IAS-Research Seminar by Andrea Gambarotto: “Nature and Agency: Towards a Post-Kantian Naturalism”


Thursday 26th October 2023 at 14:30, Centro Carlo Santamaria, room 4

The talk will be hybrid, to participate remotely please contact andrea.gambarotto@uclouvain.be


We outline an alternative to both scientific and liberal naturalism which attempts to reconcile Sellars’ apparently conflicting commitments to the scientific accountability of human nature and the autonomy of the space of reasons. Scientific natu- ralism holds that agency and associated concepts are a mechanical product of the realm of laws, while liberal naturalism contends that the autonomy of the space of reason requires that we leave nature behind. The third way we present follows in the footsteps of German Idealism, which attempted to overcome the Kantian chasm between nature and agency, and is thus dubbed ‘post-Kantian.’ We point to an overlooked group of scholars in the naturalism debate who, along with recent work in biology and cognitive science, offer a path to overcome the reductive tendencies of empiricism while avoiding the dichotomy of logical spaces. We then bring together these different streams of research, by foregrounding and expanding on what they share: the idea of organisms as living agents and that of a continuity without identity between life and mind. We qualify this as a bottom-up transformative approach to rational agency, which grounds cognition in the intrinsically purposive nature of organisms, while emphasizing the distinction between biological agency and full-fledged mindedness.

IAS-Research Talk by Mirko Prokop, “Towards an Enactive Account of Practical Reasoning: Setting the Scene”

On May 4th, 2023 4pm. Centro Carlos Santamaria, Room 1. The talk will be hybrid, to participate remotely contact andrea.gambarotto@uclouvain.be

Abstract: Since its inception in the 1990s, the enactive approach has grown into a vibrant framework for understanding the mind and its entanglement in biological processes, embodiment, agency, sensorimotor interactions, sociality and language, based on an organizational, dynamical, and non-representational approach centred around the concept of autonomy. Yet, despite significant progress, the characteristically human capacity to reason about what do to – a capacity hailed especially by classical approaches to which enaction was proposed as an alternative – remains to be explained in enactive terms. This explanatory lack is pressing not only in view of vindicating enaction as a new paradigm in the cognitive sciences. It is also important because dominant views both in philosophy and cognitive science continue to affirm a conception of practical reasoning which is individualistic and modelled on theoretical reasoning. However, research from various disciplines suggests that both these tendencies stand in the way of an accurate conception of practical reasoning, one that instead begins with a conception of the practical (action) and firmly places this conception in relation to the social nature of reasoning practices. I will argue that the enactive approach is in a promising position to develop a scientifically informed and philosophically illuminating account of practical reasoning which recognizes its essentially practical and social dimension. In particular, the recent enactive proposals of sensorimotor autonomy and agency, on the one hand, and of participatory sense-making and linguistic bodies, on the other, scaffold a rich conceptual space in which to develop an enactive account of practical reasoning. However, many steps towards this lofty goal remain to be taken. In particular, I will point out that what is missing from the enactive toolkit is a conception of practical inference and action explanation and justification. Expanding on enactive and related proposals, I try to sketch how an embodied account of these notions might be developed by attending to how the explanatory structure of action is laid bare and shaped through the dynamics of social interaction. My main aim, however, is not to articulate, but to motivate an enactive approach to practical reasoning, and to bring out some of its challenges and implications, to be addressed in future research.

IAS Research Talk by Maite Arraiza: “After the trans brain: A critique of the neurobiological accounts of embodied trans* identities”

Abstract. Transness has become a hot topic. The political work of the trans depathologization movement and allies, and trans* activists in other fields, has been accompanied by a growing, yet insufficient legal recognition of trans* people’s rights, and by a proliferation of neuroscientific and neurobiological studies on trans* identities. Following the historical trend of the scientific hunt for brain differences related to sex-gender, sexual orientation, and race, in the last three decades, particular emphasis has been placed on the search for brain differences between trans* and cis people. The idea of the existence of distinctive neurobiological traits of trans* people has social, political, legal, and medical implications. This makes the analysis of neurobiological accounts on trans* identities a relevant and timely task, even more, in this context of the rise of essentialisms, where different conceptions on sex-gender identities are in contention.   

In this talk I rise two claims: 1) The idea of two brain types, the trans brain and the cis brain, is highly problematic. 2) The question regarding embodied trans* identities is a complex one, which cannot be reduced to neurobiological factors, nor to neurobiological causes. In doing so, I critically analyze three main neurobiological theories on trans* identities to date: the neurobiological theory about the origin of gender dysphoria, the neurodevelopmental cortical hypothesis, and the alternative hypothesis of self-referential thinking and body perception. This critical review is carried out considering feminist and trans* neuroscientific, biological, philosophical, and political developments, focusing its attention on three main elements: the issue of (de)pathologization, the idea of the trans brain, and the etiology of trans* identities. Highlighting the differences and convergences among the three hypotheses examined regarding the three main issues at stake, I problematize the depictions of the trans brain departing from the findings and conceptualizations of the paradigm shifting brain mosaicism. I also challenge the biological deterministic framework in which the etiology of trans* identities is inscribed from a dynamic processual entanglement perspective. Finally, I question the complete departure of the neurobiological discourse from a pathologizing framework.     

