INDYNAUTS: Interaction Dynamics and Autonomy in Social Cognition

FP7-PEOPLE-2009-IEF, 253883 Social cognition is concerned with how cognitive agents understand and navigate the social world. Most social cognition research today whether in cognitive science, psychology or neuroscience focuses only on the individual mechanisms needed to figure out others mental states. But this view over-emphasises the individual and gives social dynamics no more than a contextual role. However, there is an alternative: the process of interaction itself may be crucial to social cognition. To articulate this alternative, we need 1. to know whether the interaction process can enable or even constitute social cognition, 2. to know how individuals change through interaction, 3. to re-assess the function of individual mechanisms in the context of interaction. This project proposes an original theoretical framework with direct relevance for empirical work. It uses an operational notion of autonomy developed in the philosophy of biology. The main claim is that social interaction can act as an extended mechanism that modulates and transforms individual cognition, autonomy and agency. This leads to the following proposals: 1. Explanations of social cognition should range from individual-dominant to interaction-dominant ones. 2. We can distinguish between contextual, enabling, and constitutive factors in the role of interaction dynamics for cognition. 3. Intentions are not locked and ready-made inside individuals, but can be modulated and transformed in interactions. 4. Interaction processes can acquire a form of systemic autonomy. 5. There is an interplay between individual (organismic, sensorimotor) and interactional autonomy. 6. Socio-cultural norms need to be negotiated in interaction. 7. Individual neural mechanisms are shaped – literally – by social interactions. In this new model of social cognition, the interaction does proper explanatory work. This has consequences for theory, modelling and experiments, and extends the range of explanations.

Autonomy in philosophy of biology and bioethics (2009-2011)

This joint research project aims to develop the concept of autonomy as a central construct for non-reductionist theoretical approaches, both in philosophy of biology and in bioethics. In the first domain, our purpose is to set up the ground for a contemporary organicism in order to advance in our understanding of living organization at different levels. In the second, we examine a cluster of crucial bioethical issues in biomedical research and philosophy of medicine, all dealing with the respect for autonomy, such as the interpretation of informed consent (IC) or the definition of disease. Both research lines require to explore the notion of autonomy, but hitherto this has been done from radically different perspectives: on the one hand, the naturalist approach developed in theoretical biology (a field in which we have worked for quite a long time now); on the other hand, the normative approach, more usual in practical (moral and political) philosophy, which is especially relevant to bioethics. The basic interest behind this project is to delve into the possible connections between those two perspectives, with a particular focus on the problem of the origin of biological normativity. Thus, whereas the two subprojects (MECAUT & AUTBIO) are rooted in those two traditional perspectives, at the same time they will strive together to shed some light on the question of their mutual relationship.

Explaining biological organization:  between mechanicism and autonomy (MECAUT)

This project aims to contribute to the development of a concept of autonomy suitable to be applied to the explanation of biological organization, starting from the hypothesis that autonomy should become a core concept within the new systemic paradigm in biology, far from the reductionist approaches of both molecular biology or evolutionary biology in its strictly adaptationist versions. We thus attempt to build up our own theoretical approach, which should enable  us to integrate the knowledge acquired regarding those material mechanisms underlying biological organization (or those evolutionary mechanisms, more complicated and indirect, as natural selection), without having to abandon a more holistic, relational and interactive perspective on those processes that constitute the complexity of the phenomenon of life. Within this general framework (and clearly in continuity with the research work made in the context of the previous project: “Information, Autonomy and Systems. Epistemological and ethics aspects for the elaboration of an organicist view in biology”, HUM2005-02449/FISO), this project proposal poses a series of concrete strategies in order to advance in the elaboration of a more complete theory of autonomy, with which it becomes possible to tackle, in particular, the problem of the origin of normativity in biology. First, we attempt to continue the work on minimal organisms or cellular systems, since this would contribute to clarify some fundamental issues, still open, regarding autonomy and its relation to other key concepts such as function, agency or information. In order to do that, we will make use of a methodology which gives a bigger role to the use of computational tools (specifically, the simulation platform ENVIRONMENT) and the effort of developing theoretical models. A second specific realm of applicability and development of the concept of autonomy that we consider very important to investigate is concerned with those forms of biological organization remarkably more complex, as colonies or multi-cellular organisms, whose functional integration/coordination depends on the fact that the basic subunits they are made of should lose part of their plasticity and autonomy in order to benefit the whole. Besides analyzing the relation among diverse kinds of autonomy that may arise in this more complex context (as the relation between metabolic and cognitive autonomy), there is one aspect that we want to address specifically, since one of the main links with the sub-project with which this one is coordinated hinges on it: the problem of dysfunction, or the relation between autonomy and disease. That is, what happens when the functional coordination of the components of a multi-cellular organism fails and the integrity of the organism is at risk or ends up breaking down? Finally, considering our multidisciplinary methodology of work, involving an ample use of computational simulations, another aspect we would like to analyze in detail from the perspective of autonomy is the natural /artificial dichotomy. This issue is, in fact, very up to date considering the current development of a “synthetic biology”, the new biology of the xxi century, as it is called, that should convey a different way of understanding and explaining living systems, intimately linked to our capacity to simulate or physically reconstruct those systems.

