1. Moritz Kriegleder

The Loch NESS Monster – Free Energy and Life

Over the last two decades Friston’s Free Energy Principle has morphed from a model of the brain into a general and unfalsifiable description of self-organisation in living and cognitive systems. At the center of the free energy explanation of life is the claim that all living systems are in a non-equilibrium steady state (NESS) and their main task is to stay in a low entropy state far from thermodynamic equilibrium. I will present the basic mathematical and philosophical claims of the approach and give an overview of the criticism that has been raised recently. I will use insights from philosophy of modelling and biology to argue why the underlying “Markovian Monism” does not provide proper justification for a realistic and sufficient model of living dynamics. It provides more of a specific mindset for constructing computational models. Therefore, we need a critical analysis of its explanatory and predictive power. To conclude, I will give an outline of the valuable contributions that the free energy principle provides for the computational study of life and how it compares to other fundamental approaches in computational biology. 

  1. Gregor Paul Greslehner 

Two dogmas of molecular biology: What is the explanatory role of the sequence-structure-function relationship?

In addition to the so-called “central dogma of molecular biology” (Crick, 1970), there are two other dogmas: (i) sequence determines structure, and (ii) structure determines function. Despite its importance and frequent use, the sequence–structure–function relationship is in need of philosophical conceptual clarification. I develop a distinction between different notions of structure and function and propose to reconstruct the “two dogmas” – i.e., the determination-relation between sequence, structure, and function – as supervenience relations, respectively. For macromolecules like proteins or nucleic acids, the term ‘structure’ can refer to (1) the sequence of a polymer, (2) its three-dimensional shape, and (3) the network organization of several biological entities. From the rich philosophical debate on the notion of function, I suggest to focus on the notions of (A) biochemical activity and (B) biological role within a process or mechanism (cf. Wouters, 2003) as candidates of functions that can be determined by either of the notions of structure. This is closer to the causal role notion of function (Cummins, 1975), whereas the selected effect notion of function (Wright, 1973) tells us something about the evolutionary advantages and history of the structures, activities, and roles.

Based on the conceptual distinction between notions of structure and function sketched above, I suggest that the structure-function dogma (ii) can be rationally reconstructed as follows:

1. Biochemical activities supervene upon three-dimensional shapes of molecules.

2. Biological roles supervene upon interaction networks. The explanatory role of these sequence-structure-function relationships has also important consequences for the question of reduction (Sarkar, 2008, 68) and the boundaries between molecular biology and systems biology.

  1. Johannes Jäger

Life is all about relations: the use of category theory in the work of Rosen, Louie, and Hofmeyr

Organizational theories of life can be arranged along a number of abstract axes. One represents the extent to which they are formalized, another whether the focus is on biological organization itself or on the underlying kinetic processes that generate it. Robert Rosen’s “Life Itself,” and Aloysius Louie’s elaborations on it, take a heavily abstracted approach. Recently, their models have been extended by Jannie Hofmeyr by mapping them to actual cellular processes and by including an openness to formal causation in the formalism that enables its interpretation in dynamic and evolutionary terms. In this talk, I will focus on the role of mathematical formalism in these efforts, and illustrate their importance for a more unified and process-oriented organizational approach to life, which is currently being developed by our group at the University of Vienna.

  1. Paul Poledna & Kevin Purkhauser

Incompleteness: Mind the Gap Between Physics and Syntax

In the line of Gödls famous and thought-provoking theorem, we title our talk “Incompleteness: Mind the Gap Between Physics and Syntax“, since we try to scratch on something similar within the light cone of Terrence Deacons works: Symbolic Species and Incomplete Nature. In particular this presentation explores Deacon’s rejection of reductionism as an incomplete framework and emphasizes the pivotal role of emergence and constraints, which are necessities to reach a co-evolutive understanding of how symbolic species and the incomplete nature comes about.

Terrence Deacon’s work challenges the reductionist approach that seeks to explain complex phenomena solely through the lens of simpler components. Instead, he advocates for a more complex understanding of the natural world, one that recognizes the inherent and decisive absences, in contrast to the properties. Deacon argues that a purely reductionist view cannot capture the full spectrum of reality, particularly when it comes to the intricacies of the human mind and consciousness.

