Free Will, Agency, And Evolution

Most of us think we have free will, and we certainly act as if we do. We expect ourselves to do certain things and not do other things, and we feel responsible for those choices. We have the feeling, the sense, that we control those behaviors, or at least that we have the ability to control decisions about which things we do and which we don’t. We attribute to other people their own agency, which we take to be just like ours, even if they may have different ideas about proper behavior.

There’s a school of thought that says we don’t control those things. Here’s a recent article about Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neurobiologist, who doesn’t agree. He’s not the only one. Perhaps recognizing that this is an intractable problem, many scientists use the term agency instead of free will.

One is Michael Tomasello, whose book, The Evolution of Agency, I’ll be examining in the next few posts. Agency carries less moral baggage, and it’s something that can be described and studied neutrally; at least more neutrally. Tomasello doesn’t give a precise definition of agency. This is from the introduction:

…[I]n the current case, we may say that agentive beings are distinguished from non-agentive beings … by a special type of behavioral organization. That behavioral organization is feedback control organization in which the individual directs its behavior toward goals—many or most of which are biologically evolved—controlling or even self-regulating the process through informed decision-making and behavioral self-monitoring. Species biology is supplemented by individual psychology. P. 2.

The book rests on two assumptions. The first is that the basis of agency is a feedback control activity, a psychological mechanism, seated in the brain. The second is that agency is an outcome of evolution.

Feedback control organization

Tomasello’s feedback control organization works like a thermostat. The idea is that a goal is set for the thermostat: keeping the temperature at a certain level. It has a sensor that measures the ambient temperature and compares it to the goal. It then turns on another device that brings the temperature closer to the goal. It continues to test the ambient temperature and when it reaches the goal, it turns off the device.

Tomasello claims that this is the only model that can work to enable things to control themselves. He points out that all efforts to get machines to operate autonomously work in accordance with this model.

Evolution and agency

Tomasello doesn’t think there’s a goal for evolution. He thinks that as brains become more complex, the feedback control activity takes on a different shape, a shape that takes advantage of the bigger brain. I’ll just toss in the observation that mutations happen all the time, and some become established in subpopulations whether or not they have any survival value. That might include hair color or a larger brain. If circumstances change, the mutation may suddenly have survival value, and the subpopulation thrives while the rest of the population suffers.

Studying psychological processes

Tomasello says agency is a psychological process, one that occurs in the brain of an individual creature. It cannot be studied directly. Instead scientists infer the existence of psychological processes from the overt behavior of subjects.

Scientists infer psychological agency when the organism acts flexibly toward its goal even in novel contexts. To behave in this flexible manner, the individual must go beyond a stimulus-driven, one-to-one mapping between perception and action. The individual must be capable of choosing to act or not to act, or among multiple possible actions, according to its continuous perceptual assessment of the situation as it unfolds over time (sometimes employing executive processes such as inhibition, as a further control process, during action execution). P. 27.

The layout of the book

Evolution has been at work on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. We say that different species split off from lines of evolution, as humans split off from the great apes; and as homo sapiens eventually split off from the first hominids, and then evolved into modern humans. The lines go back to the beginnings of life on the planet, to the earliest living creatures.

Tomasello thinks certain existing species have no agency, and the rest fall into four categories. He selects five of them to represent his five categories of agency.

1. No agency: C. elegans, a tiny worm-like creature (the image on the home page is a bunch of these creatures)
2. Goal-directed agency: lizards as representative of reptiles
3. Intentional agency: squirrels as representative of small mammals
4. Rational agency: great apes as representative of great apes
5. Socially normative agency, which has two subcategories
a) young human children as representative of hominids with a simple form of socially normative agency
B) adults humans who exhibit a more comprehensive socially normative agency

Tomasello treats each category of agency in its own chapter. The last chapter is mostly for his fellow scientists, discussing gaps in the research and proposals for future work on this model. In each chapter Tomasello explains how the agency works, the evolutionary pressures that might have led to it, and the nature of the world as perceived by the example creatures. These issues are supported by a empirical evidence from academic and field studies.

I’ll take a quick look at the first three levels of agency, and discuss socially normative agency in more detail.

Creatures without agency

Let’s start with C. elegans. This is a worm-like creature about 1 mm in length. We know a great deal about it: we have sequenced its genome; and identified its 302 neurons, their connections, and the role each plays. It has no sensory apparatus beyond the ability to sense nutritious and certain noxious substances. It lives in organic material, where it eats bacteria. It has rudimentary powers of movement. They are mostly hermaphrodites. For more, see this dense Wikipedia entry.

