Saturday, November 7, 2020

A Metaphysics for Freedom #3

Following are quotes and paraphrases from Chapter 4, Animal Agency, of A Metaphysics for Freedom by Helen Steward.

Normal development starting in infancy “results in the eventual emergence of a mature concept of agency that has roughly the following features:

- and agent can move the whole, or at least some parts, of something we are inclined to think of as its body;
- an agent is a centre of some form of subjectivity;
- an agent is something to which at least some rudimentary types of intentional state (e.g. trying, wanting, perceiving) may be properly attributed;
- an agent is a settler of matters concerning certain kinds of the movements of its own body in roughly the sense described in Chapter 2, i.e. the actions by means of which those movements are effected cannot be regarded merely as the inevitable consequence of what has gone before” (p. 71-2).

“The most powerful motivation to compatibilism has always been the reflection that it is no easier to see how indeterministic processes of a psychological sort could possibly sustain agency than it is to see how deterministic ones might allow for it” (p. 74).

If one watches a large farm animal engaged in its normal activities, she suggest it is near impossible to avoid looking upon it as an agent. The animal determines the details of how, when, and where exactly these activities are to be carried out. It looks as though it involves such things as desires and perceptions and decisions on the part of the animal itself, and we have not the faintest idea of explaining these movements without such mentalistic concepts.

Human children acquire and adults use a framework which postulates not independent ment al ‘staes’ causally interacting, but rather a minded entity that possesses those states, and that acts in light of them. The agent, not her desires and beliefs, retain the power to produce, or not produce, bodily motions (p.77).

Watching a bird pecking for food or a cat stalking a mouse is utterly unlike, say, a tree blowing in the wind. Such animal is a moment-to-moment controller of its own body and its motivational states. It is a way of mental states and at the same time a way of seeing.

Daniel Dennett’s “intentional stance” including concepts like ’desire’, ‘intention’, and ‘belief’ goes hand in hand with agency, although Dennett rarely uses ‘agency.’ However, one aspect of Dennett’s view with which Steward doesn’t agree is his willingness to attribute consciousness to computers (p.103).

In the final section of Chapter 4, Steward tries answering which animals pass the test of being an agent. Where does agency end and mechanism begin? She considers the jumping spider, Portia. Observing the Portia’s apparent plans and strategies of catching prey, she finds it hard to conceive of the spider as not an agent. She doesn’t doubt that much of Portia’s behavior is instinct, but she also posits judgment and some form of thinking based on its variability and flexibility (p. 108).

She also considers earthworms, which Charles Darwin intensely studied and made the subject of his last work. “Darwin’s own conclusion appears to be that though the general types of purposive behavior he examined were undoubtedly instinctive in the earthworms, the precise manner of execution of the various tasks they undertook were too variable to be strictly instinctive” (p. 111).

An algorithmic or functionalist view of the earthworm’s behavior can only go so far. At that point she suggest “it is natural to have recourse to the idea that instead of a simple program-instantiating machine we had a different kind of system in our sights: an agent with a [ ] lowly form of consciousness making moment-to-moment decisions about what to do, guided no doubt by instinct, sometimes pre-empted in its operation by mere reflexes, tropisms, and other involuntary responses, but nevertheless deserving to be thought of as a low-level conscious controller of a body, responding to environmental factors in ways [ ] not open to exact prediction” (p. 112).

Earlier in the book Steward eliminated sponges and paramecia as animals no meeting the criteria of agency (p. 14). 

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