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Being like-minded


‘We frequently fail to distinguish between the universal, objective, and ultimate goals of biological agency, and the uniquely minded and subjective goals of human agency’

In this article I examine one of the major reasons why it is still believed, by both philosophers and scientists, that only humans can act as agents, express purposes, use reason, and have values . . . that all these characteristics are strictly products of conscious and deliberating human minds.

It seems obvious that when we attribute any of the above characteristics to other organisms – when we say a spider weaves its web in order to catch flies, or that a plant wants water – we are simply reading our own mental qualities into organisms that do not, and cannot, possess such qualities, because they do not have minds or cognitive faculties like our own. When we describe organisms this way we are being anthropomorphic and resorting to some form of cognitive metaphor. A cognitive metaphor may have an educational or literary attraction and utility, but it gifts organisms with qualities that, in reality, they do not possess. Agency, purpose, values, and reason are properties of (creations of) human minds. How could it possibly be otherwise?

The most striking flaw in the account above is that it denies organisms any form of agency. But there are various other reasons why this stance in relation to the natural world can be regarded as anthropocentric and scientifically unsatisfactory. By treating the agency, purpose, value-orientation, and reason as functional design that we see in nature as cognitive metaphor or heuristic we deny the real agential and evolutionarily graded reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life. When organisms are denied agency, they assume a lifeless equivalence with the inanimate world.

This article explains how much of the Western intellectual tradition of removing agency from nature arises from a failure to distinguish clearly between the universal, objective, ultimate goals of biological agency and the uniquely minded goals of human agency.

Being mind-like

There are in this world, on the one hand, organisms with conscious deliberating minds (us – Aristotle’s rational animal) and then there are organisms without such minds (the rest) . . . No?

When, in a biological context, we distinguish minded organisms (humans) from mindless (non-human) organisms, the mindlessness of non-human organisms is not the same kind of mindlessness as the mindlessness of, say, a rock.  This is because we are keenly aware, if only intuitively, of the agency in nature.

We recognize in nature a transition in the agential behaviour of matter that proceeds from inert mindlessness, to living and mind-like, passing to minded. It is hardly contentious to claim that even a plant is ‘animated’ in a way that a rock is not: it is living.

‘Mind-like’ here refers to the way that non-human organisms (unlike rocks) share with humans the characteristic of being autonomous units of matter that pass through a cycle of fertilization, growth, reproductive maturation, senescence, and death while expressing the agential characteristic of goal-directedness. More specifically, they are autonomous organisms passing through a lifecycle while expressing the mind-like goals of biological agency. This goal-directed behaviour resembles the mindedness of human intention (human agency). Indeed, the likeness is so close that it extends to the sharing of the same ultimate biological goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom).

Goal-directed (agential) behaviour is an excellent way of distinguishing life from non-life. But a difficulty arises when we try to distinguish between the mind-like and minded based on their agential behaviour. There are organisms with minds, and those without – two mutually exclusive groups. However, biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive: human agency is just one kind of biological agency.

This is confusing. In nature there are organisms with minds and organisms without minds. Organisms with minds display human agency; so, what kind of agency do organisms without minds display? We cannot answer ‘biological agency’ because we know that biological agency includes human agency, which is minded.

This agential merging (conflation) of unique human mental agency with universal biological agency accounts for much of the misinterpretation of anthropomorphic language and its treatment as cognitive metaphor.

Put simply, we frequently, and for good reason, fail to distinguish clearly between biological agency and human agency. This has resulted in millennia of philosophical and linguistic confusion. Science now needs to make this distinction clear.

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

Unique & shared characters

This situation becomes easier to understand when viewed from an evolutionary perspective.

Establishing the evolutionary context of any organism, structure, process, behaviour, or concept, requires two sets of characters: those that are shared with its evolutionary relatives (grounding characteristics), and those that are unique (and therefore defining) for the item under investigation (emergent characteristics).

Since Darwin, it has been clear that the mind-like goals of biological agency are mind-like for good scientific reason. Just as, superficially, different evolved physical structures (e.g. the fins of whales and wings of bats) share physical features that demonstrate their shared evolutionary history (they both have the same ground-plan of a pentadactyl limb), so unique mental concepts (minded intentions) share mind-like features with their evolutionary mental antecedents (the mind-like goals (‘intentions’) of biological agency).

