Alan Kirker

Agency

September 22nd, 2021 by

In an essay titled “Life Functions in a Resisting Medium” (1934), philosopher L. P. Jacks sees the agency manifest in nature as life working in a “resisting medium”… utilizing it as “the fulcrum of creative action” (1934, p. 36).

“Every living thing is an example of this. The bird needs the resisting medium of the air to fly; the fish of the water to swim; and man when he stands upright is resisting a tendency to fall, though he may be unconscious of it. Standing upright might be defined as successful resistance to the force of gravitation” (1934, p. 36).

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli explores the notion of agency more deeply in a paper titled “Agency in Physics” (July 2020). Beyond resisting media, an agent is simply that which ignores some of the physical links to its environment, whether in the case of the wind pushing an air mass down a slope, a sprout breaking through soil, or a person deciding to take some action. These macroscopic examples of independent agency can ultimately trace back to many microscopic roots, as basic as a difference in temperature between or within systems of any size, all the way down to the random agency of quantum indeterminacy arising from unaccounted degrees of freedom, as in the microphysics of brain activity.

Temperature differences, or thermodynamic gradients, cause a change in entropy such as the heat dissipation associated with cooling. Such fundamental activity can drive macroscopic independent agency as temporally-irreversible change, when the realizing of possible system evolutions is observed, and which Rovelli equates with the system or agent as having made a choice. This change leaves a memory that consequently creates information, which in turn can fuel further agency and lead to an openness with “ample space for subtle, high level processes to influence the macroscopic future” (2020, p. 6).

“Memory and agency can thus be viewed as mechanisms that convert free energy into information. This may well be the primary source of the information the biosphere, the brain, and culture, deal with” (2020, p. 1).

Does placing a metaphysical frame over this view see it accord with Buddhist notions of dependent origination where every thought or action carries some agency, and nothing is without a cause? If so, does this thus translate that thoughts, words, and actions are themselves agents creating information, and leaving traces to affect other agents?

Moreover, what is the nature of the asymmetry; thermodynamic, perspectival, or otherwise, underlying agency and which seems to impel systems in this manner, perhaps by providing “the fulcrum of creative action” ?


Jacks, L. P. (1934), Life Functions in a Resisting Medium in The Revolt against Mechanism (pp. 19-24), reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946) Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 35-38). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Rovelli, C. (July 2020), Agency in Physics (pp. 1-7). DOI: arXiv:2007.05300v2 [PDF document] retrieved September 2021 from https://arxiv.org/abs/2007.05300

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