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Being like-minded


The Biological Axiom

‘Living organisms are autonomous biological agents that share a unity of purpose: the temporary, universal, objective, and ultimate goal to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This is simultaneously a statement of biological agency, purpose, intention, and normativity


The Principle of Like-mindedness

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


‘When we apply the language of human intentional psychology to mindless organisms this is not, in most cases, because we think that they have cognitive faculties, but because we empathize with their biological agency’

We humans see in non-human organisms behaviour that closely resembles what we call, for example, ‘caring’, ‘deception’, ‘preference’, ‘attraction’, ‘knowing’, and ‘reasoning’. Biologists speak of organisms employing ‘strategies’, having ‘interests’, and ‘favouring’ one particular outcome over another.

By describing non-human behaviour using this kind of language – the cognitive language of human intentional psychology – we are ignoring a seemingly crucial difference between humans and other species. We humans operate in a minded and intentional way, while other organisms are mindless or merely sentient, lacking the capacity for self-reflection, critical deliberation, and abstract detachment. When I deceive, I generally intend to deceive and am aware that I have deceived. Other organisms may deceive but they are not aware of their deception – they just behave.[3]

How biologically significant is the self-reflective mindedness that distinguishes the human from the non-human?

This article is a critical investigation of the claim that only humans can be agents that express purpose, use reason, have values and interests, and accumulate knowledge. It investigates the universal properties of biological agency[4] (the biological axiom) that are expressed by all living organisms, and one of their evolutionary developments, the uniquely minded agency of Homo sapiens.

What are 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 are the highly evolved and uniquely minded proximate goals of human agency related to, and grounded in, the ultimate goals of biological agency?

Despite the difficulty of defining what exactly it is that we mean by ‘life‘, the intuitive agential distinction we make between life and non-life seems uncontroversial. But the distinction between biological agency and human agency, between the minded and the mindless, has been the source of major philosophical and scientific confusion and controversy.

The prevailing scientific and philosophical view is that there is only one form of agency, and that is human agency. Biological agency (the objective goal-directed behaviour we see in all living organisms) is either denied altogether by treating it as a metaphorical creation of the human mind, or is dismissed as being merely agent-like. You will not find entries in either biological text-books or Wikipedia discussing biological agency in the sense used on this web site. This traditional denial of biological agency does a major scientific disservice to the real agency that created human bodies and minds. It is time that biological agency be given full scientific recognition.

So, how does science describe, on the one hand, the relationship between the mind-like properties and goals that distinguish the living from the non-living and, on the other,  the uniquely minded and conscious intentions of humans.  What is the relationship between biological agency and human agency?

Principle  – living organisms are distinguished from the inanimate and dead by their flexible goal-directed agential behaviour, referred to here as biological agency. Humans share the general characteristics of biological agency, but in a highly evolved and uniquely minded form as human agency

Principle  – human goals are manifest as conscious intentions – they are a product of a unique and critical self-awareness 

Minds & agency

The use of human minded language in relation to non-human organisms, the attribution of purpose to mindless biological processes, and the spooky suggestion of the presence of  agencies in nature collectively add up to an unnecessary metaphysical burden on science.

Why not remove all talk of agents, goals, and purposes and be rid of any hint of teleology, the supernatural, or philosophical obscurity? If there is no agency present in non-human organisms, then all agential language in this sphere can be replaced with the detached scientific talk of adaptive significance and function. After all, it is the functional significance of biological traits – what they are mindlessly for – that drives us to mistakenly gift mindless organisms with minded intentions.

This approach to biological agency has led to an elaborate and lively current philosophical industry that has replaced purpose with function and the exploration of Selected Effects Theory, Generalized Selected Effects Theory, Etiological Theories, Causal Role Theory, neo-teleology, teleosemantics, and more – all in the belief that the removal of agency from nature is doing biology a service.

There are three major obstacles to this program.

First, our intuitive identification with and empathy for the shared goals, flexible behaviour, and adaptive traits of our living evolutionary relatives. This is a recognition of shared biological likeness – our shared evolutionary biological heritage. The minded language we sometimes use to describe this likeness is cognitive metaphor in language only: it is grounded in the real biological likeness of evolutionary connection, however distant.

Second, the restriction of agential talk to humans leaves all other organisms with no agency at all. This denial of the goal-directed and flexible behaviour that distinguishes the living from the inanimate and dead is, in effect, a denial of life. Without this agency non-human organisms assume the purposeless and inert status of the inanimate world.

Third, there is a distinction between the unified and purposive ultimate goals of all organisms (biological axiom) and the function-talk that applies to the proximate support (adaptive significance) of traits supporting biological agents in their propensity towards these ultimate existential biological goals. In general, organisms express ultimate purposes, adaptive traits express proximate functions.

Principle  – restricting all talk of agency to human agency is attractive because it allows non-human existence to be described in terms of adaptive significance and function, thus obviating any need for either agency or teleology. However, this deprives non-human organisms of the agency that distinguishes all life from the inanimate and dead, ignoring biological characteristics that are shared by all organisms, while talk of functions confuses the proximate goals of structures, processes, and behaviours with the ultimate goals of autonomous organisms

Being mind-like

It is obvious that the mindlessness of non-human organisms is very different from the mindlessness that exists in a rock. This is because we are keenly aware, if only intuitively, that the biological agency that we see all around us in mindless nature shares many similarities with our own human minded agency. Clearly, we are biologically more closely related to other living beings than we are to rocks.

We sometimes use minded words to express the closeness we feel to non-human organisms. We say that a plant ‘wants’ water or that a spider builds its web ‘in order to’ catch flies. But in using this clumsy language we are not trying to draw attention to a closeness of minds, but a similarity of biological processes, behaviour, and objectives (our shared biological agency) and, of course, this makes good evolutionary sense. We are related to all other organisms by common ancestry and, though our bodies are made of matter that occurs in rocks – we are, indeed, stardust after-all – we share with the community of life a common agency that is very different from the mode of existence of a rock.

Biological agency is a universal and objective property that we observe in the goal-directed and flexible behaviour of all living organisms. It emerged from nature with the first life and is manifest in the multitude of behaviours and physical forms that arose from nature by descent with modification from a common ancestor. The minded agency of human beings is just one evolutionary development of this biological agency.

Principle  – humans are related to all other organisms, not by a communion of minded intentions, but by an evolutionary ancestry of shared biological goals, behaviours, and processes. Living bodies have a unified and purposeful autonomy as the universal biological propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish, their structures, processes and behaviours functionally organized in support of these ultimate existential objectives.

Agency & intention

We regard our human mindedness as something unique and special. But what is it, exactly, that distinguishes human intentions from biological goals, and why do we treat the human intellect with such high esteem?

The agential goal-directed and flexible behaviour of mindless organisms is clearly orientated towards particular ends in just the same way that human intentions are directed towards minded ends. Both minded and mindless organisms share this goal-directedness. This is precisely what we mean by ‘agency’, and since all organisms share this agency it is referred to on this web site as biological agency. Since humans are biological organisms their goals (intentions) must, in a sense, be biological goals – and yet they are different from the goals of other organisms because they occur in self-conscious and reflective minds. This creates a cognitive dissonance because it is now apparent that human agency and biological agency express simultaneously both similarity and difference.

How are we to provide a scientific account of something so abstract as the difference between an agential propensity and a minded intention?

In what ways are biological agency and human agency similar, and in what ways are they different?

The agency error

There are several reasons why we use cognitive metaphors – why we describe mindless biological agency using the minded language of human agency – saying organisms have ‘wants’, ‘preferences’, ‘strategies’ and so on.

Metaphors have an educational or literary attraction, they reflect our human cognitive bias, and they make biological explanations simpler and easier to understand. But there is always a problem: they gift organisms with qualities that, in reality, they do not possess. Agency, and its mental properties, are products of human minds only. How could it possibly be otherwise?

There is a major flaw in this conventional account of cognitive metaphor. Subsuming all agency under human agency 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.

