Hello everybody. This is my first blog post. I was undecided at first. What do I write about? Where do I begin? Then, last night, I came across this article by Michael Levin and Daniel Dennett in Aeon Magazine. It illustrates quite some of the problems—both in science and about science—that I hope to cover in this blog.
"Cognition all the way down?" That doesn't sound good... and, believe me, it isn't. But where to begin? This article is a difficult beast to tackle. It has no head or tail. Ironically it also seems to lack purpose. What is it trying to tell us? That cells "think"? Maybe even molecules? How is it trying to make this argument? And what is it trying to achieve with it? Interdisciplinary dialogue? Popular science? A new biology? I think not. It does not explain anything, and is not written in a way that the general public would understand. I do have a suspicion what the article is really about. We'll come back to that at the end.
But before I start ripping into it, I should say that there are many things I actually like about the article. I got excited when I first saw the subtitle ("unthinking agents!"). I'm thinking and writing about agency and evolution myself at the moment, and believe that it's a very important and neglected topic. I also like the authors' concept of teleophobia, an irrational fear of all kinds of teleological explanations that circulates widely, not only among biologists. I like their argument against an oversimplified black-and-white dualism that ascribes true cognition to humans only. I like their call for biologists to look beyond the molecular level. I like that they highlight the fact that cells are not just passive building blocks, but autonomous participants busy building bodies. I like all that. It's very much in the spirit of my own research and thinking.
But then, everything derails. Spectacularly. Where should I start?
AGENCY ISN'T JUST FEEDBACK
The authors love to throw around difficult concepts without defining or explaining them. "Agency" is the central one, of course. From what I understand, they believe that agency is simply information processing with cybernetic feedback. But that won't do! A self-regulating homeostat may keep your house warm, but does not qualify as an autonomous agent. Neither does a heat-seeking missile. As Stuart Kauffman points out in his Investigations, autonomous systems "act on their own behalf." At the very least, agents generate causal effects that are not entirely determined by their surroundings. The homeostat or missile simply reacts to its environment according to externally imposed rules, while the agent generates rules from within. Importantly, it does not require consciousness (or even a nervous system) to do this.
AGENCY IS NATURAL, BUT NOT MECHANISTIC
How agents generate their own rules is a complicated matter. I will discuss this in a lot more detail in future posts. But one thing is quite robustly established by now: agency requires a peculiar kind of organisation that characterises living systems—they exhibit what is called organisational closure. Alvaro Moreno and Matteo Mossio have written an excellent book about it. What's most important is that in an organism, each core component is both producer and product of some other component in the system. Roughly, that's what organisational closure means. The details don't matter here. What does matter is that we're not sure you can capture such systems with purely mechanistic explanations. And that's crucial: organisms aren't machines. They are not computers. Not even like computers. Rosen's conjecture establishes just that. More on that later too. For now, you must believe me that "mechanistic" explanations of organisms based on information-processing metaphors are not sufficient to account for organismic agency. Which brings us to the next problem.
EVOLVED COMPUTER METAPHORS
We've covered quite some ground so far, but haven't even arrived at the main two flaws of the article. The first of these is the central idea that organisms are some kind of evolved information-processing machines. They "exploit physical regularities to perform tasks" by having "long-range guided abilities," which evolved by natural selection. Quite fittingly, the authors call this advanced molecular magic "karma." Karma is a bitch. It kills you if you don't cooperate. And here we go: in one fell swoop, we have a theory of how multicellularity evolved. It's just a shifting of boundaries between agents (the ones that were never explained, mind you). Confused yet? This part of the article is so full of logical leaps and grandstanding vagueness that it's really hard to parse. To me, it makes no sense at all. But that does not matter. Because the only point it drives at is to resuscitate a theory that Dennett worked on throughout the 1970s and 80s, and which he summarised in his 1987 book The Intentional Stance.
THE INTENTIONAL STANCE
The intentional stance is when you assume that some thing has agency, purpose, intents in order to explain it, although deep down you know it does not have these properties. It used to be big (and very important) in the time when cognitive science emerged from behaviourist psychology, but nowadays it mostly applies to rational choice theory applied in evolutionary biology. For critical treatments of this topic, please read Peter Godfrey-Smith's Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, and Samir Okasha's Agents and Goals in Evolution. Bottom line: this is not a new topic at all, and it's very controversial. Does it make sense to invoke intentions to explain adaptive evolutionary strategies? Let's not get into that discussion here. Instead, I want to point out that the intentional stance does not take agency serious at all! It is very ambiguous about whether it considers agency a real phenomenon, or whether it uses intentional explanations as purely heuristic strategy that explicitly relies on anthropomorphisms. Thus, after telling us that parts of organisms are agents (at least that's how I would interpret the utterly bizarre "thought experiment" about the self-assembling car) they kind of tell us now that it's all just a metaphor, this agency thing. What is it, then? This is just confusing motte-and-bailey tactics, in my opinion.
AGENCY IS NOT COGNITION!!!
So now that we're all confused whether agency is real or not, we already get the next intellectual card trick: agency is swapped for cognition. Just like that. That's why it's "cognition all the way down." You know, agency is nothing but information processing. Cognition is nothing but information processing. Clearly they must be the same. There's just a difference in scale in different organisms. Unfortunately, this renders either the concept of agency or the concept of cognition irrelevant. Luckily, there is an excellent paper by Fermín Fulda that explains the difference (and also tells you why "bacterial cognition" is really not a thing). Cognition happens in nervous systems. It involves proper intentions, the kind you can even be conscious of. Agency, in the broad sense I use it here, does not require intentionality or consciousness. It simply means that the organism can select from a repertoire of alternative behaviours when faced with opportunities or obstacles in its perceived environment. As Kauffman says, even a bacterium can "act on its own behalf." It need not think at all.
PANPSYCHISM: NO THANK YOU
By claiming that cells (or even parts of cells) are cognitive agents, Levin and Dennett open the door for the panpsychist bunch to jump on their "argument" as evidence for their own dubious metaphysics. I don't get it. Dennett is not usually sympathetic to the views of these people. Neither am I. Like ontological vitalism, panpsychism explains nothing. It does not explain consciousness or how it evolved. Instead, it explains it away, negating the whole mystery of its origins by declaring the question solved. That's not proper science. That's not proper philosophy. That's bullshit.
SO: WHAT'S THE PURPOSE?
What we're left with is a mess. I have no idea what the point of this article is. An argument for panpsychism? An argument for the intentional stance? Certainly not an argument to take agency serious. The authors seem to have no interest in engaging with the topic in any depth. Instead, they take the opportunity to buzzword-boost some of their old and new ideas. A little PR certainly can't harm. Knowing Michael Levin a little by now, I think that's what this article is about. Shameless self-promotion. Science in the age of selfies. A little signal, like that of the Trafalmadorians in The Sirens of Titan that constantly broadcasts "I'm here, I'm here, I'm here." And that's bullshit too.
To end on a positive note: the article touches on a lot of interesting topics. Agency. Organisms. Evolution. Philosophical biology. Reductionism. And the politics of academic prestige. I'll have more to say about all of these. So thank you, Mike and Dan, for the inspiration, and for setting such a clear example of how I do not want to communicate my own writing and thinking to the world.
With all due respect, I believe your objection is based on a misunderstanding of the term “agency” as the authors use it. You seem to require that every agent be autonomous, i.e., “act on their own behalf”. This autonomy is an extra thing that you, but not the authors, are requiring for agency.
Thanks! You certainly did a much better job at explaining what the authors may mean by "agency" than they did themselves.
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Life beyond dogma!