A British science writer tells us, “Biologists balk at any talk of ‘goals’ or ‘intentions’ – but a bold new research agenda has put agency back on the table”:
One of biology’s most enduring dilemmas is how it dances around the issue at the core of such a description: agency, the ability of living entities to alter their environment (and themselves) with purpose to suit an agenda. Typically, discussions of goals and purposes in biology get respectably neutered with scare quotes: cells and bacteria aren’t really ‘trying’ to do anything, just as organisms don’t evolve ‘in order to’ achieve anything (such as running faster to improve their chances of survival). In the end, it’s all meant to boil down to genes and molecules, chemistry and physics – events unfolding with no aim or design, but that trick our narrative-obsessed minds into perceiving these things. Yet, on the contrary, we now have growing reasons to suspect that agency is a genuine natural phenomenon. Biology could stop being so coy about it if only we had a proper theory of how it arises. Unfortunately, no such thing currently exists, but there’s increasing optimism that a theory of agency can be found – and, moreover, that it’s not necessarily unique to living organisms. A grasp of just what it is that enables an entity to act as an autonomous agent, altering its behaviour and environment to achieve certain ends, should help reconcile biology to the troublesome notions of purpose and function.Philip Ball, “Life with purpose” at Aeon
He turns out to be looking for a “bottom up” theory of agency—that is, a materialist one. And he admits that there is no such theory but he offers “a sketch of what a solution might look like.”
One suspects that materialists will be offering such sketches centuries from now.
Hat tip: Pos-darwinista