Science Progressively Modifies Our Understanding of Agency
Domains in which we find agent explanations compelling have steadily declined.
Posted Oct 09, 2017
Greek and Roman mythology includes stories about numerous gods who control various natural domains, regions, or forces. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the gods personified natural forces and controlled everything about the natural world. So, for example, the fates of all mariners resided with the god of the seas, Poseidon (Neptune), who determined whether they faced calm or turbulent waters. Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, Poseidon repeatedly poses problems for Odysseus in his attempts to return to Ithaca, since Odysseus had blinded Poseidon’ son, the cyclops, Polyphemus.
Apollo was the god of the sun, and his sister Artemis (Diana) was the goddess of the moon. Kronos (Saturn) was the god of time. Hephaestus (Vulcan) ruled over fire and volcanoes, and Uranus (Caelus) was the god of the sky and the heavens. The ancients regarded momentous or extraordinary natural phenomena (storms, earthquakes, comets, etc.) as messages from the gods, and they carried out sacrifices and various other ritual transactions to placate and communicate with the deities in charge of those domains that they thought might touch on their everyday affairs.
Scientific Restrictions on Agency
By contrast, the history of science and, in particular, the history of modern science since the 17th century, reveals the explanatory and predictive successes of the various sciences, in effect, imposing increasing restrictions on the domains in which explanations of events in terms of agents, their mental states, and their actions are regarded as compelling. For example, for more than two centuries now, appeals in the sphere of the physical sciences to causally efficacious (super-)agents to explain geological, atmospheric, or celestial phenomena are no longer viable contenders in a world informed by the achievements of the relevant physical sciences.
The decline of interest in non-mechanical explanations in the biological sciences is a more recent development. Although it need not involve appeals to agent explanations, vitalism—the position which held that it was non-physical substances (vital spirits) that distinguish living from non-living systems—ceased to play any role in the biological sciences after the first decade of the 20th century, more than one hundred years ago.
The question is how far such restrictions on agent-based explanations will extend as science progresses. Over the past few decades, we have frequently found explanations which appeal to agents’ conscious mental operations for the purpose of explaining human behavior, usefully supplemented and sometimes helpfully corrected by alternative explanations from the social, cognitive, and brain sciences. When patients with hemineglect, for example, deny that one of their arms is theirs, we rely on explanations of their brain injuries to explain this peculiar behavior rather than taking them at their word.
Nothing suggests that we have or will dispense with our own agency altogether, either for getting about in the day-to-day world, or for thinking about normative matters, or even as theoretical posits in the psychological and social sciences that theorize the behaviors of rational consumers, for example, in economics. Still, the likely revisions to come in our notion of agency that developments in these sciences provoke are thrilling to consider.