The Biological Origin of Agency

The scientist, Stuart Kauffman, has an interesting perspective on the topic of agency. In Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Perseus Books 2008) he argues that the centuries old schism between science and religion is due to the reductionist worldview of modern science which sees all of nature as ultimately reducible to sub-atomic particles and energy, mere happenings, lacking meaning and purpose. But, "where all that exist(s) are the fundamental entitites and their interactions, and there are only happenings, only facts, [there is] no place for values" (11).

Hume recognized this gap by claiming that values cannot be derived from facts. The existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century tried to bridge this gap by insisting that agents themselves create values. But if scientific reductionism is correct, and human moral agents are no more than particles colliding in space, then "how can values and doings arise from particle interactions....?" The derivation of value from human agency does not resolve the problem; it only postpones it so long as agency itself is reducible to mere facts and happenings.

According to Kaufmann, the way to overome the schism, and to provide a satisfactory answer to Hume, is to deny reductionism and to understand that "agency is both real and emergent and cannot be reduced to the mere happenings of physics." This is so, he argues, "because biology is not reducible to physics. The biosphere," he writes, "is laden with agency, value, and meaning. Human life, which is certainly laden with agency, value, and meaning, inherits these qualities from the biosphere of which it is a part" (12).

Intrinsic moral value along with agency emerges in the course of cosmic evolution as an attribute of living forms. As lifeforms we humans do indeed have a kind of intrinsic value. But we are not the only living things have agency or should be regarded as having intrinsic value. Human beings have intrinsic value because we occupy a high plateau on the great pyramid of life.

Earlier in discussing moral agency I suggested that nonhuman animals exhibit agency, though perhaps not moral agency as is found in humans. We easily acknowledge agency in other mammals, for instance, our dogs and cats and most other domestic species, as well as in primates, cetaceans, felines, canines, bovines, etc. Probably most people are comfortable thinking of birds and reptiles as manifesting some kind of agency, and perhaps even insects, like the locusts I discussed earlier. But what about plants? Can we extend the concept of agency down towards the base of the tree of life that far? Can we perhaps extend it even further towards simple multicellular organisms, bacteria, viruses?

Kauffman argues that in the phenomenon of agency "we can find the origin of action, meaning, doing, and value as emergent realities in the universe" (72). The full-fledged, complex kind of conscious agency we find in ourselves is derived by evolution from more basic agentive characteristics found in all living things. Agency, then is a natural phenomenon, for Kauffman (and for me), and is the basis of meaning and value. It is the link that connects the physical world of happenings with the moral world of doings and action, the world in which we employ the teleological concepts of meaning, purpose, and value.

Kauffman asks, "What is the simplest system to which we might be willing to apply teleological language?" (78). He proposes that we can use it meaningfully and literally in describing the behavior "of a bacterium swimming up a glucose stream 'to get' sugar." The bacterium is acting autonomously, that is, it is acting on its own behalf and according to its own internal telos which directs it towards the goal of getting sugar. Kauffman proposes that a bacterium can be considered "a minimal molecular autonomous agent": which he defines as a system that (a) self-reproducing, (b) can carry out at least one thermodynamic work cycle, (c) is enclosed in a bounding membrane, and (d) has at least one receptor that enables it to detect properties of things in its environment (78-9).

I leave the technical details of his theory aside here. Interested readers should consult his book, which despite its being "high science" is quite readable. The important point for my purposes here is that if Kauffman's theory of agency is close to correct, then it also provides "a minimal definition of life," and a naturalized account of how "meaning, values, doing, and purposes emerge in the universe" (85), an account which does not require the postulation of a divine creator and is fully consistent with a scientific worldview. This is a very big deal. It is worth quoting his account at length so you can get a sense of what he is talking about.

Consider then a bacterium swimming up the glucose gradient. The biological function that is being fulfilled is obtaining food. The capacity to do so by detecting the local glucose gradient and swimming up it was assembled into a working organization of structures and processes by natural selection. This requires at least one receptor for glucose to discriminate between the presence and and absence of glucose, or better, two receptors spaced some distance apart to detect the presence of absence of a steep enough local glucose gradient. Without attributing consciousness to the bacterium, we can see in this capacity the evolutionary onset of choice and thus of meaning, value, doing and purpose. The technical word for meaning is semiosis, where a sign means something. Here, the bacterium detects a local glucose gradient, which is a sign of more glucose in some direction. By altering its behavior and swimming up the gradient, the bacterium is interpreting the sign. The bacterium may, of course, be mistaken. Perhaps there is not much glucose to be found in that direction. Neither "signs," "interpretation," nor "mistakes" are logically possible in physics, where only happenings occur. Thus, meaning has entered the universe: the local glucose gradient is a sign that means glucose is -- probably -- nearby. Because natural selection has assembled the propagating organization of structures and processes that lead to swimming up the glucose gradient for good selective reasons, glucose has value to the bacterium. And because getting food is the function of this organized behavior, as assembled by natural selection acting on fitter variants, getting food is the purpose of the activity, and is the doing or action of the bacterium. (86-7)
Agency, for Kauffman, is not reducible to the law of chemistry and physics, it is an emergent natural phenomenon that arises at a certain level of organizational complexity. Perhaps his theory of where to draw the boundary between agency (or life) and non-agentive causality will need to be modified by future research: his way of drawing the boundary leaves viruses and our current kinds of robots on the 'non-living' non-agentive side of the line. What is important is that if he is close to being right, then "values, meanings, doing, action, and 'ought' are real parts of the furniture of the universe" and this includes human values, meanings, doings, actions, and oughts. The moral realm is thus seen as natural and real, but not reducible to physics, and value, meaning, and purpose are seen as inherent in living forms as simple as bacteria.

Kauffman thinks that this insight is one of the keys to what he calls "reinventing the sacred." I agree, but prefer to talk about the less controversial notion of intrinsic value. In Kauffman's example, glucose has a value to the bacterium. This is a relational value, not an intrinsic one. But what about the bacterium itself? My view is that the bacterium, because it exhibits agency, and meaning, purpose, and action, should be considered as possessing an intrinsic value in its own being, that is, it exists autonomously as an"end in itself" and so can be regarded as having a basic kind of moral status.

On my bio-centric axiology all living beings have intrinsic value and hence basic moral status, which means that their survival and well-being can be the objects of the responsibilities of moral agents like us. Saying that bacteria can be the objects of our responsibilities, is not yet the same thing as saying that we have any serious moral responsibilities towards bacteria, only that they are the kinds of things toward which we could have them.

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