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Opinion is wildly divided on how to account for the self-reflective consciousness that we humans experience. On the one hand, some see the rapid advances in the neurosciences and extrapolate to a future where consciousness is also explained in neurobiological terms. The emergent-monism/non-reductive physicalism of Clayton, Murphy and Peacocke head in this direction. Others see the problem as intractable. Russell Stannard sees no easy way to reconcile our experience of self and the passage of ‘mental-time’ with the block universe model of space-time. Keith Ward finds arguments for the immaterial nature of mental images to be persuasive, and given this, the logical possibility that human agency may also be rooted in the immaterial. I myself am undecided, but guardedly optimistic about future emergent-physicalist attempts to account for both mental images and subjective experience/qualia.

While the topic of consciousness invariably shows up in conversations about human agency and causation, a particular commitment on the nature of consciousness does not directly affect my discussion of agency. With or without an additional immaterial mind, I believe that a purely physicalist account of agency will still show human minds to be very significant agents in the world.

But minds do not act in isolation. When describing real-life scenarios involving people, we should probably expect to list a plethora of inter-related agents at various scales, from atomic, to genetic, to person, to group, to ecosystem, with at best fuzzy boundaries between them. But if we were to rank each of them by the quantity of effects traceable to each, I think the conscious human person would invariably be at the top of the list.

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Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Techniques for Identifying Agency
Agency in Machines, Biology, and Humans
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