I am a biologist but have strong interests in the most fundamental questions of Life, so I had to educate quite a bit on philosophy to be able to delve into them. One of the concepts I had to become familiar with was that of agency. I now think there is simply no way to be familiar with theoretical biology if you haven't heard of the concept of agency. It is often implied that what distinguishes animate from inanimate matter is the agency of the first over the second. Basically, it means living organisms can act on their own behalf, while inanimate objects always follow a predetermined path. Am I correct?

Then, the question comes-can an agent choose not to use its ability to counter the effects of the environment through its agency and follow a predetermined path just like any other physical object. But then is it really an agent?

To translate the question in a little but more "biological"(and "scientific" for that matter)way consider this. If a molecule "chooses" to evolve into a more fit version of itself for a certain process does it really has this "choice" and the agency for this matter or is it predetermined to do so. There are several papers which I think pertain very well to theoretical biology here, here and here among many others which discuss the role of the notion of agency/autonomy for a proper definition of Life. As far as I know agency always(I want to pay attention here to this key point)implies its bearer to have the free will to take one course of action or the other. I can very well see how this concept pertains to biology as a molecule in a sense has "the choice"(under the circumstances used to defined the word)to transform its "progeny" into different versions of itself. This is how chemical evolution works and chemical evolution is an important step on the road to Life. But ultimately it is driven by natural laws and as such it is under the constraint of those laws and not an independent process itself. The molecule can evolove different forms of itself but it can not not choose to evolve. Then is its choice of the particular form it evolves into an act of agency or not? And more precisely when does agency starts for such molecules-when they start to change under the pressure of the environment or when they self-generate this change going into a cycle of change where the change of the previous step is the cause of the change in the next step and so on until a maximum fitness is achieved. Does the concept of agency implies this process is the "choice" of the molecules or is it an extension of the changes started by the environment to them(therefore, implying agency isn't the reason of the particular "choice" made by the molecules)which are determined by the laws of nature and therefore the molecules aren't themselves responsible for them?

Does the agency starts when the molecule can choose its new form and generate change by itself or when it starts to change no matter the causes? Is agency equal to the ability to change or is it equal to changes under only special circumstances driven by the changes in the molecule itself(e.g. its "choice" to evolve)?

  • By this set of definitions, either bacteria are inanimate, or they have agency. Which would you suggest? They move themselves, but from most understanding, they manage autopoesis but not agency. There is no indication that they do anything that is not predetermined. If anything about them has agency it is their entire phenotype, rather than the individuals, but the phenotype is not animate, the individuals are.
    – user9166
    Feb 24, 2017 at 23:15
  • What I see(sometimes stated outwardly, sometimes only implied in the literature is the notion that when a molecule starts to change(and I mean change on ITS OWN free will-this is the important part here)some authors prescribe it agency. Basically they equate agency with evolution and I can say there are some reasons for this. The moment a molecule can organize a network of reactions to sustain its synthesis it has the ability to "choose" its path of evolution, too. But sometimes molecules are rather "forced" to change rather they then CHOOSE it. But the result of both processes is essentially Feb 24, 2017 at 23:28
  • the same-change in the molecules. So can we really prescribe agency then? Feb 24, 2017 at 23:29
  • Evolution does not work that way. Molecules do not choose their path of evolution, they constitute animals and compete for it. I do not choose whether I win or lose a game, much of it is chosen for me. So just taking part in it is not proof of my agency.
    – user9166
    Feb 24, 2017 at 23:39
  • 1
    The first and last of those are talking about different versions of Maturana's notion of autopoesis and not agency, the middle one is not available from the link where I am located (behind a bank firewall). Don't misrepresent your sources. Molecules with autopoesis is a cool thing. But the notion does not weigh in on the genuineness of choice, only on the feedback structures and multual interdependence with the environment.
    – user9166
    Feb 25, 2017 at 5:08

2 Answers 2


There are two positions on the question of freewill:

  • Incompatibilism is the position that freewill and determinism are incompatible: Either the universe is deterministic, or we have freewill, but not both. In this world view we have freewill only if we are able to choose among multiple possible outcomes, or as some put it "we could do otherwise". Incompatibilism then breaks down to two positions: hard determinism (we don't have freewill), and libertarianism (we have metaphysical freewill - not to be confused with political libertarianism). One can then speak of "agent causation": Agent-Causality is the idea that agents can start new causal chains that are not pre-determined by the events of the immediate or distant past and the physical laws of nature.

  • Compatibilism is the position that determinism and freewill are compatible, but only because we have to change the definition of freewill. Freewill is not the ability to choose among multiple possible courses of action, it is instead the ability to act freely according to one's own motivations. Once we have refined our definition of freewill, then causal determinism and freewill are compatible, hence the name of this position. Agents are not able to start new causal chains, but they still have freewill because they have agency.

So now we have two definitions of freewill: Metaphysical freewill and compatibilist freewill.

In the case of compatibilism, your question is dissolved: agency is the same thing as freewill,.

In the case of incompatibilsim: freewill is a metaphysical concept, and agency implies freewill, but it is not the same thing as freewill.

Daniell Dennett writes and speaks on this topic, see his book "Freedom Evolves", and his presentations on youtube.