With self-awareness the measure of agency there is a simple dichotomy between, on the one hand, organisms with minds and cognitive faculties acting as agents (viz. humans) and, on the other, non-human organisms. Denied biological agency, organisms assume the agential status of rocks: or they are only agent-like at best. A spider with no self-awareness has no agency.

This philosophical error arises from the ‘as if’ connection between the relata in a cognitive metaphor (the use of self-aware words of human cognition in relation to mindless organisms) which attributes self-awareness to mindless organisms when, in fact, it is drawing attention to the real shared likeness that exists between biological agency and human agency (see metaphor fallacy).

Principle  – agency, as goal-directed behaviour (biological agency), is a universal property of all life. Human agency expresses biological agency in the unique form of conscious intention.

Following from this conclusion, and supported by the fact that human agency must have evolved as a unique form biological agency, it is clear that human goals are proximate goals in relation to ultimate biological goals: the goals expressed by human intentions are, in this sense, subordinate to the ultimate goals of biological agency and evolution.

Principle  – the minded goals of human agency – those of conscious intention – are proximate goals that are subordinate to the ultimate existential goals of biological agency

Biological agency & human agency

How can science acknowledge the goal-directed and flexible behaviour of mindless organisms and the way that adaptations can facilitate or impede life while, at the same time, treating behaviour that is ‘for’ something as an Aristotelian teleological blunder?

By any lights, goal-directed biological behaviour is both agential and purposeful. Where there are autonomous organisms with goals there is agency and reasons for existence that are best described as purposes.

There is now a long tradition of obfuscation dissolving teleology away with talk of metaphor, adaptation, fitness, heuristics, and function. The language of adaptation and function is not deliberately deceptive, but neither does it convey what is real in the world. It tells the truth, but not the whole truth. We avoid the embarrassing topic of agency by hiding behind official dogma and the accepted technical terminology of evolutionary biology. We fall back on circumlocution – the ‘lifeless’ and detached language more appropriate to the inanimate than the agency that is clearly manifest in the structures, processes, and behaviours of all organisms.

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. That is, organisms are autonomous agents, each with its own individual operational identity.

The behaviour of each species is ultimately constrained by the degree of behavioural flexibility that is possible given the limitations of its physical structure. Animals with fins, wings, and brains all pursue the goals of the biological axiom but in ways that are determined by their species-specific physical form.

It is the concept of biological agency that has been problematic.

This arose partly from our anthropocentrism, by regarding human agency as the only real form of agency. Biological agency thus becomes an unreal creation of human minds with all talk of non-human agency taking on the character of metaphor. Alternatively, biological agency becomes a mere shadow of real human agency by being only agent-like.

This is a supreme irony since human minds did not create biological agency, it was biological agency that ‘created’ human bodies, human brains, and therefore human minds.

So, how are we to make a clear scientific distinction between the life-defining goal-directed agency that is universal in nature, and the special kind of minded agency that occurs in humans?

This task is problematic because human agency and biological agency are not mutually exclusive. Human agency is an evolutionary development of biological agency and while it displays uniquely human minded (emergent) properties it also shares the universal (grounding) properties of biological agency.

Coming to terms with this cognitive dissonance – the clash of simultaneous similarity and difference – is made easier by examining the evolutionary history of agency.

Evolution of agency

Coming to grips with the evolution of biological agency entails some basic evolutionary theory that helps in the understanding of the cognitive dissonance created by simultaneous similarity and difference.

Most importantly, the goal-directed behaviour referred to here as biological agency emerged with the first life billions of years before its most complex evolutionary development, the minded agency we associate with humans.

Unique & shared characters

Establishing the evolutionary context of any organism, structure, process, behaviour, or concept, requires two sets of characters. First, there are those characteristics that are shared with evolutionary relatives (referred to here as grounding characteristics). It is these characteristics that establish evolutionary connection. Second, there are those characteristics that are unique. These are the characteristics that uniquely identify and define the item under investigation and are here referred to as emergent characteristics.

The Darwinian theory of descent with modification reveals why it is that the minded goals of human agency resemble biological goals. 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 primitive grounding ‘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 agential characteristics that are either mindless (breathing, sweating, digesting) or unconscious (phobias, spontaneous emotions etc.).

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 mindlessness of inanimate nature and the mindedness of humans.

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 evolutionary 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.

Our intuitive merging of the concepts of ‘agency’ and ‘mind’ is best explained in evolutionary terms, whereby uniquely derived characteristics (such as minds and mental concepts) share some of the ‘ancestral’ shared characteristics out of which they were derived. That is, bodies expressing biological agency evolved into bodies that continued to express biological agency but supplemented with minds. The mental concepts created by these minds are also grounded in (evolved out of, superimposed on) biological agency.

Principle  – all organisms express biological agency through the universal, ultimate, and objective goals (‘intentions’) of the biological axiom – to survive, reproduce, and flourish. It is these goals that distinguish living agents from non-living matter.  But only one species, Homo sapiens, pursues these goals with highly evolved minds that can communicate using symbolic languages.

Spiders and plants do not have human intellects, they are not self-aware, and they are not capable of rational deliberation. However, their behaviour is very different from that of rocks. Theirs is not the minded agency we associate with humans, but it is a real goal-directed agency nevertheless.

We make a simple and understandable error when describing biological language as cognitive metaphor . . . by saying, for example, that a spider ‘knows’ how to build a web. We take the language literally to mean that a spider ‘knows’ in the way that humans ‘know’. However, in most cases this literal interpretation is not the intended meaning. The intended meaning relates to the shared biological agency, not the uniquely human mindedness.

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, when taking a broad view, 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.

Principle  – Intentions are the minded evolutionary products of mindless biological goals; they express proximate minded human goals that are subordinate to the ultimate and mindless goals of the biological axiom.

Goals, brains, & intentions

We associate intentions with the conscious mental activity going on in brains and minds. It seems obvious that when we grant 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 wants water – we are simply reading our own human mental qualities into organisms that do not, and cannot, possess such qualities, because they do not have minds or cognitive faculties. And to say that a mindless oak tree expresses ‘wants’ or ‘needs’ is just nonsense: it doesn’t even have a nervous system.

When viewed from this perspective it is hardly surprising that mainstream science and philosophy reject the notion of mindless goals, values, agents, knowledge, and purpose as a contradiction in terms – a misunderstanding of the way our language is used – because these are all ‘minded’ concepts. When we use this language we are being unscientifically anthropomorphic – because it is only ‘as if’ mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. These are all cases of cognitive metaphor – situations in which we are using human intentional language in a figurative way (see metaphor and cognitive metaphor).

But a subtle semantic shift takes place when the talk moves from brains with intentions to bodies with goals. There is a transition in meaning as we move from mental states to bodily behaviour. As self-aware human agents we place great emphasis on the causal power of our minds. But, though we have access to other peoples’ intentions through language, it is more their deeds that we rely on. We are not committed to jail for what we think, but for what we do. Actions (agency, behaviour) speak louder than words.

The goal-directed activity of organisms is a life-defining characteristic, and it is also an objective fact.

The first living organisms arose billions of years ago as units of autonomous matter. Their existence followed a mechanical behavioural algorithm as they repeatedly self-replicated while incorporating feedback from the environment that would facilitate their intergenerational continuity. This simple mathematical operation – replication that engages an environmental feedback loop – is referred to here as the algorithm of life. As Aristotle realized this was a remarkable process in nature because while individuals died, their kind persisted – in a potential recipe for eternal life.

What the algorithm of life does not tell us is how autonomous goal-directed activity is a form of agency. With life there emerged a previously non-existent property . . . units of matter with the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish, a biological agency referred to here as the biological axiom.  The conditions of the biological axiom were universal preconditions for all life at a time when there was agency, but no minds, and no intentions.

This is a supreme irony. We assume that our minds invent mindless goals (through cognitive metaphor) when it was the algorithm of life that made minds possible. Minds are the evolutionary products of mindless matter and, though our proximate goals are infinite, they are subordinate to the mindless ultimate goals of the biological axiom. This is the behavioural heritage that we share with an oak tree – not its thoughts, but its agency.

