Interview with Fermín Fulda

This is the fourth post in our our weekly series of interviews with the Rotman Institute’s postdoctoral fellows. Last week’s interview with Catherine Stinson can be found here. Tommaso Bruni’s interview can be found here, and Alida Liberman’s interview can be found here.

Fermín Fulda is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy. He graduated from the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science with his PhD in 2015. Prior to that, he attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico where he completed his MA. His research addresses questions in the philosophy of biology, cognitive science, philosophy of mind and action, as well as topics in the general philosophy of science.

Amy Wuest: Your work brings together several distinct lines of research. Can you introduce our readers to some of the issues that interest you in the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of mind and action?

Fermín Fulda: In the philosophy of biology I’m interested in the problem of natural teleology. A distinctive feature of biological systems is that they can be described teleologically in terms of goals, purposes, functions, norms and values. These teleological descriptions appear to have distinctive explanatory, predictive and normative implications. For example, we normally say that the immune system produced a certain amount of lymphocytes in order to restore the health of the organism, or that a given mammal sweated for the sake of regulating its temperature. Restoring health and regulating temperature are goals while producing lymphocytes and sweating are the means to attain them. The occurrence of the means is explained by describing the way it is conducive to the attainment of the goal under the relevant circumstances. Knowing that these are goals allows us also to predict what the organism or the sub-organismic system would do across a wide range of conditions. It also allows us to evaluate the appropriateness of these responses. Moreover, if restoring health is the goal and producing lymphocytes is the means, then ceteris paribus the organism’s immune system ought to or at least it is required to produce the relevant amount of lymphocytes. Restoring health is after all good for the organism insofar as it is an end-state that has survival value for the organism.

But despite its ubiquity in biology the scientific legitimacy of teleology faces important methodological and metaphysical challenges. Given that we can give a mechanical (molecular) explanation of how the immune system produced the relevant amount of lymphocytes, why do we need a further teleological explanation of why the lymphocytes were produced? The standard view holds that teleological explanations can be analyzed in terms of some familiar form of causal explanation by natural selection or self-regulation. This reductionist approach is motivated by the perceived conflict between the ontological commitments of teleology and naturalism. Teleology explains in terms of goals, norms and values. But what kind of entities are these? What is their place in the causal structure of the physical world as described by natural science? The case for natural teleology will have to show that these entities belong after all in the causal structure of the world and that they play an indispensable role as such in understanding biological systems.

In the philosophy of action I’m interested in the nature of rational explanations of actions. When we explain an action by citing the agent’s reason for acting what kind of explanation are we giving? Do reasons explain by causing the action or do they explain by justifying the action in light of the agent’s goals and circumstances? One motivation for the former view is that it will make rational explanation continuous with scientific explanation, which is generally taken to be causal. However, action-explanations are the paradigmatic instances of teleological explanation. As such they have normative implications about what agents should do that are characteristically absent from causal explanations. Unlike the mindless teleology we find in biology, the goal in rational explanations is represented by the agent as the object of her desire while the means is represented as the object her instrumental belief. Psychological teleology thus involves intentionality, the capacity of then mind to be about or to represent something else. A naturalistic account of intentionality faces notorious challenges of its own. This is the topic that interests me in the philosophy of mind.

Philosophy of mind and action, in turn, address epistemological and metaphysical problems related to mental phenomena. They do so mostly by relying on a priori methods such as conceptual analysis and thought experiments. An important methodological problem in the philosophy of action is the nature of action-explanation. When we explain an action by citing the agent’s reason for acting what kind of explanation are we giving? Do reasons explain by causing the action or do they explain by justifying the action in light of the agent’s goals and circumstances? One motivation for the former view is that it will make rational explanation continuous with scientific explanation, which is generally taken to be causal. Action-explanation is the paradigmatic instance of teleological explanation. But unlike the mindless teleology we find in biology, here the goals are represented as the objects of the agent’s desires while the means are represented as the objects of the agent’s instrumental beliefs. So teleology marks an important continuity between biological and psychological systems.

AW: How do you connect these lines of research in your work?

FF: My current research focuses on the concept of natural agency, roughly the capacity to act purposefully guided by norms. I’ve explored the role that this concept plays in microbiology and intentional psychology, two fields that would seem to be hardly connected. Let me explain.

Philosophy of action has traditionally identified agency with rational-intentional agency, or the capacity of an agent to act on its beliefs and desires guided by the norms of practical rationality. Agency, on this picture, presupposes cognitive capacities. Cognitive agents have intentional states, such as beliefs and desires, and inferential capacities for practical reasoning, such as deliberation or decision-making. Since agency has been traditionally conceived as a psychological category, the philosophy of action has ultimately depended on the philosophy of mind, both of which have been largely independent of what goes on in the philosophy of biology. This traditional view has been recently put into question on the grounds that it gives an over-intellectualized picture of agency. There seems to be a wide range of intentional actions, such as opening a door or drinking from a cup, that are done “on the fly” without the agent explicitly engaging in a prior process of practical reasoning or even without having explicit beliefs and intentions in mind.

