A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick

George Scialabba in Inference Review:

ScreenHunter_2563 Feb. 01 19.59When two aspiring young writers meet and circle each other at a party in Boston, Brooklyn, or Berkeley, sooner or later (usually sooner) one will ask: “Do you have an agent?” Without one, every hopeful writer knows, you’re nowhere: editors nowadays are too beleaguered to read anything not vouched for by someone whose commercial judgment has been tested and vindicated in the literary marketplace.

According to the delightful science fiction romance film, Her, artificial intelligences also socialize, or will before long.1 I imagine them asking one another at parties, “Are you an agent?” They will not, of course, be asking about literary representation, but about the psychological or emotional or moral capacity we commonly call agency. They’ll be looking to find out whether the AI they’re meeting answers ultimately to itself or to someone else, whether it can set and change its own goals, whether it can surprise itself and others. Beings possessed of agency are autonomous, spontaneous, capable of initiative, and moved by internal as well as external forces or drives.

According to Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock, agency is everywhere, or at least far more widespread than is dreamt of in modern philosophy of science. If agency is “an intrinsic capacity to act in the world,”2 then science is not having any of it. It is “a founding principle of modern science … that a scientific explanation must not attribute will or agency to natural phenomena.”3 This ban on agency is the foundation of scientific epistemology; it “seems as close to the heart of what science is as any scientific rule or principle.”

More here.