IAS-Research Talk by Tim Klaassen (Tilburg University): “Enactivism and the Foundations of Ethics: Some Suggestions on How to Bring the Two Together”


Enactivism and the Foundations of Ethics: Some Suggestions on How to Bring the Two Together

Tim Klaassen (Tilburg University)

Tuesday 4 February at 11.30 Centro Carlos Santamaria (B14)


Can we utilize enactivism as a framework for understanding the foundations of normativity in the moral and political domain? In this talk I suggest a broad outline of an affirmative answer. To begin with, I show, relying on Korsgaard’s “constitutivist” account of the principles of practical reason, that normative standards within the moral domain can be shown to have their source in a moral agent’s distinct mode of autopoiesis. A moral agent is an agent endowed with a specific type of self-consciousness. Because of this, they have a certain degree of freedom in deciding which sensorimotor contingencies they shall adopt to govern their interaction with the environment. As a corollary to this, the world that such agents bring forth, and the kinds of action it affords, comes to have a distinctively moral significance. In the second part of my talk I explore the question of whether, in addition to this kind of “moral enaction” there is also something like a distinctively political form of world-enactment. That is, is there something distinctive about the manner in which institutions are enacted? Relying on the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer, I formulate a provisional affirmative answer to this question via the notion of tradition. On this account, tradition is a distinctive and irreducibly social form of enaction through which a world of socio-political institutions is brought forth. Even if this can be established, however, the challenge remains to see whether any normative conclusions can be drawn from it.

IAS-Research Talk by Silvia de Cesare (Université de Genève): “The idea of organic “progress” and evolutionary theory: an epistemological perspective”


The idea of organic “progress” and evolutionary theory: an epistemological perspective

Silvia de Cesare (Université de Genève)

Tuesday 28 January at 11.30 Centro Carlos Santamaria (B14)


The notion of “progress” can be defined as a directional change towards the better, implying a descriptive and an axiological element. “Organic progress” is the idea that, in the history of life, there has been a change towards organic forms which are “better” than the ancient forms. Several scholars have shown that this idea can be found in Charles Darwin’s thought and continues to provoke debate today. My presentation aims to disentangle conceptual questions about the notion of organic progress. Can we identify a precise notion of progress that would be implied by evolutionary theory? To answer this, it is necessary to make explicit how this notion is related to two concepts: adaptation and function. Following the reasoning of Darwin, Richard Dawkins and George G. Simpson, I clarify the concept of functional improvement of organic traits. I argue that there is an analogy between organic traits and technological objects, explicit in the notion of “arms race” proposed by Dawkins. Analyzing this analogy, I propose a distinction between two levels of axiology, often neglected both in organic and technological domain. I also suggest the hypothesis that the technological analogy may influence the significance that evolutionary biologists attribute to functional improvement.

IAS-Research Talk by Marc Artiga (Universitat de València): “Do Bacteria Really Talk to Each Other?”

Do Bacteria Really Talk to Each Other?

Marc Artiga (Universitat de València)

Tuesday January 14 at  at 11:30 (Centro Carlos Santamaria, B14)


In the last two decades, there has been a growing interest in bacteria and other microorganisms. This research has provided interested insights into the nature of life (Parke, 2013), cooperation (Lyon, 2007), individuality (Clarke, 2016), species (Franklin, 2007) and other issues in philosophy of science (O’Malley, 2014). In this talk, I will focus on the capacity of some bacteria to produce molecules that are usually classified as ‘signals’ and I would like to defend two claims. First of all, I will argue that in this context expressions such as ‘signalling’ should be taken at face value and that certain interactions between bacteria actually qualify as genuine forms of communication. The second goal is to use this case study to revise our general theories of signalling. In particular, I will argue that there are some aspects of bacterial signalling that do not fit the standard model; some features that usually included in the definition of communication are probably not necessary (e.g. response flexibility) and others that are not included are crucial (e.g. being a minimal cause). Finally, I will discuss the relationship between my proposal and other accounts, such as the ‘influence’ approach and the Organizational Approach to Biological Communication (Frick, Bich and Moreno, 2019).

IAS-Research Talk by Matthew Egbert (University of Auckland): Autonomous & Self-Sensitive Organisms, Behaviours and Ecological Systems

Date and time: October 15, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Matthew Egbert (University of Auckland)

Title: Autonomous & Self-Sensitive Organisms, Behaviours and Ecological Systems

Abstract. The enactive concept of autonomy refers to a precarious, “operationally closed” network of interdependent components, where each constitutive component both depends upon and enables other components. Originally formulated as a description of the basic organization of living systems, the idea has been applied in a variety of domains.

In this talk, I will touch on three of these domains. First I will briefly review previous work that shows how autonomous biological individuals (such as bacterial cells) can respond to indicators of their own viability.

