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End of Series Reflection- Dr Kate Nave

Dr Kate Nave is an Analysis Trust postdoctoral research fellow, with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on developing a realist account of agency, grounded in the uniquely metabolic existence of living systems, and upon critiquing the machine concept of the organism in light of this distinctive material instability.

In his fourth Gifford lecture, professor John Dupré quoted the animalist statement that, “our fundamental nature is given not by our psychological capacities, but by our biological constitution: we are primates (Homo sapiens), and like all organisms, we persist just in case we continue living.”

To some, the emphasis on our animality that has characterised these lectures may seem anti-humanist – a primitivist denial of the advantages of civilisation, of technology and of our exceptional status as rational beings. Such resistance need not be motivated by religious considerations of the immaterial soul. In our scientific age, we are more likely to point to the importance of human capacities for reflection, deliberation, reasoning, learning, adaptation, and anticipation – capacities that seem unique throughout the animal world.

In the Aristotelian conception, these two facets of our existence are united in the idea of humans as the ‘rational animal’. When it comes to the issue of how we understand free will then, the question is whether our freedom and agency should be traced to our rationality, to our animality or the very particular fusion of the two.

The contemporary view of agency is marked by an almost exclusive focus on the rational capabilities of mature humans, while our animality has been supplanted by a picture of the mind as a rational machine. This machine model allows the scientist to abstract away from the messy materiality of our vulnerable biological body in order to focus on formal structures and functions. Some of these are highlighted by Dupré in the features of agency he identifies as the capacities to: 1) pursue goals, 2) learn, 3) produce novel behaviours 3) and anticipate future situations. It is these capacities that are supposed to distinguish our agency from the ‘merely mechanical’ behaviour of the Sphex wasp – or at least the slavish and unsophisticated Sphex Wasp of cognitive fiction.

Yet, as Dupré acknowledges, this traditional use of ‘mechanical’ to imply rigidity and automaticity is hard to sustain in the face of machines that do appear to pursue goals, to learn, to adapt, anticipate and even create.

Consider, for instance, the UK’s Electricity Control Centre, responsible for maintaining a stable level of 400 kilovolts throughout the national grid’s five thousand miles of powerlines – ensuring a continuous flow of electricity to this computer and every other electrical system in the country. If supply outstrips demand, the ECC releases pressure by lowering electricity prices. If demand increases, the control centre rapidly spins up its reserves to compensate. In order to budget with the environmentally-friendly but inconstant forces of renewable energy, the ECC has gotten ‘smarter’ via the deployment of models that can forecast demand increases or weather-induced outages, enabling the ECC to automatically take predictive actions. Armed with extensive data, smart grid learning algorithms may even spot patterns in electricity consumption that escape our notice and suggest new resource management strategies to maintain the delicate balance of the grid.

From an agency perspective, a compelling feature of a control system like the ECC is how easy it is to attribute a ‘goal’ to it in terms of the 400 kv state that it reliably returns to when disturbed. The pull of this agential description becomes even stronger with the development of AI systems whose workings and outputs now far outstrip our ability to predict or explain.

Nevertheless, I think these agential attributions are a mistake and one that naturally follows from an exclusive focus upon the rational side of human nature. From this mechanical perspective, it is hard to justify denying goals, learning, anticipation, and novelty to a sufficiently complex electricity control centre. We are led to a view in which the difference between the human and the machine is merely a matter of degree.

So, if not complex adaptive and anticipatory capacities, then what distinguishes organic processes from mechanical things? The concept of machine does, after all, have something of a processual flavour to it. A machine is typically defined in terms of what it does, not what it is made out of, and we allow that a machine may persist throughout variations in its material composition. However one feels about the Ship of Theseus, few of us would accept the unscrupulous car salesman’s claim that changing the wheels of a car constitutes the production of a brand-new vehicle.

As Dupré described in his first lecture, however, the relation a machine bears to this material turnover is very different from that of an organic process. Where a machine can allow for the flow of energy and matter, organisms depend upon it. Your car will not disintegrate if you forget to refuel it, but your pet hamster will.

