Why human agency matters

We live in an age that is deeply pessimistic about the human condition. But the retreat from human exceptionalism makes for both bad science and bad politics.

Prometheus sculpture on the Ahun mountain, Sochi, Russia.
Prometheus sculpture on the Ahun mountain, Sochi, Russia. Credit: Adobe Stock

Reason, Descartes believed, ‘is the noblest thing we can have because it makes us in a certain manner equal to God and exempts us from being his subjects.’ For much of the past 500 years, scientists and philosophers have taken it for granted that human beings are exceptional creatures because of our possession of reason and consciousness, language and morality. The philosophy of humanism expressed a desire to place human beings at the centre of philosophical debate, to laud human abilities and to view human reason as a tool through which to understand both nature and human nature. It demonstrated a conviction that humankind could achieve freedom, both from the constraints of nature and from human tyranny, through the agency of its own efforts.

Humanists viewed science as the greatest expression of human reason, and hence also as an expression of the exceptional character of human beings. Science allows us to understand human beings not as special, divine creations but in materialist terms as part of the natural order. But the very capacity for such an understanding makes humans exceptional beings, and in a certain sense takes them outside that natural order. This was the philosophy at the heart of both the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.

But we no longer think this way. Today we live in an age that is deeply pessimistic about the human condition. Whereas the deeply religious Descartes was happy to see humans as ‘in a certain manner equal to God’, today in a supposedly secular age, there seem to be few things we fear more than the idea of humans playing God.

A century of unparalleled bloodshed and destruction has created widespread scepticism about human capacities. Every impression that humans make upon the world seems for the worse. The attempt to master nature appears to have led to global warming and species depletion. The attempt to master society, many feel, led directly to Auschwitz and the gulags. The result has been the growth of anti-humanism, of despair about human capacities, a view of human reason and agency as forces for destruction rather than for betterment.

‘For the first time since 1750’, Michael Ignatieff has observed of the post-Holocaust world, ‘millions of people experience history not running forwards from savagery to civilisation, but backwards to barbarism.’ We no longer believe, that ‘material progress entails or enables moral progress.’ We eat well, we drink well, we live well, but he suggests ‘we do not have good dreams.’ ‘In a real sense’, the late ecologist Murray Bookchin noted, ‘we seem to be afraid of ourselves – of our uniquely human attributes. We seem to be suffering from a decline in human self-confidence and in our ability to create ethically meaningful lives that enrich humanity and the non-human world.’

The retreat from humanism and from the idea of human exceptionalism expresses itself in a number of, sometimes seemingly contradictory, ways. One is in the popularity of naturalistic, or mechanistic, views of what it is to be human, the belief that humans can be understood simply as sophisticated animals or as sophisticated machines.

Human culture, the argument goes, is part of human nature, and human nature can be understood through ‘a combination of neurophysiology and deep genetic history’, as E.O. Wilson has put it. Hence all that appears distinctive about human beings – culture, language, morality, reason – is not, in fact, that exceptional, and can be understood in the same way as can all natural phenomena. As John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, two of the founders of evolutionary psychology, put it, ‘Human minds, human behaviour, human artefacts, and human culture are all biological phenomena.’

A second expression of the retreat from exceptionalism are the anxieties about the ways in which science, and biotechnology in particular, robs us of our humanity. From cloning to genetic engineering, the new biotechnologies have given rise to all manner of dystopian visions and have created great apprehension about the future of our lives as human beings. ‘What will become of love and loss, of the sanctity of human life?’, Britain’s chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, asked in the wake of the unveiling of the first draft of the human genome in June 2000. ‘If persons are no longer individuals but rather genetic types that can be replicated at will, what then becomes of our most central values?’

It’s an argument echoed by Francis Fukuyama in his work, Our Posthuman Future. Biotechnology, Fukuyama warns, will destroy our basic values and transform the very character of humanity, propelling us from humans into posthumans. ‘What is ultimately at stake with biotechnology’, he declares, ‘is … the very grounding of the human moral sense.’ We need to prevent any technological advance that might ‘disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based upon it.’

The arguments of Sacks and Fukuyama may seem a world away from those of Wilson and Cosmides and Tooby. One side suggests that humans are little more than sophisticated animals, the other wants to save humanity from being treated as if we were simply animals. One side suggests that science can tell us everything about our humanity, the other wishes to protect our humanity from the clutches of over-eager scientists.

