Unique & shared characters
This situation becomes easier to understand when viewed from an evolutionary perspective.
Establishing the evolutionary context of any organism, structure, process, behaviour, or concept, requires two sets of characters: those that are shared with its evolutionary relatives (grounding characteristics), and those that are unique (and therefore defining) for the item under investigation (emergent characteristics).
Since Darwin, it has been clear that the mind-like goals of biological agency are mind-like for good scientific reason. Just as, superficially, different evolved physical structures (e.g. the fins of whales and wings of bats) share physical features that demonstrate their shared evolutionary history (they both have the same ground-plan of a pentadactyl limb), so unique mental concepts (minded intentions) share mind-like features with their evolutionary mental antecedents (the mind-like goals (‘intentions’) of biological agency).
The crucial point is that there is an evolutionary physical continuity and connection between the mind-like and the minded. That is, minded concepts are best understood, not in terms of an either/or mutually exclusive relationship A (mindless) vs B (minded) – but, rather, as an A (mind-like) and A + B (both mind-like and minded) which is a relationship of partial likeness where concepts that are uniquely minded are, as it were, a subset of the broader and all-embracing agential characteristics of biological agency – that the minded has a mindless mind-like component. Recall that humans express many mindless agential characteristics.
A scientific conceptual analysis of the biology of this distinction can provide some relief from logical and metaphysical diversions. This point is laboured here because the logical difference between ‘minded’ and ‘mindless’ (together with the notions of ‘minded’ and ‘mindless’ concepts) seems so logically transparent and impregnable that, over the years, it has swept aside all complications that might exist in biology itself – in the world.
Starting with a scientific definition of biological agency as behaviour motivated by the goals of the biological axiom, and human agency as behaviour motivated by the goals of conscious intention, clarification begins by recognizing that the minded goals of human agency are not separate from, but particular instances of, the more general and mostly mindless goals of biological agency: that the goals of minded conscious intention, though uniquely minded are, as it were, contained within the broader embracing goals of biological agency.
We like our ideas to be clear and distinct because this simplifies understanding, explanation, and communication. Sometimes, however, physical features in nature are not just present or absent (and statements about them true or false). Rather, they are best represented scientifically as present by degree. We see a rainbow and find it convenient to speak of its discrete colours when, in nature, colour is a continuum of wavelength. The practicality of colour distinction makes it tedious to point out that, scientifically speaking, discrete colours are an illusion. But convenience and human perceptions do not negate the scientific findings. A similar situation pertains in the relationship between minded and mindless, biological agency and human agency.
Because we intuitively recognize the similarity between the goals of non-human organisms (biological agency) and the goals that are a consequence of conscious human intentions (human agency), our language often fails to distinguish between the two. That is, sometimes, even in biological science it is difficult to determine whether the language describing biological goals is referring broadly to biological agency, or narrowly to human agency. That is, we conflate biological and human agency. Put in simpler terms, we recognize, for example, that even mindless plants share with us (as a matter of biological necessity) the agential propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish – that, even here, there is a strong likeness between biological goals and human intentions.
The conflation of meaning that makes up our intuitive understanding of the concepts ‘agency’ and ‘mind’ is best explained in evolutionary terms, whereby uniquely derived characteristics (such as minds and mental concepts) share some of the ancestral characteristics out of which they were derived. That is, bodies expressing biological agency evolved into bodies with minds that also express biological agency. The mental concepts created by these minds are also grounded in (evolved out of, superimposed on) biological agency.
Once we accept that, scientifically, it is more ‘realistic’ to think of non-human life as expressing transitional mind-like properties (rather than being mindless like a rock) then we also move towards a more scientifically realistic understanding of how the language of human intentional psychology connects with and shares many mind-like properties with the non-human community of life.
How does all this cash out?
This has profound consequences. It clarifies not only philosophically controversial words like ‘reason’, ‘interest’, ‘knowledge’, ‘purpose’, and ‘agency’ but, indeed, the entire vocabulary of human intentional psychology. Now, the scientific question to be addressed is no longer one of mutual exclusivity ‘Is this, or is this not, a ‘mind’ word?‘ since we know that what we refer to as ‘minded’ includes ‘mind-like’ properties. Important questions now take the form, say ‘In what ways does conscious deliberation compare with mindless reason?’ or ‘How do we compare the knowledge contained within non-human organisms with the specific kind of knowledge that is expressed by conscious minds?’
All organisms (including humans) demonstrate biological agency through their behavioural adherence to the ultimate biological goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing, while only humans demonstrate this agency using minds that employ the language of intentional psychology. Just as, in an evolutionary context, uniquely human agency is grounded in (shares characteristics with) biological agency so, too, do uniquely human mental concepts.