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Being like-minded

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The Biological Axiom

‘Living organisms are autonomous biological agents that share a unity of purpose and value: the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish’

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The Principle of Like-mindedness

‘The proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency’

This article examines the reasons why both philosophers and scientists still claim that only humans can be agents that express purpose, use reason, have values and interests, and accumulate knowledge. It investigates the current controversial scientific interpretation of the relationship that exists between the mindless biological agency expressed by all living organisms, and one of its evolutionary developments, the uniquely minded agency of Homo sapiens.

How could there possibly be mindless goals, values, agents, knowledge, and purpose? This is surely a simple and straightforward contradiction in terms – a misunderstanding of the way our language is used? But this begs a crucial scientific-cum-philosophical question . . .  how accurately does our current language represent what actually exists in the world? This is a scientific question because it concerns our best possible description of the world, but also a philosophical question because it is also about ontology, what actually exists and is ‘real’.

It seems obvious that when we give mindless organisms mind-like characteristics – when, for example, we say that a spider weaves its web in order to catch flies, or that a plant needs water – we are simply reading our own mental qualities into organisms that do not, and cannot, possess such qualities, because they do not have minds or cognitive faculties – end of story (see metaphor and cognitive metaphor).

Even so, we do make such statements, even in science. We attribute organisms with strategies, goals, and intentions. Indeed, we adopt the entire lexicon of human intentional psychology. But then, in the belief that we are being unscientific, we check ourselves and say that we are being anthropomorphic – that what we are doing is resorting to some form of cognitive metaphor.

A cognitive metaphor may have an educational or literary attraction; it might reflect our human cognitive bias, and even make biological explanations simpler and easier to understand – but it gifts organisms with qualities that, in reality, they do not have. Agency, purpose, values, knowledge, and reason are properties of human minds. How could it possibly be otherwise?

Agency

The most obvious flaw in the above account is that it deprives mindless organisms of any form of agency. It refuses to acknowledge the real and evolutionarily graded nature of the biological agency that unites the community of life. Denied this biological agency, organisms assume the agential status of rocks. There is no half-way house. Just as there are organisms with minds and organisms without minds, so there are organisms that are agents and those that are not agents (they are agent-like at best).

Biological agency is most succinctly expressed by the biological axiom (which applies to both minded and mindless organisms) as the universal, ultimate, and objective goals[1] of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish. Universal because they are expressed by all living organisms; ultimate because they represent the summation of all proximate goals; and objective because they are mind-independent and therefore open to empirical investigation and verification.

‘Goal’, you might say, is a minded word – it does not make sense to speak of mindless organisms having ‘goals’. But this begs the question being posed in this article. How are we to describe units of matter with behaviour that is clearly directed towards ends – matter that has the propensity or disposition to survive, reproduce and flourish? Either we use misleading anthropomorphic language (human-talk, cognitive metaphor) or we devise a new technical vocabulary that science currently does not possess.

But if biological agency is real, then how do we currently avoid acknowledging its presence?

We currently resort to obfuscation by saying that all organisms are adapted to survive, reproduce and flourish – or that this is their function. The language of function and adaptation tells the truth but not the whole truth: it is anemic and ‘lifeless’ language that does not reflect the agency that is clearly manifest in the structures, processes, and behaviours of all organisms. And it is these goals that differentiate living agents from non-living matter.

Though all organisms pursue these life goals, only one species, Homo sapiens, pursues them using the highly evolved tool of minds with the capacity for symbolic languages.

Spiders and plants do not have human intellects, but their behaviour is very different from the behaviour of rocks. The difference lies in their agency. This is not the minded agency we associate with humans, but it is agency nevertheless.

All living organisms share with humans the biochemical pathways that contribute to our understanding of what it is to be a living creature. They are self-organized and integrated into self-regulating and goal-directed autonomous units of matter that pass through a life cycle of fertilization, growth, reproductive maturation, senescence, and death. As autonomous agents, each with its individual operational identity, we cannot align this agency of the living with the inertia of the inanimate and the dead.

This article explains how much of the Western tradition of biological thought has removed agency from nature by failing to discriminate between the real similarities and differences that exist between the universal, objective, and ultimate goals of biological agency, and the uniquely minded goals of human agency – how minded goals are highly evolved proximate goals grounded in the ultimate goals of the biological axiom.

Principle  – all organisms (both those with minds and those without minds) express biological agency through the universal, ultimate, and objective goals (intentions) of the biological axiom. It is these goals that distinguish living agents from non-living matter

Being mind-like

When we distinguish between the minded and mindless in nature, it is obvious that the mindlessness of non-human organisms is different from the kind of mindlessness that exists in a rock.  This is because we are keenly aware, if only intuitively, that the agency that we see all around us in nature shares many similarities with our own human minded agency – that we are, as it were, closer to other living beings than we are to rocks. And this, of course, makes good evolutionary sense.

Kinds of biological agency

Biological agency is thus a universal property that we observe in the behaviour of all living organisms. It emerged from nature with the first life and is expressed by the multitude of forms that emerged from nature by descent with modification from common ancestors.

It is a behaviourally unique expression of physical complexity and process that cannot be expressed in static material terms.  

Species specific variation

The way agency is manifest in nature varies from species to species and is constrained by the degree of behavioural flexibility that is available given the particular physical structures that have evolved in particular environments. Animals with fins, wings, or brains will pursue biological values, purposes, and goals in their own particular ways.

From nature to culture

With the evolutionary emergence of physical complexity there have been several key qualitative changes in the evolutionary development of biological agency – as itemized in the following list:

      • non-agential & mindless e.g. rock
      • agential but mindless e.g. plant
      • agential and sentient: can feel pleasure and pain but without symbolic languages & reason e.g. domestic animals
      • agential & sentient: can reason and use symbolic communication e.g. individual humans
      • agential & sentient also can reason & use collective symbolic communication e.g. human cultures, communities, and moral codes

When we consider the behaviour of any organism we must take into account not only the physical constraints imposed by its structure in relation to environmental conditions (the internal and external factors generating activity in the organism-environment continuum) but also broader contextual conditions that affect agency. For humans there are four major sources or drivers of agency:

    • mindless – e.g. physiological responses like sweating and vomiting 
    • minded
        • unconscious e.g.  instinctive or intuitive responses like phobias etc.
        • conscious individual deliberation (use of individual reason)
        • collective deliberation using symbolic communication (influence of parents, peers, schooling, culture etc.)