I will then present some recent investigations of autonomous sensorimotor dynamics, and highlight an open challenge concerning how autonomous patterns of sensorimotor behaviour might similarly adapt to their own viability.

Finally, I will consider autonomy in the context of ecological systems, and how these systems might be able to respond adaptively to their own viability. This final section of the talk outlines some very early-stage research I am engaged in that relates to Lovelock’s Gaia theory.

Ias-Research Talk by Neda Maki (University of Toronto): “Autism in the Canadian Arctic”

Date and time: September 27, Friday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Neda Maki (University of Toronto)

Title: Autism in the Canadian Arctic


Limited data are available on how Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects Inuit families living in remote Arctic communities in Nunavut (NU). In Canada, 1 in 66 children is diagnosed with ASD. A neurodevelopmental condition, ASD is characterized by impediments in communication and social interaction. A significant primary health concern due to its life-altering impact on families and the high cost to society of providing supportive ASD services. While there are robust autism programs available in some Canadian jurisdictions, no specific programs exist in NU. Nunavummiut (inhabitants of Nunavut) living in remote communities must travel thousands of kilometers to southern hospitals (Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg) to receive pediatric assessment, therapies (physio, occupational, speech, and behaviour), and counselling. Emerging from concerns of Nunavummiut families, the proposed study aims to 1. gather family, education, and health service provider perspectives to outline the day to day challenges and obstacles faced by care providers for children with autistic behaviours in remote communities of NU; and 2. Support the development of ASD services and program objectives that reflect Inuit specific frameworks of child development, family and community support. By embracing Inuit methodology of Piliriqatigiinniq (working together for the common good), this study is a timely engagement that responds to Qikiqtani Truth Commission’s Call for immediate government action to provide people of NU equitable and accessible programs and services at a local-level. Building on community partnerships consistent with Inuit knowledge production and self-determination this study will truly service the needs of Nunavummiut by understanding what strategies and health services (if any) Inuit seek and value when caring for children who display ASD behaviours.

IAS-Research Talk by Miguel A. Sepúlveda-Pedro (Université de Montréal): “Opening the ecological dimension of the enactive approach: Umwelt, normativity, and form”

Date and time: July 16, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Miguel A. Sepúlveda-Pedro (Université de Montréal)

Title: Opening the ecological dimension of the enactive approach: Umwelt, normativity, and form


The enactive approach is an alternative approach to cognition that challenges many fundamental assumptions of mainstream cognitive science. One of the most fundamental assumptions of traditional cognitive science is that the objective World is a ready-made reality that we access via our cognitive capacities, thus cognition essentially consist in getting information about this objective reality. In this classical picture, we need to reconstruct or represent the outside world in our heads, given the limited capacities of our senses. From the beginning, the enactive approach has challenged this conception of cognition by positing that the world we live, in our cognitive lives, is enacted thanks to the interactions of a living agent and its surroundings. Therefore, it is suggested that the world that a cognitive agent experience is not an objective reality but a dimension that acquires meaning and value according to the skills and concerns of living agents. Thompson, in his Mind in Life, loosely refer to this enactment of a meaningful world as an Umwelt. Uexküll coined the concept of Umwelt to define the world as it is lived by animals, according to their biological needs. However, Uexküll statements was sometimes explicitly linked to Kant’s transcendental philosophy. One of the problems of Kant’s transcendental philosophy is that it encloses the subject in its own domain, meanwhile an objective unknowable reality remains the source of materials that acquire form thanks to the mental capacities of the subject. In this Kantian background, the enactment of an Umwelt will be analogous to the constitution of a meaningful world by the capacities of the subject alone. This interpretation of the Umwelt is deeply problematic, and it does not reflect the claims of the enactive approach. This approach, like phenomenology, offers an account that entails a deep entanglement between the body and the environment, not an enclosed form of subjectivity. Nevertheless, many criticisms on the enactive approach seems to interpret the enactment of an Umwelt in the Kantian sense, so they claim that the enactive approach entails some form of subjectivism. In my view, many of these criticism are unfounded due to misinterpretations of the claims of the enactive approach, nonetheless, their criticisms push us to have a more specific account of the Umwelt, one that remains coherent with the claims of the enactive approach, but that also avoids the problems that have been usually attributed to the enactive approach. Thus, I will suggest that conceptually the notion of interanimality and the metaphor of animal melodies, in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature, offer us a better way to understand the characteristics of the Umwelt, from the perspective of the enactive approach. Moreover, I will also suggest that an account of what I call structural emergence needs to be also explicitly added to the theory of biological autonomy, to open the domain of embodied subjectivity to a deeper ecological dimension of emplaced intercorporeality.

IAS-Research Talk by Iñaki San Pedro: Degrees of Epistemic Opacity

Date and time: February 19, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Iñaki San Pedro (UPV/EHU)

Title: Degrees of Epistemic Opacity


The paper distinguishes two senses of “epistemic opacity” in computer simulations, namely a qualitative sense and a quantitative sense, and explores their relation to actual simulating and modelling practices.