Basically it moves around in organic muck eating bacteria. If it isn’t finding any, it moves. If it detects a noxious substance it moves. That’s about it. Tomasello says that with the tiny number of neurons, it’s hard to imagine the creature could have a goal, let alone behave flexibly to achieve it. It is purely stimulus driven. It’s sensory apparatus is very simple, so it only recognizes a few stimuli, and it responds to them mechanically.

In Tomasello’s terms, this creature is non-agentive. He calls it an animate actor. There’s not much else to say about it.


I’m not fond of the word “agentive”, which strikes me as an ugly neologism, but it points to somehting about human behavior. Not all of our behavior is agentive. Take breathing. We can control it, but mostly we don’t. It’s an interesting exercise to think about what parts of our actions are agentive.

Another way to put that is to ask how much we resemble C. elegans.

79 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I agree with your observations about evolution and agency, especially as they relate to random evolutionary change, limited by the material available at the start of each step, and the difference between immediate utility, persistence, and later utility. A beetle’s carapace might have originally developed to regulate body temperature, for example, and only later became useful for flight.

    I would suggest that, rather than being around for hundreds of millions of years, evolution is a fundamental part of life on earth, and that it’s been around since organic life first formed.

  2. RipNoLonger says:

    Ed – thanks for introducing this fascinating topic into this blog. There has been so many discussions, speculations, hypotheses, (a few) experiments on this subject that having this place to bring them together will be great. I think the gamut ranges from purely metaphysical (religious/cosmic consciousness) to quantum uncertainties (Penrose, to neural functional analyses to some of the current emphases on the predictive/anticipatory nature of consciousness. (Sorry for the dense text!)

  3. ExRacerX says:

    Thanks, Ed—excellent topic. My wife & I subscribe to Sam Harris’ podcast and blog, and Harris makes a good case against free will. His viewpoint is that a person’s DNA, experiences, physical/mental health, and other factors inevitably determine the choices that individual will make. I don’t want to link another blog here, but for anyone interested, a web search should provide plenty of hits.

      • ExRacerX says:

        Thanks, Ed. The reductionism is probably more the result of my one-sentence summary than on Sam Harris’ part. For example, his view acknowledges that learning can be an agent of change. For anyone interested, I highly recommend his 2012 book “Free Will.”

      • timbozone says:

        When listening to those who do not espouse free-will, always look to what conclusions they wish to draw from a lack of free-will…which can be difficult if they won’t tell you what those conclusions are at the beginning. Epistemology 101.

    • jdmckay8 says:

      AFAIC believing, and taking to extreme of “preaching” (eg. teaching, trying to persuade others) that, stuck in some quandary because a lack of satisfying control over “things” an individual has experienced perhaps for decades, is all because its in their DNA… is a cruel hoax. And its not a little thing: I’ve known people for 20+ years who believe that. Its sad to listen to them say this. And they remain experiencing life with very uncomfortably diminished agency. Suffering.

      That’s just another way to stay stuck as I’ve found. If one becomes a DNA guru (eg. you have no control: its in your DNA) then… knowingly or not, that person has upped the quandary in a way that will confirm others stuckness</em. Some people even call this compassion!!! With this view, I guess documents saying stuff like "all men are created equal "will have to be amended to… "Welcome to life on the Blue Planet. As soon as we sequence your DNA, we'll get back with you so you know exactly how your life is going to be."

      DNA research has its place, and there's all kinds of things knowledge of how it works and tools to manipulate it can benefit people/societies/health. But just like a lot of things, there's also a lot of ways the same (DNA re-sequencing) can create things that are, on balance, destructive.

      Monsanto's sequenced soy/wheat (and all the rest) a good example. They were not attempting to create seeds producing fruit with optimum health and nutrition: their sequencing embedded pesticide DNA.

      After a few years, it stopped working so they continuously are doing the same thing over and over, hoping to stay ahead of biological threat's (eg. bugs that kill crops) mutations overcoming the latest crop's DNA re-sequencing. There's a lot of troubling implications in that along, but…

      There's no reliable research on long term affects on humans ingesting food from DNA sequenced crops in this manner.

      If Monsanto produced new-and-improved human DNA, I'd expect improvements more like ensuring men can keep a healthy boner for an hour right up until the last breath!! “Now there’s something you can control” would be great marketing!!!)