There are clearly goals all around us in nature, and adaptations are an acknowledgement that biological goals can facilitate or impede, ‘help’ or ‘hinder’. But most of these goals are not minded goals. The mental hurdle we must overcome is the realization that we don’t create these goals in our minds, it was these goals that made our subjectivity possible.

Intentions are the minded evolutionary products of mindless biological goals; they express proximate minded human goals that are subordinate to the ultimate and mindless goals of the biological axiom.

Minded intentions are highly evolved mindless goals.

Principle  – Intentions are the minded evolutionary products of mindless biological goals; they express proximate minded human goals that are subordinate to the ultimate and mindless goals of the biological axiom.

The conundrum of agency

The scientific challenge is to clarify, by expressing in clear scientific language, the agential difference between the mindlessness of rocks, the mindlessness of non-human (exc. sentient organisms), and the mindedness of humans, this task being complicated because biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive, they demonstrate pronounced similarities and differences.

Much of this boils down to the relative significance that we place on either (external) behaviour or (internal) mental states. Our human conscious mental states – our desires, beliefs, fears, and intentions – are real, vivid, and immediate. It is clearly these factors that drive our behaviour, that are, indeed, our agency. 

Though our inner state is crucial, it is the way that inner state is manifested in behaviour that ultimately determines our fate in the world. Both crabs and plants also have inner states that determine their behaviour, but it is the behaviour (as a manifestation of agency) that interacts with the world, not the inner state.

In sum: we judge agency through the evidence of action and behaviour, not through inner states. This does not deny the significance of inner states in driving behaviour but it is a recognition of the more direct significance of behaviour on existential outcomes. 

From this perspective human mental states are highly evolved internal mechanisms guiding behaviour – but it is the fact that behaviour is generated that is common to all organisms.

Humans can, unlike other organisms, communicate their inner states using language – as the complex behavioral capacity for speech. The combination of complex and conscious inner mental states communicated between individuals using language has undoubtedly facilitated human ascendency among other creatures.  But, in evolutionary terms, mental attributes are simply another tool (adaptation) subject to the testing of the algorithm of life and the biological axiom as played out in the arena of behavior. 

Though we empathize with organisms most closely related to us – recognizing their fear, aggression, anger, uncertainty etc. – we also recognize in distantly related organisms like plants, the physical-behavioral signs of good health, the need for resources, and so on. Even without language or consciousness mindless organisms share with humans the goal-directed behaviours of biological agency that determine their fate.

Principle  – in agential terms, mental attributes are simply another evolutionary tool (adaptation) subject to natural selection (the testing of the algorithm of life and the biological axiom) as played out in the external arena of behavior

Hybrid concepts

In the attempt to establish a clear distinction between biological agency and human agency it might be thought that agential characteristics could be divided into two groups. In one group there are the minded agential concepts like reasoning, caring, knowing, choosing, and valuing. In the other group are concepts describing mindless behaviours like moving towards, or reproducing.

It soon becomes clear that there is a poverty of language describing the agential behaviour of mindless, or merely sentient, organisms. Unsurprisingly, considering our evolutionary history and the lack of convenient terminology we fall back on the cognitive language of human agency. And, it seems, the acceptability of anthropomorphic words then becomes a somewhat arbitrary matter.

The human-talk vocabulary of physical structures (e.g. ‘leg’, ‘arm’, ‘head’, ‘body’) is used in biological science to convey the semantics of grounding concepts – that is, it is used with non-technical highly generalized and loose meanings that may relate to not only evolutionary history but functional, positional, or other likenesses to the human circumstance.

Since minded human agency evolved out of mindless biological agency it is hardly surprising that the language of human intentional psychology (reason, desire, knowing, liking etc.) often includes within its semantic range the grounding similarities of biological agency. That is, cognitive terms are used widely in biology in relation to non-minded organisms. This is similar to the situation of physical structures.

However, the physical and psychological modes are treated differently. So, for example, we accept the loose sense in which an octopus has ‘arms’, but reject the loose sense in which the cuckoo ‘deceives’, insisting that the latter is cognitive metaphor.

There are several factors at play here, including a preciousness about minds that does not extend to bodies. The insistence on scientific clarity in the latter case has the effect of separating minded and mindless agency, with mindless agency being denied altogether – or else a confusion of the two. So, we say a plant ‘wants’ water, not because we think a plant has cognitive faculties (human agency) but because we share with plants the behavioural propensities of the biological axiom (biological agency). Plant ‘wanting’ is clearly not the same as human ‘wanting’ but human and plant ‘wanting’ share criteria of real biological ‘likeness’ based on evolutionary connection. This is not the ‘as if’ likeness of metaphor.

It turns out that much of the human-talk that has proved problematic in biology has ignored the capacity of cognitive language to infer the reality of both grounding and emergent concepts.

Principle  – there is an inconsistent scientific and philosophical attitude towards structural (physical) metaphors and cognitive (mental) metaphors

Principle  – human cognitive vocabulary is agential language with a hybrid semantics that can refer to both human minded intentions and the goal-directed behaviour of mindless organisms (a consequence of their evolutionary connection). The attempt to provide clarity by making agency and cognitive language exclusive to the human domain has resulted in the problematic denial of both the real agency of mindless goal-directed behaviour, and the real evolutionary likeness inherent in notions such as purpose, value, knowledge, and reason

Bodies & minds

It has already been pointed out that agency is expressed most directly by action in the world (externally), through the behaviour of bodies, even when motivated by (internal) mental states.

When behaviour is accepted as the major measure of agency (rather than conscious intention) then mindedness recedes in biological significance to become another evolutionary tool influencing behaviour (albeit a remarkably effective one). This means that concepts like ‘purpose’ are assessed, not in terms of where it is located (in minds) but in how it is demonstrated (in goal-directed behaviour).

The question now arises as to how we describe and understand the behavioural (not mental or linguistic) manifestation of concepts like intention, agency, value, knowledge, and reason? This admits biological agency into our scientific and semantic framework in a way that is rarely acknowledged. When proximate and emergent human intentions (the language of intentional psychology) are described in behavioural terms they now take on, more obviously, the characteristics of ultimate biological goals. We see:

biological intention in the goal-directedness of behaviour

biological agency in the propensity of all life to survive, reproduce and flourish

biological value in the specific goals of

biological knowledge in the transmission of information between organisms

biological reason in the

These properties of life are discussed further in the article on biological intention.

Biological agency is understood, explained, and defined, using behavioural criteria. Though each organism and species displays a wide range of proximate behaviour that is constrained by its environment and physical form, all organisms share the universal, objective, and ultimate goals of biological agency as outlined in the biological axiom.

Human agency is often explained and understood using mental concepts, but it is expressed in the world as the behaviour (agency) of human bodies. It is inconsequential whether this internal behavioural motivation be conscious, unconscious, or mindless).

Biologically the entire arsenal of human minded cognitive properties – the capacity for abstract thought, foresight, hindsight, reasoned and conscious deliberation, and the ability to devise symbolic languages of communication – has created a sociality that has allowed humans to dominate planet Earth.

In spite of all this our minds and brains are part of (one organ in) our bodies and, of necessity, they share the unity of purpose of all living bodies, which is the goals of the biological axiom as they emerged with the first life.  Intentions and mindedness are subordinate to bodies, behaviour, and actions. Our minds might wish to transcend the lowlines of these simple goals – but if it did, then it would not be life. Both morality and science are partially successful in the attempt to overcome our biology but the concept of complete detachment from our biological being is incoherent.

The immediacy and vividness of our experience, combined with our self-awareness as agents creates the impression of mental power over the world. But we can overestimate the power of the mental alone. Beliefs and feelings can change the world, but only when translated into the agential behaviour of living bodies.

Even our mindedness (our subjectivity) which seems replete with infinite imaginative possibilities, is subordinate to the goals of the process that created it. For all members of the community of life – and in spite of the brilliance of the human intellect – ultimately, it is behaviour that decides fates even when these are motivated by mental states.

