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Sam Peterson

Autonomous Systems and Their Relevance to the Theoretical Reduction of Molar-Level

Psychology to Dynamic Processes

The prevalent perspective characterizing biological research has been one of reductive

mechanism. However, it would seem that examining biological processes in the relatively static

and isolated manner which is typical of this perspective is starting to become a thing of the past.

In a forthcoming paper entitled “Complex Biological Mechanisms: Cyclic, Oscillatory, and

Autonomous”, William Bechtel and Adele Abrahamsen articulate the features of a new way of

considering and studying biological phenomena, one which builds off mechanism but adds

crucial temporal and interactive aspects to the mix. This resulting augmentation of the existing

mechanistic paradigm is referred to as “dynamic mechanism”, and is thought to be a more

precise representation of the true manner that biological processes operate by and, as a direct

consequence, more accurate a means of explaining these processes (Bechtel & Abrahamsen, pg

4). The conceptual framework offered by dynamic mechanism, since appropriate for any level of

biological operation, can be used to consider and speculate the manner in which natural cognitive

phenomena operate. This point is iterated by a chapter of Paul Churchland’s 2007 book

Neurophilosophy at Work, entitled “Functionalism at Forty.” While critiquing the framework of

classical functionalist thought, Churchland discusses the possible options for the neurobiological

reduction of the molar-level view of psychology espoused by folk psychology, the manifestation

of functionalist thought in general cognitive studies (Churchland, 2007, pg 28). A very attractive

means of reduction, Churchland posits, is that offered by the dynamic profile outlined by

theoretical biologists like Bechtel and Abrahamsen, but applied to cognitive processing in

addition to the processes typically studied by most biologists (pg 30). This application allows

Churchland to support his claims regarding the nature of cognitive activity, and what presence it

has in cognitively-active creatures. With the necessary framework laid out by one text and the

implementation of that framework for the purpose of explaining cognitive phenomena in the

other, a unified and cogent account of the dynamic and interactive properties of the cognitive

mechanism emerges.

Bechtel and Abrahamsen’s account of dynamic mechanism is informed by several

properties of actual biological systems which are not addressed adequately in previous

experimental and theoretical explanations. The basic mechanistic explanatory program consists

of identifying the components of a mechanism, ascertaining the operations performed by each

component, and an account of how the components and their purposes fulfill what the concept so

examined and dissected actually does in a biological context (pg 2). This is perfectly legitimate

in and of itself, the authors state, except that this way of thinking tends to produce explanations

that represent inadequately any non-linear and interactive characteristics present within the

complex mechanism examined (pg 2). Acknowledgement and inclusion of these complex,

temporally dynamic, and interactively orchestrated factors into preexisting mechanistic

approaches will do much to extend the explanatory accuracy and power they already possesses,

offering a more genuine representation of the reality of these biological system by including, in

real time, the full extent of their relations with other processes and the continuous, cyclical

organization common to many of these mechanisms, particularly oscillatory processes like

circadian rhythms (pg 3).

Globally, systems that include the crucial presence of dynamic circular and oscillatory

processes are referred to by Bechtel and Abrahamsen as active “autonomous systems”, in which

these processes provide a means of internal regulation of the organism in question (pg 3).

Autonomous systems are able to operate in a manner which repair and maintain the integrity of

their own form (pg 3, 4). Quoting from Ruiz-Mirazo & Moreno (2004), the authors define the

autonomy of a system as consisting of a means of handling the flux of matter and free energy in

a manner which enables the system to control and adjust its own self-constructive and repair

processes as well as its exchange relations with its environment (pg 19). This is in the interest of

retaining the system in a non-equilibrium state, avoiding death. Living organism systems also

possess metabolic mechanisms, which provide a means of harnessing energy and modifying its

own physical makeup (pg 20).

Cyclic and oscillatory processes are key mechanisms for avoiding death and pursuing the

continuation of their upkeep and development, orchestrating and synchronizing the various

systems in the necessary sequences and dynamics for the most effective means of avoiding the

state of biological equilibrium. Circular, oscillatory regulation can occur through coupling and

the resultant synchronicity of processes, a result of the energetic effect of one process on

surrounding ones and the alignment that might eventually occur, as well as the integration of

feedback loops into operative sequences (pg 21). These aspects of regulatory control have been

overlooked by many researchers, either obscured by the use of summary statistics (means and

standard deviations, for example, which cannot represent cyclic or oscillatory phenomena due to

their equalization of data into convenient, limited numeric values) or misclassified as “data

noise” (pg 10). However, new mathematical modeling procedures provide a means for

oscillations and cyclic processes and their abilities to be examined indirectly, and their purposes

divined. This, combined a more generally pattern-observant program of investigation, is integral


to understanding dynamic, interactive processes and how they constitute the mechanisms with

which autonomous systems maintain their non-equilibrated status.