My work explores further scientific reasons to de-intellectualize agency by investigating its role not just in psychology but also in biology. The idea is to start with an account of basic biological agency of the kind arguably found in microbiology, and then upgrade this account to address more sophisticated forms agency all the way to the kind of cognitive agency that is familiar from intentional psychology. This research opens a lot of fascinating challenges and opportunities for re-thinking the nature of life, action and mind and their relation. Agency, it would seem, has become a legitimate and arguably an indispensable biological category too. If this is right then understanding the nature of agency and understanding the nature of life are necessary connected. Furthermore, it follows that mind depends on agency rather than the other way around. So my work not only assigns to the philosophy of biology a more prominent role with respect to the philosophy of action and mind, it also inverts the traditional order of dependence between these fields.

AW: How does cognitive science inform the research that you discussed above?

FF: My research is informed by recent developments in what is called “embodied” or “situated” cognitive science. This includes fields such as ecological psychology, behavior-based robotics, dynamical-systems theory, phenomenology and the enactivist approach to cognition. The traditional focus of classical cognitive science has been on intellectual capacities such as abstract reasoning. These new set of approaches focus instead on practical capacities such as perception, action and adaptive behavior more generally.

More specifically my research is informed by ecological psychology. The basic is that the proper unit of psychological analysis is the overall organism-environment system rather than the inner workings of the animal. In the language of dynamical systems theory, the organism and its environment constitute a single, coupled dynamical system, such that a change in one implies a change in the other. The central concept of this approach is that of an “affordance.” Affordances are opportunities or possibilities for action that the surroundings of an organism provide (or impede) relative to the organism’s capacities. For example, acorns afford food to squirrels but not to whales; oxygen is poison for anaerobes but not for aerobes, so oxygen is a negative affordance to anaerobes and positive affordance for aerobes. A hole in the wall affords escaping to a mouse but not to a horse; and water affords drinking to most animals, swimming to a fish and a supportive surface to water striders. What the environment affords thus depends in part on what the organism can do and what an organism can do depends in part on what the environment affords. Affordances are supposed to capture the constitutive interdependence between organism and environment, the fact that they imply each other. I am particularly interested in the philosophical relevance of affordances for a naturalistic yet non-representationalist way to understand normative phenomena such as purpose, meaning and value.

AW: In a summary of your research, you explain that your “research in these areas is motivated by the idea that understanding the nature of life is central to bridge the gap between inanimate matter and mind.” Why is bridging this gap important? How will life contribute to it?

FF: Bridging the gap is important in order to have a unified picture of the world and our place in it. Contemporary philosophy distinguishes between the so-called “manifest” and “scientific” images of the world, also known in some corners as the “space of reasons” and the “space of causes.” The former represents the world of common sense as revealed by everyday experience. On this image we are conscious, free willing, intentional agents that can act according to the norms of practical and theoretical reason. The latter represents the world as described by natural science through empirical methods. On this image we are physical systems governed by causal mechanisms and ultimately by the laws of nature, just like rocks, stars, gasses and thunderstorms. The importance of bridging the mind-matter gap can be made vivid by pointing out the tension between these two images or spaces: How can we be both rational agents and physical systems governed by mechanical laws? One way to express this apparent conflict is to say that while the manifest image concerns normative (prescriptive) phenomena and hence what ought to be the case or the domain of values, the scientific image concerns natural (descriptive) phenomena and hence what is the case or the domain of facts. There is hence no single unifying framework according to which we are both normative agents and natural beings. Bridging the gap would thus offer a much-needed reconciliation between the normative and the natural conceptions ourselves and the world. The question is how? This is where I believe that philosophy of biology has an important role to play. If we can naturalize life’s teleological character it would seem that organisms constitute a domain of natural entities that can be thought of as agents and hence as responsive to norms. This agency, furthermore, can play a distinctive role in our scientific understanding of the capacities and activities of these natural entities. The point of invoking life is thus to indicate a tertium quid or via media between inanimate matter (causes) and mind (reasons) that can potentially offer a locus for unification.

AW: In a recent publication—“A mechanistic framework for Darwinism or why Fodor’s objection fails”—you challenge Fodor’s rejection of Darwinian explanation. Can you explain Fodor’s objection?

FF: In a nutshell, Fodor thinks that Darwinian explanations presuppose the existence of laws of selection but the way natural selection works strongly suggests that there aren’t any such laws. Consider a complex biological trait such as the heart and suppose hearts evolved by natural selection, and suppose further that we want to explain why they were selected. To explain this we need to look at the activities or effects of hearts that increased the relative fitness of their bearers in the relevant environment. Hearts can pump blood and make pulse sounds, among other activities. But while making pulse sounds makes no difference to individual fitness, pumping blood certainly makes a positive contribution to individual fitness. So hearts were selected for pumping blood rather than for making pulse sounds. But since pumping blood and making pulse sounds are correlated in the relevant environment, there was also selection of making pulse sounds. This means that pumping blood rather than making pulse sounds cause hearts to be selected; hearts were selected because they pump blood rather than because they make pulse sounds. The explanatory role that natural selection plays in evolution thus crucially depends of the selection-for/of distinction.