Action trumps thought: behaviour trumps intention.

Principle  – in spite of the power of thought, agency is ultimately manifest in action.  For all organisms, including humans, it is ultimately behaviour that decides fates 

Describing mindless biological agency

There are self-evident reasons for cactus spines, white fur on the Arctic fox, and spider webs. Nature is saturated with reasons for structures, processes, and behaviours. These reasons are purposes because they are not accidental: they arose because they contribute to the survival, reproduction, and flourishing of living biological agents. However, they are not minded reasons and purposes; they are not the products of conscious intention and thus, the prevailing view (based on the intuitive prioritization of minded intention over mindless goal-directed behaviour) is that they do not warrant the title ‘purpose’.

A biologist who takes her science seriously is not permitted to say that ‘the purpose of eyes is to see‘ because, although eyes serve an obvious biological function, they do not have intentions. Minds trump mindless biological objectives.

In the face of accusations of being teleological, philosophers and scientists have struggled with the reality of mindless biological goals, trying to avoid the apparent trap of discussing ‘mindless goals’ and ‘purpose’ in the same breath. Philosopher Dan Dennett has referred to these mindless goals, as expressed in adaptations, as ‘free-floating rationales‘.

If we are to provide a full scientific account of mindless biological agency, then we must be clear about what we mean by – not only mindless purposes – but also what it is that is so unique and special about mindedness and conscious intention.

Biological terms

The words ‘function’, ‘purpose’, and ‘adaptation’ are so intertwined in common biological usage that any scientific attempt to impose precision in their meaning runs the gauntlet of their everyday semantic breadth. The philosophical confusion emerging from this polysemy cries out for the clarity of scientifically defined technical terms.

It was tacitly assumed, in the 20th century, that metaphysical ambiguity would be exorcised if the word ‘purpose’ was replaced with the word ‘function’. This project is still in full swing but has failed for many reasons, mostly because it restricted the notion of ‘purpose’ to humans and, in so doing, condemned non-human organisms to the same agential status as inanimate objects (see purpose and being like-minded).

In biology a function is what something does or is used for, while an adaptation is a modification that makes an organism fitter for existence under its current environmental conditions. Cactus spines, the white fur of the Arctic fox, emperor penguins huddling together to keep warm, are adaptations whose proximate ‘function’ is to better fit these organisms to their environments – and ultimate purpose their survival, reproduction, and flourishing. Though it is helpful to think of functions as serving the purposes of a greater and more integrated wholes, this is semantically difficult to justify. It seems intuitively just as acceptable to refer to ‘purposes’ (reasons for) as ‘functions’ in the above cases of the cactus, Arctic fox, and Emperor Penguins. Homeostasis is a mechanism that maintains a stable internal environment despite the changes present in the external environment. While sweating in humans has the function of cooling the body in its greater purpose of surviving – common usage would suggest the word ‘purpose’ (reason for) would also serve as well as ‘function’ in this context. Insisting that the use of ‘purpose’ is unacceptable in such cases, because it is teleological, seems like unnecessary pedantry and is generally ignored, even by biological scientists.

It is tempting to treat the word ‘adaptation’ as being synonymous with the expression ‘mindless purpose’ except that many adaptations are minded traits. So what about ‘mindless adaptations’? This sounds strange and also unnecessary. ‘Biological agency’ is confusing because we are tempted to separate biological agency from human agency, forgetting that biological agency encompasses humans. Since all adaptations have functions, they appear to be opposite sides of the same coin.


Agency is communicated through the universal medium of behaviour, and though humans can communicate using the unique sophistication of symbolic language, speech is just another biological tool in the repertoire of behaviour: we recognize that, ultimately, ‘actions speak louder than words’.

Principle  – the unique and emergent property of communication by speech is grounded in the universal property of communication through behaviour 

The behaviour of every organism is the product of physical responses to internal and external factors. Brains and their properties are simply another tool in the toolbox of physical factors influencing behaviour. In this sense the power of mindedness lies, not in our self-awareness or intentions (which is what we notice) but in the potential it has to enhance our behavioural opportunities.

While what goes on inside living bodies determines possible behaviours as constrained by biological possibilities of form and function, it is the behaviour itself that is of direct agential and evolutionary  significance.  In this sense, having intentions and self-awareness, being capable of conscious deliberation and abstract thought, communicating using symbolic languages, and enjoying the benefits of collective learning are merely additional behavioural tools in the toolbox of biological agency.

The vividness of our self-awareness convinces us that it is our conscious intentions that are of paramount importance in guiding our lives; that it is our intentions that drive our minded human agency. This perspective on our agency is dampened somewhat by the realization that our agency also has mindless biological and unconscious ingredients. But, more importantly, whatever internal factors are at work in moulding our behaviour, it is the behaviour (not the internal process or thought) that is subjected to the testing biological arena of trial and error, of environmental correction and adaptation. In life, as in a court of law, the future of all organisms has depended not by what their internal processing dictated or what they ‘intended’, but on what they did.

Minds are biologically and agentially important partly because they are self-aware or capable of rational deliberation, but more generally because of what they have achieved by influencing behaviour.

Mindedness began to really shine for humans in the last 100,000 years or so as they moved out of biological time into cultural time as the properties of mindedness described above were extended into language and sociality. The mental tools of symbolic culture escalated behavioural flexibility by using technology to transcend natural biological constraints.

Science of mindless goals

There appear to be at least three possible ways of embedding mindless goals in science.

First, the creation of a technical scientific vocabulary dedicated specifically to mindless biological agency.

Second, and in recognition of the fact that the language of intentional psychology is the species-specific language of human agency, we provide an agential vocabulary for each individual species.

Three, we make a scientific acknowledgement of the fact that the language of intentional psychology encompasses all biological agency, not just that of humans.

The first option is too controversial and complicated by the presence of mindless biological goals in minded humans. The second option is impossible because impractical.

It seems that we can only obtain some clarity about biological agency by acknowledging that in the light of its evolution, like consciousness, biological agency exists in nature by degree. This physical reality, is grudgingly recognized in the semantic compass of concepts that are generally treated as strictly and uniquely minded –  concepts like purpose, reason, value, and knowledge which all share grounding characteristics with mindless organisms – characteristics that are constituents of shared biological agency.

This aspect of mindless agency is discussed further in the article on biological intention but for now it can be pointed out that.

Nature to culture

It was biological agency, not human agency, that provided the mindless tools that made possible the miracle of human bodies and human brains.

This was the historical playing out of the biological axiom over time, according to Darwinian principles, and it was this process that made subjectivity possible as matter became aware of itself. But it was the development of language and the mental tools of sociality and symbolic culture that enabled humans to dominate planet Earth.

We make an intuitive distinction between different forms of biological agency as listed in a crude way below:

      1. mindless & non-agential e.g. rock
      2. mindless but agential e.g. plant
      3. agential and sentient: can feel pleasure and pain but without symbolic languages & reason e.g. domesticated animals
      4. agential, sentient (conscious): can reason and use symbolic communication e.g. individual humans
      5. agential, sentient and self-aware (can reason & use collective learning to inform symbolic communication) e.g. human cultures, communities, religions, and moral codes

These phases represent agential changes resulting from the emergence of increasing evolutionary organic complexity.

Phases 1 to 3, since they do not express self-awareness, can be considered as forms of biological agency.

An organism may be behaviourally adapted to the conditions in which it lives, but without the flexibility needed to cope with change.

When considered in terms of biological agency the effect of these changes in agency has been to increase behavioural freedom and flexibility, that is, to facilitate individual autonomy. The advent of mobility, it would appear – given the biological axiom and the biological confrontation between individual autonomy and environmental variety – triggered the evolution of central control systems, one evolutionary outcome being the human brain.

Human minds have evolved the capacity for increased and more finely tuned behavioural flexibility. Four major behavioural drivers of human agency – built on shared evolutionary antecedents – have given humans more autonomy than any other species.

