Project description

The concept of autonomy, understood as the capacity of a system to set up and follow the norms of its own functioning, is of central relevance to contemporary science and society. Recently, the increasing acknowledgement of the deep interconnectedness, mutual dependence and multiscale embeddedness of several natural and social phenomena, has directly challenged the very idea of autonomy, together with those of individuality and identity, and the possibility of its applications to scientific and social challenges.

Building on top of 25 years of philosophical and transdisciplinary research at the IAS-Research Center for Life, Mind and Society, centered on a naturalized theory of autonomy in biological and cognitive sciences, this project aims to expand theories of autonomy autonomy beyond classical conceptions of the individual by including integrative, relational, collective and environmental dimensions into it. To do so the project pursues 4 main goals: 

  1. To develop a notion of integration that is capable of delivering operational criteria to understand how diverse types of autonomous organizations are kept together cohesively, to address controversial cases such as symbiotic systems, human microbiome, mother and foetus relationship in pregnancy, and to deliver socially relevant outcomes for the understanding of biological and psychological personal identity. 
  2. To explain how higher levels of autonomy emerge from the interaction between autonomous systems and how these new levels in turn limit or expand the autonomy of their constituents: from dyadic relationships to collective agency, from autonomous social habits to the constitution of democracies. 
  3. To enlarge the concept of autonomy to include relevant aspects of the environment it relies upon, particularly when this environment is transformed by the recurrent action of the subject and creates additional structures that may constitute material or epistemic scaffolds, challenges and threats to the viability of biological systems. Analogous challenges in the domain of human autonomy are found in our technological environment, including increasingly autonomous artificial intelligence, and the way it can jeopardize or enhance personal and democratic self-governance. 
  4. The last goal concerns the development of a concept of autonomy that includes issues of sustainability beyond the scale of an individual organization: ranging from holobionts, oecological associations, requirements for open-ended evolution, to the governance of social-ecological network in the context of contemporary climate crisis. 

In order to achieve these transdisciplinary goals the methodology involves naturalist conceptual analysis and synthesis based on an active dialogue with empirical research, computational and mathematical models and scientific theories. The profiles of the 5 research team members in philosophy of science, philosophy of biology and complex systems is complemented by a work team of 24 collaborators including social scientist, computer modellers, network and data analysts, biologists and environmental scientists. High impact is expected in the fields of philosophy (general), philosophy of biological and environmental sciences and philosophy of social sciences as a result of 12 Q1 papers in specialized philosophy and scientific journals, one monograph, a review paper in a general Q1 philosophy journal and at least 12 communications in conferences.

For a more detailed view of the project, you can check and download the full project document below.