Mindless
There are many aspects of our survival, reproduction and flourishing that proceed without our knowledge. Almost every part of our bodies is structured to achieve goals of various kinds; the body metabolism that perpetuates our existence proceeds without our awareness; more obvious are physiological responses like sweating and vomiting that have obvious biological purposes controlled by a part of our brain over which we have little control, the autonomic nervous system.

This is, in effect, mindless biological agency at work in a minded body.

Unconscious
For minded organisms there are also many other kinds of intuitive or instinctive responses over which we have little control: the fears and non-rational responses that contribute to our moral psychology, many of which are the reasons for the development of collective codes of behaviour.

Individual conscious deliberation
The capacity for human individuals to use reason has, as Aristotle pointed out (humans are rational animals), differentiated and, in a sense, raised Homo sapiens above other species. The power of reason is surely our greatest human asset since it makes us aware of the contrary forces of mindless and unconscious biological agency, and cultural tradition.

Cultural deliberation
It is easy to emphasize individual behaviour to the exclusion of the collective. But we have only to consider the influence on our behaviour of parents, education, community, and other more general cultural factors to realize the extent to which cultural norms determine our behaviour. The accumulation of knowledge and cultural tradition is made possible by communication using symbolic languages that permit the storage of information – in spoken, written, printed, and electronic forms.

Principle  – biological agency is expressed in both the quantitatively graded differences that occur between species, and the qualitative changes that have occurred in the course of biological and cultural evolutionary history

Principle  – human agency derives from a combination of four major sources: mindless biological agency (physiological function), unconscious behaviour (individual unconscious or instinctive response) behaviour;  individual conscious deliberation; collective cultural public agreements made possible by the use of symbolic languages

We cannot fully transcend our biological agency. Reason, it is often claimed, raises us above animal existence. But for all its undoubted and justly vaunted power, reason is still an adjunct to our biology, a evolutionary tool that evolved in the service of biological agency. This is not to diminish its value but to place it within its scientific rather than aspirational context.

It is also true that writing poetry, playing chess, doing mathematics, composing music, and painting landscapes all appear to have little to do with the biological axiom. But we would no more do these things if they did not give us some kind of biological satisfaction or reward. We would not engage in sex if it gave us no pleasure.

Language of intentional psychology

The simplification of graduated biological agency into four phases – passing from mindless, to unconscious, to conscious, to cultural – provides a framework for the analysis of ‘mindedness’ as it exists in the natural world.

But how do we describe this agency in our daily language?

The full breadth of the agential language of human intentional psychology includes words of varying semantic breadth: words like ‘want’, ‘need’, ‘like’, ‘prefer’, ‘interest’, ‘strategy’, ‘goal’, ‘love’, ‘deceive’ and so on.

Though contentious, I think a taxonomy of this entire vocabulary would yield three major groupings that, in effect, reveal the core ways in which we express human agency, these being: reason, knowledge, and value.  Reason vocabulary would include: ‘deliberation’, ‘consideration’, ‘strategy’, ‘plan’, ‘calculation’. Knowledge vocabulary would include: ‘knowing’, ‘learning’, ‘remembering’, ‘recognizing’. Value vocabulary would include: ‘want’, ‘prefer’, ‘like’, ‘attract’, ‘need’

These three core aspects of human agency are like shared evolutionary ancestral characteristics of biological agency itself. Reason, knowledge, and value are, as it were, less differentiated aspects of human agency with a closer (or more directly expressed) grounding in biological agency that say ‘jealousy’, ‘amusement’, or ‘anxiety’. It is hardly surprising that we see close likenesses between these concepts as manifested in both mindless and minded organisms.

Reason – what we refer to as ‘adaptation’ is a behavioural and structural adjustment of an autonomous individual that is unlike  anything that happens in the inorganic world. It is a form of mindless ‘error correction’ that is like (a precursor to) the minded ‘reason’ we see in humans. For minded organisms there is, in addition, the intuitive or instinctive behaviour that, though it may not make sense today, we can understand followed an evolutionary logic . . . our quickness to violence, fear of snakes, love of sugar, and so on, many instinctive responses clearly being advantageous. Our reason is a further step towards greater autonomy and individual freedom, potentially releasing us from are making allowance for some of the shackles of mindless and unconscious biological agency. Collective or cultural reason provides us with codes of behaviour and cultural norms that facilitate the development of social organization (the major driving force of human history).

Mindless agency

Though there are many physical properties that are common to all organisms, it is their goal-directedness that closely resembles the mindedness of human intention (human agency). Most obvious there are shared ultimate goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom). Indeed, since these three goals are general and universal rather than specific, they more closely resemble what, in human-talk, we would refer to as ‘values’ rather than goals (goal = achievable target, value = aspiration), and are therefore referred to on the web site as biological values.

The presence or absence of agential behaviour expressing biological values provides a clear-cut distinction between life and non-life. We can make a similar, in principle, clear-cut distinction between organisms with minds and those without minds. But a difficulty arises when we try to distinguish between biological agency and human agency.

This is because, when considered from an evolutionary perspective, human agency is not separate from biological agency, but a minded extension of it. Biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive but complementary.

Human minded agency evolved out of mindless biological agency and shares many of its characteristics.

This can be confusing. Indeed, both biology and philosophy have confused and conflated the distinction between biological agency and human agency which has resulted in millennia of scientific, philosophical, and linguistic ambiguity.

It is only since the advent of Darwin’s theory of descent with modification from a common ancestor that it has been possible to provide an adequate scientific account that allows us to view this distinction from an evolutionary perspective.