The simplification of biological agency into four graduated developmental phases:  mindless; minded but unconscious; conscious; to conscious and with shared collective learning communicated via symbolic language – provides a framework for the analysis of ‘mindedness’ as it exists across the natural world. Part of this mindedness is the capacity to experience pleasure and pain.

Much of our behaviour is, like that of mindless organisms, outside our control as, for example, physiological responses like sweating, breathing, and vomiting. But we now know that our minded responses may be unconscious, for example instinctive or intuitive responses like phobias etc. Then there is conscious individual deliberation (use of individual reason) and, superimposed on this, is the application of reason to the accumulated collective learning – our cultural heritage which includes the globally (universally accepted) accumulation of scientific knowledge.

Cultural norms are powerful determinants of behaviour. Of special significance is the cumulative collective learning that underpins communal decision-making. Consider the influence of your parents, education, the local community, church, and the law. It is the collective learning aspect of symbolic culture (especially its science) that has the potential  to maximize the attainment of the goals of the biological axiom: this potential for adapting to circumstance is made possible by communication using symbolic languages that permit the cumulative storage of information – in spoken, written, printed, and electronic forms.

The capacity to evolve, as an independent agent, arose with the first living organism and the biological preconditions required for life to persist – the necessity to survive, reproduce and flourish, as expressed in the biological axiom. It was these preconditions that made possible the eventual and unlikely evolution of subjectivity – of matter becoming aware of itself.

These preconditions for life entailed the propensity for increasing autonomy – the capacity for increasing behavioural flexibility in response to variable environmental conditions. This behavioural adjustment was achieved (mindlessly) over many generations through the miraculous accumulation within DNA of information about the environment that could be passed on to subsequent generations. This was a mindless exploration of ways in which autonomy could be increased and the constraints of environment reduced. But possibilities were also constrained by the physical form of the individual.

Cultural evolution is the uniquely human processing and accumulation of information in brains, transmitted through language, stored in information repositories as collective learning, and applied through the self-correcting mechanisms of symbolic and material culture. The proximate goals of cultural evolution are constrained by the ultimate goals of biological evolution.

Mindless agency

Living organisms, including humans, share many physical properties, perhaps most notably the physical continuity of DNA. And yet it is the autonomous agency of life as it passes through life’s phases that we identify with our own intentional behaviour, our human agency. The three biological goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing have the qualities of what, in human-talk, we would refer to as ‘values’ since a ‘goal’ is usually associated with an achievable target while a ‘value’ is more like an aspiration.

The mindless aspirations of the biological axiom provide us with a distinction between agential life and non-life. But there is no similar clear-cut distinction between organisms with minds and those without minds – those with biological agency and those whose biological agency has been supplemented by the use of minds which we refer to as 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. Just as fishes manifest biological agency using the evolutionary physical development of fins, so humans manifest biological agency through the evolutionary physical development of brains.

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, since the Scientific Revolution, confused and conflated the distinction between biological agency and human agency – resulting in centuries 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 view biological and human agency. But, by the mid 19th century, attitudes about purpose and agency in nature had hardened. 

Principle of like-mindedness  – the proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share grounding characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency

Human agency evolved out of biological agency such that the proximate minded goals of human agency are subordinate to the ultimate objective goals of biological agency.

Biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human agency: human agency is a real evolutionary development of biological agency.

Unconscious agency

Minded organisms have additional intuitive or instinctive responses that are mind-related, and over which they also have little control. For example, for humans there are the fears and non-rational responses that contribute to our moral psychology, many of which have formed the basis for collective codes of behaviour. This includes 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.

There are many aspects of our human survival, reproduction, and flourishing that proceed without our knowledge. Almost every part of our bodies is functionally structured to support overall individual goals (those of the biological axiom). The body metabolism that perpetuates our existence (respiration, digestion etc.) proceeds without our awareness. Then there are physiological responses like sweating and vomiting that have obvious biological functions controlled by a part of our brain over which we have little control, the autonomic nervous system.

These mindless responses are, in effect, an evolutionary relic of mindless biological agency at work in a minded body.

These unconscious responses are, in effect, an evolutionary relic of archaic minded behaviour.

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; the collective learning made possible by the use of symbolic languages

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

Writing poetry, playing chess, doing mathematics, composing music, and painting landscapes – all these seemingly have little to do with the biological axiom. But we would not do these things if they did not give us biological satisfaction or reward. We would not engage in sex if it gave us no pleasure.

The language of biological agency

Biological agency (as objective goal-directed behaviour) is a real phenomenon in nature but but its presence in nature has been largely ignored or denied because of its embarrassing association with teleology (as either anthropomorphizing language or supernatural agency). But if biological agency is there in front of us, then how have we managed to deny its presence?

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, when biological agency is denied we fall back on the language of human agency, which is then treated as cognitive metaphor (with the concession that organisms can 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

The uneasy relationship between science and the reality of biological agency has inevitably created 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. Mindless organisms also have ‘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. 

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 agency – our own purposes, intentions, values etc. –  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.


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 and passed down the generations: the precise information of identity such that humans give birth to humans, not fish or plants.

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 kind of agency being insinuated, but not said, when we say that a plant wants water is not as if (unreal) human cognitive agency, but the universal biological agency expressed in the biological axiom. Once it is realized that the underlying intent of such minded language is grounded in mindless universal biological values, rather than human intentions, then it is easier to understand not only how the literal interpretation of such language as metaphor is mistaken, but how this entails both an inversion and conversion of reasoning.

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.


- 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 -

It is argued on this web site that science is best served when we recognize that there is biological agency in the goal-directed behaviour of all living organisms and that human minded agency is a highly evolved form of this biological agency. Also, that agency, purpose, and value become more scientifically coherent concepts when they are considered as part of the real fabric of life, not creations of the human mind.

The brief points below constitute a defense of agential realism, bioteleological realism, and biological normativity (moral naturalism).  They outline: the key characteristics of life; how mindless purpose, agency, and normativity are possible; how to discriminate between the minded and mindless (in relation to biological agency and human agency) in both language and the world; the relationship between biological normativity and human ethics; and why it is scientifically more appropriate to treat organisms as real agents rather than being agent-like.

Biology is the study of life - as viewed from many perspectives and on many scales. The organism is the basic physical unit of life, and the species is the basic unit of biological classification.

Algorithm of life - organisms are autonomous units of matter that can repeatedly self-replicate while incorporating feedback from the environment, thus creating the possibility for continuity of kind over many generations.

(This is a perspectiveless account of perspectived life).

The autonomy inherent in the algorithm of life confers organisms with independent goal-directed behaviour that is best described as agency.

The goal-directed behaviour of organisms is an objective fact.[41]  Organisms behave in an integrated, unified, and purposeful way that tends to preserve and further their existence. This unity of purpose is the temporary agential propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom, see below).

It is this agency that distinguishes the matter of living organisms from the matter of the inanimate and dead.

The biological axiom
The biological axiom - that life is predicated on the temporary survival, reproduction, and flourishing of organisms as autonomous agents - is our most economical scientific statement of biological purpose. It provides the universal, objective, and ultimate goal-directed preconditions for life, referred to here as biological agency. These goals are: temporary because death is a precondition for individual lives while their kind has the potential to continue indefinitely; universal because they are expressed by all living organisms; objective because they are a mind-independent empirical fact; and ultimate because they are a summation and unification of all proximate goals, including those of minded organisms.

As a universal and ultimate objective statement of biological agency the biological axiom is a grounding statement for all biological agency, purpose, intention, and normativity, including minded human agency. It is a statement about the way all organisms, including humans, are, and what they do. 

As a universal statement about living organisms, the biological axiom is a declaration of the necessary and sufficient conditions for life - the conditions that are a biological necessity.

Because life is goal-directed it also has a perspective: that is, it is not indifferent to the universe. That is why not just humans, but life as a whole, has purpose.

