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Organization is often taken to be a fundamental feature of living systems, which not only exhibit this feature but also maintain it. This self-maintenance of organization involves some type of metabolism whereby energy or matter is converted into work. A living system displays (some form of) agency when it controls activities that support self-maintenance and (some form of) autonomy to the degree that there is greater or lesser control over these activities. Many hold that “genuine” agency requires a living system to engage in the self-maintenance of organization because it somehow perceives that activities are conducive to this end. In this picture, an agent has the goal of securing nutrients for metabolism or partitions its environment in distinctive ways (goal-seeking behavior) because at some level it “recognizes” or is “aware” that these nutrients or environmental partitions have value for maintaining organization. However, since biochemical or physiological activities of pathways, cells, or other biological parts do not operate with this “recognition,” acting with an awareness that accomplishing a goal is “good” for the end of self-maintenance appears to be an irreducible feature of at least some living systems.

This broad picture of agency can foster a number of undesirable outcomes. It either: (1) leaves the “recognition” unspecified, making it difficult to understand how living systems with widely different “perceptual” capacities achieve this feat, (2) limits the “recognition” too specifically to particular “perceptual” capacities, making it difficult to understand how living systems with distinct or different capacities achieve this feat, (3) expands the “recognition” too generally via abstraction, rendering any comparisons across systems unclear or doubtful, or (4) attempts to reduce the “recognition” to the operation of biological parts or subsystems where the contribution to overall self-maintenance becomes mysterious or undermines any sense of agency altogether. All of this is compounded by the fact that different kinds of organizational properties can contribute to self-maintenance and therefore what might count as valuable for contributing to this goal is variable. In sum, it is difficult to demonstrate how the goal-seeking behavior of living systems can be based on what is needed to maintain organization independently of some account of how the living system comes to “recognize” that achieving the end of the behavior is valuable or beneficial. Can we formulate new concepts and approaches that generate novel empirical insights into questions about organization, agency, and goal-directed behavior?

Potential Questions

  • How do diverse living systems manifest an awareness or recognition of value states that underlies goal-seeking behavior to self-maintain organization and how can this be investigated empirically? Is this manifestation (if it exists) equivalent to or distinct from a living system having agency? How are the complex reactions and contributions of parts or subsystems integrated to secure desirable (i.e., valuable) overall states at different scales? To what degree are activities at different levels of organization exploratory (finding solutions) or targeted (aiming for solutions)?
  • Can it be demonstrated empirically that living systems maintain self-organization to flourish versus simply stay alive? How does the past experience (proximal or distal) of a lineage of living systems contribute to its awareness or recognition of value states (e.g., histories of stable versus fluctuating environments)? How can we empirically formulate these evaluative dimensions that characterize the self-maintenance of organization to test competing hypotheses about their nature and origins?
  • How can we operationally detect relevant aspects of the awareness or recognition of value states? Can these aspects be localized or are they systemic properties (in some sense)? Are they amenable to experimental manipulation or can they be engineered?
  • What are the minimal and maximal units that achieve sufficient agency to self-maintain organization? Do we have characterized examples that illustrate these extremes (e.g., synthetic cells or ecosystems)? Should we expect commonalities at either extreme? Is there more than one way to achieve the minimum? Is there some threshold of complexity that indicates a maximum?
  • What kinds of organization are self-maintained in living systems and what kinds of dependency relations or constraints do they display? Should we expect them to operate combinatorially or hierarchically? Are some more important than others? Will they be different across levels of organization? Must the kinds of organization be distinctive to living systems? Will they maintain organization through activities of persistence or plasticity (or both)?


Compelling responses to this research track will prioritize clear, bold and actionable projects related to demonstrating empirically how living systems recognize or come to have awareness of value states in order to self-maintain organization. This excludes the reiteration of extant theoretical models of organization, agency, or goal-directed behavior. The aim is to identify and characterize novel conceptions of these ideas for new scientific research that empirically addresses agency in relation to the sensitivity to goodness. Some potential respondents may believe that their previous work has already addressed one or more of the overlapping questions posed above. Such individuals are encouraged to apply, providing they address both why such answers have yet to gain broader traction within the relevant scientific communities and how they propose to increase such traction. Successful outcomes will not only fuel increased insight, but garner sufficient attention to change the status quo of scientific thinking on these frontiers.

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