Ezequiel Di Paolo is Research Professor at the Basque Foundation for Science (Ikerbasque). His interests include evolutionary robotics, biological modeling, adaptive behavior, embodied cognition, intersubjectivity, and philosophy of mind.
The concept of agency is of crucial importance in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, and it is often used as an intuitive and rather uncontroversial term, in contrast to more abstract and theoretically heavy-weighted terms like “intentionality”, “rationality” or “mind”. However, most of the available definitions of agency are either too loose or unspecific to allow for a progressive scientific program. They implicitly and unproblematically assume the features that characterize agents, thus obscuring the full potential and challenge of modeling agency. We identify three conditions that a system must meet in order to be considered as a genuine agent: a) a system must define its own individuality, b) it must be the active source of activity in its environment (interactional asymmetry) and c) it must regulate this activity in relation to certain norms (normativity). We find that even minimal forms of proto-cellular systems can already provide a paradigmatic example of genuine agency. By abstracting away some specific details of minimal models of living agency we define the kind of organization that is capable to meet the required conditions for agency (which is not restricted to living organisms). On this basis, we define agency as an autonomous organization that adaptively regulates its coupling with its environment and contributes to sustaining itself as a consequence. We find that spatiality and temporality are the two fundamental domains in which agency spans at different scales. We conclude by giving an outlook to the road that lies ahead in the pursuit to understand, model and synthesize agents.
Cuffari E. C., Di Paolo E. A. & De Jaegher H. (2021) Letting language be: Reflections on enactive method. Filosofia Unisinos 22(1): 117–124. https://cepa.info/7637
Prompted by our commentators, we take this response as an opportunity to clarify the premises, attitudes, and methods of our enactive approach to human languaging. We high-light the need to recognize that any investigation, particularly one into language, is always a concretely situated and self-grounding activity; our attitude as researchers is one of knowing as engagement with our subject matter. Our task, formulating the missing categories that can bridge embodied cognitive science with language research, requires avoiding premature abstractions and clarifying the multiple circularities at play. Our chosen method is dialectical, which has prompted several interesting observations that we respond to, particularly with respect to what this method means for enactive epistemology and ontology. We also clarify the important question of how best to conceive of the variety of social skills we progressively identify with our method and are at play in human languaging. Are these skills socially constituted or just socially learned? The difference, again, leads to a clarification that acts, skills, actors, and interactions are to be conceived as co-emerging categories. We illustrate some of these points with a discussion of an example of aspects of the model at play in a study of gift giving in China.
De Jaegher H. & Di Paolo E. A. (2008) Making sense in participation: An enactive approach to social cognition. In: Morganti F., Carassa A. & Riva G. (eds.) Enacting intersubjectivity: A cognitive and social perspective to the study of interactions. IOS Press, Amsterdam: 33–47. https://cepa.info/323
Research on social cognition needs to overcome a disciplinary disintegration. On the one hand, in cognitive science and philosophy of mind – even in recent embodied approaches – the explanatory weight is still overly on individual capacities. In social science on the other hand, the investigation of the interaction process and interactional behaviour is not often brought to bear on individual aspects of social cognition. Not bringing these approaches together has unfairly limited the range of possible explanations of social understanding to the postulation of complicated internal mechanisms (contingency detection modules for instance). Starting from the question What is a social interaction? we propose a fresh look at the problem aimed at integrating individual cognition and the interaction process in order to arrive at more parsimonious explanations of social understanding. We show how an enactive framework can provide a way to do this, starting from the notions of autonomy, sense-making and coordination. We propose that not only each individual in a social encounter but also the interaction process itself has autonomy. Examples illustrate that these autonomies evolve throughout an encounter, and that collective as well as individual mechanisms are at play in all social interactions. We also introduce the notion of participatory sense-making in order to connect meaning-generation with coordination. This notion describes a spectrum of degrees of participation from the modulation of individual sense-making by coordination patterns, over orientation, to joint sense-making. Finally, we discuss implications for empirical research on social interaction, especially for studies of social contingency.
De Jaegher H., Di Paolo E. A. & Gallagher S. (2010) Can social interaction constitute social cognition? Trends in Cognitive Science 14: 441–447. https://cepa.info/4349
An important shift is taking place in social cognition research, away from a focus on the individual mind and toward embodied and participatory aspects of social understanding. Empirical results already imply that social cognition is not reducible to the workings of individual cognitive mechanisms. To galvanize this interactive turn, we provide an operational definition of social interaction and distinguish the different explanatory roles – contextual, enabling and constitutive – it can play in social cognition. We show that interactive processes are more than a context for social cognition: they can complement and even replace individual mechanisms. This new explanatory power of social interaction can push the field forward by expanding the possibilities of scientific explanation beyond the individual.