Biological agency
Mindless living organisms have the autonomous capacity to discriminate between the objects and processes of their inner and outer environments,[50] adapting to these circumstances with a goal-directed unity of purpose. This behavioural flexibility, as constrained by the objectives of the biological axiom, expresses the biological agency that is at the heart of biological science and its explanations of the natural world. And it is out of this mindless behavioural flexibility and agential autonomy that our minded human conscious capacity to discriminate between 'self' and 'other' evolved.

Parts of organisms do not have goals in the same way that autonomous organisms have goals. It is helpful to distinguish between the purposes, interests, and goals of autonomous organisms and the functions of their parts (structures, processes, and behaviours) - as structures, processes and behaviours subordinate to the attainment of the organism's ultimate biological goals.

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) 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 subjected to environmental selection.

The emergent properties of biological agency arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way (inherited variation with feedback) that did not imply either backward causation or the intentions of either humans or gods. These agential, purposive, and normative properties of organisms preceded people in evolutionary time: they existed in nature mindlessly. That is, the notions of 'purpose', 'value', and 'agency' as described here, can refer to both minded and mind-independent conditions.

The reality of biological agency 
Because the purpose, agency, and values 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. From this error of reasoning, it follows that only humans can be agents with goals, purposes, and values: that non-human organisms are, at best, only agent-like. Whereas, in fact, rather than biological goals being an invention of human minds, they are the biological substrate out of which the goals of human agency evolved.

Agency & purpose
Goal-directed behaviour is purposeful behaviour. Goal-directedness in nature is real, and without understanding the reasons for (purpose of) organismal behaviour - including its functions, structures, and processes - biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts.

We ask about purposes and functions in biology precisely because organisms are agents. We do not ask what the moon or rocks are 'for', because they do not behave in a purposeful agential way.

Mindless biological purposes preceded, and gave rise to, the minded purposes we associate with human agency. That is, minded human agency evolved out of mindless biological agency. People did not create purpose and agency, it was the miraculous precision of mindless purpose and agency in nature that gave rise to people - their bodies, brains, and minds.

Biological agency & human agency
Universal biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the same way that we regard organisms with minds as distinct from those without minds. Rather, human agency is just one (human) evolutionary expression (albeit complex and minded) of biological agency. That is, uniquely human agency shares (includes) the general grounding characteristics of biological agency.

For example, we accept that sexuality exists (almost) universally across the community of life, even though it is expressed in a diversity of behaviours and physical forms. Simply 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.

Proximate & ultimate goals
Human agency is a minded evolutionary development of mindless biological agency. Human minded goals are, in this sense, 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 gratification), but also for the mindless ultimate biological end of reproduction. We develop moral and political systems seeking the minded proximate ends of happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure, while serving the ultimate and mindless biological end of flourishing.

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 patterns more complex, beautiful, and ordered than anything created by humans. Mindless nature ‘created’ the miraculous and intricately integrated human body, including the brain that 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 ‘prefer’ or ‘believe’ - words that are used uncomfortably outside the context of the human mind. Thus, the word ‘design’ is only used nervously in relation to organisms because it implies that either they have minds, or they were created by God. So, we overcome the real design with verbal obfuscation. We say that nature is 'design-like' or 'designoid'.

But the implication that without minds design is not possible is simply, and obviously, mistaken. Our anthropocentrism simply refuses to countenance the possibility of mindless design. But, following philosopher Dan Dennett's mode of expression . . .  'purpose’, ‘reason’, 'agency', ‘knowledge’, ‘value’, 'design' (and other concepts attributed to human intention that emerged out of the evolutionary process) 'bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top'.

Biological agency created human agency: human agency did not invent biological agency as cognitive metaphor.

The language of biological agency
If biological agency is real, then how have science and philosophy persisted for so long in its denial?

Biological agency is frequently described using the language of human agency (the minded vocabulary of intentional psychology using words like 'desires', 'knows', 'wants', 'prefers' etc.). This is generally known as anthropomorphism, and it is discussed on this web site as human-talk. Since most organisms do not have minds, this language is diagnosed as being either cognitive metaphor (unreal) or, perhaps, a useful agent-like heuristic device (equally unreal). But a mistake is made when the unreality implied by the notion of a metaphor is presumed to infer the unreality of biological agency.

This presents a serious scientific dilemma. How are we to communicate the reality of biological agency (see 'technical language'  below)?

Biological normativity
The biological axiom is simultaneously a statement of biological agency, biological purpose, and biological normativity.

As a statement of biological normativity it expresses the temporary, objective, universal, and ultimate  behavioural orientation of all living organisms towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing. This behavioural orientation resembles a set of generalized and mindless rules for living, like a human code of conduct, and since these goals were the evolutionary precursors to human behavioural codes they are appropriately referred to as biological normativity. But, as a mindless form of normativity, these biological values are not recommendations for behaviour, or judgements about behaviour, they are objective statements about the way organisms are.

Biological values are manifest differently in each biological agent. The physical structures, processes, and behaviours adopted by a spider to obtain its life energy, produce offspring, and flourish are very different from those of a sea urchin, eucalyptus tree, or the minded and proximate values of humans.

The mindless behaviour of the biological axiom is like (because evolutionarily related to) a human perspective or point of view. But the likeness is not the ‘as if’ similarity of metaphor but the reality of an evolutionary connection that warrants scientific recognition, since it is out of mindless biological values that human minded values evolved. This was the evolutionary precursor to human proximate minded goals that arise as both organismal biological desires and the culturally reasoned beliefs and codes that result from a critical examination of behavioural consequences. It is also why ultimate and objective biological goals can be expressed in human proximate subjective terms as the behavioural flexibility that allows organisms to exercise choices in relation to their interests.

Biological normativity and human normativity are not mutually exclusive. In behavioural terms, biological normativity is the lived expression of both unconscious (mindless) and conscious (minded) goals, where these occur. In humans they have taken on a highly evolved and minded form that includes reason.

Ethics (moral naturalism)
We often assume that judgements about what can 'help' or 'hinder' our lives, what makes a situation 'better' or 'worse', what is 'right' and 'wrong', 'good' and 'bad', are part of a human domain of subjective normative assessment that has little, if anything, to do with nature. How could it be otherwise? After all, nature itself does not think, it just is. Nature does not make moral decisions, or recommend codes of behaviour - that is nonsense. Moralities are obviously creations of human subjective deliberation, the application of what we call 'reason' as found only in human minds.

But . . .

We have inherited from nature a legacy of biological normativity as a behavioural orientation (a mindless 'code of conduct') - the behavioural goals of the biological axiom. When human minds evolved, along with their uniquely conscious and reasoning subjectivity, this universal, objective, and ultimate biological behavioural orientation was manifested in proximate minded form - in part as organismal needs, desires and intuitions, but also in part as cultural moral, and other, codes of behaviour - still grounded in ultimate biological normativity, but fine-tuned by reason. Moralities are human creations, but they are grounded in natural facts.

Aristotle's normative imperative
Biological agency expresses the 'values' (the quotes indicate an objective behavioural orientation) of survival, reproduction, and flourishing as a necessary condition for life. This is what it means to be a living organism - it is a biological necessity.

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. Humans describe such statements as subjective value judgements that have no logical necessity. But as statements expressing the objective nature of all organisms, including humans, (but not in inanimate objects) they do express biological necessity.

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 subjective minded values); it is the way that they are (objective biological 'values'). It is out of these mindless values that evolution forged minded values.

Aristotle's normative imperative - the propensity of life to temporarily resist death - is an objective fact: it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make the 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. But humans, since they express both mindless biological agency (objective behavioural orientation) and minded human agency (subjective value) thus express both fact and value simultaneously (cf. the philosophical distinction between fact and value).

Fact & value
Our anthropocentric emphasis on the uniquely human trait of mindedness has contributed to an artificial intellectual gulf between humans and other organisms that has diminished the significance of our real biological connection. This can be attributed, in part, to the anthropocentric elevation of mindedness into a realm of values as a special mental and linguistic domain that stands in stark contrast to an unconnected realm of discourse that we call facts.