      Monsanto and their advocates argue/lobby/produce literature, to convince the public there’s no problem. But they can’t possibly know. Seems obvious their motive is not honesty/truth driven: its economic… period. As with so much other stuff (eg. now known to be toxic, but many even a decade ago believed not so) in our environment, long term health affects won’t be known for some time. And if the past is any indicator, when/if those health problems show up it will take a lot longer to find epidemiological certainty to prove it. Nobody’s keeping a paper trail.

      As an aside, it was this (eg. Franken-seeds) that led me to learn organic gardening about 20 years ago. The US Ag. Dept. (at least then) offered excellent local courses in just this (beginning/intermediate/Master class). Other then growing a few tomato plants over the years, this was a new thing for me then. Everything I’ve leaned doing this, since then, has only further solidified my deep suspicion of DNA sequenced food. Not just what I’ve done in my/community gardens, but from that investigating what’s going on out there in the world wrt sustainable/organic agriculture: it really works well. Done right, farming does not need *any* pesticides. The evidence is overwhelmingly demonstrable. Pesticides have damaged health of uncountable number of people for a long time. And that will continue for a long time because that “stuff” has worked its way into all manner of our environment. Its even redistrubuted in evaporated water!!!

      I think, if people really want useful insight into matters pondering why so many people experience their life with unsatisfying diminished agency, they are more likely to find it by discovering what the difference is between DNA sequencers like Monsanto, and those doing the most important work (kind’a like what Marcy does) preventing disease and all kinds of other stuff. On the surface anyway, one is “get rich quick”, the other is precision/double-triple checking everything to, among other things, make sure their wants do not twist perception to the evidence they find into something it is not.

      Blind ambition can do that effortlessly.

      There’s such a thing as: Common Sense. There’s way to many people that, for whatever is at the root of that choice, will just not say the-emperor-has-no-clothes when his ass is staring them in the face. I’ve found doing so… especially when everyone around me is silent, creates openings (so to speak) I can move through and onto more worthwhile endeavors. Carefuly read scripture says it well: “We move through the valley of the shadow of death” (my emphasis /g), not: CAMP OUT THERE!!!

      • ExRacerX says:

        ??? Mostly off-topic.

        Also, you clearly didn’t comprehend much of what I wrote, but after reading your post, I’ve outdone you.

        P.S.: Capitalizing “common sense” and using all caps gives your post a vaguely Trumpian look.

        • jdmckay8 says:

          His viewpoint is that a person’s DNA, experiences, physical/mental health, and other factors inevitably determine the choices that individual will make.

          I really understand that, Ex. Nothing personal at all. Enjoy a lot of your comments. That is dangerous territory AFAIC. To each his own, I guess.

          I’d ask: how is that actionable to some benefit. He’s saying choices are pre-ordained. There is no choice in that construct.

        • jdmckay8 says:

          It was a really bad post. Awful day. No excuses. I failed badly in communicating what I intended. I apologize.

  4. Tetman Callis says:

    The concept of free will, of a person being in command of their own free will, able to make rational choices among various possible actions, is fundamental to the social concepts of law and of holding persons responsible for the choices they make. While there may be good scientific reasons to conclude that we in fact have little or no free will, such conclusions raise the issue of how to live in the world. If persuasive argument can be made that we cannot help but do what we do, within what structures of individual belief and social construct can we best exist in ways — which one could argue would end up being one best way — in which we do the least amount of harm? By what law are persons held accountable and constrained if they cannot do other than what they do? What are the practical effects of believing persons have no free will? Are they significantly different from believing they have no free will but still must be constrained and held accountable?

    • RipNoLonger says:

      Wouldn’t this be the will of the society to deal with infractions or reward good behaviors? Isn’t that what a system of rules, sometimes called laws is for?

      An absolute tooth-for-a-tooth application of these rules/laws could be very different than what we see in many civilized countries. We tend to think that there is some benefit in possible rehabilitation, and lend credence that sometimes errors are made in the application of justice.

      I’ll posit that in most of the living kingdoms on this planet that most justice is delivered swiftly and without angst and regret. It is life.

    • ExRacerX says:

      Self-accountability and being the agent of one’s own change are key. Despite having come to the conclusion that free will is an illusion, I still follow my personal moral and ethical code, while striving to grow with the help of new ideas and ways of thinking.

