What Is Life

Beyond Reductionism


24. – 25. NOV.


Modra soba, Faculty of Arts, Ljubljana (Google Maps)

The purpose of the “What Is Life? Beyond Reductionism” symposium is to outline the limitations of reductionist approaches in life sciences, i.e. approaches that try to account for living systems by reference to their genetic and biochemical components, and explore alternative (systemic, dialectical) approaches, especially those rooted in ideas such as vital normativity, self-organization, autonomy, and emergence.

Drawing on recent developments in the fields of biology, philosophy, and biotechnology, the symposium will bring together scholars from diverse fields to foster a productive interdisciplinary dialogue and look for new avenues of research. Participants will present various challenges to reductionism, examine alternative scientific and philosophical models, and articulate their methodological, theoretical, and socio-political implications. 

The symposium will consist of lectures by invited speakers, followed by in-depth discussions in a workshop format. Recordings of all sessions will be made available online on various platforms, subject to participants’ approval. A dedicated website will also feature presentations of articles from the speaker line-up.


Friday (24 Nov)

9:30 – 9:45Introduction
9:45 – 10:30Konrad Werner: Drawing Boundaries in the Lifeworld
10:40 – 11:25Gregor Greslehner: Two Dogmas of Molecular Biology: What is the explanatory role of the sequence-structure-function relationship?
11:40 – 12:25Moritz Kriegleder: The Loch NESS Monster: Free Energy and Life
12:40 – 13:50Discussion (Vörös)
14:00 – 16:00Lunch
16:10 – 16:55Primož Vidovič: Life as a Phenomenon and Its Anthropological Implications
17:00 – 17:45Timotej Prosen: Georges Canguilhem and Vital Normativity: A Historical Chapter and a Contemporary Challenge
18:00 – 18:45Jan Halak: Empathy for the Whole: Merleau-Ponty and Michotte
18:45 – 19:30Discussion (Sivić)
20:00 – 20:15Dinner
You may find speaker biographies and abstracts in the section below.

Saturday (25 Nov)

9:10 – 9:55Johannes Jäger: Life Is All about Relations: The Use of Category Theory in the Work of Rosen, Louie, and Hofmeyr
10:00 – 10:45Sebastjan Vörös: Inside Out and Outside In: Francisco Varela and the Janus-Faced Nature of Life
11:00 – 11:45Kevin Purkhauser & Paul Poledna: Incompleteness: Mind the Gap Between Physics and Syntax
11:50 – 12:35Ela Praznik: Normativity and Plasticity in Development: Perspectives from Michael Levin’s Work on Morphogenesis
12:50 – 13:55Discussion (Vörös)


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 & 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?

Konrad Werner is a philosopher holding a PhD from Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. Currently serving as an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Warsaw, he has also been a research assistant at the Institute of Philosophy, Jagiellonian University. Dr. Werner’s research spans various areas, including philosophy of perception, philosophy of mind (enactivism/embodied cognition), theory of institutions, applied ontology, and meta-philosophy. In 2023, he attained his Habilitation in philosophy from the University of Warsaw, Poland.

Gregor 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.

Gregor Greslehner is a philosopher of science specialized in biology with a background in philosophy as well as molecular biology. His research is focused on the relationships between structure and function, from molecules to higher levels of organization. He is investigating the diversity of structural patterns and regulatory motifs and how they can be used to explain different functional features of biological systems, using conceptual approaches close to scientific practice. In addition, he is interested in the philosophy of aging, cancer, systems biology, synthetic biology, protein science, game theory, and the history of molecular biology. Before joining the Department of Philosophy in Vienna as a University Assistant/Postdoc, he was a Postdoc in the Conceptual Biology & Medicine Group and Thomas Pradeu’s ERC project “Immunity, Development and the Microbiota (IDEM): Understanding the Continuous Construction of Biological Identity” in Bordeaux.

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.