Principle of like-mindedness  – we often confuse (fail to distinguish between) the universal and ultimate goals of biological agency (the biological axiom applies to all organisms including humans), and the uniquely minded goals of human agency

Unique & shared characters

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 that establish evolutionary connection), and those that are unique (that uniquely identify and define the item under investigation) which can be called emergent characteristics.

Darwinian theory has revealed that the mind-like goals of biological agency are mind-like for good scientific reason. Just as different physical structures (e.g. the fins of whales and wings of bats) may appear very different but share the grounding characteristics of their evolutionary history (both have the ground-plan of a pentadactyl limb), so unique mental concepts (minded intentions) share mind-like grounding characteristics with their evolutionary mental antecedents (the mind-like goals or ‘intentions’ of biological agency).

Thus, there is an evolutionary continuity and physical connection between the mind-like and the minded. Concepts that are uniquely minded are, as it were, a subset or development of the universal and grounding agential characteristics of biological agency: the minded has a mindless (but mind-like) grounding component. Also, recall that humans express many mindless agential characteristics.

This point is laboured here because the logical difference between ‘minded’ and ‘mindless’ 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. It has ignored or denied the existence of biological agency as an evolutionary grade between the mindless and minded.

Starting with an understanding 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, scientific clarification begins by recognizing that the minded goals of human agency are not separate from, but particular instances of (extensions or developments of) the more general and mostly mindless goals of biological agency. That the unique and emergent goals of minded conscious intention are grounded in the mindless goals of biological agency.

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.

Principle  – the unique and emergent goals of minded conscious intention are grounded in the mindless 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 biological agency and human agency.

The language of biological agency

Since biological agency is a real phenomenon in nature that has been largely either ignored or denied, the question arises as to how we have avoided its description?

We do so by conflating biological agency with human agency.

We intuitively recognize the similarity between the goals of non-human organisms (the biological values of biological agency expressed in the biological axiom) and the goals that are a consequence of conscious human intentions (human agency).  However, with the denial of biological agency it is customary to describe it using the language of human agency, which is then treated as cognitive metaphor (with the concession that organisms can sometimes be agent-like).

It is therefore difficult to determine whether the language of human intentional psychology is referring to the grounding characteristics of biological agency, or the emergent minded characteristics of 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 – and that this propensity is evolutionarily closely aligned with human intention. But we refuse to acknowledge this in science.

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?

The words

Though we have both ignored and denied the reality of biological agency, its presence has always been apparent creating conceptual and linguistic tensions.

We have ignored the fact that organisms are ‘competent without comprehension‘ (Dan Dennett), they are ‘for without foresight‘ (Roger Spencer), and that they express ‘knowledge without knowing‘ (David Deutsch).[30]

Insights like these apply across the board of intentional discourse. We can extend this idea indefinitely. There is also ‘memory without remembering‘, ‘normativity without morality‘, and so on. The likenesses being compared in these examples, the connections between relata, are not so much about a total separation of the minded and mindless, but a likeness founded on historical evolutionary connection – the unification of biological and human agency that occurs in humans.

What can be done?

We have three options: first, to deny the reality of biological agency by describing it using the minded language of human intentional psychology, this language then treated as cognitive metaphor (current situation); second, develop a technical vocabulary that addresses the specific mindless modes of biological agency (a scientific solution unlikely to be adopted); third, acknowledge the evolutionary grounding of minded human agency in mindless biological agency and thus the merging of minded and mindless concepts (an initial step in the recognition of the reality biological agency).

Principle  – to overcome the perception of biological agency as cognitive metaphor or heuristic there are two possible solutions: to develop a technical vocabulary that addresses the specific mindless modes of biological agency (a scientific solution unlikely to be adopted), or to acknowledge the evolutionary grounding of minded human agency in mindless biological agency and thus the merging of minded and mindless concepts. 

The dilemma

We currently deny the reality of biological agency so, when we encounter it in nature, we describe it using human minded language treated as cognitive metaphor. Since nature is only mind like way, it is also only agent like.

If biological agency is real then, confusingly, the minded language we use to describe it is describing something real but in an inappropriately minded way. How are we to resolve this dilemma?

There are two solutions.

A new scientific terminology

We can remove the mindedness from our descriptions of biological agency by developing a completely new technical vocabulary.

Semantic broadening

Alternatively, we can acknowledge that much of the language we associate strongly with human cognition, essentially the language of intentional psychology, has wider application in mindless nature.

This, at present, offers the more realistic option.

This has profound consequences. It clarifies not only philosophically controversial words like ‘reason’, ‘interest’, ‘knowledge’, ‘purpose’, ‘agency’, and ‘value’ but, indeed, the entire vocabulary of human intentional psychology.

The scientific questions to be addressed are no longer those of mutual exclusivity, like ‘Is this, or is this not, a ‘mind’ word?‘ since we know that what we refer to as ‘minded’ includes ‘mind-like’ properties.  Instead, the important questions can now take the form of, for example:

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 the grounding characteristics of biological agency, but only humans demonstrate this agency with the additional evolutionary advantage of minds that employ the language and concepts of intentional psychology that are grounded in biological agency.

Principle  – All organisms (including humans) demonstrate biological agency through their inherent 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.

Agency, teleology, normativity

Purpose in nature is discussed in detail in the articles on human-talk and purpose as bioteleological realism but summarized here.

Accepting the reality of biological agency changes our perspective on minded language. The following account of purpose in nature, is given as an example of the kind of argumentation that can be applied to the language of human intentional psychology in general. 

The contemporary question at the core of Aristotle‘s teleology asks: ‘Do organisms truly demonstrate purpose, agency, and design or is this a reading of our own human agency into nature?‘ Our response to this question relates strongly to how much significance we place on the distinction between the minded and the mindless, coupled with our traditional anthropocentric inclination to treat agency and purpose as being mental in character.

The argument against teleology runs, roughly, as follows:

The purpose, agency, and normativity that we see in nature is added by our own minds; it is a reading of our own intentional nature into non-intentional organisms. Put simply, the purpose we see in organisms is not their purpose (organisms cannot have purposes), it is our human projection. It is only ‘as if’ organisms have purposes and goals. The purpose we attribute to organisms is anthropomorphic metaphor: just a useful human way of thinking about nature . . . a convenient shorthand or façon de parler that makes nature seem somehow closer to ourselves. Viewing nature and organisms in this way is, at best, a useful heuristic device. Teleology, today, is mostly a convenient vehicle for modern-style religious belief and arguments about intelligent design – it is not there in reality.

