28 December 2011
What Is Life? Part I: The Problem of Agency
Is there a third way between Darwinian normative nihilism and theism? In other words, is there a different way to deal with the fact that purpose, value, and meaning seem to have a very real grip on our hearts and minds, besides dismissing them as an illusion, with the Darwinist, or appealing to God as their guarantor, with the theist?
Most debates over evolution and human nature simply assume that the answer to these questions is “No.” They oscillate between the two poles of scientific reductionism and theism.
In this post, and two follow-ups, I will make the case for answering these questions with a tentative “Yes.” More specifically, I will show (i) why we have good reason to believe that agency in a strong normative sense is an objective feature of reality (Part I), (ii) why the mainstream Darwinian account of life is radically inadequate (Part II), and (iii) which areas of current scientific investigation might conceivably point the way towards a deeper understanding of living things, and thus of ourselves (Part III).
A blog is obviously no place to try to do serious philosophy. Yet, the exploration of any potential middle ground between reductionism and theism may be of considerable interest to the general public. Also, I have been criticizing Darwinian reductionism in this space from a non-theistic perspective, and I owe interested readers a more detailed account of how this amounts to a coherent position. For these reasons, in this series I will treat these rather involved matters as simply and succinctly as I can.(1)
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I will try to keep jargon to a minimum in this column, but there is one philosophers’ term of art that I need to introduce because there is no ordinary English equivalent for it. That word is “norm,” along with its corresponding adjectival form, “normative,” and abstract noun, “normativity,” which refers to the existence of norms as a feature of the world. So, the first thing I must do is explain what I mean by “norms.”
In ordinary speech, a “norm” is a criterion or a standard. The English word derives from the Latin term for a carpenter’s square—something which sets the standard to which an edge on a table, say, is expected to conform. A shopping list is another sort of norm—when I get home, the contents of my shopping bags should match my shopping list.
Thus, the square plays a role in determining the shape of the table by influencing the carpenter’s actions and the list plays a role in determining the contents of my bags by determining my actions at the grocery store. In general, norms are things that direct or govern our actions and the results of our actions on the world around us. They exert influence over us by getting us to act in such a way as to produce results in accordance with them.
A more succinct way of putting all this is to say that norms are requirements upon our action.
However, the sort of influence that normative requirements have over us is very different from the sort of influence that the laws of nature have over us. This might not be immediately obvious, because we sometimes use the same words to describe results required by norms and results required by natural causes or laws.
For example, I might say I was “required” to stop “because” the light was red and I might also say that the apple was “required” to fall “because” of gravity. But clearly the sense of “requirement” and the sense of “because” are entirely different in the two cases.
I had a choice about whether or not to stop the car, whereas the apple had no choice about whether to fall. The red light was acting upon me as a normative requirement, not as a law of nature. No law of nature prevented me from running the red light. So, a normative requirement is a very different sort of thing from a causal requirement.
Another aspect of norms is that they form a basis for evaluation. Both the carpenter and I may be evaluated on the closeness of the match between our respective norms and our respective results. If the first table the carpenter cuts is too far out of square, he may need to cut another piece of wood. Similarly, if the contents of my shopping bags are too far out of agreement with my shopping list, I may have to return to the grocery store. In other words, one may succeed or fail to apply a norm correctly.
So, the concept of value is logically connected to the concept of normative requirement. The logical implication works in the other direction, as well. To say that something is absolutely good or bad is to say that it satisfies or fails to satisfy some requirement. To say that the thing is comparatively better or worse than something else is to say that the first thing satisfies a requirement more or less nearly than the second thing.
Purpose enters this picture when we think about the relation between normative requirements and results. A normative requirement is like a target an agent is trying to hit. We also say that agents try to attain their goals, fulfill their purposes, and reach their ends. I use all these terms more or less interchangeably. Whatever term we use, practically all action—indeed all biological activity whatever—involves aiming at something, where the target aimed at has the character of a normative requirement.
Another way of looking at biological purpose is this. Purposes consist in virtual (not-yet-realized) states that represent future possible states of the world. These virtual states exert a normative requirement on an agent such that the agent strives to bring the world into conformity with them—to realize the virtual states in the actual world, as one might put it. For example, a hungry animal has the purpose of finding and consuming food. Before it does so, its actions are guided by the normative requirement of eating. After it has eaten, the actual state of the world conforms more closely to the earlier virtual state that was exerting the requirement and directing the action, and we say it has achieved its purpose.
Needless to say, these virtual states must be embodied in the agent (organism) in the present, somehow. I am not saying the future as such can influence the past (so-called “backwards causation”). I must set aside this worry for now, but I will return to it in Part III.
So far, I have shown that the ideas of normative requirement, value, and purpose are intimately linked, conceptually. This most likely means that the phenomena in nature to which they refer are aspects of a single, complex phenomenon. That phenomenon is clearly agency—the power that agents (organisms) have of acting on the world. Therefore, normative requirement, value, and purpose are aspects of agency, and agency is the real heart of the problem we are investigating.
The last step is to see that the problem of agency is quite general. In other words, agency is an essential—I would say the essential—feature, not just of human beings, and not just of the higher animals, but of all living things. It is what distinguishes living systems from nonliving things.
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