Agency in the natural world

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Action Theory
Primitive Agency
Detection System

Human agency, like our other traits, is likely continuous with that of other organisms that have evolved on this planet. However, Modern Action Theory has focused almost exclusively on the agency of human beings, so it is not obvious how agency should be understood as a more deeply and broadly distributed, or more basic, biological type. The central aim of this thesis is to fill this gap by developing and defending an account of what I’ll call “Biologically Basic Agency.” In this work’s first chapter, I establish a preliminary set of adequacy conditions drawn from broad consensus in Modern Action Theory and the needs of biological categorization. These adequacy conditions are then amended and supplemented over the course of the subsequent three chapters via critical discussion of two accounts of Biologically Basic Agency attempting to meet the adequacy conditions developed in Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, I show that Tyler Burge’s (2010) account of Primitive Agency cannot be empirically refuted and therefore is trivial. In the third chapter, I argue that Kim Sterelny’s (2003) account of the Detection System cannot serve as the evolutionary precursor to agency, because the kind of general evolutionary story Sterelny desires is empirically implausible. In the fourth Chapter, I continue my discussion of Sterelny’s Detection System, because his basic idea that the simplest adaptive behavioral systems are ‘”feature (or signal) specific” is deeply intuitive and popular amongst Philosophers and Cognitive Scientists. Focusing on the behavior of simple model organisms, I argue that, contra Sterelny and this intuition, these organisms move themselves through their environments toward a best overall place to be within one’s environment relative to a number of (often competing) environmental features relevant to the biological needs of these organisms (typically utilizing sensory inputs corresponding with these various features of the environment). I call such behavior ‘Utopic Behavior.’ Finally, in Chapter 5, I defend Utopic Behavior as an account of Biologically Basic Agency, as it both meets the various adequacy conditions I have established and demonstrates a clear continuity between human agency and that of other organisms that have also evolved on this planet.

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Evan Tiffany
: Department of Philosophy
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.