But biological agency is all around us – it is hard to find anything in nature that does not have a purpose as a reason for its existence – a self-evident function. As Aristotle said, ‘nature does nothing in vain‘. The mindless goal-directedness of nature is as self-evident as human intention. So, what is going on here, and how are we to resolve this contradiction?

The argument against teleology is a victim of two logical confusions (the inversion and conversion of reasoning) the misapplication of a literary device (the metaphor fallacy), the historical misinterpretation of a linguistic tradition (the agency error), and a lack of understanding of the reasons why we are persuaded to use human-talk (anthropomorphism) that endows mindless organisms with cognitive faculties (the like-mindedness principle).

First, the inversion of reasoning. This is the mistaken conflation of what only exists in human minds with what can possibly exist: the unjustified conviction that purpose and agency are necessarily mind dependent. In other words, the claim that if biological goals can only be represented in human minds, then they only exist in human minds and are therefore a creation of human minds. But, biological goals existed in nature long before humans appeared.

Second, the conversion of reasoning, is the ignoring of the evolutionary development of human agency out of real biological agency while conversely claiming that biological agency is a fictitious creation of human agency.

Third, the problematic historical tradition of viewing the similarity between human (minded) agency and natural (mindless) agency through the as if lens of a literary device, the metaphor, thus removing non-human purpose and agency from the realm of reality. This I have called the metaphor fallacy. Biological agency is not conscious intention, but it is like human agency because it is evolutionarily connected – a real biological simile not a cognitive metaphor.

Fourth, the traditional and mistaken assumption that the agency we imply when using anthropomorphic language is the unique agency of humans rather than the universal biological agency that is present in all living organisms.

Fifth, our lack of understanding of the reasons why we resort to human-talk, that is, the reasons why we are strongly persuaded to use intentional language when describing agential but non-intentional organisms.

Denial of mindless agency

If goal-directedness (agency) depends solely on the capacity for mental representation, then we humans are, indeed, very different from most of nature. But, in reality, agency exists in all organisms, both those with minds and those without minds. Biological agency is not mind dependent, although it is the form of agency that is most familiar to us humans.

So why do we make agential notions like agency, purpose, reason, value, interests, knowledge, and preferences mind dependent by insisting that they are strictly the products of human minds?

Probably because of our anthropocentric bias and because it is convenient to do so.

A more scientific approach would be to explain and understand these words through the notion of biological agency existing in an intergraded agential way, loosely proceeding from mindless, to minded and unconscious, to minded and conscious, to cultural (collectively determined), with all these behavioural drivers integrated in human communities.

An inversion of reasoning

But this denial of agency in other organisms entails what philosopher Dan Dennett calls a ‘strange inversion of reasoning’. We assume that since, as humans, we are aware of our own purposes, intentions, and agency, and we know that non-human organisms do not share this same awareness, then they either have no agency or are, at best, only agent-like.

In Dennett’s words ‘we are reason-representers’. Only humans understand why animals have eyes, fish have fins, and cacti have spines (because we are reason-representers). But because only humans represent these reasons in their minds does not mean that these reasons and purposes exist only in human minds. Reasons and purposes also exist in nature. Nature’s reasons existed on Earth long before there were humans. The purpose of a prosthetic leg is established by the intentions of its inventor. Legs that occur in nature likewise have purposes, even though they were created by a natural process which has no conscious intentions.

We mistakenly conflate a lack of conscious intention with a lack of agency. No mental representations = no agency.

Principle  – biological goals can only be understood (represented by) human minds, but that does not mean that they only exist in human minds – that they are a creation of human minds

Converse reasoning

The pre-Darwinian mental representation of the world as a Great Chain of being (Ladder of Life) placed humans in an exalted position on a rung just below God. Darwin replaced the image of the ladder with that of a tree whose branches were constrained by what had gone before. Biologically the selective interaction between organisms and their environments had many solutions, with humans being just one of these. Agency in nature has, likewise, taken as many different physical forms as there are species, these forms being the product of ancestral environments. We marvel at the agency of the human intellect while ignoring, say, the miracle of a bat catching a fly using echolocation inside a cave teeming with other bats.

At present our inherited pre-Darwinian intellectual tradition treats human agency as the only real agency with biological agency its unreal (as if) creation. It is now time to acknowledge that, in fact, the converse applies. Human agency has its origin in biological agency. Human agency (for all its conscious and deliberative brilliance) is nevertheless just one of many forms of biological agency and must be scientifically explained in terms of the evolutionary context out of which it arose.

Principle – biological agency is not a fiction invented by the human agential mind. Rather, human agency is just one highly evolved example of the many kinds of biological agency

Even more significant is the underlying justification for this error – which is the traditional and mistaken interpretation of the relationship between human and biological agency using the logic of a literary device, the metaphor.

The metaphor fallacy

Describing non-human organisms using the language of human intention has, by long tradition, been interpreted through the literary device of metaphor. Darwin immortalized natural ‘selection’, and Richard Dawkins christened ‘selfish’ genes. Both men believed that the analogy they were drawing between something ‘agential’ in nature and human intention was using language in a metaphorical or figurative way. There was no underlying reality to the analogy, only an unreal as if connection.

A philosophical industry has been devoted to the avoidance of the word ‘purpose’ and its replacement with the euphemism ‘function’ in the mistaken belief that this is a service to biology (see, for example, [26][27][28]). ‘Clarification’ of the purportedly inappropriate notion of purpose has spawned Selected Effects Theory, Generalized Selected Effects Theory, Etiological Theories, Causal Role Theory, Neo-Teleology, teleosemantics, and various other philosophical diversions.