  • Does the point you made here means I can choose the meaning of agency if I am going to use it in a paper about the definition of Life? Is it then a question solved in philosophy or am I missing something here? If I say a molecule bears agency the moment it can choose to change between 2 different versions of itself does it mean the question why it had the option is irrelevant? Feb 25, 2017 at 14:22

The short answer is no, as used today it is a much weaker concept. The use of "agency" evolved quite a bit from the original meaning in the somewhat cryptic passage from Aristotle's De Anima about "agent intellect". What is meant by "agent" today is any kind of entity that can initiate actions for a purpose (real or perceived). While "initiating actions" might suggest ability to start new causal chains, as in "agent causation" and "free will", the common use is much more permissive. For instance, an animal acting on instinct is an actor with a purpose, and therefore an agent, but, assuming that instinctive actions are automatic, no free will or self-causation is involved here.

In fact, the language of agency is often used as a way of getting on with practical research while avoiding the perennial controversy over the empirically moot questions, like the "nature" of causality, consciousness, free will, etc. In other words, whenever it is practically useful to employ teleological and/or intentional explanations, the language of agency can be applied. "Actors with a purpose" can be plants (sunflowers move their leaves to face the sun), animals (dog is looking for a bone), animal colonies (ants are trying to surround the intruder), ecosystems, organizations, machines (my car is acting up), robots, etc. It is an admission that there is similarity enough with "truly intentional" human action for the language to be useful, but in and of itself its use presupposes nothing about ontology. Indeed, it may indicate nothing more than antropomorphic stereotypes about animals, or "delegation" of human intentionality to machines.

Allison Adam surveys the recent uses of "agency" in Artificial Knowing:

"Hanging onto intentionality points to one of the last refuges of enlightenment thinking, the uniqueness of the human animal... Dennett’s intentional stance offers a get-out clause, a way of acting as if certain objects have intentionality without worrying about whether they actually do have it. Taking an intentional stance towards something is a way of granting it some level of agency... Both in the popular sub-domain of distributed AI (DAI), where knowledge is distributed through several knowledge bases, or where intelligent agents act in concert to solve a problem, and also in robotics, it is curious to see that the language of agency and intentionality abounds, possibly much more so than in other areas of symbolic AI.

...using the language of agency permits a use of intentional language, almost by sleight of hand. If you call something an ‘agent’ then you can use intentional terms without examining them, without justifying them and indeed without grounding them. Such terms can be used in a purely operational way and then the metaphor of their functionalism can be allowed to slip into a reality... A recent robotics paper gives a computational definition of agent:"Embedded agents are computer systems that sense and act on their environments, monitoring complex dynamic conditions and affecting the environment in goal-directed ways". The definition is full of intentional terms - ‘sense’, ‘act’, ‘monitor’, ‘affect’, ‘goal’. Yet at the same time the definition is purely operational or functional; it says nothing about what it means to have a computer system sense, act, monitor and so on."

Among others, late Quine in Pursuit of Truth came to accept pragmatic use of such "mentalistic" or "intensional" language despite his original physicalism:

"The residual oddity of these mentalistic predicates de dicto is purely semantic: they do not interlock productively with the self-sufficient concepts and causal laws of natural science. Still the mentalistic predicates. for all their vagueness (§27) have long interacted with one another, engendering age-old strategies for predicting and explaining human action. They complement natural science in their incommensurable way... Read Dennett and Davidson."

Of course, one could still wonder when there is more to the use of "agency" than linguistic convenience, and people keep arguing about the borders between life and non-life (are viruses alive?), sentience and non-sentience (are dolphins sentient?), philosophical zombies, etc. But the situation seems to be reminiscent of Hume's analysis of causality. There are no individual facts of the matter about causation, we can not tell from a single event, or even a sequence of them, if X caused Y. We infer causation holistically, if the event falls into a template that our theories use causal laws to predict. It is similar with "agency": there can be no individual "Turing tests" for it (hence the failure of Turing tests for AI). The agency should be assigned holistically on pragmatic grounds, when the use of mentalistic predicates in our theories leads to better predictions overall.

  • Does your answer means I can attribute agency to molecules capable of directing their own change? If I have 2 systems-one which can spontaneously (without the need of an external causation)go through a cycle of change which can then start a new cycle of change and so on forever and another where this same cycle of change must be started by the influence of an external event, which one of those has agency? Only the one which can start its change spontaneously? Both? None? Can you understand my question and why is the proper definition of agency so important for this question? Feb 27, 2017 at 2:19
  • @YordanYordanov Yes, if the context of description/explanation warrants it, and you do not need "spontaneity". On compatibilist understanding of free will not even humans have true "spontaneity", only an appearance of it, there are plenty of deterministic systems that appear to start "new cycles of change" spontaneously. I suspect that for your purposes agency is too permissive a term, what you want is more along the lines of "agent causality", but then a major problem is that we can not detect agent causation empirically.
    – Conifold
    Feb 27, 2017 at 15:33
  • Then, what term do you think I use in my suggested paper on the definition of Life involving the ability of a molecule to "decide" whether or not it should change into another molecule? Feb 28, 2017 at 18:19
  • @YordanYordanov Well, you can make your own term, like "strong agency" (by analogy with strong AI), for agency with agent causation. But even that will be weaker than free will on most accounts. The ability to start new causal chains may come simply from the ability to invoke "pure chance" at some point, say by using something like Geiger counter to go one way or another based on random radioactive decay. Free will usually presupposes some sort of control in selections.
    – Conifold
    Feb 28, 2017 at 20:46
  • The thing is I don't really want to use agency or free will, I simply need a philosophical term saying there is difference between a molecule which begins to change because the laws of Nature are such and a molecule that suddenly(and not provoked by anything )begins to change. I think there should be some term I can use to define them-one leads to a steady state where the form of the molecule is such it can best comply with the conditions that forced it to change-the other-to an open-ended evolution, something unique to biology. I just need to find the right term to use. Feb 28, 2017 at 20:53

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