Interface Focus has recently published a new interdisciplinary issue that brings together scientists from a range of scientific backgrounds to explore some of the deepest topics in science. The organiser, Dr Adam Safron at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells us more.
1. Please can you introduce this issue and tell us what it’s about?
In this themed issue we explore the nature(s) of (a)symmetries in mind and life. Our contributors discuss arrows of time in both physics and neuroscience, ways in which biophysical systems adaptively align to (and potentially model) the world, accounts of the origins of life and the intelligence of all living systems, and more. The Free Energy Principle and Active Inference (FEP-AI) framework underpins many of these articles as a unified paradigm for understanding a broad range of living and mental phenomena, and which may provide a general systems theory with potentially universal applicability to all ‘things.’ One particularly notable contribution recasts FEP-AI in terms of a “gauge theory”, or as a way of modeling physical systems with properties that are conserved across transformations as being governed by force fields that preserve these “symmetries” (or invariances). The implications of such an integration may be profound and far reaching, affording potentially rich channels of cross-fertilization between fundamental physics and dynamical systems perspectives, and even providing means of understanding ways in which information can be ‘causal’ in terms of instantiating kinds of forces, and so constituting potential sources of difference (makers) that make a difference.
2. How does studying symmetries in one discipline help inform our understanding of this topic across multiple disciplines?
In this collection alone, we see how considerations of entropy and symmetry breaking are not only relevant to philosophical explorations of the nature(s) of causation (and human meanings), but also as a source of potentially invaluable tools for basic research and clinical practice (in which conscious processing could be assessed by the degree of reversibility of neuronal timeseries data). Even more, if it is indeed the case the study of symmetries could provide foundations for a “theory of everything”, then we may find ourselves equipped with frameworks that allow us to identify common principles and modeling techniques across heterogeneous domains. Considering that analogy is considered by some to be the “core of cognition” and “fuel and fire” of intelligence, the importance of identifying reliable sources of analogical reasoning (as inference) may be difficult to overstate. For example, one may come to novel insights by using more (or differently) developed concepts from domain in another, such as thinking about nervous systems as economies (or ecosystems), and possibly vice versa.
3. How was your experience organising an Interface Focus issue?
This was a challenging themed issue to organise in that we approached some of the leading thinkers on some of the deepest topics in all of science. Interface Focus was the perfect choice for this kind of collection, in that it combined both a high-quality review process with flexibility regarding the form of submissions, ranging from detailed technical expositions to opinion pieces.
4. What are the future directions of this field?
While mathematics provides the primary academic foundation for the study of (a)symmetries, in some ways this topic constitutes a meta-field in transcending particular disciplinary boundaries. Cybernetics (i.e., the abstract study of goal-oriented systems governed by various forms of feedback) might provide the most relevant comparison case, and in many ways this collection can be considered to be part of that intellectual heritage.
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Image: An embryo of the frog Xenopus laevis. At the 2-cell stage, one blastomere was injected with a green fluorescent dye in one of the cells, and a red one in the other cell. The colours demarcate exactly half of the tadpole each, because the first cleavage plane establishes the axis of bilateral symmetry for the animal. Credit: Laura Vandenberg, Levin lab.