Natural Agency

We naturally conceive agency in human terms. Even our modern ideas of causality stem ultimately from (early childhood) experiences of causing our own bodies or other material things to move. We see that other objects can affect each other in “mechanical” ways—but this leaves open the question of what initiates the causal chain. There is a built-in dualism in this (mechanistic) way of seeing things, since a non-material first cause is required to set in motion a material system. A soul or mind or “will” is required outside the physical system, if only to observe it. This is the background of what we mean by “agent”—someone who intentionally acts toward an end. But concepts of agency and intentionality could reasonably be broadened to include any convergence of means toward end. Excluding “final” cause (so dear to Aristotle) in the explanation of behavior is merely a prejudice of the modern era. An extended meaning of agency could include, for example, the adaptations of organisms to their environments. Thus the brain is plausibly an agent, even when it is viewed as a physical system. While causal, the internal connections within it can also be described as intentional. They converge toward ends and often involve the sort of “directedness” usually associated with intentionality. If the brain can be viewed in both causal and intentional terms, why not other complex physical systems? The concept of agency in nature has been sadly neglected simply through a bias originating in the physical sciences. Natural agency does not have to mean human agency. Nor, perhaps, should it be restricted to living matter. The concept of self-organization involves the convergence of means toward ends, and applies to the non-living world as well. A corollary is that the natural world could be entitled to legal rights in the human world without being defined as a human player.


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