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Agency in Machines, Biology, and Humans

A common reductive worldview claims that only atoms and molecules are real, and all causes originate with biochemical reactions. But I think assessments of the kind mentioned above will allow us to claim that there are kinds of structures (and regions of scale) that deserve causal (and therefore ontological) priority in our descriptions. The conclusion will be to establish that the human self (as emergent from physical brain/body states) is a 'real' agent in the world, just as our intuition suggests. I follow Peacocke in claiming that "Real entities have effects and play irreducible causal roles in an adequate explanation of the world."Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God: The End of all our Exploring (Oxford: OneWorld, 2001): 49Furthermore, the difference between the trapezoid and the triangle may be the seed from which a logical account of free agency can grow. This is not to suggest that atoms, for example, are not causally effective and real too,After all, an awful lot that goes on in the world is deeply influenced by the making and breaking of chemical bonds.just that their status as real should be plotted on the same axis as the human self.

What would a list of systems ordered by 'causal priority' look like? At the bottom would be inanimate matter - a pebble, for example, with no internal degrees of freedom. If a person were included in the scenario, they may use the pebble for some purpose, and any effect the pebble had would be traced back to the human agent, making the pebble a 'tool'. As we add complexity to tools they fall into another category: machines. Machines have moving parts with joints, and the parts can be in various configurations. An example of something in the machine category would be a loom. Beyond tools and machines we might break out 'autonomous machines' such as steam engines, and then 'intelligent machines' such as electronic computers.

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Agency in Machines, Biology, and Humans

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Techniques for Identifying Agency
Machines and Beings
Robotic Agency
Digital Computers will Always be Machines
Embodied Robotics and Emergent Behaviors
No Thinking Necessary?
Divine Agency
Downward Causation
The World as God’s Body
Divine Information


Adrian Wyard

See also:

What Makes us Human?
Are we Free?
Does God Act?
Books on Information Technology