Consider the sentence ‘Biological agents pursue their goals using diverse strategies‘.
All the italicized words here may be considered human-talk.
Animals and plants are not ‘agents’ in the same way that humans are agents; and they ‘pursue’ things in an altogether different way from humans. Human conscious goals are very different from the unconscious and mindless ‘goals’ of plants and most animals. Likewise, if ‘strategies’ are creations of human conscious deliberation then such words are best avoided altogether. Such language, we might assume, is scientifically imprecise, if not totally confusing, and therefore to be used with extreme caution or, preferably, avoided altogether.
We think of agents as having interests, goals, and strategies. this being factually, not figuratively, founded. This idea can be translated into the non-human world of biology by regarding organisms as having the goal of survival and reproduction and evolved traits as strategies for achieving this goal.
Similar rules apply to major bodily activities like ‘eating’, ‘sitting’, ‘running’, and ‘breathing’, although more derived activities are less acceptable, like ‘talking’ and ‘thinking’, which are covered by more generalized concepts like ‘communicating’.
First, a realization that anthropomorphism is rife in biological science. Some biologists might take exception to this sentence but, I contend, most would let it pass. We might draw attention to glaring examples of anthropomorphism but we allow the vast majority to pass by.
3. For semantic breadth
e.g. using the word ‘leg’ to indicate all organs of locomotion in the animal world
4. As an intuitive acknowledgement of real connection
e.g. ‘the dog was devoted to its master’
This kind of language has been called agential thinking where organisms are treated as agents pursuing the goals of survival and reproduction (biological axiom) using strategies that are, in effect, their evolved traits.
But in all the cases listed above it is possible to discern simple antecedent or ‘ancestral’ conceptual conditions that prompt an intuitive response of recognition.
This unlikely situation flows from our acknowledgement of mindless agency as expressed primarily through the biological axiom. We humans are aware of the goals inherent in non-human organisms even though the organisms themselves are not. These goals are not confined to human minds – they are present in nature.
We can now see how this might relate to the concepts listed above.
First comes the recognition that the differentiated concepts of reason, value, knowledge, purpose, memory, learning, and sensation have emerged from a simpler foundation.
What do you think about calling an organism an ‘agent’? Is this just more of the same misrepresentation, or perhaps some kind of semantic leger de main? What do you think? Here it seems that in everyday usage we accept physical comparisons or analogies, but not mental ones. If you disagree then you might be thinking more closely about these examples than you do in everyday life. Are you suggesting, for example, that we do not both accept, and speak, of fish ‘swimming’?
Are such examples cherry-picking, arbitrary. or meaningful and informative?
Using human-talk, the critical ingredients of agency are the agent, the mission, and the means. Missions (goals or interests) are attempted or accomplished using means (strategies) that have mental and physical aspects.
It has already been claimed that the biological axiom expresses, as succinctly as possible, the agential goal that grounds all living organisms, because it applies to both the simplest organism at the dawn of life, and the complexity of the modern human. The biological axiom therefore becomes a statement of foundational ancestral attributes. Of course, the word ‘agency’ will gather additional emergent meanings according to the biological agent that is implied, along with the corresponding implied means. Human agency brings with it (among other things) the advanced agential characteristics of conscious deliberation.
Some concepts can have biological referents of graded physical complexity. So, for example, the meaning of the word ‘consciousness’ can vary depending on whether we are implying the consciousness of a fish or a human. Similarly, although some people might think that only humans can be agents, others will accept that an ‘agent’ can be as simple as a virus.
Human-talk often uses one word to imply organisms of varying biological complexity. That is, the meaning is ambiguous and, in such instances, must vary according to the complexity of the organism under consideration.
Recognizing that it is not possible to use a technical word for every organism, the reader is asked to consider the application of human-talk words to organisms of differing complexity.
The human-talk words are: consciousness, purpose, reason, choose, want, and know. The organisms are: plant, virus, amoeba, worm, fish, dog, human.