This putative difference between facts and values is widely respected within the scientific and philosophical communities. It not only sets humans apart from nature, it also separates ethics from science, and science from the humanities. But it has always been a topic of philosophical contention.

The distinction between facts and values can be addressed from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

Let us assume, reasonably, that human minded agency and its subjective values evolved out of the objective goals of the biological axiom. One simple answer to a question about the way this occurred is to say that human values arrived with human brains, thus reinforcing the fact-value distinction.

A more thorough answer would point out that both our values and ethical decisions are derived in a complex way that has both minded and mindless ingredients. Both biological and human values are established primarily through behaviour with human mindless (unconscious) behaviour including physiological responses (sweating, digesting) as well as impulses, instincts, intuitions, and other unconscious drivers emanating from the evolutionarily earlier structures of the brain. These sources are, in effect, the objective remnants of our biological agency still exerting an objective (unconscious) influence on our values, including our ethical decisions. However, human conscious values communicated by language include both unconscious and conscious elements that are moderated by our reasoning which occurs in the most recently evolved part of our brain, the frontal cortex.

We respect reason, in part, because it can substantially, but not wholly, override the influences of our mindless and unconscious biological agency.

But when we understand our subjective values from this perspective we see that they are a mixture of our inherited ancient and objective biological values (the mindless and unconscious influences on our behaviour) and the application of reason to our knowledge of these and other factors. What we call our subjective values as established by reason, include an admixture of varying quantities of objective biological value depending on circumstance. Our biology has inseparably entangled both fact and value.

Such a proposal triggers a cognitive dissonance because we both confuse (fail to distinguish between) and conflate (treat as being identical) the universal, objective, and ultimate facts of biological agency, and the uniquely human values of human agency. We fail to realize that it is possible for values to simultaneously express both similarity and difference: the shared features of biological normativity and the unique features of human agency including the use of reason with other advanced cognitive faculties.

We all (but especially intellectuals and ethicists) like to think of morality as demonstrating the supremacy of reason (morality established by pure reason), but our inclination (necessarily locked into our reason) in both politics and ethics, is to fall back on the proximate human values of maximizing happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure as influenced by the ultimate biological value of flourishing.

Biological normativity is not prescriptive in the way that moral language is prescriptive. But the faculty of reason that we proudly and rightly regard as a uniquely distinguishing feature of human agency is still grounded in biological agency and biological normativity. Though reason attempts to transcend, overcome, or be detached from biological normativity, it can only ever be partially successful. Reason itself is, of evolutionary necessity, still ultimately grounded in the biological values that give it purchase. The moral decisions that we think overcome biological normativity simply fall back on second order biological normativity.

We can and do override our biological impulses with our ethical systems (Thou shalt not kill) but the reasons I observe this moral injunction still derived from my biological normativity.  Without its foundation in biological normativity, the use of reason in moral decision-making is an incoherent and empty concept.

Since reason can never fully extricate itself from biological normativity, we must face the fact that moral discourse reduces to biological facts, that human proximate and subjective valuing evolved out of ultimate and objective biological facts. The differentiation of facts and values, the descriptive and prescriptive is, at least, exaggerated. Organisms have biological values in human-like way because that is the way they (objectively) are, and that is what led to our own subjective values.

The acceptance of the reality of biological values provides us with a more compelling scientific account of nature since the assimilation of human values to biological values acknowledges the uniquely mindful properties of human values while at the same time recognizing that they evolved out of, and share major characteristics with, their mindless evolutionary antecedents.

Technical language
We humans describe our own form of agency using the minded vocabulary of intentional psychology (needs, wants, desires, beliefs, preferences etc.) This is, in effect, a set of technical terms for the uniquely minded agency manifested by Homo sapiens.

Since the species Homo sapiens has its own agential vocabulary, a thoroughly objective science would develop parallel vocabularies for the unique modes of agency expressed by every other individual species – an impossible task. This is one major reason why we fall back on the use of human-talk as cognitive metaphor - simply because it is the agential language that is most familiar to us.

It is tempting to create a vocabulary of technical terms expressing, on the one hand, biological agency and, on the other, human agency, but this would be speciesism in the extreme.

But there is a further difficulty because, as already pointed out, biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive concepts. 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.

Mindedness is not a precondition for agency in living organisms: mindedness is simply one expression of biological agency. 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. More simply, the objective behavioural orientation of mindless organisms (mindless purpose) created minds: minds did not create purpose.

There is only one possible scientific solution - an acknowledgement that if current linguistic usage is to reflect nature, then minded concepts like 'agent',  'knowledge', 'reason', 'preference', and 'value', which are currently restricted to discourse about humans, are extended into the realm of mindless agency. This also means that what is currently regarded as metaphor is more aptly treated in literary terms (assuming literary analagies are appropriate here) as simile (see 'metaphor fallacy' below).

Anthropomorphism (human-talk)
We frequently apply to non-human organisms the language that is usually preserved for humans. This is known as anthropomorphism, but referred to here as human-talk.

We use human-talk for many reasons including: brevity, our human cognitive bias, as an educational heuristic, and as literary flourish.

When we apply the language of human intentional psychology to mindless organisms this is not, in most cases, because we think that they experience cognitive states, but because we empathize with their biological values we intuitively acknowledge our (evolutionary) biological connection.

Cognitive metaphor
The use of minded language in relation to mindless organisms is a particular kind of anthropomorphism that is called cognitive metaphor, because it gifts organisms with cognitive faculties that they do not possess.

We humans have emphasized our uniquely human kind of agency by developing a uniquely minded vocabulary (we speak of needs, wants, desires, beliefs, preferences etc.) that expresses conscious intentions, sometimes called the language of intentional psychology. A thoroughly objective science would develop parallel vocabularies to describe the unique agencies of every species – an impossible task.

However, in many cases of so-called cognitive metaphor, the language is clearly intended to convey the biological likeness associated with the grounding characteristics of biological agency, not inferring that the organism has cognitive faculties. In other words, 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. It expresses a meeting of shared biological agency, not a meeting of minds.

We say that a plant needs 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 (the objective behavioural orientation of all organisms) 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).

The denial of biological agency, purpose, and values
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.

This downplaying of biological agency probably dates from a time before evolutionary theory, when each species was considered a unique and special creation with ‘ensouled’ humans biologically distinct from all the other organisms that had been placed on earth for human benefit.

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on several interrelated confusions concerning the distinction between, 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. We assume that since humans are aware of their own agency (their goals, purposes, intentions, values etc.) 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. We currently hold the scientifically unjustified conviction that agency is necessarily mind dependent. We mistakenly believe that undifferentiated and mindless biological goals play no role in their evolved and differentiated minded forms.

We mistakenly assume that because biological goals can only be represented in human minds, they only exist in human minds and are therefore a creation of human minds. But the goals (purposes, values, reasons for the behaviour) of non-human organisms are not spoken or thought; they are demonstrated in their behaviour, and they existed (were real) in nature long before their minded evolutionary human development occurred.

Second, converse reasoning that denies the evolutionary development of minded human agency (purpose, values, etc.) out of real and mindless biological agency while conversely claiming that biological agency is a fictitious creation (cognitive or other metaphor) of human agency.

Biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human minds: human agency is a real evolutionary development of biological agency.

Third, the metaphor fallacy. The treatment of anthropomorphic humanizing language (human-talk) as metaphor, and minded humanizing language as 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 comparison then, in strict literary terms, the likeness is not metaphor but simile.

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. This is the traditional and mistaken assumption that the agency we imply when using anthropomorphic language is the unique agency of humans when, in fact, its intended meaning relates to the universal biological agency that is present in all living organisms.

When we say that a plant ‘wants’ or ‘needs’ water we are not suggesting that plants experience intentional mental states, but that they share with us the universal biological agential disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This is a form of biological empathy - but not a communion of minds, more a recognition of shared biological values.

