The Synthetic Approach to Biology and the Cognitive Sciences (SA-BCS 2018): Developing an Epistemology for the Synthetic Sciences of Life and Cognition

July 25th, half day (15:30-17:00, 17:30-19:00, Uranus)


Organizers: Luisa Damiano, Pasquale Stano

A new epistemology for Artificial Life and Complex Systems” is the main topic of Alife 2018. Coherently with this topic, the SA-BCS 2018 workshop intends to address the open epistemological issues related to the general methodological approach supporting the synthetic exploration of life and cognition. We refer to the so-called “Understanding by building” approach (Pfeifer and Scheier, 1999), originally and mainly called “the Synthetic Method” (Ross, 1935). In its most generic expression, it prescribes scientists to test scientific hypotheses on living and cognitive processes, lato sensu, through the construction and empirical exploration of synthetic models, that is: software models (i.e., simulations), hardware models (i.e., robotic platforms), wetware models (i.e., artificial biochemical systems), and/or mixed models. The goal is generally twofold: improving current scientific hypotheses on the mechanisms underlying the target processes, in order to positively contribute to the scientific understanding of life and cognition; building better computational and/or engineering artifacts, able to exploit these mechanisms to enhance their performances.

Since the age of Proto-Cybernetics, when the Synthetic Method was introduced, considerable work has been done by specialists to define ways of synthetically model living and cognitive phenomena within the growing set of sciences of the artificial – AL and AI in primis, but also Synthetic and Computational Biology, Computer Science, Developmental, Cognitive, Epigenetic, Evolutionary and Social Robotics, among others.

The impressive advancements achieved so far in the synthetic exploration of life and cognition make it even more important to address the question of how pertinent this form of modeling is for the scientific knowledge of life and cognition, and how it is capable of capturing and penetrating the complexity of the processes under investigation.

What is the status and the value of the insights coming from the exploration of synthetic models of life and cognition? Are there criteria to warrant a positive transfer of knowledge from the sciences of the artificial to traditional sciences of life and cognition? Can systems built with different materials, and different embodiments, be considered effective models of natural living and cognitive systems? Can simple abstract models be useful to investigate complex phenomena? How and to what extent?

Questions of this kind, if left unanswered, threaten the legitimacy of the Synthetic Method, as well as its effective integration among the explorative practices accepted by science as sources of valuable insights.

The main idea guiding the SA-BCS 2018 is that the most fruitful epistemological reflection is produced neither by epistemologists, nor by scientists on their own, but by the dialogue between these specialists, especially when referring to concrete projects and processes of scientific investigation. On this basis, the SA-BCS 2018 workshop intends to gather specialists in epistemology and the synthetic modeling of life and cognition. Its main aim is to create a highly cross-disciplinary forum engaging its participants in generating a fruitful discussion directed to find answers to the epistemological doubts listed above, and to relevant theoretical, heuristic and methodological issues pertinent to address them.

The format of the workshop will include keynotes and selected talks. To both invited and selected speakers, we will ask to focus the talks on one or more open questions related to the synthetic modeling of life and cognition, and to address them based on the presentation and critical discussion of concrete frontier synthetic research on life and cognition, and related concrete models. This way, we intend to develop an epistemological reflection that, on one side, is in principle encompassing all the current forms of the synthetic investigation of life and cognition, and the different models that the sciences of the artificial produce, and, on the other side, is always grounded in actual front-line research, and able to tackle issues and address doubts that emerge in the effective practice of the synthetic modeling of life and cognition.