Volume 9 · Number 1 · Pages 93–101
Homeostats for the 21st Century? Simulating Ashby Simulating the Brain

Stefano Franchi

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Context: W. R. Ashby’s work on homeostasis as the basic mechanism underlying all kinds of physiological as well as cognitive functions has aroused renewed interest in cognitive science and related disciplines. Researchers have successfully incorporated some of Ashby’s technical results, such as ultrastability, into modern frameworks (e.g., CTRNN networks). Problem: The recovery of Ashby’s technical contributions has left in the background Ashby’s far more controversial non-technical views, according to which homeostatic adaptation to the environment governs all aspects of all forms of life. This thesis entails that life is fundamentally “heteronomous” and it is conceptually at odds with the autopoiesis framework adopted by Ashby’s recent defenders as well as with the primacy of autonomy in human life that most of the Western philosophical tradition upholds. The paper argues that the use of computer simulations focused on the more conceptual aspects of Ashby’s thought may help us recover, extend and consequently assess an overall view of life as heteronomy. Method: The paper discusses some computer simulations of Ashby’s original electro-mechanical device (the homeostat) that implement his techniques (double-feedback loops and random parameter-switching). Results: First simulation results show that even though Ashby’s claims about homeostatic adaptivity need to be slightly weakened, his overall results are confirmed, thereby suggesting that an extension to virtual robots engaged in minimal cognitive tasks may be successful. Implications: The paper shows that a fuller incorporation of Ashby’s original results into recent cognitive science research may trigger a philosophical and technical reevaluation of the traditional distinction between heteronomous and autonomous behavior. Constructivist content: The research outlined in the paper supports an extended constructionist perspective in which agency as autonomy plays a more limited role.

Key words: Second-order cybernetics, autonomy and agency, general homeostasis thesis, W. R. Ashby, homeostat, concept simulation


Franchi S. (2013) Homeostats for the 21st century? Simulating Ashby simulating the brain. Constructivist Foundations 9(1): 93–101. http://constructivist.info/9/1/093

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