From a qualitative point of view, the notion of “epistemic opacity“ in computer simulation seems to have the same significance and implications for any computer simulations. That is, from a qualitative point of view, computer simulations seem to be equally opaque —i.e. we open the black box, and find it (always) dark! In this sense “epistemic opacity” expresses the fact that when a computer simulation is performed there is an “epistemic leap” associated to it. This kind of epistemic leap is characteristic rather than of a specific model or simulation, of the fact that a simulation is performed.

On the other hand, “epistemic opacity” can also be approached from a quantitative point of view. The questions to be asked then are rather different, e.g. is the “epistemic leap” noted above always of the same size? or are all computer simulations equally opaque, i.e. when we open the back box and find it dark, is it always as dark? The paper argues that (from this quantitative point of view), computer simulations display degrees of “epistemic opacity” (with the limit of non-opacity set in analycity). I will not discuss here whether these degrees of “epistemic opacity” can be measured (i.e. exactly quantified), or attempt provide a method for doing that. I will claim nevertheless that actual degrees of “epistemic opacity” are tightly related to what we can call the “complexity of the computational process”, which is associated for instance to the particular design of the computing software at work, specific computer settings, or to hardware limitations. With this idea of complexity in mind, I will claim, the more complex a computational process is, the more (quantitatively) epistemically opaque will the simulation result.

I will note finally that a good deal of methodological decisions taken by scientist and modellers when performing computer simulations —i.e. typical tricks-of-the-trade such as parametrisation, use of expert knowledge, scaling, etc.—, which constitute an important part of current scientific practices in the field, are precisely aimed at reducing such complexity. I will conclude thus that actual scientific practices (or part of these, at least) in fact reduce (quantitative) “epistemic opacity.” This opens new and interesting questions such as whether actual scientific practices can manage to reduce “epistemic opacity” to the limit of analycity (thus eliminating “epistemic opacity” also in a qualitative sense), whether specific scientific practices can be said to reduce in some (qualitative) sense some of the uncertainties that computer simulations involve, or whether they have an impact on the reliability or confidence of specific computer simulations (possibly of the very same system).

December 18, IAS-Research Talk by Charles Wolfe (Ghent University): Philosophy of biology before biology: a methodological provocation

Date and time: December 18, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Charles Wolfe (Ghent University)

Title: “Philosophy of biology before biology”: a methodological provocation


Basing myself on work forthcoming in a volume entitled Philosophy of Biology before Biology (coedited w. C. Bognon-Küss), I argue for a conception I term ‘philosophy of biology before biology’, focusing on the theoretical ‘world’ or ‘context’ out of which the science ultimately called ‘biology’ emerged. This historico-philosophical approach to biology’s genesis is neither internalist study of biological doctrines, nor a reconstruction of the role philosophical concepts might have played in the constitution of biology as science; it looks more at the interplay between metaphysical and empirical issues. This study does not just have implications for understanding the relations between philosophy and biology in the mid- to late 18th century; it should also have an impact on our present understanding of philosophy of biology, given that it is necessarily conditioned by a very specific history and historiography (particularly evolution-centred). Further, ‘philosophy of biology before biology’ sheds a different light on our understanding of how biology as a science of life became unified.

IAS-Research Talk by Nathaniel Barrett (University of Navarra): “The contrasts of feeling: Toward an integrated theory of affect and consciousness”

Date and time: November 27, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14.

Speaker: Nathaniel Barrett (“Mind-Brain Group,” Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra)

Title: The contrasts of feeling: Toward an integrated theory of affect and consciousness


What is affect and how does it relate to other qualities of experience? Affect presents special challenges to explanation that are well known to investigators of pleasure and pain but normally do not enter into philosophical and scientific discussions of consciousness. In this paper I present an attempt to integrate affect and consciousness into a single theory based on the idea that affect is not a specially discriminated quality of experience but rather a function of the way the “feeling self” expands and contracts in relation to the qualities of feeling (Arnold 1960; Frederickson 1995). The key term for the elaboration of this thesis is contrast. Drawing from theories of the nonlinear dynamics of perceptual categorization (e.g. Freeman 1999; Spivey 2007) I propose that perceptual experience is constituted by complex contrasts specified by sensorimotor dynamics within a continually evolving, high-dimensional “contrast space” (cf. the “quality space” in Clark 1993; 2000). For this approach, affect pertains to “implicit” higher-order contrasts that obtain between successive contrast spaces of perceptual dynamics. That is, the affective tone of a perceptual feeling is not determined by perceptual qualities themselves but rather by the way in which these qualities are specified within an evolving contrast space that “expands” and “contracts.” I further suggest that the evolving contrast space of experience can be thought of as a dynamically constituted “feeling self.”