      Mind you, I knee-jerked hard against the idea at first because it challenged my entire self-deterministic worldview. I suppose you could say I was staunchly in the the “Free Will” camp before I wasn’t.

      For me, it’s a strangely liberating feeling. I understand why I do the things I do, but I also apply myself to the task of slowly changing the undesirable ones, one decision at a time.

      • Rayne says:

        How did you acquire your moral and ethical code? How did you acquire any changes to your morals, ethics, values since birth? Since before birth?

        That’s a purely rhetorical question. When you write you’re applying yourself and changing, you’re not simply acting on innate programming which denies free will.

        • ExRacerX says:

          Thanks, Rayne.

          Rhetorical question aside, even without “free will,” I believe we’re ultimately responsible for our choices and our actions. That said, the level of control required for moral responsibility is much lower than the level of control required for “free will.”

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      Free will is a luxury of the privileged. This concept is imposed upon those constrained by social and economic inequities to imply that they, too, should exhibit the freedom of will available to the truly free.

      I’m thinking of Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld dismissing the complaints about torture at black sites by saying “I stand for ten hours a day.” Then we get Abu Ghraib. Where the defenseless took the fall.

  5. Ray Harwick says:

    Since we’re talking behaviors, my puzzlement over handedness has been life-long and it seems to fit the C. elegans model.

    I was probably ten years old before I even noticed that I was dominant left for some tasks and dominant right for others. Fine motor skills – left. Manual skills in sports – right. I’m 6’6″ tall and jumped center in high school basketball in which I was dominant right handed in all but one skill – the jump ball that begins every game. I could not control the tip with my right hand. My timing was off. I lost the tip more than not, and to players who had neither my height nor 35″ vertical leap. Tipping with my left hand, I won every single tip, but it took me until my senior year in high school to figure this out.

    When I use tools I never know which hand a hammer or screwdriver will end up in. The task somehow decides it. But with fine motor skills like writing or knife use, I’m entirely left-handed.

    I am deaf and when I’m signing in ASL, my right hand dominates, but my left hand asserts itself in instances I have never been able to understand. So my signing sometimes confuses other deaf people as I shift from one hand to another. I think in both English and ASL but mostly English. I only dream in English. I have the strongest sense that I control none of this.

      • ExRacerX says:

        Yeah, I’m one of the ambiguous R/L folks. I’m mostly a lefty, but play guitar righty, and with hand tools I’m like Ray—I can trace that back to my rebellion against those special “lefty” scissors in grade school. I surf and skateboard goofy-footed, so maybe I’m more left-footed than left-handed.

      • Allagashed says:

        My daughter’s vision is a bit odd. We can find neither a right or left dominance; we’ve tried. We’re a farm family, and we hunt. She can shoot a rifle or a bow with either hand, and does frequently. She writes very well with her left hand, but prefers her right.

    • elcajon64 says:

      Interesting entry into this topic. I have a similar left/right fine/gross motor skill arrangement. I’ve always assumed it is because the world is mostly set up right-handed and there is an incentive to operating in it as fluidly as possible.

      That changed for me in college when I took a bowling class and having never really done it before, decided to learn lefty. Kind of a pointless decision but it made me feel rather self-determinate at the time and did provide some confidence that has seeped into most other parts of my life since then.

    • Kick the Darkness says:

      Since handedness came up in the context of C. elegans, here is something you might find interesting. The development of C. elegans (and other organisms) exhibits a form of handedness-the final positions of organs shows a stereotypical left/right bias along the body axis. A guy named Bill Wood, who was an “early adopter” of C. elegans as a model organism, together with a fantastic graduate student named Dominique Bergmann, screened for mutant worms that altered developmental handedness. In C. elegans early embryonic cell divisions during development are asymmetric-the mitotic spindle is placed off to one side, leading to two daughter cells of unequal size and that contain different egg components. The story that emerged was that mutations that subtly alter the position of the spindle change how size and specification of cells early in development, which ultimately unfolds as a change in handedness. If you search “Initiation of handedness in C. elegans” the first pull up from 2003 is a news and views blurb linking to the original paper.

      So in this case the worm egg is programmed with a circuitry that is executed-at an early step-through positioning of the mitotic spindle. It feels like perhaps this is the form of “answer” Tomasello is contemplating for human agency.

  6. Bobby Gladd says:

    Very cool.

    I am hip deep in Sapolsky lately. It is giving me major problems.