Moritz Kriegleder is a cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, working as a doctoral researcher in the ERC group “Possible Life,” https://www.possiblelife.eu. With a background in physics, cognitive science, and philosophy of science, he investigates mathematical models of cognition and their link to subjective experience. His interest in the free energy principle, enactivism and the methods of neurophenomenology led him to investigate how we construct self models and update them when acquiring novel information. His main aim is to strengthen the link between philosophical and mathematical methods in cognitive science and he ascribes to continuously practicing epistemic humility.

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.

Primož Vidovič is a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Ljubljana under the supervision of Borut Ošlaj. He holds a MSc in Cognitive Science from the MEi:CogSci programme and a double-degree BA in philosophy and comparative literature. His main research focus is philosophical anthropology, metaphilosophy, and public philosophy.

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.

Timotej Prosen is a PhD candidate at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, where he also works as a teaching assistant. He is working on a PhD thesis on the topic of affective experience, as conceived through the frameworks of enactivism and third-wave extended mind. His wider area of research includes process philosophy (primarily that of Whitehead, Simondon, and Deleuze), phenomenology (with a special interest in Merleau-Ponty) and non-representationalist or constructivist approaches in cognitive science (mainly enactivism).

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.

Jan Halák currently works at the Department of Philosophy, Palacký University Olomouc. He does research in phenomenology, philosophy of embodiment, enactivism, and experiential learning. His current project is “The dynamics of corporeal intentionality.”

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.

Ela Praznik is a cognitive scientist and molecular biologist based in Ljubljana. She is interested in the intersection of Sellarsian philosophy of science, 4E approaches to cognition and critical cognitive science.

Sebastjan Vörös

Inside Out and Outside In: Francisco Varela and the Janus-Faced 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.

Sebastjan Vörös is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His research interests encompass philosophy of science, epistemology, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. He is the author of Podobe neupodobljivega (The Images of the Unimaginable; KUD Logos & University of Ljubljana Press 2013, 2015), in which he investigates the phenomenon of mystical experiences from neuroscientific, phenomenological, and gnoseological perspectives. He has (co)edited numerous articles and special issues centered on embodiment, enaction and (neuro)phenomenology, with a special emphasis on Francisco Varela’s contributions to these fields. Additionally, he has translated several important philosophical texts into Slovene: in addition to works by A. Damasio, D. Dennett, W. James and A. N. Whitehead, Sebastjan has also translated and edited The Embodied Mind by F. Varela, E. Thompson, and E. Rosch. Finally, he is the head of the transdisciplinary institute-in-the-making Metanoia, and is currently – painfully slowly, yet arduously – writing a book on the philosophical and scientific work of Francisco Varela.

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.

Johannes Jäger is an evolutionary systems biologist and philosopher, originally trained as a Drosophila geneticist and modeller of biological regulatory networks. He was a group leader at the CRG Barcelona, a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and the director of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research (KLI) in Klosterneuburg, Austria. He is a recurrent guest lecturer in evolutionary system biology at the University of Vienna, and the D’Alembert Research Chair 2020/21 at the Institut d’Études Avancées (IEA) Paris. Johannes’ research interests are (the evolution of) complex regulatory systems, organismic agency, and innovation in evolution as well as academic research. He is an advocate of “open science.” Some of his projects combine arts and science. He also develops transdisciplinary workshops with unusual formats that focus on collaboration and sharing of information between researchers from different fields.

Kevin Purkhauser & Paul Poledna

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.

Purkhauser trained in physics, philosophy, as well as in the cognitive and neurosciences. Interested in combining all these areas of expertise, his research is concerned with a broader and deeper understanding of emergent phenomena in the context of adaptive biological systems. In particular, he is focusing on the application of formal computational approaches to the dynamics of living processes, and their limitations. Poledna has a background in physics and philosophy. His current research combines his interests in both fields, focusing on far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, complex dynamic systems, and semiotic processes. In particular, Paul investigates how insights from these areas combine to yield new insights into the emergence of self-organization and the distinctive self-manufacturing behavior of living systems.

The symposium is part of the “Vital Normativity: Beyond the Is/Ought Divide” project. The event was made possible with the kind support of the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana; Ian Ramsey Center of the University of Oxford; and Metanoia Association.