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Sam Peterson 2/25/2010 Autonomous Systems and Their Relevance to the Theoretical Reduction of Molar-Level Psychology to Dynamic Processes The prevalent perspective characterizing biological research has been one of reductive mechanism. However, it would seem that examining biological processes in the relatively static and isolated manner which is typical of this perspective is starting to become a thing of the past. In a forthcoming paper entitled “Complex Biological Mechanisms: Cyclic, Oscillatory, and Autonomous”, William Bechtel and Adele Abrahamsen articulate the features of a new way of considering and studying biological phenomena, one which builds off mechanism but adds crucial temporal and interactive aspects to the mix. This resulting augmentation of the existing mechanistic paradigm is referred to as “dynamic mechanism”, and is thought to be a more precise representation of the true manner that biological processes operate by and, as a direct consequence, more accurate a means of explaining these processes (Bechtel & Abrahamsen, pg 4). The conceptual framework offered by dynamic mechanism, since appropriate for any level of biological operation, can be used to consider and speculate the manner in which natural cognitive phenomena operate. This point is iterated by a chapter of Paul Churchland’s 2007 book Neurophilosophy at Work, entitled “Functionalism at Forty.” While critiquing the framework of classical functionalist thought, Churchland discusses the possible options for the neurobiological reduction of the molar-level view of psychology espoused by folk psychology, the manifestation of functionalist thought in general cognitive studies (Churchland, 2007, pg 28). A very attractive means of reduction, Churchland posits, is that offered by the dynamic profile outlined by theoretical biologists like Bechtel and Abrahamsen, but applied to cognitive processing in
offering a more genuine representation of the reality of these biological system by including. ascertaining the operations performed by each component. and what presence it has in cognitively-active creatures. except that this way of thinking tends to produce explanations that represent inadequately any non-linear and interactive characteristics present within the complex mechanism examined (pg 2). in which . systems that include the crucial presence of dynamic circular and oscillatory processes are referred to by Bechtel and Abrahamsen as active “autonomous systems”. the authors state. This is perfectly legitimate in and of itself. temporally dynamic. Globally. cyclical organization common to many of these mechanisms. and interactively orchestrated factors into preexisting mechanistic approaches will do much to extend the explanatory accuracy and power they already possesses. particularly oscillatory processes like circadian rhythms (pg 3). With the necessary framework laid out by one text and the implementation of that framework for the purpose of explaining cognitive phenomena in the other. in real time. and an account of how the components and their purposes fulfill what the concept so examined and dissected actually does in a biological context (pg 2). Acknowledgement and inclusion of these complex.2 addition to the processes typically studied by most biologists (pg 30). the full extent of their relations with other processes and the continuous. This application allows Churchland to support his claims regarding the nature of cognitive activity. The basic mechanistic explanatory program consists of identifying the components of a mechanism. a unified and cogent account of the dynamic and interactive properties of the cognitive mechanism emerges. Bechtel and Abrahamsen’s account of dynamic mechanism is informed by several properties of actual biological systems which are not addressed adequately in previous experimental and theoretical explanations.
These aspects of regulatory control have been overlooked by many researchers. for example. Cyclic and oscillatory processes are key mechanisms for avoiding death and pursuing the continuation of their upkeep and development. oscillatory regulation can occur through coupling and the resultant synchronicity of processes. as well as the integration of feedback loops into operative sequences (pg 21). avoiding death. Autonomous systems are able to operate in a manner which repair and maintain the integrity of their own form (pg 3. This is in the interest of retaining the system in a non-equilibrium state. a result of the energetic effect of one process on surrounding ones and the alignment that might eventually occur. is integral . Circular. limited numeric values) or misclassified as “data noise” (pg 10). Living organism systems also possess metabolic mechanisms. combined a more generally pattern-observant program of investigation.3 these processes provide a means of internal regulation of the organism in question (pg 3). orchestrating and synchronizing the various systems in the necessary sequences and dynamics for the most effective means of avoiding the state of biological equilibrium. the authors define the autonomy of a system as consisting of a means of handling the flux of matter and free energy in a manner which enables the system to control and adjust its own self-constructive and repair processes as well as its exchange relations with its environment (pg 19). Quoting from Ruiz-Mirazo & Moreno (2004). which provide a means of harnessing energy and modifying its own physical makeup (pg 20). new mathematical modeling procedures provide a means for oscillations and cyclic processes and their abilities to be examined indirectly. However. 4). and their purposes divined. which cannot represent cyclic or oscillatory phenomena due to their equalization of data into convenient. This. either obscured by the use of summary statistics (means and standard deviations.