This is what differentiates even the simplest bacterium seeking out a stable supply of glucose, from the ECC ‘seeking’ a 400-kilovolt balance across the grid. I may care very much if a power outage prevents me from finishing this commentary, but the ECC itself has no skin in this game. Its existence is not intrinsically tied to its success, and while a blackout may be bad for us it does not disintegrate the silicone and copper wires that instantiate the ECC. So, the attribution of a goal of 400-kilovolts to the ECC is only a projection of our own interests. In contrast, the bacterium’s existential requirement to successfully maintain a stable glucose intake has nothing to do our interests at all ­­– it may even run counter to them.

So, the precarity of an organic process is what gives us goals, but how does it set us free?

Here we can look to the second feature that Dupré identifies of processes – the lack of a stable, unchanging essence that identifies them over time and throughout whatever changes they undergo. The existence of a machine-type thing, like a car, can reasonably be understood in terms of an essential concept that allows the replacement of wheels, or other parts, but not the total rearrangement of the entire structure. In contrast, it is harder to identify the essential features by means of which we track a caterpillar through its metamorphosis into a butterfly, a bacterium throughout the liberal rearrangements of its genetic material and metabolic network, or a person throughout childhood, adolescence and the midlife crises of late adulthood.

Here I think the strength of the process view are clear. What allows us to identify these organisms through time is not any fixed essence, but rather the continuity of productive relations between different stages. In terms of morphology and psychology, I am (I would hope) more similar to most other 32-year-olds than to a two-year-old, but there is only one chain of metabolic and developmental processes that connects me back to that two-year-old Kate ­­– a processual chain that is shared with none of my more psychologically similar peers.

So, where a machine, a thing, or any sort of substantial entity depends upon the preservation of some essential features, as processual organisms we are both free to change in whatever way continues a process of metabolic self-production and at the same time forced to do so – in so far as such change is necessary to continue our existence. As Christine Korsgaard has argued, this notion of organisms as self-constructing processes thus puts a nice biological spin on the Kantian idea we are free only in so far as we are subject to some larger principle that constrains our actions.

The anti-essentialism of process and the primacy of change shows that recognising our animal basis does not mean downplaying our creativity. Moreover, it provides an important counterpoint to those who would take recognition of our animal natures to motivate a return to more ‘primitive’ ways of living, whether a return to paleo diets, barefoot shoes, or as one Canadian psychologist has suggested to the hierarchical social structures of our distant lobster ancestors. The process perspective turns this view on its head by showing that the technological innovation and rapid niche construction of human societies are not the subversion of biological processes but rather the intensification of them. To resist this creative evolution is not to cherish our animal nature, it is to reject the inherently dynamic and unpredictable nature of all organic life.

As Dupré emphasises, however, the intensified creativity that distinguishes humans is best understood not as an individual accomplishment, but cooperative and societal one. The precariousness of life renders all organisms dependent upon others, whether as sources of food, as symbionts, or as the fellow members of their herd.

No other organism takes this mutual dependence as far as humans, however. A wolf may depend upon a few dozen other members of its pack to successfully hunt. Hundreds of people, not only across continents but across different centuries, had to work together in order to facilitate my dinner this evening.  And, as someone who depends utterly on a word processor to structure my thinking, I’m acutely aware of the very many people ­– from Charles Babbage to Jack Kilby, Grace Hopper, and Evelyn Berezin – who were quite literally essential in enabling everything I’ve ever thought.

Or, for an example that may be more pointed to the triumphalist of individual human genius, take the big game hunter who revels in their superiority over the natural world. Now strip away the large calibre rifle, the bullets, the scope, the hunting jacket, the boots, and everything that took more than one person’s hand to create. Then place that individual, now shorn of everything but their birthday suit and perhaps a sharpened chunk of stone, back down in front of the 250-odd pounds of razor-tipped muscle that constitute a single lion. The human population may be a terrifyingly unstoppable destroyer of entire species, but this isolated and autonomous individual now starts to look like a very unimpressive thing indeed.

For me then, the most appealing aspect of Dupré’s lecture series is the insight that we are freed from machine-like determination only in so far as we recognise our inherent dependence upon our environment and each other; that recognizing our interconnectedness does not undermine our creativity; and that acknowledging our animality does not diminish our humanity – indeed it may be the best defence against a worldview that would reduce us to merely mechanical parts of a universal machine. In short, for me, the lesson of processual animalism is that rather than vainly striving to transcend the vulnerability that we share with other organisms, perhaps we should embrace it as what makes not only human lives but all life meaningful.


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