    So much for Gould’s “drunkard’s walk.“ Randomness more generally. You can’t step in the same river twice. And, on and on and on…

    I don’t know. I have gotten sidetracked by a couple of different exigent rabbit holes lately. But I will be following up.

    “Two cheers for uncertainty”

      • Bobby Gladd says:

        I guess I wasn’t clear. My Bad. I would take Gould over Kapolski any day.

        Of course, Kapolski would simply dump on Gould by shrugging that there’s no such thing as the random walk, specifically, the drunkard’s walk. There’s no way to re-run the experiment. There is no “past,“ there is no “future.“ It is simply always “now.“

        He kinda loses me on the “luck” thing:

        “we are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment. You’re going to be able to recite this sentence in your irritated sleep by the time we’re done.”

        — Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will by Robert M. Sapolsky

        [Moderator’s note: expanded link from Amazon Kindle excerpt share as shortened link above: — be aware that clicking on this link will identify your machine, network address, and connect your metadata with the Kindle user’s metadata at Amazon. /~Rayne]

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          That’s easier to understand.

          If there’s a real url for that site, it would be welcome. That one looks like a “tiny url.” If so, it’s an intermediary, a bottleneck, which, I believe, harvests data for the privilege of connecting you to the real site.

          • Rayne says:

            tiny dot url — TinyURL — is a link-shortenting service which collects data for its subscribers for the purposes of analytics.

            Bit dot ly is another similar competing service. But it relies on a top level domain, dot ly, which is owned by Libya; content running through that domain can be monitored and blocked by Libya.

            I would prefer that all community members avoid link shorteners as they mask the origin of the link and they add a layer of tracking which could compromise community members and the site.

            • Bobby Gladd says:

              I totally hear ya.

              Again, I had simply scraped the text quotation out of the Kindle edition of Kapolski’s book. That little URL went along for the ride. Sorry.

          • Bobby Gladd says:

            Sorry, man. I just screen-scraped that out of my Kindle edition of the book itself. I should have deleted that URL. That won’t happen again.

            Kapolski repeatedly refers to stuff like “luck“ and “chance“ and “randomness.” Begs a boatload of questions for me. But, then, I’m a retired applied stats guy. My goal in life has been to only be wrong 5% of the time. 🤣

    • PensionDan says:

      The scientific determinism exemplified by Laplace’s demon is rendered uncompelling in the light of quantum mechanical discoveries, such as Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments (not that Wheeler). I think Tomasello is pursung a legitimate field of inquiry.

        • timbozone says:

          Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments in quantum mechanics or some other experiments? I ask because you are responding to commentary including mention of Tomasello… Tomasello’s experiments were more social.

          • ExRacerX says:

            Sorry for the confusion—I meant Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments and the possibility of retro-causality which they suggest. As you wrote, Tomasello’s experiments were more sociological in nature and focused on how morals & ethics are perpetuated.

  7. AlaskaReader says:

    “I am responsible for everything … except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being.”

    Jean-Paul Sartre

  8. farmfresh says:

    By chance I just started reading The Emperor’s New Mind (Penrose, 1989) last night. I look forward to following this thread!

    • Dirk_14NOV2023_0913h says:

      Such a great book, although a bit magical, towards the end. And not an easy book. Penrose said: doable for everyone with a little perseverance. A critic said: doable for everyone with a little perseverance, indeed, just like a PHD in theoretical physics.

      [Welcome to emptywheel. Please choose and use a unique username with a minimum of 8 letters. We are moving to a new minimum standard to support community security. Because your username is far too short (and more than one user posting under similar ID) it will be temporarily changed to match the date/time of your first known comment until you have a new compliant username. Thanks. /~Rayne]

  9. mainsailset says:

    It’s hard not to think of Agency as well as Free Will without including observations by Hannah Arendt where she asks about the lost rights of the stateless. Recognition of where our decisions come from is only a first step.

    • Ed Walker says:

      It’s one of the books I’ve been thinking about for the larger purpose of this series, a discussion of rights. I didn’t link the introductory post: gives a short explanation of what i think is the problem. Tomasello’s book offers an different way of thinking about our species, summarized by his last category of agency: socially normative agency.

      I’m always open to suggestions for books and papers.

  10. BobBobCon says:

    I look forward to more of this.

    One of the basic faults of much pop evolutionary psychology (and wow there are a lot) is the default assumption that human behavior is the result of evolution toward a function.