Fifth, that science is forced to use the language of cognitive metaphor, not so much for literary flourish, our inherent human cognitive bias, or the convenience of brevity, but more because of the empathy we feel in the face of the biological agency and biological values expressed by other species in the community of life.

Sixth, 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, especially because we have inadequate technical language to describe biological agency, meaning we resort to anthropomorphism.

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.

Forms of biological agency
For humans, autonomy entails a conscious distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Our minds provide a sense of self as they segregate the world into objects of experience, focus on a limited range of these, group them according to similarities and differences, and prioritize them according to purpose, interest, or preparation for action. For simplicity we can refer to this complex agential process as mental adaptation, which is a form of human agency.

This minded human agency evolved out of the capacity of mindless organisms (as revealed by their behaviour) to discriminate between objects of their environment and to prioritize these in relation to themselves and their behaviour. That mindless adaptation is a demonstration of both autonomy and agency. And it is clearly out of this mindless process of adaptation that minded adaptation evolved.

Biological agency is manifest through agential behaviour as expressed by each biological body.  This behaviour is relatively uniform within a species due to their similarity of physical form. The agency of a plant is expressed in very different ways from from that of a fish.  However, since all organisms arose from a common ancestor the agential similarities between organisms is always a matter of degree.

When considering agency as it relates to minds, five kinds can be distinguished each building on the former:

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

mindless biological agency - agential (goal-directed) behaviour that is not mind-directed (also found in minded organisms e.g. unconscious sweating)

unconscious minded agency - the unconscious, intuitive or instinctive behaviour of minded creatures e.g. fear of snakes

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

collective or cultural agency - behaviour that is a product of collective learning usually communicated through symbolic language as socio-cultural norms



Adaptation (biological) – the evolution of traits with functions that enhance fitness; the capacity for self-correction - in the short-term through behavioural flexibility, and over the long term by genetic change
Agency - (biological agency) the mostly mindless autonomous capacity to act on, and react to, inner and outer environments with a goal-directed unity of purpose as stated by the biological axiom. (Human agency) biological agency supplemented by the evolved resources of the human mind including: language, self-reflective and conscious reason, hindsight, foresight, abstract thought
Agent - something that acts or brings things about. Mindless inorganic agents include objects like missiles, cities, and computers. In biology - an organism as autonomous matter with the capacity to behave in a unified goal-directed way as stated by the biological axiom (sometimes extended to include genes, groups, or other entities, even natural selection itself) as a (semi)autonomous individual with inputs as flows of energy, materials, and information, internal processing, and outputs as energy, waste, action and reaction in relation to inner and outer environments. An organism motivated by real goals (these may be mindless, that is, without conscious intention)
Agential realism - the claim that non-human organisms exhibit agency in a mindless way, and that humans combine both mindless and minded agency: the grounding of cognitive biological metaphors in non-cognitive biological facts
Algorithm of life - life is autonomous matter that self-replicates incorporating feedback from the environment that facilitates its persistence
Anthropocentric - to view and interpret circumstances in terms of human experience and values
Anthropomorphism - the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities
Apomorphy - a specialized trait or character that is unique to a group or species: a character state (such as the presence of feathers) that is not present in an ancestral form
Autopoiesis - self-replication combined with self-maintenance and modification is sometimes referred to as autopoiesis
Behaviour (biology) - actions performed by a biological agent (or, rarely, its parts)
Behavioural ecology – the study of the evolution of animal behavior in response to environmental pressures
Biological agency - that which motivates biological activity as described by the biological axiom. The principles of biological process that have generated all the species in the community of life, and including the uniquely minded characteristics of human beings
Biological agent - an organism as an autonomous unit of matter with a propensity for (the goal of) survival, reproduction, and flourishing
Biological axiom - survival, reproduction, and flourishing as the universal, objective, and ultimate necessary and sufficient agential characteristics of all organisms. The qualities that give organisms autonomy and unity of purpose. The mindless propensity to maintain a constant internal environment (homeostasis); the ancestral agential characteristics that define all life. Biology only makes sense when explained in agential terms which, in humans, are those of intentional psychology. Sometimes referred to in evolutionary biology as 'fitness maximization'.
Biological simile – a comparison (likeness) of biological phenomena that is based on real evolutionary connection
Bioteleological realism - the claim that purposes exist in nature and that most cognitive metaphors used in science are grounded in non-cognitive biological facts
Cognitive ethology – the study of the influence of conscious awareness and intention on the behaviour of an animal
Cognitive metaphor - a metaphor used in the context of human intentional psychology
Complementary properties – the properties instantiated by the relata of a biological simile
Derived concept – a concept with a narrow semantic range
Emergence - as used here - the origin of novel objects, properties, or relations in the universe that warrant human categorization
Environmental factors - the external factors impacting on the existence of an organism
Evolutionary biology – the study of evolutionary processes (notably natural selection, common descent, speciation) that created the community of life
Fitness - a measure of reproductive success (survival) in relation to both the genotype and phenotype in a given environment
Function - also referred to as adaptive significance or purpose. In agential terms it helps to regard the characters of organisms as having functions while organisms themselves, as independent agents, have purposes and goals
Genotype - the genetic constitution of an individual organism, encoded in the nucleus of every cell
Goal - the object towards which the behaviour of an agent is directed (goals may be mindless, minded but unconscious, or conscious) - behaviour directed towards goals is purposeful
Grounding concept – the general ideas that underpin more specific (derived) concepts
Heuristic – stimulating interest and investigation
Homology – a similarity in the structure, physiology, or development of different species of organisms based upon their descent from a common evolutionary ancestor
Human agency - behaviour motivated by conscious intention; the uniquely human specialized form of biological agency that is described using the human agential language of intentional psychology; the capacity to act on the basis of reasons as cognitive and motivational states (beliefs, desires, attitudes) (philosopher Kim)
Human-talk - the application to non-human organisms of language usually restricted to humans and human intentional (agential) psychology. It is our human way of acknowledging the biological agency that we share with all other organisms
Intention - a minded goal
Intentional idiom - the use of intentional language in a wide range of contexts including those relating to non-human organisms
Metaphor - figurative language as ‘nonliteral comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain of experience is applied to another domain’. An 'as if' direct (not a 'like') comparison that is not grounded in reality e.g. 'You are a rat'.
Natural agency - any agency in the natural world
Normative realism - the view that normativity has its origin in biology through the mindless and mindful ultimate goals of survival and reproduction, and proximate goal of flourishing
Organism - autonomous agential matter with a behavioual orientation towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing
Organismal factors - the internal factors impacting on the existence of an organism
Personification - the representation of something in the form of a person
Phenotype - the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment
Physical reductionism - the view that biological phenomena can be adequately explained in terms of physico-chemical entities
Purpose – Aristotle's final cause or telos; the reason why anything is done, or made, or for which it exists; an end, aim, or intention; what something is 'for'; the goal of a biological agent as ultimately grounded in the biological axiom; the reason for a structure, process, or behaviour when considered in relation to the ultimate goals of the biological axiom (with 'function' as preferred term in this context)
Proximate explanation - an explanation dealing with immediate circumstances
Relata – the objects of a comparison
Semantic range – the degree of generality or abstraction encompassed in the meaning of a word - range of objects and ideas encompassed by its meaning
Synapomorphy - a characteristic present in an ancestral species and shared exclusively (in more or less modified form) by its evolutionary descendants
Trait - a unit of the phenotype (physical or behavioural)
Ultimate explanation - a long-term explanation (e.g. in biology as a measure of the fitness of a particular trait)
Values – (biological agency) that which ultimately motivates the behaviour of biological agents (living organisms), namely the universal and objective goals of the biological axiom. Human agency - the proximate and subjective attitudes, beliefs, and inclinations that guide human behaviour

First published on the internet – 15 June 2019
. . . 5 August 2022 – added Epilogue
. . . 9 August 2022 – editing Epilogue
. . . 14 August 2022 – substantial re-edit
. . . 1 December 2022 – trying to remove repetition from other articles


Venus Bay, Victoria, Australia

Venus Bay, Victoria, Australia
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