Robert Clowes, Postponed To be Re-Arranged

March 07, 2019

Lisbon Mind & Reasoning RIP Seminar 
Emergence and Strong Agency

Room: ID Building  0.06, Av. de Berna, 26, 1069-061 Lisbon


The notion of emergence as an explanatory concept has recently, after some neglect, come back into favour. Along with new frameworks for analysing emergence, we find novel domains of analysis such as the flocking behaviour of birds or mob psychology in crowds and the analysis of exotic particles in physics.  The new framework, generally based upon generative atomism, assert that “genuinely novel objects and properties emerge even within the domain of physics, and it rejects the idea that only the level of fundamental physics is real.” (Humphreys, 2016, pp. xvi -xvii). These new approaches, however, are not typically applied to mind. Indeed, it could even be taken as programmatic that they are not. One important theorist, Paul Humphreys writes in relation to consciousness and qualia that “the current state of scientific knowledge in neuroscience is insufficient to assess whether these are cases of genuine emergence” (Humphreys, 2016, p. xvii)

It is natural however to ask, even at this early stage, whether, given this new approach to demystifying emergence in general, the new analytical techniques might eventually be profitably reapplied to the mind. I’ll argue that consciousness, at least as a first step, might not be the best place to start. The brute cognitive incomprehensibility of how we might move from an analysis of unconscious arrangement of matter to phenomenality is, as had famously been pointed out, a hard problem (Chalmers, 1995). But perhaps there are alternate routes to the analysis of the emergence of complex minds which can be considered genuinely emergent.

In this talk, I will discuss the emergence of strong agency (Bratman, 2000) as a potential route. Strong agency appears to emerge (ontologically and diachronically) from more basic forms of agency. As an apparently less mysterious property of some natural systems, strong agency might benefit from the use of these new analytic techniques. Or, at least we might learn something about where and why the new frameworks for understanding emergence cannot be applied. So, can the new frameworks be used to analyse it?  I’ll argue that the typical underlying framework of generative atomism seems to preclude the study of strong agency because it does not meet the norms of the explanatory approach. This will allow us to ask whether generative atomism is a useful framework approaching mental phenomena and where and why it might have difficulties.


Bratman, M. (2000). Reflection, planning, and temporally extended agency. The Philosophical Review, 109(1), 35-61.

Chalmers, D. (1995). Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3), 200-219.

Humphreys, P. (2016). Emergence: Oxford University Press.

Robert Clowes

All welcome.

Organised by the Lisbon Mind & Reasoning Group (a sub-section of the ArgLab)

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