Is there room for intrinsic normativity in a synthetic system?

I was invited to give a keynote talk at the workshop “The Synthetic Approach to Biology and the Cognitive Sciences (SA-BCS 2018): Developing an Epistemology for the Synthetic Sciences of Life and Cognition“, which will take place as part of ALIFE 2018 in Tokyo on July 25.

Here are the title and abstract of my contribution:

Is there room for intrinsic normativity in a synthetic system?

Tom Froese

Enactivism rejects the standard hypothesis of cognitive science, according to which all cognition involves the unconscious manipulation of mental representations, and instead replaces it with a dynamical systems account. And yet enactivism also resists purely dynamical approaches that see no role for any kind of subjectivity, because it appeals to the role of our lived phenomenology and claims that living beings behave with respect to intrinsic norms directed at maintaining their self-produced viability. So far, this middle way seems to be philosophically unsatisfactory: at best it allows us to claim that acting in accordance with experience or norms just is identical to a certain kind of dynamic pattern. But this turns subjectivity into a mysterious difference that makes no difference with respect to the unfolding of those patterns, which remain completely determined by the dynamical laws alone. This calls for deeper epistemological reflection about how it could be possible for subjectivity to play a role in an objective world, while avoiding a regression to the untenable positions of either representationalism or eliminativism. This debate has implications for the synthetic method, especially regarding longstanding discussions about the relative merits of software, hardware, and wetware.


Special issue on ALIFE and society published

The organizers of 2016 edition of the International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems (ALIFE VX) have edited a special issue of the journal Artificial Life by inviting extended versions of selected conference papers.

Emphasis was placed on papers related to the conference theme of “Artificial Life and Society”.

Here is a preprint of the editorial introduction:

ALife and Society: Editorial Introduction to the Artificial Life Conference 2016 Special Issue

Jesús M. Siqueiros-García, Tom Froese, Carlos Gershenson, Wendy Aguilar, Hiroki Sayama and Eduardo Izquierdo

Artificial life (ALife) research is not only about the production of knowledge, but is also a source of compelling and meaningful stories and narratives, especially now when they are needed most. Such power, so to speak, emerges from its own foundations as a discipline. It was Chris Langton in 1987 who said that “By extending the horizons of empirical research in biology beyond the territory currently circumscribed by life-as-we-know-it, the study of Artificial Life gives us access to the domain of life-as-it-could-be […]” [1]. The very notion of life-as-it-could-be opened up many possibilities to explore, and released the study of life from its material and our cognitive constraints. The study of life did not have to be limited to carbon-based entities, DNA or proteins. It could also be about general and universal processes that could be implemented and realized in multiple forms. Moreover, while ALife was about biology at the beginning, its rationale and methods are now shared by many other domains, including chemistry, engineering, and the social sciences. In other words, the power to envision and synthesize “what is possible” beyond “what is” has transcended disciplinary boundaries. It also produces the material for the exploration of narratives about how things can be in principle and not only about their current state of being.