    Except evolutionary pressures are just as much about eliminating functions. There are evolutionary pressures in mammals to grow hair, but there are also powerful reasons to *not* grow it.

    Humans are not just an example of a species which has shed most of its hair, they are an extreme example of a species which has shed a comparatively large share of innate behavior compared to our ancestors.

    Pop evolutionary psychology has it largely backwards. Instead of vainly looking for vague hints of evolutionary explanations for behaviors, they should be asking how evolution worked to eliminate innate behaviors and allow humans to substitute learned or reasoned behaviors instead.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      As has often been said, not least by Gould, evolution does not proceed toward progress or a goal: that’s an anthropomorphic bias. It’s a process of change, based on the material to hand at any given moment. (It does not start with a blank slate.)

      What hereditary changes persist is a function of several things, immediate local adaptation being the most significant. So is the modesty of the resources needed. Tangential change can persist for some time, as long as it takes few resources and does not reduce local adaptation. Local adaptation can also repurpose the utility of a feature, from, say, maintaining body heat to enabling proto-flight.

      • Rayne says:

        that’s an anthropomorphic bias

        More accurately, it’s an concept born of a Homo sapiens‘ brain and its limitations internal and external.

  11. William Pelerin says:

    Whatever disagreements one might have with Robert Sapolsky’s theories, his lectures display a virtuosity on par any of the greatest artists in the realm of stage or film.

  12. Phillatius says:

    (Note: I think this is the email I used for a I reply I did regarding Martin Luther’s response to the plague when COVID-19 was on the rise.)

    In a presentation containing the terms “brain””evolution” and “choice,” I can’t help but be drawn to this observation by Herbert J. Muller discussing evolution in his book “Freedom in the Ancient World,” first published in 1961.

    “Man might wonder, too, at some of the most beautiful products of natural selection. A number of species have developed sexual display characteristics, such as the trains of peacocks and the antlers of deer, that serve to attract females but otherwise appear to handicap the animal in its struggle for survival; and with all due respect to females, most species manage to woo them without such fancy equipment, and the oyster has got along without any at all. this development may be one of nature’s extravagances. And so might man himself—the parvenu of the monkey family. It has been suggested that the human brain is a kind of tumor, a monstrous overgrowth that has enabled him to indulge in biologically preposterous behavior, and that will eventually destroy him. Certainly he is now capable of self-destruction, as no other species is. Pleased to consider himself the highest form of life, he may now be conscious of the profoundly ambiguous consequences of his distinctive power of choice. it has meant the constant possibility of foolish or even fateful choices, because of which no other animal is so stupid as a human fool.”

    [Moderator’s note: You’ve now commented three times as Phillatius — one published in 2021, an earlier one in 2020, and today’s comment. You’ve also commented in 2015 but under a different username and email address. Please stick with the same email address going forward; we don’t even ask for a working/valid email address, just that you’re consistent about using the same one for each comment. /~Rayne]

  13. Rayne says:

    Tomasello doesn’t think there’s a goal for evolution. He thinks that as brains become more complex, the feedback control activity takes on a different shape, a shape that takes advantage of the bigger brain.

    What Tomasello reveals here is his own limitation — the lack of a big enough brain. He says he “doesn’t think there’s a goal for evolution” because he’s thinking with a subset of evolution itself and not with a brain representing the entirety of evolution.

    Let me pull up a quote from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy under Cellular Automata:

    …In Wolfram’s turn of phrase, Life is algorithmically irreducible: no algorithmic shortcut is available to anticipate the outcome of the system given its initial input. “Life—like all computationally universal systems—defines the most efficient simulation of its own behavior” (Ilachinski 2001: 15). …

    Wolfram is computer scientist and physicist Stephen Wolfram, author of A New Kind of Science, which discusses cellular automata. C. elegans as an example of a simple life form which operates much as a cellular automata does, but one which is capable of Turing-like behavior. Tomasello describes this behavior as non-agentive, and continues to expand his definitions of agentive levels in a way which could be expressed in some cellular automata or algorithmic models.

    But if consciousness through which agentive levels are defined was that easy to map, we’d already have a grasp on the nature of consciousness itself and we don’t in spite of thousands of years of study and theory. Consciousness may be computationally irreducible — it will take the sum of all science involved in the creation of consciousness, in other words, to solve and express the nature of consciousness.

