centred on a naturalized theory of autonomy in biological and cognitive sciences, this project aims to expand theories of autonomy beyond classical conceptions of the individual by including integrative, relational, collective and environmental dimensions into it.
To do so the project pursues 4 main goals:
1- To develop an account of integration in autonomous systems, as an organizational principle to understand how ‘physiological’ cohesiveness emerges within and across systems.
2- To understand how inter-actions between autonomous systems can give rise to supra-individual or collective forms of autonomy and how these can alter the autonomy of the former.
3- To investigate the extension of autonomous systems into their environment (from prebiotic scaffolds to technology) to achieve viability and coordinate regulatory self-governing processes.
4- To address the issue of sustainability (at different scales) of new eco and socio-ecological systems emerging from previously independent autonomous systems.
In order to achieve these trans-disciplinary goals, the methodology involves naturalist conceptual analysis and synthesis based on an active dialogue with empirical research, computational and mathematical models and scientific theories. The profiles of the 5 research team members in philosophy of science, philosophy of biology and complex systems is complemented by an international work team of 24 collaborators including social scientists, computer modellers, network and data analysts, biologists and environmental scientists.
 
Xabier E. Barandiaran
added a project goal
Lead by Xabier E. Barandiaran and Leonardo Bich, this philosophy project funded by the Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades (Spain) aims to expand theories of autonomy beyond classical conceptions of the individual by including integrative, relational, collective and environmental dimensions into it.