However, both the belief that natural science can tell us everything we need to know about our humanness, and the belief that science can undermine the very character of our humanity, draw upon, I believe, a debased vision of what it means to be human and an exalted view of nature. Both are responses to the widespread scepticism about human capacities that pervades our age, expressions of what Murray Bookchin called ‘the decline in human self-confidence’. While one side denies human agency, the other fears it.

I want to argue that – whether expressed through a naturalistic vision of humanness, or through a fear of the consequences of biotechnology – the retreat from humanism, and the rejection of human exceptionalism, makes for both bad science and bad politics. It makes for bad science because the attempt to understand humans in the same language as the rest of nature ignores an essential quality of humanness – human subjectivity. And it makes for bad politics because once we accept that human agency – and human reason – are forces for destruction rather than betterment, then we lose the only means we possess for human advancement, whether social, moral or technological.

To make my case I want to look at the relationship between humans and nature, to explore what makes humans exceptional, and to understand how and why it is that so many today baulk at the idea of human exceptionalism.

A paradox of science is that its success in understanding nature has created problems for its understanding of human nature. The success of science derives from the way that it has ‘disenchanted’ the natural world, to borrow a phrase from Max Weber. Whereas the pre-scientific world viewed the universe as full of purpose and desire, the scientific revolution transformed nature into an inert, mindless entity.

At the heart of the scientific methodology is its view of nature, and of natural organisms, as machines; not because ants or apes are inanimate, or because they work like watches or TVs, but because, like all machines, they lack self-consciousness, foresight and will. Animals are the objects of natural forces, not the potential subjects of their own destiny. They act out a drama, do not create it.

Humans, however, are not disenchanted creatures. We possess – or believe we possess – purpose and agency, self-consciousness and will, qualities that science has expunged from the rest of nature. Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can, to some extent at least, shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also reflexive, rational, social beings, able to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws. We are, in other words, both immanent in nature and transcendent of it.

The very development of the scientific method has exacerbated this paradox of being human. To study nature scientifically requires us to make a distinction between a humanity that is a thinking subject and a nature that presents itself to thought but is itself incapable of thought. When studying ‘external’ nature the distinction between the thinking subject and the object of study is easy to make. But with the study of humans, such a neat division becomes impossible: human beings are simultaneously the subject that thinks and the object of that thought. We can understand humans as beings within nature that can be studied by science. But the very act of studying humans in this fashion takes them in a sense outside of nature because of the distinction we must make between an objective nature and a thinking humanity. This is, in philosopher Kate Soper’s words, ‘the paradox of humanity’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence’. Nature ‘is that which Humanity finds itself within, and to which in some sense its belongs, and also that from which it seems excluded in the very moment it reflects upon either its otherness or its belongingness.’

In other words, our very capacity to reflect upon nature takes us in some sense outside of nature, for if we could not view nature from the outside we could not reflect upon it objectively.

To talk of humans as ‘transcendent’ is not to ascribe to them spiritual properties. It is, rather, to recognise that as subjects we have the ability to transform our selves, our natures, our world, an ability denied to any other physical being. In the seven million years or so since the evolutionary lines of humans and chimpanzees first diverged on either side of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, both chimpanzees and humans have evolved. In comparative terms, however, the behaviour and lifestyles of chimpanzees have barely changed. Human behaviour and lifestyles have clearly transformed out of all recognition. Humans have learned to learn from previous generations, to improve upon their work, and to establish a momentum to human life and culture that has taken us from cave art to quantum physics and the conquest of space. It is this capacity for constant innovation that distinguishes humans from all other animals. All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history.

Uniquely among organisms, then, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate. Science has expunged consciousness and teleology from the natural world. But consciousness and teleology remain crucial aspects of the human world. Any mechanistic account of humanness, therefore, has to account for human teleology in non-teleological terms. Mechanistic thinkers have risen to this challenge in two ways. One is to deny teleology. The other is to ignore it.

Some scientists and philosophers argue that consciousness and teleology are illusions, phenomena that natural selection has designed us to believe in, not because they are true, but because they are useful. As the neuro-scientist Colin Blakemore has put it, when ‘we feel ourselves to be in control of an action, that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.’ According to Blakemore, ‘To choose a spouse, a job, a religious creed – or even to choose to rob a bank – is the peak of a causal chain that runs back to the origin of life and down to the nature of atoms and molecules.’ We think we are in charge, but in reality there is no self which can take charge. There is simply the machinery of the brain churning away, thanks to a chain of causal links that goes back to the Big Bang itself.