IAS Research Talk by Mitchell Ryan Distin: “Evolution in Space and Time: The Second Synthesis between Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and the Philosophy of Biology”

Abstract: Change is the fundamental idea of evolution. Explaining the extraordinary biological change we see written in the history of genomes and fossil beds is the primary occupation of the evolutionary biologist. Yet it is a surprising fact that for the majority of evolutionary research, we have rarely studied how evolution typically unfolds in nature, in changing ecological environments, over space and time. While ecology played a major role in the eventual acceptance of the population genetic viewpoint of evolution in the synthetic era (circa 1918-1956), it held a lesser role in the development of evolutionary theory until the 1980s, when we began to systematically study the evolutionary dynamics of natural populations in space and time. As a result, early evolutionary theory was initially constructed in an abstract vacuum that was unrepresentative of evolution in nature. The subtle synthesis between ecology with evolutionary biology (eco-evo synthesis) over the past 40 years has progressed our knowledge of natural selection dynamics as they are found in nature, thus revealing how natural selection varies in strength, direction, form, and, more surprisingly, level of biological organization. Natural selection can no longer be reduced to lower levels of biological organization (i.e., individuals, selfish genes) over shorter timescales but should be expanded to include adaptation at higher levels and over longer timescales. Long-term and/or emergent evolutionary phenomena, such as multilevel selection or evolvability, have thus become tenable concepts within an evolutionary biology that embraces ecological and spatiotemporal change. As a result, evolutionary biology is currently suspended at an intermediate stage of scientific progress that calls for the organization of all the recent knowledge revealed by the eco-evo synthesis into a coherent and unified theoretical framework. This is where recent advancements in the philosophy of biology can be of particular use, acting as a bridge between the subdisciplines of biology and inventing new theoretical strategies to organize and accommodate the recent knowledge. Philosophers have recommended transitioning away from outdated philosophies that were originally derived from physics within the philosophical zeitgeist of logical positivism (i.e., monism, reductionism, and monocausation) and toward a distinct philosophy of biology that can capture the natural complexity of multifaceted biological systems within diverse ecosystems—one that embraces the emerging philosophies of pluralismemergence, and multicausality. Therefore, I see recent advances in ecology, evolutionary biology, and the philosophy of biology as laying the groundwork for another major biological synthesis, what I refer to as the Second Synthesis because, in many respects, it is analogous to the aims and outcomes of the first major biological synthesis (but is notably distinct from the inorganic movement known as the extended evolutionary synthesis). With the general development of a distinctive philosophy of science, biology has rightfully emerged as an autonomous science. Thus, while the first synthesis legitimized biology, the Second Synthesis autonomized biology and afforded biology its own philosophy.

Event is hybrid. To receive event link contact: andrea.gambarotto@gmail.com

IAS-Research Seminar by Enara Garcia (EHU/UPV), “Towards a process perspective of psychopathology “

The next meeting of the IAS Seminar will take place next Thursday, March 16th, with a talk by Enara Garcia:

Towards a process perspective of psychopathology 
“One of the aspects generally neglected by the DSM categorical system is the temporal variability of mental disorders and their symptoms. Not only individual differences apply to mental disorder categories, but also temporal differences in phases of certain pathologies. For instance, schizophrenic hallucinations are typically preceded by a prodromal phase followed by a post-hallucinatory depression. The dynamics of emergence, persistence and decay of diverse psychopathologies diverge considerably as well. While panic attacks in anxiety disorders are acute and intense phenomena followed by low-intensity chronic stress, depression onsets follow a more inconspicuous and extended-in-time trajectory. Understanding these dynamic differences is relevant for selecting interventions in therapeutic processes. With the aim of elaborating on the process perspective of psychopathology, I will critically review some recent works in complex and dynamical system models of mental disorders, such as network theories, attractor models and time-series analysis on affects.”