Another central concept of Deacon’s work is the one of emergence—the idea that novel properties and phenomena can arise from the interactions of simpler elements, transcending their individual characteristics. This notion highlights the profound importance of understanding the relationships and constraints that govern these interactions. It is through these emergent processes and constraints that we bridge the gap between the physical and the symbolic aspects of our world.

We like to invite you to explore how Terrence Deacon’s work offers a fresh perspective on the complex web of connections that underlie our understanding of mathematics, philosophy, science, language, and cognition. By acknowledging the limitations of reductionism and embracing emergence and constraints, we gain deeper insights into the intricate complex of our minds and the universe itself, ultimately illuminating the uncharted territories where physics meets syntax.

  1. Jan Halák

Empathy for the Whole: Merleau-Ponty and Michotte

In this presentation, I revisit Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of organic wholes and clarify the role that he attributes to empathy in the processes of appearance of such wholes. First, I summarize Merleau-Ponty’s involvement with the work of the embryologists Coghill and Gesell from the second year of his lectures on Nature. According to the phenomenologist, these authors present convincing arguments against the attempts to reduce the development of a living organism to an affect of either its actual anatomy or the external environmental conditions. Their work brings to light that between the whole of the organism and its physicochemical parts there is a dynamic mutual encroachment due to which one dimension never coincides with the other. Consequently, an observer never has the opportunity to intuit one of the dimensions independently of the other and is rather constantly engaging in an exploration of the gap between them. In a second step, I interpret Merleau-Ponty’s working notes from other lectures and late research manuscripts, in which he suggests that the gap between parts and the whole is spanned for the observer (without being thus closed) due to their ‘empathetic’ relationship with the observed whole. Based on his reading of Albert Michotte’s experiments, Merleau-Ponty highlights that between an observed organic whole and the observer, there is an ‘intentional encroachment’ based on the commonalities between the enactive powers of their bodies. For Merleau-Ponty, such empathy is not equivalent to an anthropomorphic projection and instead leads to a philosophy of ‘interanimality’ according to which each living body contains an ontological reference to other living bodies. Returning to Merleau- Ponty, my aim is to challenge ontologically realistic readings of autonomous systems without thereby returning to a subjectivistic reading. In Merleau-Ponty’s view, organic wholes are not autonomous in a strict sense because they (ontologically) involve intercorporeal references which are then tacitly built upon in any human attempt to describe such wholes.

  1. Konrad Werner 

Drawing boundaries in the lifeworld. Is there anything we can learn from applied ontology about the nature of life, sociality and cognition?

The capacity for boundary maintenance is essential to any living system, according to Maturana and Varela, more recent enactivist developments, as well as more “standard” approaches (e.g. Godfrey-Smith or Koshland’s Jr., so-called “pillars of life”). But what kind of boundaries do living creature actually have? Are these only the physical barriers of the integumentary system? Certainly not, at least if we take a closer look at the literature on biological individuality, for example Pradeu’s writings. There are, among others, immunological boundaries, too.

I will then introduce several kinds of boundaries that organisms may have, and then move to the question that especially seems intriguing – can the boundaries of organisms’ habitats or niches be approached as “extensions” of the proper organismic boundaries? If niches have boundaries, where do they come from? Can the evolution of life – of sociality and cognition as biological phenomena, too! – be approached as the evolution of our, i.e., living creatures’, capacity for “boundary-drawing,” metaphorically put?

This talk will approach the mentioned puzzles from the perspective of applied ontology, not so much philosophy of biology proper. That said, the very utility of such ontological considerations shall also be at stake.

  1. Anne Sophie Meincke

Real Processism: Key Theses and Arguments for a (Genuine) Process View of Life

Contemporary process philosophy of biology, also known as ‘process biology’, maintains that life and living beings – organisms – are processes rather than things or substances. Process biology comes in different flavours. Here I will present my own version of a process view of life which takes seriously, in both metaphysical and biological terms, the all-pervasive dynamicity of life and, as a result, is emphatically nonreductionist: Real Processism. I will give a systematic outline of Real Processism by introducing and arguing for its key theses. This will involve (i) distinguishing Real Processism from rivalling versions of process biology, (ii) refuting objections and (iii) making reference to historical processaccounts of life congenial to Real Processism, in particular those by Henri Bergson, HansJonas and Francisco Varela.