We discount the likeness between the minded and mindless in nature by assessing this relationship using the logic of metaphor. That is, we assume that because biological agency and purpose is mindless, it follows straightforwardly that its agency is only ‘as if’ agency because in a metaphor one of the relata is figurative (unreal).

Humans are agents because they demonstrate intentional behaviour. Could organisms be agents because they exhibit goal-directed behaviour? And could the likeness that exists between human intentions and organism goals, if it is to be drawn in literary terms, be more akin to simile than metaphor?

This is not just a semantic quibble. What is at stake is our metaphysical assumption about what is real in nature. Is the ‘agency’ we see in nature ‘as if’ agency, superimposed by our minds, or is it real? Are we entitled to call an organism an agent, or is doing so just a figurative linguistic embellishment?

It is argued here that since evolutionary theory treats the world as composed of graded biological kinds, so the concepts and language we use in relation to these kinds must follow the same graded form. Where there is biological continuity there must be conceptual continuity too.

Principle  – viewing the agential relata of humans and other organisms through the lens (logic) of metaphor forces one of the relata into figurative (unreal) status. It would be more apt (if a literary device were to be chosen) to describe this likeness as that of a biological simile 

Agency error

One major reason why we use minded language in describing non-human organisms is not because of an ‘as if’ relationship but because of a real likeness. This likeness is real because it is grounded in the reality of graded evolutionary (genetic) connection. Because of this evolutionary connection humans share with all other organisms several key agential characteristics, these being our mutual disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish. It is these biologically shared agential characteristics of the biological axiom that we are intuitively referencing when we use anthropomorphic language; it is not the uniquely human intentional ones.

In science and philosophy it is conventional for anthropomorphic language (the language treated as cognitive metaphor) to be interpreted literally, inferring that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under closer inspection it becomes evident that, in general, such language is not referencing minded human agency, but the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry (see examples below).

If we must interpret the likeness that exists between the minded and mindless in biology using a literary device then that device is not the unreal ‘as if’ likeness insinuated by metaphor, but the real ‘likeness’ of biological simile grounded in evolutionary connection and continuity.

Principle  – we confuse the distinction that exists between biological agency and human agency. Much of the intentional language of human-talk applied to mindless organisms references biological, not human, agency (see next principle for why we do this)

The principle of like-mindedness

We often confuse (fail to distinguish between) or conflate (treat as identical) the universal ultimate goals of biological agency, and the uniquely minded goals of human agency.

Commentary

The geographic distribution and material composition of rocks can provide us with much information about the history of that rock. But this is nothing like the replicable ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ that is found in the DNA of every living organism. The world of living organisms is very different from the world of rocks because, unlike rocks, organisms are autonomous, self-organizing and self-regulating individuals that share a common biological agency – the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish.

We see biological agency manifest in both the quantitatively graded differences in structures, processes, and behaviour that occur between species, and the qualitative evolutionary change from mindless adaptation to minded conscious learning and collective decision-making. Just as, in an evolutionary context, uniquely human agency is grounded in (shares characteristics with) biological agency so, too, do many of the uniquely human mental concepts of intentional psychology. Many of the uniquely human emergent goals of conscious intention (those described using the language of human intentional psychology) are grounded in the mindless goals of biological agency.

We do not refer to the information carried in DNA as ‘knowledge’ because we only use the word ‘knowledge’ in relation to human minds. We do not refer to the logic of adaptation as ‘reason’ because reason entails the deployment of cognitive faculties. We do not refer to living organisms as expressing ‘purpose’ because only human minded objectives are true purposes. We do not refer to organisms as ‘agents’ because humans motivated by conscious goals are the only real biological agents. And so on.

There is no scientifically acceptable language available to express those shared and mindless agential characteristics of organisms that are the evolutionary substrate of human conscious intention. In the absence of such a technical terminology we revert back to the language of human intentional psychology and, in so doing, provide the opportunity to ignore, deny, or downplay the reality of biological agency. That is, we either conflate (treat as identical) the universal and ultimate goals of biological agency and the uniquely minded goals of human agency.

The goals of biological agency can only be understood (represented by) human minds, but that does not mean that they only exist in human minds – that they are a creation of human minds. Biological agency is not an agent-like fiction invented by the human agential mind. Rather, human agency is just one highly evolved example of the many kinds of biological agency.

We proceed scientifically and philosophically with the assumption that biological agency does not exist – or that it only exists in human minds, not in the world. This leads to several errors.

We quickly assume that when we say that a plant wants water we are clearly mistaken because plants do not experience cognitive states. This is therefore an obvious scientific error.

But when we examine this locution more closely it becomes apparent that we are not making the literal claim that plants have cognitive faculties, rather we are acknowledging, and identifying with, the propensity for all organisms to survive and flourish; we are acknowledging the reality of biological agency. When, in such circumstances, we correctly reject the use of minded language we also, incorrectly, reject the possibility of there being biological agency.  There is an erroneous conflation of human agency and biological agency.

In the simplest terms. Plants express mindless biological agency. Humans express mindless biological agency and, in addition, minded human agency.  Because plants do not have minds, and their description using minded language is inappropriate, does not mean that they do not express biological agency. The confusion lies in whether the intended inference being made by the cognitive metaphor is to mindless biological agency (in which case the referent is real, even though the language is inappropriate), or to plant mindedness (in which case the referent is unreal).

The claim being made here, and in other articles, is that much of the minded language applied to mindless organisms is, in intention or meaning, referencing, not cognitive faculties, but biological agency. And, secondly, that we use this minded language because we have no suitable scientific terminology for the mindless characteristics of biological agency.

Epilogue

- summary of claims that are argued in more detail in the articles What is life?purpose, biological agency, human-talk, being like-minded, biological values, and morality.

In biology we treat organisms as autonomous agents, even though we know that they could not exist without their environments - that they are part of a physical continuum. What makes the matter of a living organism a special kind of matter - very different from the inanimate matter of, say, a rock - is its capacity to respond to circumstance in an integrated and unified (goal directed, purposeful, agential) way. This biological agency is grounded in the universal, objective, and ultimate biological values of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (biological axiom).

