While enactivism is a growing force in cognitive science, we believe it is time to revisit its contributions to biology, and particularly to the origins of life. This workshop’s aims are (1) to revitalize the discussion of autonomy, with the goal of grounding it in quantitative definitions based in observable physical phenomena, and (2) to revisit the topic of the origins of life from an enactive perspective, by focusing on the question of how a new autonomous agent can emerge where none existed before; or perhaps equivalently, how normativity can first emerge from the abiotic physical world.

Enactivism was originally founded on the notion of biological autonomy (autopoiesis), which identifies living agents with their self-producing mode of organization. Traditionally, the definition of autonomy has rested upon abstractions such as “processes,” “organizational closure,” and “distinguishable unities.” A key question of the workshop is how to ground these abstractions in terms of what can be measured in real physical systems. We aim to focus discussion on how a self-producing mode of organization can arise from the physics and chemistry of our world. What are the relevant processes and how can they be measured? How is organizational closure actually realized in our physical world? Is autonomy absolute or does it come in degrees? It is only by focusing on these questions that we can truly address the nature of question of the origin of autonomous agents.

After an introduction on enactivism, the workshop will be divided into two sessions. The first session, on the maintenance of living systems, will focus attention on the nature of living systems, and autonomy more broadly, while the second, on origins, will address the question of their emergence.

Maintenance. This session is concerned with the organization of living systems, and how they maintain themselves from disintegration. What is the relation between the intrinsic self-production and adaptive interaction with the environment? What is the relation between thermodynamic openness and organizational closure? Are physical boundaries necessary? What is meant by regulation, how does it relate to normativity, and is it required for maintenance under variable environmental conditions?

Origins. While enactivism has previously contributed to the origins of life by asking what is the minimal instantiation of autopoiesis, this session will focus instead on how can an autonomous agent arise where none existed before? What could cause a complex, self-maintaining network of processes to emerge? How could it become capable of evolution? Can this emergence be observed outside of biology (e.g. in computer models, or in wet chemistry), and can parallels be drawn between the origins of life and the origins of other complex self-maintaining systems, such as economic systems or multicellular organisms?


Confirmed Participants. Mark BickardRandall Beer, Ezequiel Di Paolo