New Paper: Potter, H, Mitchell, K.J. (2022), Naturalizing Agent Causation


Published on Entropy 24(4): 472.

Abstract: The idea of agent causation—that a system such as a living organism can be a cause of things in the world—is often seen as mysterious and deemed to be at odds with the physicalist thesis that is now commonly embraced in science and philosophy. Instead, the causal power of organisms is attributed to mechanistic components within the system or derived from the causal activity at the lowest level of physical description. In either case, the ‘agent’ itself (i.e., the system as a whole) is left out of the picture entirely, and agent causation is explained away. We argue that this is not the right way to think about causation in biology or in systems more generally. We present a framework of eight criteria that we argue, collectively, describe a system that overcomes the challenges concerning agent causality in an entirely naturalistic and non-mysterious way. They are: (1) thermodynamic autonomy, (2) persistence, (3) endogenous activity, (4) holistic integration, (5) low- level indeterminacy, (6) multiple realisability, (7) historicity, (8) agent-level normativity. Each criterion is taken to be dimensional rather than categorical, and thus we conclude with a short discussion on how researchers working on quantifying agency may use this multidimensional framework to situate and guide their research.