Stuart Kauffman on is/ought, knowing/acting

One cannot, David Hume wrote, logically deduce ought from is.

Take this Humean example: The “is” that humans are changing the Earth’s climate cannot necessitate the “ought” of how to act.

Simple (and devastating) as that? Consider this designerly reframing. Instead of the is/ought dichotomy, start with the knowing/acting duality.

Here’s my version.

We each experience the world outside, and from such experiences, we each develop ways of knowing. Socially learned and competent ways of knowing are called science. While some specialize in science, each of us must develop the rudiments of a scientific stance — ways of understanding the world outside — in order to get by.

We each act in the world, and some activities are purposefully designed. By design, I mean the development of inquiries and activities through which we seek to examine and shape the individual, social (institutional, cultural, material), and ecological affordances and constraints that shape, in turn, our lives and activities. While some specialize in design, each of us must develop the rudiments of a designerly stance — ways of engaging with the world outside — in order to get by.

Given this reframing, here’s a question: in service to acting, as informed by knowing, whence the oughts (emotional sensing and logical-ethical reasoning)? In other words, what roles do sensing and reasoning, emotional-logical-ethical, play?

I write this after reading Stuart Kauffman, who has often returned to this topic, in the context of evolutionary biology.

For Kauffman, oughts are not ancillary; they are fundamental.

Here is his most recent piece (as far as I’m aware) on is/ought and knowing/acting, from “Evolution beyond Newton, Darwin, and entailing law: the origin of complexity in the evolving biosphere,” a chapter in the 2013 edited volume, Complexity and the Arrow of Time:

In my third book, Investigations [Kauffman, 2000], my own attempt to define agency stated that a molecular autonomous agent was a self-reproducing system that is able to do at least one thermodynamic work cycle. With Philip Clayton, we broadened this definition to involve the inclusion of the self-reproducing system in some boundary, say a liposome, and the capacity to make at least one discrimination, food or not food, and to “act” upon that discrimination [Kauffman & Clayton 2006]. Bacteria clearly do this, and, without invoking consciousness, are therefore agents. Agency is real in the universe.

A rudimentary beginning of “emotion” emerges here [Piel, 2012]. The bacterium must sense its world and act to avoid toxins and to obtain food. The evaluation of “good” versus “bad”, arguably the “first sense”, enters here. Agency and the existence of the cell precedes this “semiotic” evaluation logically, for if there were no existence in the non-ergodic universe of the Kantian whole, agency and evaluation of food versus poison would not be selected, and so they would not exist in the universe. Thus, I would argue that life is not sufficiently based on semiosis, for, as noted, if there were not a prior Kantian whole existing in the non-ergodic universe above the level of atoms, semiosis would not have evolved. I note also that Hume’s famous: “one cannot deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'”, the famous naturalistic fallacy, rests on a critical fallacy that Hume, like Descartes, thought of a mind “knowing” its world. Hume did not think of an agent “acting” in its world. Given “action” and “doing”, doing “it” well or poorly enters inevitably, and with it, “ought”. With ought, the need for evaluation, the rudiments of emotion without positing consciousness, enter.

Leave a Comment