Volume 13 · Number 3 · Pages 362–373
What Is a Cognizing Subject? Construction, Autonomy and Original Causation

Niall Palfreyman & Janice Miller-Young

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Context: Realism has difficulty using the language of mind-independent dynamics to explicate autonomous cognition. Constructivism has difficulty locating the purposive originator of adaptive cognitive reconstruction. Enactivism derives purpose from self-maintaining dynamics, but has difficulty describing how the autopoietic subject emerges. Problem: We seek to resolve these difficulties by asking: What kind of dynamically embodied system could ever be autonomous in the sense of being the causally accountable originator of its own purposeful, yet spontaneous, cognitive constructions? Method: We identify causal accountability as the key obstacle to naturalizing autonomy, and employ a multi-level selection argument from evolutionary theory to overcome it. We demonstrate the feasibility of our solution in a computer simulation model. Results: Our argument leads us to postulate the Stabilization Thesis: Autonomy, learning, evolution and life are expected properties of dynamical systems whose structure upwardly conditions their dynamical flow, and whose flow downwardly selects their structural variation. Such systems exhibit stabilization - the spontaneous, purposeful construction of hierarchical modularity. This generates three claims: no pre-programmed behavior, architecture or learning rules can implement autonomy; autonomy entails non-local flows that establish identity by downwardly stabilizing its structure against exogenous irritations; constructivism’s postulate of a cognizing subject entails a view of concepts as fundamentally dynamical skills (as opposed to categories. Implications: Flows establish a causally accountable identity that defines the originator of meaning-construction, and their self-stabilization enables the enactive emergence of autopoietic, and hence autonomous, systems. Keywords: Autonomy, causal origination, conceptualization, dynamical stabilization, learning, multi-level selection.


Palfreyman N. & Miller-Young J. (2018) What is a cognizing subject? Construction, autonomy and original causation. Constructivist Foundations 13(3): 362–373. http://constructivist.info/13/3/362

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