CFP: Organisms: Living Systems and Processes

Submission deadline: November 6, 2016

Conference date(s):
March 9, 2017 - March 10, 2017

Go to the conference's page

Conference Venue:

Centre for the Study of Life Sciences (Egenis), University of Exeter
Exeter, United Kingdom

Topic areas


Organisms are living systems. What does this mean? One answer given by systems biology is that organisms are self-organising dynamical systems that demarcate themselves from their environment by interacting with this environment on different levels. Non-reductionist top-down approaches in systems biology stress that organisms, as living systems, exhibit biological autonomy; they are integrated entities able to maintain themselves by actively adapting, whether by bodily reorganisation or by performing bodily movements, to changes in the environment rather than being the passive victims of such changes.

An interesting implication of this answer is that the autonomous organism is constitutively dependent on the process of its development and maintenance. Far from simply being given, the synchronic and diachronic identity of organisms is a hard-won achievement, constantly to be generated and defended against perturbations. Hence, some philosophers of biology, taking seriously the systems biological view of organisms, have called for replacing traditional substance ontological presumptions with a new process ontological framework so as to metaphysically support the insight into the processual nature of organisms. Organisms, as living systems, so they argue, are complex systems of organised and stabilised biological processes.

The conference aims to explore the relation between the systems biological and the process ontological view of organisms as living systems. This is generally motivated by the need to work out the metaphysical implications of recent empirical research on organisms as undertaken in systems biology and reflected in current philosophy of biology. If systems biology tells us that organisms are organised systems of processes exhibiting autonomy, what does this mean in metaphysical terms?

There is, however, also a more specific motivation, and this is that the combination of systems biology and process ontology is not as harmonious as it might look at first glance. The emphasis on the autonomy of living systems in (non-reductionist) systems biological models tends to be accompanied by fairly strong notions of self and identity, evoking the idea of an organism as a system with well-defined, determinate synchronic and diachronic boundaries. This seems to be in tension with the process ontological perspective that typically stresses the temporary character of process stabilisation as well as the fuzzy and fluctuating character of process boundaries especially as these result from the interaction of numerous constituent processes, for example through symbiosis. Can this tension be dissolved and if so, how?

The conference seeks to elucidate in which sense organisms can be both living systems, endowed with autonomy, and processes, by bringing together experts from systems biology, the philosophy of biology and metaphysics. Contributions are invited which from any of these perspectives address questions such as the following:

What are systems? Can systems be processes and if so, what does this imply for the concept of a living system?

  • What are processes? Can processes be systems and if so, what does this imply for the concept of a living system?

  • What distinguishes living systems from other systems? What is specific about biological processes and their organisation into living systems?

  • How can we account for biological autonomy in process terms?

  • How can the symbiotic constitution of life be integrated in such an account?

  • What follows from a processual account of biological autonomy for our understanding of agency in living systems?

  • How do we have to conceptualise the synchronic and diachronic identity of living systems given their processual character? How does vagueness figure in such a concept of identity?

  • What implications does a systems-bio-processual account of organisms have with respect to the concepts of self-organisation, emergence and top-down causation?

Please send an extended abstract of your contribution (circa 500 words) by 6 November 2016 to [email protected]. Travel expenses and accommodation will be covered.

Supporting material

Add supporting material (slides, programs, etc.)