The relation of this perspective on biological dynamic mechanism to cognitive activity is

explicated by Churchland, tying these concepts together in a reductive fashion to explain how

cognition operates according to these same principles. Churchland’s intent with the text, in a

general sense, is to refute the positions held by traditional functionalism-fueled folk psychology,

including and insistence on a molar-level view of cognition. This molar-level depiction of

cognition involves rules and classifications abstracted at far more general a level than that

approached by neuroscience and biology; the reduction of this view of cognition to the

phenomena observed by the latter disciplines is distinctly denied and decried by functionalism

(pg 24). To deflate this functionalist point, Churchland presents cognition, in reduced form, as a

dynamic biological process, realized here in but one form (pg 28). Laying out the now familiar

framework which delineates living organisms as non-equilibrium systems capable of and

directed at the acquisition and exploitation of free energy and extraneous matter for the purposes

of growth, repair, reproduction and the general avoidance of reaching thermodynamic

equilibrium, Churchland additionally makes note of the ways in the development of organisms is

affected by a “complexity-inducing ambient energetic waterfall” (pg 29), which spurs particular

structural and operational changes based on how energy is most available to an organism (pg 28,


Cognition, on a level far below the generalities and abstractions of a molar-level

treatment of the subject, is but another case in which the non-equilibrium, energetically-dynamic

framework of biological processes is present (pg 30). Churchland refers to cognitive creatures, in

light of this framework, as “extrasomatic information multipliers”, or, more simply, “epistemic

engines” (pg 30). Energy-flow takes the form of information, wherein an organism takes in and

utilizes information regarding the environment and integrating it into the process of self-

maintenance and alteration, allowing it to more effectively exploit that environment for its own

regulatory and metabolic purposes. Sensory input is the initial low-entropy form of energy,

which, after undergoing the complex processes of cognition and storing the information

contained therein, is simply dispelled in the form of raw heat (pg 30). This information is

processed as neural activation patterns, vectors, and transformations, with the end form of gained

knowledge as a change in the connectivity and sensitivity of synaptic linkages (pg 32). This view

of neural population coding as a means of semantic representation, along with the massively-

parallel action of the brain’s overall processing, is consistent with modern neuroscience, and has

been, according to Churchland, accepted as the most salient theory regarding the nature of

thought and meaning-laden mental representation. This incorporation of the activation-vector

model of brain structure and operation into the biological framework of non-equilibrium, energy-

obtaining dynamic processing provides a coherent version of the biological reduction of

cognitive activity from a molar-level in a wide variety of realizations, which was in fact used by

Churchland to falsify one of the functionalist claims (pg 32).

This notion of realizability is addressed by Churchland in the contexts of individual

differences and artificial intelligence research, and is pointed to as a unifying characteristic of

cognitive creatures (along with the universal framework of thermodynamic and information-

processing/generating activity). Different organisms, while similar in their brain and neural

activation patterns, are nonetheless unique in that regard; however, it is the present similarities

and adherence to a massively-parallel cognitive engine that allow cognitive computing to occur

in the same fashion between different realizations of cognitive creatures (pg 32). Research in

artificial intelligence stands to benefit and progress as a result of this treatment of cognition; the

older, serial structure of classical computation can be abandoned for attempts to realize, on an

electronic model, the same massively parallel processing that occurs in each and every organic

brain (pg 32, 33). With the same processing structure as organism-based cognitive hardware

(using a vector-activation model) and improved speeds, Churchland predicts, computation will

experience an explosion of scale and ability (pg 33). The most effective, successful forms of

future AI will be those that mimic the natural cognitive hardware present in biological entities

with the temporal benefits of electronic communication.

Thus Churchland, armed with the conceptual framework outlining a new version of

biological mechanism incorporating dynamic and interactive changes to its processes, is able to

more effectively and accurately create theories with regard to the nature of cognition and

semantic-representation as massively-parallel vector activations and transformations. By

completing this intertheoretical synthesis, combining his own ideas regarding neuroscience with

the new framework verbalized by Bechtel and Abrahamsen, he is able to generate a

reductionism-friendly scheme of cognitive activity which provides a neurobiological explanation

of molar-level psychology, and consequently refining what can be identified as a cognitive

creature. With such a conceptual fusion, new directions for research in cognitive studies with

extremely interesting questions regarding topics such as the possible importance of oscillatory

processes in regards to information processing and novel avenues of artificial intelligence

exploration are now available and possible.



Bechtel, W., & Abrahamsen, A. (as yet unpublished). Complex biological mechanisms: Cyclic,

oscillatory, and autonomous. To appear in Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, 10.

Churchland, P. (2007). Neurophilosophy at work. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.