RECENT RELATED PUBLICATIONS: Etxeberria, A. & Moreno, A. 2007. La idea de autonomía en biología. Logos 40: 21-37. Barandiaran, X. & Ruiz-Mirazo, K. (Eds.) 2008. Modelling autonomy: Simulating the essence of life and cognition. Introduction to the special issue. BioSystems 91(2): 295-304. Moreno, A., Etxeberria, A. & Umerez, J. 2008. The autonomy of biological individuals and artificial models. BioSystems 91(2): 309-319. Ruiz-Mirazo, K. & Mavelli, F. 2008. On the way towards ‘basic autonomous agents’: Stochastic simulations of minimal lipid-peptide cells. BioSystems 91(2): 374-387.

The concept of autonomy in biomedical research and bioethics (AUTBIO)

The concept of autonomy is a basic one in moral philosophy since Kant, but developments in biotechnology at the beginning of the 21st century are opening new lines of inquiry in its study and application. Bioethics emerged at the beginning of the 1970s as a defence of the autonomy of patients and research subjects. The institutionalization of bioethics has given more importance and relevance to autonomy, but within this academic field there are great disagreements concerning its nature and implications, both in theory and in practice. The concept of autonomy at stake in bioethics (i.e., healthcare ethics, environmental ethics, and research ethics) reflects different positions concerning the relationship between facts and values in the life sciences. The research project AUTBIO aims to provide a concept of autonomy useful for bioethics and, at the same time, to ground it in well established biological science, including current developments and practices in biomedical research. More specifically, it aims to study whether the protection of autonomy is compromised by the implementation of bioinformatics tools such as biobanks, whose regulation is characterized by its novelty, ambiguity and lack of harmonization at the international level. This sub-project creates a truly multidisciplinary research group, comprised of six PhDs of diverse backgrounds (Philosophy, Biological Sciences, Law, Medicine, and Computer Science) but with research experience in common and previous contributions to this subject from a theoretical perspective. In addition, the sub-project has a practical edge to it, by means of a case-study on the protection of the autonomy of research participants in studies involving biobanks within the Basque Country; in order to accomplish this task, the collaboration of an external partner is secured so as to make possible the transfer of knowledge. The main goals of this research group are to advance both the study of the philosophical aspects of the concept of autonomy, clarifying its relationship with other principles or values in healthcare and environmental ethics, and the study of the social aspects of the concept in biomedical research, focusing on the justification and varieties of informed consent procedures to collect and use biosamples. In order to assess how respect for autonomy is grounded in our country, special attention will be devoted to recent legal developments, such as the Act on Biomedical Research enacted in Spain in 2007. In coordination with its twin project (MECAUT), this subproject also aims to deepen the study of the relationship between autonomy and normativity, a basic issue for any attempt to provide a philosophical foundation for bioethics, most particularly in what respects to the debate between naturalist and normativist approaches to the concept of disease — a contested issue in current philosophy of medicine. To elaborate a phenomenological account of disease might help looking at it as the result of a complex interaction between biological, psychological and social factors. To sum up, AUTBIO aims to open new paths of reflection beyond the mere introduction in bioethics of autonomy as it is understood by other disciplines.