Remember, the point here is that it is more useful and scientifically accurate to think of consciousness as ‘real’ and present by degree in all life, rather than present in humans and absent in other species.
In human-talk, the behaviour of non-conscious organisms favours their own existence and perpetuation by mindlessly increasing the probabilities of some outcomes over others; essentially those outcomes that are ‘beneficial’ to the organism, that is, promoting the conditions of the biological axiom.
This filtration, selection, or ‘favouring’ of some outcomes rather than others, and the way organisms in their activity display ‘choices’ or ‘preferences’ for one situation over another are what give life its ‘agency’, ‘direction’ and ‘normativity’ – it is a characteristic that distinguishes the animate from the inanimate.
In the continuum of organic life, the emergence of complexity is one outcome on the evolutionary path from a common ancestor, and agency seems to gather with the emergence and elaboration of the nervous system.
There is ample opportunity within this schema for intentional and agential language, especially when the words have generally acceptable abstraction and generality – such as interests goals, and strategies.
Organisms absorb information about their environments via the ‘sensations’ received by their particular sensory system. This is then incorporated in the inner processing that precedes outward action and reaction as ‘behaviour’ or ‘response’. The physical structures associated with each phase (input, process, output) are more or less complex, depending on the organism, and more or less similar to human systems.
Human agents receive food energy and the sensory information associated with (mostly) sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste which is then processed metabolically and both unconsciously and consciously in the brain by conscious deliberation, with action and reaction output as behaviour including exhalation and excretion.
The ‘human’ words we use for human-talk vary in the strength of human association. For example, the words ‘self’ and ‘behaviour’ are uncontroversial while consciousness words like ‘want’ and ‘know’ are unacceptable applied to non-humans. ‘Preference’ seems slightly less ‘human’ than ‘choice’, ‘need’ or ‘want’, and so on.
Organisms approximate the human condition to a greater or lesser degree. Though much of human activity is based on unconscious biological activity, it is the conscious decision-making that provides the philosophical challenge.
Minimally, agency is the demonstration of some independence of action. However, we tend to associate agency with the human paradigm of the individual (or social) power to act and make intentional choices that can influence our own and other peoples’ lives and circumstances. Put simply, we like to think of ourselves as rational agents whose choices conform to our beliefs and desires. Most obvious here are conscious human mental faculties like foresight (anticipation) and hindsight (memory); the accumulation of knowledge; the ability to reason and make choices; the expression of value (individual and collective preferences); and of intention.
This mix of motives behind human-talk has generated long-standing semantic and conceptual confusion, scientific imprecision, and a 2000-year-old metaphysical debate about teleology.
Human-talk will not go away, even in science, because (much of the time) it attempts to represent similarities that exist (are real) in nature; they are not just in human minds.
In science we (mostly) use the language of intentional psychology not as metaphor, or because of our anthropomorphic bias, but because of similarities in nature that have real, if distant, evolutionary connection. Human-talk in relation to organisms is, in most cases, very different from a sentence like ‘the river ‘wants’ to reach the sea’ and for reasons that should now be clear.
In the absence of adequate vocabulary to distinguish between the many gradations of biological agency I will, from now on, like all biologists, resort to human-talk while recognizing that this vocabulary has been extended beyond its usual semantic range.
Source of agency
Consider the difference between a living and a dead body. We might regard ‘agency’ as an appropriate term expressing this difference since it is agency is what animates, motivates, drives, or directs organisms.
Agency, as studied by physicists, could well be regarded as a force. In physics a force is the push or pull of an object: something capable of changing the state of rest or motion of a particular body. Agency, then, is a non-mysterious life-force. But where does the agency or life-force of organisms spring from?
What we have found is that organisms are matter that
How do organisms ‘reason’ – that is, how do they use ‘knowledge’ to ‘pursue’ their ‘goals’? Their ‘motivation’ emerges from the biological axiom while their ‘strategies’ are their evolved traits which include both adaptations and fitness maximization.