    And yet even if we get that far, if we should surpass that and reach the Singularity, we still will not have the ability to express what the goals of evolution are because evolution is life itself. It is computationally irreducible and cannot be summed up with the capacity we currently have as humans.

    Imagine C. elegans trying to explain its existence and why more sophisticated and complex expressions of life exist as well as their raison d’être. That’s Tomasello throwing up his hands at the goal of evolution.

    He’s right that increasingly complex activity takes advantage of bigger brains, but until he and we evolve, we may not be able to say one way or another what evolution’s goal is/goals are. It may be computationally irreducible to us as Homo sapiens.

    • El Senor Oñazol says:

      I have to disagree with your very first conclusion. The choice of the word “goal” here was of vital importannce. A goal is something inextricably associated with the existence of an intent, which is a defining characteristic of an agent. Unless I have severely misunderstood your argument, I don’t believe that it can survive the objection that evolution as a natural process simply *is* without direction. It exists but it is not goal-oriented, because to say otherwise is to ascribe agency to a natural phenomenon. To do so would make as little sense as saying that Rayleigh scattering or cosmic expansion has a goal—in other words, pathetic fallacy.

      • Rayne says:

        We do not have the brain power to rule out an expression of intent at cosmic scale. It’s arrogance to say that we can calculate that when we can’t even explain our own consciousness. I prefer to be neutral, remain agnostic on the concept.

        You do you with your internal and external limitations.

        • El Señor Onazol says:

          If such a cosmic intent did exist, by your own admission it would be inobservable to us. Your point is that we can’t prove it doesn’t exist even if it doesn’t. On the other hand, equally we can’t prove that it exists even if it does. So, let’s agree to disagree. You say we don’t have the brain power to rule out an expression of intent at a cosmic scale. I say we don’t have the brain power to rule it in. We are at an impasse. As you eluded to, our debate is fundamentally equivalent to the positions of atheism vs. agnosticism. (The cosmic intent could be what others call God.)

            • El Señor Onazol says:

              bmaz, I legitimately can’t tell if just you’re saying that my comments are unclear, or saying ‘what?’ sarcastically in the sense that you think what I said was so ridiculous it doesn’t demand rebuttal past dismissal.

              In case it’s the former, well basically Rayne and I disagree on how we should judge the existence of a thing that we cannot prove to exist or not to exist. Rayne’s position (as I understood it) is that we should reserve judgement or wait until we’ve acquired more ‘brain-power’ to try again. Whereas, my position can be summed up by the old refrain that what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

              In case it’s the latter, well I will concede to Rayne that being ‘agnostic’ is the more logical position, strictly speaking, since it is a fact as proved by Gödel that there exist undecidable but true statements in any axiomatic system. That having been said, ultimately I don’t believe there’s a significant difference between living according to philosophical agnosticism versus pragmatic atheism.

              Hope that cleared things up. If you’re interested in a good book to read that’s vaguely related to my incoherent ramblings, I highly recommend Yanofsky’s “The Outer of Limits of Reason” for a good introduction to the reality that empiricism and rationality cannot explain everything in the universe.

          • c-i-v-i-l says:

            Gnosis means knowledge. Both “we can’t prove it doesn’t exist” and “we can’t prove that it exists” are agnostic in the sense that they both indicate a lack of knowledge. Instead of thinking in terms of the trio theist-agnostic-atheist, instead think of it as a 2×2 quartet: gnostic theist (one who believes in god(s) and treats the belief as knowledge), gnostic atheist (one who disbelieves in god(s) and treats the belief as knowledge), agnostic theist (one who believes in god(s) but doesn’t treat the belief as knowledge), agnostic atheist (one who disbelieves in god(s) but doesn’t treat the belief as knowledge). I’m an agnostic atheist, and this category may be why you “don’t believe there’s a significant difference between living according to philosophical agnosticism versus pragmatic atheism.”

  14. punaise says:

    Interesting convergence – last week’s New Yorker:

    How Can Determinists Believe in Free Will?

    According to the Stanford neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky, determinism means that human beings don’t really make choices. Moral judgments like blame and praise are based on an illusion

    I can;t really wrap my simple mind around this.

  15. Lurks123 says:

    I think I read this somewhere: anybody who believes in free will has never been in love.

    I have a half-formed idea that the illusion of free will is a necessary adjunct to human-level consciousness.

    Of course, at whatever level of consciousness I am making choices it’s still me that makes them.

  16. Master Slacker says:

    Ed, I’m looking forward to the next entry in this discussion. It’s nice to have adults talking.

