Does light, seeking light, the light of light beguile?

Is the sense of control of one’s life, of one’s surroundings, of oneself, merely an addendum tacked on to the accumulating years that follow maturity? A garb one wraps around oneself to adapt more successfully to the role assigned -a costume meant only for the play? Or is it really the emperor’s clothes, borrowed and treasured, yet scarcely meaningful to anyone else?

I ask this because I suspect we all seek agency. To a greater or lesser extent, we believe we act independently and make our own choices -after all, we choose our friends, our words, and how we appear to others. There is a me inside supervising the actions that I take, an I guiding me through the day. I am therefore an identity among identities, a cogito ergo sum.

And as I mature, I get the impression that I am not alone in this -others seem to feel the same way about themselves, although because it is so obviously the way things are, they may not dwell on it. But, the theory of mind -the ability to attribute mental states to others- begins to develop early in life and expands from there. It allows me to understand that, although others may think differently than me, they also feel unique unto themselves: they have personalities.

Many animals, too, seem to have personalities -no two dogs, no two cats, behave identically. Even individual sheep seem to carve out distinctive roles if you observe them long enough. No doubt there is a law of diminishing returns as we descend through the more ‘primitive’ taxonomic levels (if descent is a proper way to think about them) from Species, to Genera, to Families, to Orders… and so on. Perhaps there is no way to understand just how far ‘down’ the concept of agency can be applied, but I have to say the question has always intrigued me. Just how common are personas in the world? Or, rather, is the requirement to possess agency universal…?

It’s not often I come across an essay or an article devoted to the question of agency throughout the taxa, although I have to wonder if, unprovoked by a specific question, I would ever comb the academic literature for answers. So it was indeed a serendipitous discovery when, unannounced, an essay purporting to delve into the seeming ubiquity of agency suddenly surfaced in Aeon, an online publication to which I subscribe.

Entitled ‘Cognition all the way down’ it was an essay co-written by Michael Levin, chair and professor of biology at Tufts University, and Daniel Dennett, a professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, also at Tufts University.

I suspect that most people, let alone academics, are unwilling to imagine minds, or intelligence very far down the taxa -we even seem hesitant to award much in the way of agency to other mammals than ourselves. ‘[P]eople and some animals have minds; their brains are physical minds – not mysterious dualistic minds – processing information and guiding purposeful behaviour; animals without brains, such as sea squirts, don’t have minds, nor do plants or fungi or microbes… Genes weren’t really selfish, antibodies weren’t really seeking, cells weren’t really figuring out where they were. These little biological mechanisms weren’t really agents with agendas.’ Too woo-woo to take seriously, I suppose. Interestingly, though, ‘Ever since the cybernetics advances of the 1940s and ’50s, engineers have had a robust, practical science of mechanisms with purpose and goal-directedness – without mysticism.’

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, as Shakespeare has Hamlet say to a fellow student about his father’s ghost. ‘[I]ndividual cells are not just building blocks, like the basic parts of a ratchet or pump; they have extra competences that turn them into (unthinking) agents that, thanks to information they have on board, can assist in their own assembly into larger structures, and in other large-scale projects that they needn’t understand.’

So, what would it take to attribute agency to something that has no recognizable brain, and not sufficient independence to have a personality? Does a cell, by virtue of its ability to self-organize and carry out inbuilt instructions qualify as fulfilling a purpose, much as, say, and embryo does in becoming a baby? I have to admit that I am fascinated by liminality and boundaries, and have come to wonder just what a brain is supposed to contain to qualify as such. A plant that turns to face the light so it can photosynthesize more efficiently, that sends out chemical signals to defend against insect attack, or that can communicate with other similar plants via its roots with micro-rhizomes from fungi, certainly makes me wonder about definitional boundaries. Perhaps it’s not intelligence, but it’s clearly adaptive, and purposive… and I imagine we’d have no way, of determining if selfhood always involves a notion of I -or how that might manifest itself in entities unlike ourselves. Perhaps other parameters apply with them…

I realize I’m old, and who knows how doddery, so I hesitate to commit such musings to paper; I am not a died-in-the-wool panpsychist; I do not grant rocks much consciousness, nor do I think that water should be considered alive because, say, it moves (purposely?) in a river towards a lake or the ocean; I do not award teleology lightly -I’m merely playing with ideas here.

My daughter used to do that as well when she was a child, although I doubt that at the time she could differentiate between animate and inanimate judging by the questions I would sometimes hear her asking her dolls.

I remember one time when she asked her favourite doll, Betsy, a question and seemed to be listening carefully for the answer. Then, to my surprise, she nodded her head and smiled as if it was the answer she’d expected.

She must have noticed me watching her, because she turned and attempted a shrug that she had learned from her mother. “They don’t talk the way we do, Daddy,” she explained when she  noticed the puzzled expression on my face. “Betsy’s different from people. Her answer just appears in my head.” She stared at the doll for a moment and then shook her head slowly. “I don’t know how it works; I never know what she’s gonna decide…”

Only children seem able to find agency in inanimate things. I sometimes wonder if its actually present in more things than we are willing to accept. As Kahlil Gibran, the poet writes about the teacher: If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

It’s the threshold that is often hard to find.

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