The Consciousness/Agency Duality

Monday, April 13, 2020

9:00 am -1:00 pm





Fernando Martinez


Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini





Jessica Riskin (Historian of Science, Stanford)


Noam Chomsky (Haury Laureate Professor, University of Arizona)


Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini


Fernando Martinez





A major obstacle to a scientific approach to consciousness is that it cannot be directly observed and, therefore, it cannot be reduced to quantitative traits amenable to be inserted into testable hypotheses. We contend that agency is an observable and measurable trait, which is one of the somatic expressions of consciousness. We define agency as the engagement by a living entity of a series of calibrated activities, the result of which is a non-random situation or occurrence that has the appearance of intentionality. We contend that all forms of agency require a system of consciousness, understood in this case as a continuous awareness of the living entity’s environment.


Unfortunately, as Jessica Riskin has elegantly shown in her comprehensive essay “The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over what Makes Living Things Tick”, the concept of agency has been entangled with the philosophical discussions about the machine nature of living entities. The great majority of scientists and philosophers of biology deny the existence of agency, arguing that such concept implies accepting the presence of a ghost or spirit, a homunculus in the case of humans, which is separate from the material nature of living things. We argue that denying agency, which is obvious to any reasonable observer of living things, has dramatically delayed our understanding of perhaps the most fundamental feature of life, i.e., the widespread existence of the consciousness/agency duality.


Moreover, we argue that agency is the result of complex organizational patterns, starting at the cellular level. In “What is Life”, Schrodinger presented for the first time the idea that the “material of life” was “an aperiodic crystal”, and he identified this crystal with the gene. However, recent evidence suggests that the biophysical nature of the cytoplasm provides a second aperiodic structure, the cytoplasm, which appears to have the characteristics of a transition glass and, in some respect, spin glasses. Transition glasses and spin glasses have indeed an aperiodic and non-random molecular structure in which information can be potentially stored through external influences that could organize the intracellular structure itself. The potential for organs to create distributional patterns for the aperiodic intracellular milieu offers a mechanism for the sensation of self and the development of agency. 


In summary, we propose that modern science needs to abandon the idea that living entities are no more than merely mechanical structures, and that consciousness and agency are illusions generated by the apparent intentionality of such structures, similar to those that sophisticated automata can generate. We contend that no “ghost in the machine” is needed to explain the consciousness/agency duality, and that studies of the biophysical nature of the cytoplasm may help understand the biological nature of the duality.