Postdoc Perspectives: Q&A with Jonathan Bowen

Bernie Cook

POSTED 13/03/2023

Who are you and what do you do?
I'm Jonathan Bowen, and I'm a PhD student at Western University studying philosophy. I'm doing a lot of work on investigating responsiveness, answering conceptual questions like what is a stimulus and what is a response? A stimulus isn't just anything that causally affects you, or impacts you, and a response isn't anything that happens next.

I'm also interested in theories of organisms or theories of life. I think that responsiveness is a candidate for one of life’s fundamental features, on par with metabolism, but this attribute has been underemphasized in current theories of life. I’d like to better understand what responsiveness is and consider its significance for a general theory of life.


What do you find interesting about studying responsiveness?
It's ubiquitous. People really do talk about responses on all kinds of scales, from single-celled organisms to political communities. I look a lot at stimulus and response in psychology, particularly with humans, but also in other systems that are said to respond or to be stimulated, which possibly includes the biosphere.


Speaking of the biosphere, tell me about your work on geofunctions.
People talk about the function of something in an ecosystem relatively freely these days, but this is not really the case when talking about the whole biosphere. It seems like in earth and ocean sciences or in climate science, there is a tendency to avoid being associated with a Gaia theory which has it that the earth is an organism. Yet, this doesn’t stop scientists from saying things that sound very teleological. For instance, they’ll say things like, “polar ice is like an air conditioner,” or “ocean currents are like conveyor belts for heat,” or “soil is like the skin of the Earth,” or “streams and rivers are like the Earth's bloodstream.”

What they don't seem to do is use the language of “function” and “functioning” explicitly. That's interesting. They're using idioms that suggest function without using the language explicitly, which leads us to our first question: do geofunctions exist? Popular theories of function clearly were formulated with organismic functioning in mind. If we borrowed the selected effects theory, which looks to the contribution of some trait over a history of natural selection, it’d be a non-starter to ask whether the planet had functions. Yet the functional ascriptions persist.

To get at understanding the existence of and nature of geofunctions, the first thing we’ve been working on has been collecting instances where people use this kind of language to describe planetary processes. We’ve been poring over these teleological metaphors to categorize the various ways in which people ascribe function to the biosphere.


Which teleological metaphors are you seeing, and what are you doing with that information?
There seem to be three distinguishable kinds of function ascription. The first one is machine-type metaphors, relating the biosphere to air conditioners, or pumps, or conveyor belts. A second type of metaphor is in a more organismic or physiological idiom, exemplified through phrases like, “soil is the skin of the planet,” “rivers and streams act like its bloodstream,” or “lakes and wetlands act like digestive and excretory systems.” The third way that teleological language is used is with generic control concepts such as “regulate” or “control” or “distribute.” These are ways of describing an abstract relationship that doesn't say very much else about the systems that they're being used to describe.

We’ve been fleshing out these distinctions a little bit and are creating a framework for the distinctions amongst ways that these teleological notions are being deployed, including when scientists tend to use one or the other. Importantly, what we're trying to do is see what difference the type of teleological metaphor used makes. How does it help you understand how the system itself works? How does that help you understand how you might interact with the system? We are currently trying to figure these things out.


What are the differences between thinking about function as machine-like versus organismal?
Machines or their parts, for example, tend to be relatively monotelic. By that I mean, there's sort of one thing that a conveyor belt does, one thing that it's designed to do. Machine-functions also are independent, meaning you can conceive of the function of a conveyor belt relatively independently of a broader system of which it’s a component. You don't have to really know much else about the conveyor belt, such as where it’s installed, to know what it is as a conveyor belt. If you're saying something is like a machine, you're ascribing function in this monotelic and independent sort of way.

With an organism, on the other hand, or with physiology, it's more complicated. Function in organisms or in physiology is something we're calling polytelic. And these organismic functions are also entangled. They're interdependent, so you can't really consider them in isolation. You can't really consider what a bloodstream does by itself – it seems to be inherently integrated with other aspects of the broader system. There's a digestive system that's supplying the bloodstream with materials to circulate to parts that need it. There's an excretory system that removes materials, and there's a mechanism to drive circulation. If you’re saying something is like an organism, you’re ascribing function in this polytelic and interdependent sort of way.


What are the implications of thinking about planetary function using machine-like versus organismal metaphor?
If we use a machine-like metaphor to liken a river to a conveyor belt, we’d be thinking about the river as simply carrying material from one location to the next. If we use organismal or physiological metaphor to liken that same river to a bloodstream, suddenly we’re adding functional complexity. Just by calling the river a bloodstream, you’re saying that it does quite a few distinct and interdependent things. Both approaches say different things about how the part – the river – contributes to the biosphere as a whole.

Part of what we’re after is determining how to talk about the condition of the planet. Is it in a state of function or dysfunction? How do we know if it’s in good condition, or if something’s gone wrong? And, if something’s gone wrong, how do we investigate it? Insight lies in the idioms we use to describe planetary processes. If we consider planetary dysfunction as like a machine that’s broken, then we’d fix the broken part. If it’s an organism and it’s sick or wounded, then maybe it would need therapy. Does the planet need a mechanic or a doctor? These seem like very different modes of interacting with planetary processes, very different ways of evaluating how the system is doing, and very different ways of conceiving of what could go wrong with it. It might not strictly be one or the other – there might be some complicated intermediate story. We’re trying to more precisely characterize the differences between these approaches, decide when it’s appropriate to apply them, and learn how to apply them. When considering planetary functioning, this will help us understand the contribution of the parts and processes to the biosphere as a whole.


If you weren't a philosopher, what would you be?
I mean, the low hanging fruit answer is I would be one of the adjacent scientists because the sort of philosophy I'm doing is continuous with science. I’ve found it’s easier to do blue-sky work in a philosophy department, but I’m sure exceptions can be found. If I couldn't do philosophy, I don't know. I’d find some way to sort of sneak around it and do the same thing anyway.


What’s next?
I still have about two years left in my PhD program. So, in my immediate crosshairs is to write my dissertation and publish a few things along the way. Some of those will be related to my dissertation, some will be with this geofunctions research team, and some will be with my lab at Western, the Eclectic Minds Research Group (EMRG). Right now, it is all about developing a research program that I can take with me into a postdoc and beyond. I’m in this pure, constructive time for me to develop my foundational ideas, which will keep me occupied for the next two years or so. We'll see where that takes me.

Edited for clarity
Photo credits: Created with the assistance of DallᐧE 2