Fodor’s objection to Darwinism is directed against this distinction. The first premise is that distinguishing what a trait was selected-for from mere selection-of depends not just on the actual historical conditions but on possible counterfactual conditions. That is, for it to be true that hearts were selected for pumping blood rather than for making pulse sounds it must be true that if hearts hadn’t pumped blood but had made pulse sounds they wouldn’t have been selected, but if they hadn’t made pulse sounds but had pumped blood, then they would have been selected. The second premise is that for these counterfactuals to be true there must be laws of selection connecting the property of pumping blood and the property of having higher fitness as such. However, according to the third premise, while the properties that figure in laws are context-insensitive, whether some property increases the relative fitness of an individual depends on the environment in which it is embedded and hence is irreducibly context-sensitive. A trait that is advantageous in one environmental context might be neutral or even disadvantageous in a different environmental context. In other words, while laws describe intrinsic properties of things that are necessarily connected, having higher fitness is a relational property of organisms such that it is contingently connected with pumping blood. But it is the necessity that laws afford that guarantees that the connection is robust across possible counterfactual scenarios. So, Fodor concludes, there aren’t any laws of selection to support the relevant counterfactuals and hence there is no principled way to draw the selection-for/of distinction. Natural selection, it seems, can’t explain what Darwin proposed it can.

Fodor offers the following consolation: Instead of being reliable causal explanations that subsume events under laws, Darwinian explanations give us plausible post hoc historical narratives about the causal chain of events leading to the explanandum. Given that we know that heartless chordates are extinct, we can formulate a plausible and possibly true story about how this came about. That is, about how having a heart provided their bearers with an advantage. But alternative causal stories are also consistent with the fact that heartless chordates are extinct and there seems to be no principle way to choose among them. Historical narratives describe singular causal relations between events, which are concrete particulars. In contrast, laws describe general causal relations among properties, which are universals. So historical narratives can’t subsume events under a general law as a reliable causal explanation requires.

AW: Can you sketch your response to this objection for us?

FF: I think Fodor is right that the role that the actual environment plays in Darwinian explanations is incompatible with the existence of laws of natural selection. Darwinian explanations are indeed irreducibly historical and context-sensitive. But, given the empirical success of Darwinism, I think this shows that the covering-law model of explanation is the wrong way to think about Darwinian explanations. The main problem with Fodor’s objection is that it is committed to the old view that causal explanation consist of subsuming events under laws. Instead, I argue that Darwinian explanations are best conceived as a historical species of mechanistic explanations. Mechanisms not only have the causal power to support counterfactuals in the absence of laws, they are also compatible with the context-sensitive character of fitness. So pace Fodor, Darwin can have his cake and eat it too. The fact that Darwinian explanations are historical and context-sensitive is perfectly compatible with being reliable causal explanations of evolution.

AW: You recently won a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship. Can you describe the project that you outlined in your proposal and why you decided to use that funding to study at the Rotman Institute?

FF: The project is about an approach to understanding a wide range of natural phenomena that might be called “neo-Aristotelianism.” The idea is that natural phenomena like organisms, agency, reasons, and virtues are identified by their natures, which explain their place in the natural world. My project has two parts. The first is the application of Neo-Aristotelianism to the problem of “intentionality,” that is, of explaining how the world can be the object of thought and action. The other is an attempt to document what I take to be a generalized, if diffuse, emerging neo-Aristotelianism in contemporary philosophy. I decided to use this fellowship to study at the Rotman Institute because I share the Institute’s vision of integrating philosophy and science by facilitating engagement with scientists. I also share their emphasis on the academic and social importance of an interdisciplinary interface between the sciences and the humanities. But the more specific reason is that there is an excellent fit between the work that is done here and my project. The quality and variety of expertise one finds here is I think ideal for my research. Devin Henry, my supervisor, is an expert in Aristotle’s philosophy, particularly Aristotelian biology. His work connects issues in Aristotelian philosophy with current issues in the philosophy of biology. Gillian Barker, in turn, works in the philosophy of biology from a complex adaptive systems perspective and her research addresses the implications of naturalism for normative phenomena such as purpose, meaning, norms and values. Eric Desjardins, also a philosopher of biology, explores the implications that the new non-equilibrium paradigm for understanding complex systems has for ecology. In the philosophy of mind, Angela Mendelovici and David Bourget, a faculty member at Western, specialize precisely on issues on intentionality including the problem of naturalizing intentionality.