The talk will take place at the centro Carlos Santamaria at 4pm, room 4

To participate online, please contact Andrea Gambarotto andrea.gambarotto@uclouvain.be

IAS-Research Seminar by Thomas van Es (EHU/UPV), “Reconceiving the perceptual mind-world relation for enactivism”

On Feb 16th, 2023, at 16:00

To participate, please contact andrea.gambarotto@uclouvain.be


Enactivism is an approach to cognition that centres embodiment and autonomy. In the philosophy of perception, there is a realism-idealism spectrum, with perception of the ‘objective world as it is’ on one end and perception of only internal constructs on the other end. Where enactivism lands on this spectrum continues to be contested. After all, an organism ‘bringing forth a world’ sounds constructivist. Yet this is in tension with enactivism’s anti-representationalist, anti-solipsistic ambitions which may suggest a realist commitment. Here I will argue that enactivism is not idealist, realist or even something in-between. In short, the ‘colouring’ of an organism’s perception through its own activity and interactional history is incompatible with objective realism; yet the sociomaterial understanding of perception as an organism-environment relation is incompatible with idealism. More fundamentally, I propose that the realism-idealism spectrum in perception itself is rooted in a categorical separation between a reified mind and the world. This separation is incompatible with enactivism altogether, thus also ruling out a potential in-between solution. Avoiding eliminativism, I submit that the notion of mind should be reconceived as relational between organism and environment, radically co-constitutive and co-constructivist.
I will proceed as follows. First, I shall provide a brief overview of enactivism, focusing on the notion of sensorimotor autonomy, which captures the self-enabling, self-individuating organisation of clusters of sensorimotor processes like habits. This allows me to say some general things about the notion of ‘mind’ in enactivism, which can be clarified by contrasting it with realism, idealism, and a potential in-between option. I can then contour a positive proposal. Given the autonomous nature of clusters of sensorimotor activities, the encounters of organism and environment — the relations themselves — can be taken to constitute the sensorimotor mind while avoiding the issues of reification. Simultaneously, it is through the plastic changes resulting from these encounters that the organism and environment are and continue to be constructed. Perceptual activity, encompassing organism-environment relations, then, is best understood as self-shaping. I will finish with some of the crucial questions that need more work, like a better understanding of sensorimotor individuation and the nature of the co-constructive processes.

IAS-Research Talk by Gillian Barker (University of Pittsburgh) “Geofunctions: A pragmatic approach to purposes, norms and agency at the planetary scale”

As a follow up to the Gaia and Philosophy Seminar, Dr. Gillian Barker will give an online talk on Thursday the 12th January, at 16h, for the first IAS-Research Talk of 2023.

To participate, please contact Andrea Gambarotto andrea.gambarotto@gmail.com

Many scientists working on global environmental patterns and their disruption are caught in a conceptual double-bind: they find that they need to see Earth as a functional system with normative and teleological dimensions, but long-standing assumptions about science, values, and purposes imply that such thinking is scientifically illegitimate. As a result, functional thinking about global-scale phenomena is expressed vaguely and inconsistently in the form of metaphors and applied frameworks. Similar problems affect thinking that draws on concepts of agency. The costs of this impasse may be high. Where there are patterns in the phenomena that are effectively captured using concepts of function or agency, failure to apply those concepts may lead to avoidable errors in prediction. A pragmatic reorientation, supported by recent developments in philosophy, could enable scientists to overcome this impasse and develop a useful conceptual framework for global-scale functions and agency.

Bio: Gillian Barker (University of Pittsburgh)

IAS-Research Talk by Carl Sachs (Marymont University), “Strongly Embodied Functionalism: Between Enaction and Functionalism”

On Nov 17th, 2022, at 16:00
To participate, please contact andrea.gambarotto@uclouvain.be
On this occasion, Carl Sachs will present a novel view of functionalism (“strongly embodied functionalism”) in a talk that intersects organizational and enactive approaches, and engages with work by IAS-Research members..

Bio: Carl Sachs (Marymont University)

IAS-Research Talk by Sergio Rubín (Earth and Life Institute, UCLouvain), “Biological Autonomy and Gaian Systems”

ABSTRACT: In this presentation it is assumed that the Earth system is autopoietically organized and that therefore the system is constituted as an autonomous system. That is assumed from chemical atmospheric and geological evidence and from how the organization of the Earth system as autopoietic satisfies relations of formal systems such as the (M,R)-system, chemical organization theory, and variational free energy minimization. This implies that the autonomy of the internal biological unities of the Gaian system, such as prokaryotes and unicellular or metacellular eukaryotes, although they are structurally coupled and therefore participate in planetary self-production, their autonomy and their ecology and evolution depend largely on the Gaian system biology of cognition and enaction with its outer solar space. This point of view, however, poses a fundamental problem. To what extent the biological unities internal to the Gaian system can or can’t affect its autonomy. This presentation will discuss this problem, but by no means will it come to a final conclusion. 

Sergio is research fellow at the Earth and Life Institute of UC Louvain (Belgium), biologist by training he now works chiefly on Gaian systems from an organizational perspective inspired by biological autonomy and (M-R)-systems.

Workshop: Outonomy – Fleshing out autonomy beyond the individual, 22-24 June

The research project ‘Outonomy: Fleshing out autonomy beyond the individual’ is holding an international workshop in Donostia between the 22nd and the 24th of June. We are pleased to have Dr. William Bechtel and Dr. Glenda Satne as keynote speakers, and 20 communications by international researchers covering a wide range of relevant topics for the project. You can find the full information of the workshop, including the program and book of abstracts, in the outonomy.net website.