Biological agency
The goal-directed behaviour of all living organisms is an objective fact.[41]  It is this behaviour that is the source of the objective (mind-independent), universal and ultimate goals (see biological axiom below) referred to here as biological agency. These emergent properties of living organisms arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way that did not imply either forward causation or the intentions of humans or gods. They are the properties that distinguish the living from the inanimate and dead. Since the mind-independent properties we call 'goals', 'agency' and 'purpose' preceded people in evolutionary time, they therefore existed in nature in mindless form.

Many philosophers and scientists regard 'purpose' and 'agency' as mind-dependent words such that non-human organisms can only display, at best, purpose-like and agent-like behaviour.

The brief points below (discussed in detail in other articles) outline: first, how mindless purpose and agency are possible; second, how to discriminate between the minded and mindless in both language and the world; third, why it is scientifically more appropriate to treat organisms as genuine agents rather than being agent-like; fourth, the reduced need for the euphemistic, obfuscating, and semantically vexed language of function and adaptive significance.

The biological axiom
The many proximate goals we see manifested in the behaviour of organisms are unified (can be summarized) in the universal, objective, and ultimate predisposition of all organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish - referred to here as the biological axiom - sometimes expressed in more abstract terms as 'fitness maximization'.

The biological values (generalized goals) of the biological axiom are universal because they are expressed by all living organisms. They are ultimate because they represent the summation of all proximate goals. They are objective because they are a mind-independent empirical fact.

It is typically organisms[43] that express the autonomous agential unity of purpose needed to express biological agency and values.

As open and dynamic agential systems, organisms regulate and integrate their flows of energy, materials, and information. In the short-term (one generation) this behaviour occurs over a lifecycle of fertilization, growth and development, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death. Over the long term (multiple generations) all organisms, as products of natural selection, display species-specific adaptive design and the potential to evolve new forms when heritable variation, transmitted to phenotypes via the chemical DNA, is subject to environmental selection.

It is the short- and long-term autonomous agency of individual organisms that we intuitively recognize as uniquely identifying life in all its diversity.

Forms of biological agency
The forms in which biological agency is expressed are as many as the species that have evolved by descent with modification from a common ancestor and are therefore related to one-another by degree.

In considering the complications of agency related to minds there are five modes of being:

mindless inorganic agency - the ordered 'behaviour' of inanimate matter

mindless biological agency - behaviour not mind-directed (also found in minded organisms)

unconscious minded agency - as mind-generated but intuitive or unconscious behaviour

conscious minded agency - as behaviour that is a consequence of conscious deliberation

collective or cultural agency - that is behaviour motivated by socio-cultural norms.

Biological & human agency
Universal biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the way that organisms with minds are distinct from those without minds. Rather, human agency is just one evolutionary expression (albeit complex and minded) of biological agency.

The reality of biological agency, goals, purpose, and values
Because the goals of biological agency can only be understood by (represented in) human minds, it is often assumed that they can only exist in human minds – that they are therefore a creation of human minds - that only humans can be agents with goals, purposes, and values: that non-human organisms are, at best, only agent-like. In fact, rather than biological goals being an invention of human minds, they are the substrate out of which the goals of human agency evolved.

Goal-directedness in nature is real, and without understanding what organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviors) are ‘for’ (their goals, values, and purposes), biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts.

Anthropocentrism
Consider the sentence, The design we see in nature is only ‘apparent’ design. We say that design in nature is ‘apparent’ (not real) because it is not human design, it is not created by human minds. But nature and organisms are replete with (real) designed structures in real patterns more complex, beautiful, and ordered than anything created by humans. Mindless nature ‘created’ the universe’s most miraculous and intricately integrated structure, the human brain, which provides us with conscious representations of nature’s real design.

The problem is that, for many people, ‘design’ (and other words like ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’) are minded words like ‘want’ or ‘need’: these words cannot be used meaningfully outside the context of the human mind.

Thus arises the metaphor fallacy. The word ‘design’ cannot be used to describe nature because it implies that nature is minded (which is clearly an error), but because nature's mindedness is unreal does not mean that the design is unreal.  Our anthropocentrism simply refuses to countenance the possibility of mindless design. But, following philosopher Dan Dennett's mode of expression . . .  'purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’, ‘value’, 'design' and many other concepts attributed to human intention 'bubble up from the bottom, not trickle down from the top'.

The usual scientific solution to such a problem would be to devise a technical vocabulary that discriminates between nature's real and mindless design and the minded artefacts of human creation.  Such a threat to human dignity, it appears, just cannot be countenanced.

The language of biological agency
If biological agency is real, then how is it possible to proceed scientifically as though it does not exist?

Biological agency is currently described using the minded intentional vocabulary of human agency. Since most organisms do not have minds this is then correctly treated as either cognitive metaphor (unreal) or simply a useful agent-like heuristic device (equally unreal). However, the unreality implied by the notion of a metaphor is then mistakenly conflated with the unreality of biological agency.

This presents a serious scientific dilemma. How are we to communicate the reality of biological agency?

The reality of biological agency can be recognized by either: developing a new vocabulary of technical agential terms that account for biological agency, or, by acknowledging that human minded agency is evolutionarily grounded in (shares mindless characteristics with) mindless biological agency. That is, the meanings of the concepts of minded agency (like 'knowledge', 'reason', 'preference', 'value' and so on) are taken to include mindless properties.

Proximate & ultimate goals
So, for example, since human agency is a minded evolutionary extension of mindless biological agency, human minded goals are only proximate goals that serve the ultimate and mindless goals of biological agency.

So, for example, we humans eat for minded proximate ends (taste and smell stimulation and the satiation of hunger), that have the mindless ultimate biological end of survival. We have sex for minded proximate ends (orgasm, physical and emotional warmth and gratification), but also for the mindless ultimate biological end of reproduction. We desire the overall minded proximate ends of happiness and wellbeing, which serve the ultimate and mindless biological end of flourishing.

Human & biological values
Human values express a perspective, intention, or point of view. In a world of perspectiveless facts, like the world of physics and inanimate matter, there can be no logical grounds for value. However, the goal-directed characteristics of biological agency (as expressed in the biological axiom), give life a direction, behavioural orientation, and flexibility that is not available to inanimate substance but which cannot be ignored. This warrants scientific recognition.