Churchland’s intent with the text. reproduction and the general avoidance of reaching thermodynamic equilibrium. interactive processes and how they constitute the mechanisms with which autonomous systems maintain their non-equilibrated status. To deflate this functionalist point. or. Churchland refers to cognitive creatures. Churchland additionally makes note of the ways in the development of organisms is affected by a “complexity-inducing ambient energetic waterfall” (pg 29). including and insistence on a molar-level view of cognition. on a level far below the generalities and abstractions of a molar-level treatment of the subject. more simply. This molar-level depiction of cognition involves rules and classifications abstracted at far more general a level than that approached by neuroscience and biology. “epistemic . energetically-dynamic framework of biological processes is present (pg 30). Laying out the now familiar framework which delineates living organisms as non-equilibrium systems capable of and directed at the acquisition and exploitation of free energy and extraneous matter for the purposes of growth. Cognition. in reduced form. in a general sense. in light of this framework. repair. is but another case in which the non-equilibrium. tying these concepts together in a reductive fashion to explain how cognition operates according to these same principles. Churchland presents cognition. which spurs particular structural and operational changes based on how energy is most available to an organism (pg 28. as “extrasomatic information multipliers”.4 to understanding dynamic. is to refute the positions held by traditional functionalism-fueled folk psychology. The relation of this perspective on biological dynamic mechanism to cognitive activity is explicated by Churchland. realized here in but one form (pg 28). 29). as a dynamic biological process. the reduction of this view of cognition to the phenomena observed by the latter disciplines is distinctly denied and decried by functionalism (pg 24).
This view of neural population coding as a means of semantic representation. energyobtaining dynamic processing provides a coherent version of the biological reduction of cognitive activity from a molar-level in a wide variety of realizations. Energy-flow takes the form of information. wherein an organism takes in and utilizes information regarding the environment and integrating it into the process of selfmaintenance and alteration. allowing it to more effectively exploit that environment for its own regulatory and metabolic purposes. and is pointed to as a unifying characteristic of cognitive creatures (along with the universal framework of thermodynamic and informationprocessing/generating activity).5 engines” (pg 30). it is the present similarities and adherence to a massively-parallel cognitive engine that allow cognitive computing to occur in the same fashion between different realizations of cognitive creatures (pg 32). accepted as the most salient theory regarding the nature of thought and meaning-laden mental representation. vectors. and has been. along with the massivelyparallel action of the brain’s overall processing. and transformations. however. Research in . according to Churchland. which was in fact used by Churchland to falsify one of the functionalist claims (pg 32). while similar in their brain and neural activation patterns. after undergoing the complex processes of cognition and storing the information contained therein. with the end form of gained knowledge as a change in the connectivity and sensitivity of synaptic linkages (pg 32). Sensory input is the initial low-entropy form of energy. Different organisms. This incorporation of the activation-vector model of brain structure and operation into the biological framework of non-equilibrium. This information is processed as neural activation patterns. are nonetheless unique in that regard. is simply dispelled in the form of raw heat (pg 30). which. This notion of realizability is addressed by Churchland in the contexts of individual differences and artificial intelligence research. is consistent with modern neuroscience.
Churchland predicts. on an electronic model. successful forms of future AI will be those that mimic the natural cognitive hardware present in biological entities with the temporal benefits of electronic communication. 33). Thus Churchland.6 artificial intelligence stands to benefit and progress as a result of this treatment of cognition. armed with the conceptual framework outlining a new version of biological mechanism incorporating dynamic and interactive changes to its processes. the same massively parallel processing that occurs in each and every organic brain (pg 32. the older. combining his own ideas regarding neuroscience with the new framework verbalized by Bechtel and Abrahamsen. With such a conceptual fusion. By completing this intertheoretical synthesis. is able to more effectively and accurately create theories with regard to the nature of cognition and semantic-representation as massively-parallel vector activations and transformations. The most effective. computation will experience an explosion of scale and ability (pg 33). new directions for research in cognitive studies with extremely interesting questions regarding topics such as the possible importance of oscillatory processes in regards to information processing and novel avenues of artificial intelligence exploration are now available and possible. serial structure of classical computation can be abandoned for attempts to realize. With the same processing structure as organism-based cognitive hardware (using a vector-activation model) and improved speeds. he is able to generate a reductionism-friendly scheme of cognitive activity which provides a neurobiological explanation of molar-level psychology. . and consequently refining what can be identified as a cognitive creature.
To appear in Handbook of the Philosophy of Science. . P. & Abrahamsen. W. Churchland. A. and autonomous.7 References Bechtel. New York.. Complex biological mechanisms: Cyclic. NY: Cambridge University Press. (as yet unpublished). Neurophilosophy at work. oscillatory. (2007). 10.