Di Paolo E. A. (1997) An investigation into the evolution of communication. Adaptive Behavior 6(2): 285–324.
This article presents a theoretical criticism of current approaches to the study of the evolution of communication. In particular, two very common preconceptions about the subject are analyzed: the role of natural selection in the definition of the phenomenon of communication and the metaphor of communication as information exchange. An alternative characterization is presented in terms of autopoietic theory, which avoids the mentioned preconceptions. In support of this view, the evolution of coordinated activity is studied in a population of artificial agents playing an interactional game. Dynamical modeling of this evolutionary process based on game-theoretical considerations shows the existence of an evolutionarily stable strategy in the total lack of coordinated activity which, however, may be unreachable due to the presence of a periodic attractor. In a computational model of the same game, action coordination evolves even with individual costs against it, due to the presence of spatial structuring processes. A detailed explanation of this phenomenon, which does not require kin selection, is presented. In an extended game, recursive coordination evolves nontrivially when the participants share all the relevant information, demonstrating that the metaphor of information exchange can be misleading. It is shown that agents engaged in this sort of interaction are able to perform beyond their individual capabilities.
Di Paolo E. A. (2003) Organismically-inspired robotics: Homeostatic adaptation and teleology beyond the closed sensorimotor loop. In: Murase K. & Asakura T. (eds.) Dynamical Systems Approach to Embodiment and Sociality. Advanced Knowledge International, Adelaide: 19–42. https://cepa.info/2514
Excerpt: In time, it was perhaps inevitable that artificial intelligence should turn to biology. Ob- serving the richness of animal behaviour provides us with inspiration and aspirations for robotics, and it is only natural that we should start by imitating only selected properties of biological systems. It is definitely not the message of this paper that this practice should be abandoned. On the contrary, it should be pursued with more seriousness. We should aspire to imitate the principles of the biological world (as opposed to imitating
Di Paolo E. A. (2004) Unbinding biological autonomy: Francisco Varela’ s contributions to artificial life. Artificial Life 10(3): 231–233. https://cepa.info/4796
Excerpt: As historians of science know very well, concepts and methods evolve, disfavored theories get buried under successful ones (and not necessarily because they are any less valuable), metaphors and languages change, and social perception and pressures influence the directions of research. In view of this, how fortunate that an exceptional and multifaceted scientist like Francisco Varela has not only provided us with a rich legacy of ideas that, both in content and in perspective, are worthy of serious and active (re-)discovery and exploration, but has also himself been a predecessor and supporter of the field. Concrete examples of his work follow the methods of artificial life, both from when the label did not exist and from afterwards. We also have direct collaborators, many of whom are contributors to this special issue, who worry about many of the same problems as Varela did and whose work is directly connected to research lines in this field.
Di Paolo E. A. (2005) Autopoiesis, adaptivity, teleology, agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4(4): 429–452. https://cepa.info/2269
A proposal for the biological grounding of intrinsic teleology and sense-making through the theory of autopoiesis is critically evaluated. Autopoiesis provides a systemic language for speaking about intrinsic teleology but its original formulation needs to be elaborated further in order to explain sense-making. This is done by introducing adaptivity, a many-layered property that allows organisms to regulate themselves with respect to their conditions of viability. Adaptivity leads to more articulated concepts of behaviour, agency, sense-construction, health, and temporality than those given so far by autopoiesis and enaction. These and other implications for understanding the organismic generation of values are explored.
Di Paolo E. A. (2005) “The phenomenon of life” by Hans Jonas. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 36(3): 340–342. https://cepa.info/4352
Excerpt: Value and emotion, which have been part and parcel of phenomenological thought, are now beginning to make headway in cognitive science. Their roots in organismic activity are in need of clarification, as is the connection between what an organism does and what it is. All of this makes it the right time to publish a new edition of Hans Jonas’s 1966 book The Phenomenon of Life and let the clarity of his single-stroke treatment of these questions illuminate current debates.
Di Paolo E. A. (2008) A Mind of Many. Constructivist Foundations 3(2): 89–91. https://constructivist.info/3/2/089
Open peer commentary on the target article “Who Conceives of Society?” by Ernst von Glasersfeld. Excerpt: While von Glasersfeld’s “epistemological model involves consciousness, memory, and some basic values” (§47), our argument from an enactive perspective is that these axiomatic elements are not atomic and already imply the participation of those social processes they intend to ground and that this fundamental intervention happens before these processes are constituted as knowable by the individual mind they shape.