The crucial point is that there is an evolutionary physical continuity and connection between the mind-like and the minded. That is, minded concepts are best understood, not in terms of an either/or mutually exclusive relationship A (mindless) vs B (minded) – but, rather, as an A (mind-like) and A + B (both mind-like and minded) which is a relationship of partial likeness where concepts that are uniquely minded are, as it were, a subset of the broader and all-embracing agential characteristics of biological agency – that the minded has a mindless mind-like component. Recall that humans express many mindless agential characteristics.

A scientific conceptual analysis of the biology of this distinction can provide some relief from logical and metaphysical diversions. This point is laboured here because the logical difference between ‘minded’ and ‘mindless’ (together with the notions of ‘minded’ and ‘mindless’ concepts) seems so logically transparent and impregnable that, over the years, it has swept aside all complications that might exist in biology itself – in the world.

Starting with a scientific definition of biological agency as behaviour motivated by the goals of the biological axiom, and human agency as behaviour motivated by the goals of conscious intention, clarification begins by recognizing that the minded goals of human agency are not separate from, but particular instances of, the more general and mostly mindless goals of biological agency: that the goals of minded conscious intention, though uniquely minded are, as it were, contained within the broader embracing goals of biological agency.

We like our ideas to be clear and distinct because this simplifies understanding, explanation, and communication. Sometimes, however, physical features in nature are not just present or absent (and statements about them true or false). Rather, they are best represented scientifically as present by degree. We see a rainbow and find it convenient to speak of its discrete colours when, in nature, colour is a continuum of wavelength. The practicality of colour distinction makes it tedious to point out that, scientifically speaking, discrete colours are an illusion. But convenience and human perceptions do not negate the scientific findings. A similar situation pertains in the relationship between minded and mindless, biological agency and human agency.

Because we intuitively recognize the similarity between the goals of non-human organisms (biological agency) and the goals that are a consequence of conscious human intentions (human agency), our language often fails to distinguish between the two. That is, sometimes, even in biological science it is difficult to determine whether the language describing biological goals is referring broadly to biological agency, or narrowly to human agency. That is, we conflate biological and human agency. Put in simpler terms, we recognize, for example, that even mindless plants share with us (as a matter of biological necessity) the agential propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish – that, even here, there is a strong likeness between biological goals and human intentions.

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

Once we accept that, scientifically, it is more ‘realistic’ to think of non-human life as expressing transitional mind-like properties (rather than being mindless like a rock) then we also move towards a more scientifically realistic understanding of how the language of human intentional psychology connects with and shares many mind-like properties with the non-human community of life.

How does all this cash out?

This has profound consequences. It clarifies not only philosophically controversial words like ‘reason’, ‘interest’, ‘knowledge’, ‘purpose’, and ‘agency’ but, indeed, the entire vocabulary of human intentional psychology. Now, the scientific question to be addressed is no longer one of mutual exclusivity ‘Is this, or is this not, a ‘mind’ word?‘ since we know that what we refer to as ‘minded’ includes ‘mind-like’ properties.  Important questions now take the form, say ‘In what ways does conscious deliberation compare with mindless reason?’ or ‘How do we compare the knowledge contained within non-human organisms with the specific kind of knowledge that is expressed by conscious minds?

All organisms (including humans) demonstrate biological agency through their behavioural adherence to the ultimate biological goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing, while only humans demonstrate this agency using minds that employ the language of intentional psychology. Just as, in an evolutionary context, uniquely human agency is grounded in (shares characteristics with) biological agency so, too, do uniquely human mental concepts.

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.

What can be confusing, ambiguous, or mistaken about the agential paradigm?

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 argument 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.

An inversion of reasoning

If goal-directedness (agency) depends solely on the capacity for mental representation, then we humans are, indeed, very different from most of nature.

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

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

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

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

Converse reasoning

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

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

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

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

The metaphor fallacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

This idea needs unpacking.

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 or conflate (fail to distinguish between) the universal ultimate goals of biological agency, and the uniquely minded goals of human agency.

First published on the internet – 15 June 2019

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Being mind-like

Agency, teleology, normativity

... inverse reasoning

... converse reasoning

... the metaphor fallacy

.... the agency error

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