Scientifically this behavioural orientation also resembles a form of value like a confusingly mindless and objective 'point of view'.

This form of mindless agency could be given its own terminology but since no such terminology exists, and since mindless value is the evolutionary precursor to minded value, it is referred to here as biological value whose characteristics of biological agency called the three ultimate biological values.

If this characterization of life has merit, then it expresses a (mostly) mindless and objective biological normativity (as goal directed behaviour) that is grounded in the ultimate, universal, and objective values of biological agency.

Biological values that are represented in behaviour. Human values are also represented in behaviour but this begaviour may be unrelated to the mind, unconscious (instinctive), or a cosequence of conscious deliberation (reason).

It has been customary to deny or ignore biological agency, or to downgrade its reality by referring to it as being agent-like. The outcome has been that life, in effect, has been accorded the agential status of inanimate matter. Evidence now indicates that this is no longer scientifically acceptable.

Aristotle's normative imperative
To deny biological agency and its values of survival, reproduction, and flourishing, is to deny nature's intrinsic (biologically necessary) behaviourally objective resistance to death, and this is not acceptable to biological science.

Aristotle maintained that the ultimate goals of biological agency drive us to the conclusion that – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘, and ‘it is better to live than not live’ – referred to here as Aristotle’s biological normative imperative.

Why do organisms have the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish? . . . ‘Because natural selection made them so‘ (Armand Leroi[40]). Critically, and in apparent contradiction, this is not what organisms need to do, or ought to do (human minded values); it is the way that they are (biological values). It is out of these mindless values that evolution forged minded values.

Aristotle's normative imperative - the propensity of life to resist death - is an objective fact: it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make a minded and contestable value judgement, that 'it is good to live', but mindless organisms do not make value judgments, their biological 'normativity' is expressed in the way that they are. Similarly my preference for white wine over red wine is not a moral injunction - something I 'ought' to do - it is simply the way I am.

This characterization of life draws attention to problems that have plagued biology from its earliest days - the confusing relationship that exists between human minds and biological agency.

Minded & mindless agency
By anthropocentric intellectual tradition we refuse to accept that agency (including its purposes, values, reason, knowledge etc.) is present in nature by degree. Instead, we are convinced that these characteristics are mind dependent. How could an oak tree possibly express value?

But biological agency is like sexuality. We accept that sexuality exists throughout the community of life, even though it is expressed in a diversity of behaviours and physical forms. Because human sexuality is expressed in a uniquely human way does not mean that only human sexuality is real, and that the sexuality of other organisms is only sexual-like. An oak tree expresses value through the physical and behavioural means of its own unique agency. This is nothing like human value, but it is connected to human value through the shared characteristics of biological agency.

We both confuse (fail to distinguish between) and conflate (treat as being the same) the universal and objective ultimate values of biological agency, and the uniquely minded values and goals of human agency.

Since there is no technical terminology to describe the expression of biological values we fall back on the human vocabulary of intentional psychology.  And, since many organisms do not have minds, this human-talk (anthropomorphic language) is understandably dismissed as cognitive metaphor - which ignores its evolutionary grounding in biological agency.

In other words, we mistakenly presume that biological agency must be minded agency, like human agency – that mindedness is a precondition for agency in living organisms. It is probably for this reason that we mistakenly infer that the unreality associated with the application of minded language to mindless organisms (cognitive metaphor) translates comfortably into the unreality of biological agency. That is, we conflate the simple distinction between the minded and the mindless with the complex distinction between biological agency and human agency. It is not that biological agency is a subjective creation of the human mind (cognitive metaphor or heuristic), rather that the proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency.

Purpose created minds: minds did not create purpose.

Purpose

The goals of agents establish not only their individual purposes but the purposes of their structures and behaviours.  Agency and purpose preceded people, so it is more likely that agency and purpose created people, rather than people creating purpose and agency.

Anthropomorphism (human-talk)
The use of anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor in biology arises for many reasons including: the convenience of brevity, our cognitive bias, and the attraction of literary flourish. However, it is more likely a consequence of a lack of technical vocabulary to describe biological agency, and our empathy for other living creatures (our recognition of biological agency) that is mostly at play here. Anthropomorphism is an intuitive acknowledgement of our evolutionary connection to nature.

We humans have given precedence to human agency by developing a uniquely minded vocabulary (that of intentional psychology) to describe the uniquely human expression of biological agency. An objective science would develop parallel vocabularies to describe the unique agencies of every species – an impossible task. We use minded language (cognitive metaphor) in relation to non-minded organisms not because we believe they have cognitive faculties , but because we intuitively recognize the grounding of cognitive faculties in biological agency (biological simile) and because we do not have the technical scientific vocabulary needed to describe the agency of each individual species.

Anthropomorphic language interpreted, not literally, but in terms of its intended meaning, describes a relationship between humans and non-humans that is a real likeness based on descent with modification (biological simile grounded in evolution, not cognitive metaphor grounded in a literary device).

The evidence for agential, teleological, and normative realism in nature is cashed out when we examine specific cases.

Human minded valuation brings with it the subjective 'ought' of ethical universality. The following cases illustrate the objectivity of biological values . . . the 'ought' of human valuation is replaced by the 'is' of biological 'value'.

We say that a plant wants water, not because we think that plants experience cognitive states (human agency), but because we intuitively appreciate the significance of survival for all life (biological agency). It is not as if a plant wants water, rather, in terms of the biological agency that plants share with humans they depend on water for their survival. The agency being communicated here is not as if or even like, but the same as our human biological dependency on water. In this sense a plant needs water for exactly the same reasons that humans need water.

We say the purpose of eyes is to see, not because eyes were an intentional creation of God, or that their purpose is a projection of our own intentions, but because, from the perspective of biological agency, we understand the agential significance of sight for all organisms that have eyes. It is not as if the purpose of eyes is to see but, conversely, given the nature of biological agency, eyes have obvious and objective agential significance.