  1.  Primož Vidovič

Life as a Phenomenon and Its Anthropological Implications

I will present Helmuth Plessner’s approach to the study of the phenomenon of life, focusing on his notion of the intuitive boundary as the fundamental characteristic of living bodies and outlining his so-called deductive methodology. I will then explore how this methodology enables us to study complex life forms such as humans, but also in what way it is in turn dependent on an anthropological framework as a necessary viewpoint of analysis for a more complete understanding of life. Finally, I will point to several  similarities of Plessner’s thought with that of Hans Jonas, and how their viewpoints might inform current research. 

  1. Sebastjan Voros

“What’s Within That’s Without”: Francisco Varela and the Janus-Faced, Circular Nature of Life

In my talk, I would like to explore Francisco J. Varela’s conception of life and its philosophical implications, specifically as a means of addressing the dualisms that beset contemporary science and philosophy (most notably: the self/other or inner/outer dichotomy). To this end, I will focus +on two characteristics of vitality, both of which play a particularly important role in this regard: its Janus-faced (double-aspectual) and circular (self-referential) nature. The term Janus-faced refers to the idea that “life” seems to transgress the inner/outer split, in that it designates both a living body, i.e., an organism as an object of cognition (an existence in the world), and a lived body, i.e., lived experience as a vehicle of cognition (an experience of the world). Circularity, on the other hand, signifies the dynamics underpinning these two aspects and, in Varela’s oeuvre, consists of two closely interrelated dialectics: dialectics of identity (autonomy) and dialectics of cognition (enaction). Varela’s Janus-faced, circular conception of life is replete with far-reaching philosophical implications, many of which have yet to receive adequate treatment. I would like do delve into some of these, with special emphasis on the following: the processual/dynamic, and thus inherently self-transcendent, nature of life; its bi-directionally enactive dynamics (co-constitution of the self and the world); and finally, the (meta)epistemological questions pertaining to the nature and status of science in Varela’s framework.

  1. Timotej Prosen

Georges Canguilhem and vital normativity: a historical chapter and a contemporary challenge 

In my talk I will present a short overview of Canguilhem’s conception of vital norms – i.e., norms intrinsic to living organisms – and point to some parallels and divergences between his and contemporary enactivist approaches to this topic. More specifically, I will be focusing on a central issue that such accounts face, namely, how to conceive of norms as part and parcel of the natural world. I will formulate this challenge as consisting of two interrelated issues. First, such an account must clarify the very notion of normativity and articulate the concept in such a was as to be applicable to living beings. The second challenge consists of giving an account of the place of living organisms in the midst of the natural world and explaining the emergence of vital norms in naturalistic terms.  I will argue that Canguilhem’s understanding of norms pertaining to living beings is slightly more nuanced than the one operative in enacitivist accounts. Enactivism on the other hand, as I will argue, develops a conceptual framework, better suited for treating vital norms in naturalistic terms. Confronting Canguilhem’s insights with present day enactivist approaches may thus turn out to be fruitful for furthering our understanding of vital normativity. 

  1. Ela Praznik

Normativity and plasticity in development: perspectives from Michael Levin’s work on morphogenesis

Developmental biology takes as its subject the development of complex forms scaled and positioned appropriately with respect to their function within a given organism. In my presentation, I aim to explore the fundamental capacity of cell collectives to develop into appropriate forms in a plastic manner and to elucidate how what is appropriate emerges in the development of an organism. To do so, I will draw upon the framework of enactivism and the research conducted by molecular biologist Michael Levin and his laboratory. Specifically, I will inspect the latter’s work on morphogenesis and how cell collectives navigate morphospace with a high degree of adaptability. The work of Levin’s team represents a departure from traditional understandings of morphogenesis, that emphasized relatively static genetic and biochemical fate maps, towards a more dynamic account of how cells organize into anatomical structures, even in the presence of perturbations and injuries. I will introduce the notion of a “homeostatic set point” in the context of anatomical morphospace, linking it to the enactivist notion of a “vital norm”. Specifically, Levin’s empirical findings demonstrate that set points are encoded in bioelectrical patterns. I will argue that these can be interpreted as vital norms guiding development.