  17. SotekPrime says:

    Something I find myself asking about that classification of agency is what it does with ants.

    An individual ant is a very mechanistic, simple creature – barely beyond C. elegans, but a colony behaves with significantly more agency, more like a lizard or possibly even a squirrel.
    And, of course, the colony’s feedback control mechanisms exist out in the world, largely outside all of the ants – though I suppose that merely renders it an exception to the typical rules.

  18. Marshall says:

    Tomasello’s description of “psychological agency” is reminiscent of wave function mechanics of quantum science, in that they are both a function of the wholistic environment, not a matter of straightforward cause and effect; encompass a variety of possible futures (indeed “every possible future); and (as the wave of time passes) collapse into a defined physical state; a state which in can only be predicted as a probability ahead of time … from our point of view, “really random” on the one hand, or “real choice” on the other.

    A glib analogy? Perhaps, but physicists acknowledge that every macro body such as a person or an interacting community or the entirety of the Universe is in theory describable by such a wave function. Perhaps our present trivial experiments at minute scale are as if we have discovered Brownian motion and connected that with “heat” but haven’t understood the relevance to forest fires.

    I like the analogy (glib or not) because it demonstrates the fallacy of “individualism”; and it offers the possibility that we are being pulled towards some moral “least effort” future, which I find rather more encouraging that “rationality” is just a tool we use to fuck ourselves up.

  19. HardyWeinberg3 says:

    It’s worth reading some Richard Lewontin (Triple Helix) and Steven Jay Gould to be better armed against arguments based on naive genetic determinism. There is obviously a lot more than. Just those 2 to read on the topic rebutting the kind of determinism that neurosociobiologists or whatever are interested in exploring.

  20. Savage Librarian says:

    It’s interesting that Tomasello divided category 5 (socially normative agency)
    into the subcategories of children and adults. Does this mean we grow into it?And, if we get dementia do we grow out of it?

    What if we have schizophrenia? Would we be somewhere between a child and adult? Or what if we have a temporary bout of amnesia, but still can function in every way but lack some memories?

    Is it like the pigs say in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”? All people have agency, but some people have more agency than others? Maybe it’s dependent on the prevailing power structure and whether or not it is an authoritarian one.

    The concepts of free will, agency, and evolution seem best addressed in a multidisciplinary manner. But I think we people with our various limitations usually boil it all down to something that approximates an either or involving religion (or philosophy), politics, science, or semantics.

    “Becoming You: Are you the same person you were when you were a child?” – Joshua Rothman, 10/3/22

    • ExRacerX says:

      “It’s interesting that Tomasello divided category 5 (socially normative agency)
      into the subcategories of children and adults. Does this mean we grow into it?”

      I’m fairly sure Tomasello divided humans into children & adults because the brains of children aren’t fully developed.

      I’m absolutely sure that someone will correct me if that’s wrong.

      • Ed Walker says:

        This is quite right. I’m not sure I explained it well enough, but I’ll correct any error when we get to that part of the book.

    • Ed Walker says:

      @Savage_Librarian, these are types, not intended as full descriptor for all members of Homo Sapiens. Let’s save the rest of your for later. At this point we’re working with stimulus-response creatures, and don’t have enough material to form sensible answers.

  21. tinaotinao says:

    Anyone here ever hear of Delores Cannon? She did deep hypnosis work reaching the subconscious. I love discussions like this! Thank you Ed and everyone. : – )

  22. Kick the Darkness says:

    Ed, you had me at roundworms. Thanks for such a meaty topic. It will be interesting to see how the author extends what sounds like classic evolutionary gradualism to “socially normative behavior”, while skirting freewill and conceptions of conciousness. As opposed to say, someone like Julian Janes who (some time ago this point) posited there was a transformative neurological big bang jump starting moral codes and Homer. In some senses it seems Tomasello must be right/can’t be wrong, all biological pathways and processes exhibit some kind of feedback. Will conceptualizing “agency” in those terms leads to new insights? Maybe, since it sounds like the insights he wishes to find are ultimately rooted in circuitry. In an “omics” age of biology-big data inputs evaluated for system behavior-it seems quite probable progress will be made. But at the end of the day, will a description of “agency” based on an evolutionary accretions of regulatory layers-increasingly anamatosing networks-be satisfying? If you’re familiar with the cell signaling field, it’s facing these same issues-on what is a less complex problem.

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