We say a spider knows how to build its web, not because we believe that spiders are consciously aware of the principles of web construction, but because we are amazed at how, without our cognitive powers, spiders instinctively build something as intricate and purposeful as a web, using information that is passed mechanically, and with meticulous precision, from one generation to the next in their genes. Even though the capacity for web building is an adaptive trait encoded in genes, rather than a cognitive attribute, it is a manifestation of biological agency that is so sophisticated that we rightly associate it with our own agency. It is not as if a spider knows how to build a web, rather, that web building (biological agency) is extraordinarily like (and biologically related to) our human cognitive capacity to learn, remember, and apply accumulated knowledge (human agency).

Human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values. We can therefore make a distinction between, on the one hand, mindless biological agency, purpose, and value and, on the other, minded human agency, purpose, and value bearing in mind that human agency is a specialized form of biological agency.

This interpretation of agency, purpose, and value constitutes a radical philosophical realism that implausibly contradicts the mainstream philosophical and scientific view that values, agency, and purpose are creations of human minds and therefore exist only in human minds - a view leading to the conclusion that the language of human intentional psychology (which includes the language of agency, purpose, and normativity), when applied to non-human organisms, cannot be scientifically justified, and must therefore be treated as cognitive metaphor.

It is argued on this web site that, from a scientific perspective, human agency is a form of biological agency and that resort to its description by using the uniquely minded language of human intentional psychology is a form of anthropocentrism

Biological values, human values, & ethics
The words 'ethics', 'morals', and 'values' are often used in a loose and interchangeable way. However, a useful distinction can be made between three key elements: values (as abstract, universal, general, or aspirational objectives – the importance, worth, or usefulness of something - including behaviour - preferences, attitudes, or feelings); goals (as specific objectives of individual organisms); and moral or ethical judgments (as human judgments of right and wrong often made universal by reason and thus countering egoism).

The three universal, ultimate, and objective values of the biological axiom are the drivers (determine the behavioural orientation) of all organisms. The multitude of proximate goals pursued by all organisms are strongly related to, among other things, physical structure, time, place, and circumstance.

For example, the overall behaviour of a crab expresses the universal and ultimate biological values of the biological axiom through a multitude of proximate goals that relate to its physical form - its pincers, swimmer claws, its place under a rock in the sea, the nearby presence of food and mates, and so on. Values may be expressed as both individual preferences or integrated collective behaviour (e.g. an ant colony), but not as shared as symbolic representations.

Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values.

It might be claimed that human values, when subjected to the furnace of detached reason, have given rise to formal behavioural codes or ethical systems that have divested themselves of both God and nature - that ethics emerges out of pure reason (which demands that we universalize moral language, and allows us to acknowledge truths that do not have survival vaue), not supernatural command or empirical fact.

But the human reason used in moral judgment is a thick concept (it is both descriptive and evaluative). If reason is the 'ability to use knowledge to attain goals'[41] then the universality implied by its 'ought' statements is not derived from dispassionate logic, or mathematics - the point of view of the universe - but from the universal values of the biological axiom. The biological axiom is itself a thick expression; it is both a factual description of the way organisms are, and an evaluation expressed as a factual behavioural orientation. Reason based on the point of view of the universe is a denial of life.

The denial of biological agency
Scour biological textbooks, or the web, and you will find little, if anything, about biological agency, biological values, or the purpose that pervades everything in nature.

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on at least five related confusions and errors concerning the distinction between and confusion related to, on the one hand, organisms with minds and those without minds and, on the other, biological agency and human agency.

First, an inversion of reasoning that incorrectly assumes that since biological goals (values, purposes etc.) can only be understood (represented) by human minds, then they only exist in human minds, and are therefore a creation of human minds . . . that biological agency is not real.

Second, converse reasoning that treats biological agency, purpose, and value as an unreal fiction (cognitive metaphor) invented by the human mind, rather than the converse - that human agency evolved out of real and mindless biological agency.

Third, the metaphor fallacy. The treatment of anthropomorphic humanizing language (human-talk) as metaphor or, more specifically, cognitive metaphor.[42] This fallacy interprets the relationship between biological and human agencies using the logic of a literary device, the metaphor, in which one of the relata is always figurative (unreal). This forces the real evolutionary likeness between biological agency and human agency to be treated as an 'as if' (unreal) likeness, rather than a similarity resulting from real evolutionary connection. Were a literary device the appropriate mechanism for making this comparisonIn then in strict literary terms this would be more like a biological simile than a metaphor.

Fourth, and related to the third, we make an agency error – whereby anthropomorphic language (the language treated as cognitive metaphor) is interpreted literally as claiming that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under closer inspection it is evident that, in general, such language is not, in fact, referencing minded human agency (human cognitive faculties), but the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry.

Fifth, that science is forced to use the language of cognitive metaphor, not so much for literary flourish, an inherent cognitive bias, or for its convenience, but more because of our intuitive identification with non-cognitive (objective) biological agency, and the lack of non-human agential scientific vocabulary to describe this agency.

Anthropomorphic analogical language is, in general, not trying to convey the as if language of cognitive metaphor, but the real likeness of biological simile (the result of evolutionary connection).

From an evolutionary perspective human agency evolved out of (is a subset of) biological agency and thus the proximate minded and therefore (often) subjective goals of human agency, are subordinate to the ultimate objective goals of biological agency.

In sum, we have yet to scientifically accept that biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human agency: human agency is a real evolutionary development of biological agency.

Historically, this philosophical confusion has been perpetuated by a pre-Darwinian anthropocentrism that understood life as Special Creation, rather than evolution with modification from a common ancestor.

If we regard anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor or heuristic, then we not only devalue, but deny, the real evolutionarily graded agential reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life.

If biological agency, goals, purposes, and values are real then their investigation can be transferred out of the realm of philosophical speculation and into the domain of scientific explanation.

First published on the internet – 15 June 2019
. . . 5 August 2022 – added Epilogue
. . . 9 August 2022 – editing Epilogue
. . . 14 August 2022 – substantial re-edit

 

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