A variation on this argument is provided by the psychologist Susan Blackmore who adopts Richard Dawkins’s notion of a meme, a unit of culture that inhabits, or rather parasitises, our brains. Blackmore suggests that ‘instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied.’ Since ‘we cannot find either beliefs or the self that believes’ by looking into somebody’s head, she argues, so we must conclude that there are no such things as beliefs or selves, ‘only a person arguing, a brain processing the information, memes being copied or not.’ In such mechanistic accounts, not just Cartesian dualism but the Cartesian subject – the active, conscious agent of human action whom Descartes introduced into modern philosophy – has disappeared.

There are many arguments against this view. But consider just this one. From an evolutionary point of view, truth is contingent. Darwinian processes are driven by the need not to ascertain truth, but to survive and reproduce. Of course, survival often requires organisms to have correct facts about the world. A zebra that believed that lions were friendly, or a chimpanzee that enjoyed the stench of rotting food would not survive for long. But although natural selection often ensures that an organism possesses the correct facts, it does not always do so. Indeed, the argument that consciousness and agency are illusions designed by natural selection relies on the idea that evolution can select for untruths about the world because such untruths aid survival.

If, then, our cognitive capacities were simply evolved dispositions, there would be no way of knowing which of these capacities lead to true beliefs and which to false ones. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel points out, there would thus be no basis on which to trust reason itself. To accept the truth of reasoning, Nagel observes, ‘I have to be able to believe … that I follow the rules of logic because they are correct – not merely because I am biologically programmed to do so.’

In other words, if we were simply natural beings like every other natural being, then science would simply be an evolved way of looking at the world, not a means to ascertain objective truths. The logic of the argument put forward by Colin Blakemore and Susan Blackmore undermines our confidence in its own veracity. For if we are simply sophisticated animals or machines, then we cannot have any confidence in the claim that we are only sophisticated animals or machines. We are only able to do science because we are able to transcend our evolutionary heritage, because we are able to act as subjects, rather than as objects.

For this and many other reasons, many find implausible the idea that human agency is just an illusion. They therefore adopt a different approach – accepting, in principle, the existence of consciousness and agency, but ignoring them in practice when formulating scientific concepts of human nature. The psychologist Steven Pinker, for instance, points out that moral reasoning depends upon our acknowledgement of ourselves as sentient beings. The concept of sentience ‘underlies our certainty that torture is wrong and that disabling a robot is the destruction of property but disabling a person is murder.’ Pinker acknowledges that, as yet, we have no idea how to explain sentience scientifically. But, he argues, ‘Our incomprehension of sentience does not impede our understanding of how our mind works.’

It seems odd to hold that sentience is both central to human thinking and also irrelevant to our understanding of how the mind works. As the neurologist Raymond Tallis points out, to construct a theory of the human mind while ignoring sentience is a bit like ‘trying to build a house by starting at the second floor’. Sentience, Tallis observes, ‘is the first, not the last, problem of psychology. It is not merely the most difficult of the problems of consciousness or mind; it is also the pivotal one and addressing it cannot be postponed until one has solved the “easier” problems such as those pertaining to … intelligence, memory, thinking etc.’ Consciousness and agency, in other words, are not phenomena tacked on to human nature; they are at the heart of what it is to be human.

The relationship between humans as physically determined beings, and humans as conscious agents – between humans as objects and humans as subjects – is one of the most difficult problems for scientists and philosophers. While analytically we can talk of humans either as subjects or as objects, in reality humans are simultaneously both subject and object.

We have at present no real conceptual framework within which to consider such an ontological peculiarity. Denying one or other aspects of our humanness, however, is not a way of solving the conundrum. By insisting that humans can be understood in purely naturalistic terms, mechanistic thinkers are in practice forced to give up on the attempt to understand humans as subjective beings, and compelled to view them simply as objects.

Someone might then say, ‘Hold on, does not a materialist, scientific view of the world require a naturalistic philosophy? In questioning naturalism, are we not in danger of invoking supernatural or divine explanations of how the world operates, opening the way to, say, creationism and the like?’

The answer to this depends upon the definition of naturalism, or rather upon the redefinition that has taken place in recent decades. Originally, as the concept developed through the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘naturalism’ meant the ability to explain all events and phenomena without recourse to the supernatural and the divine. In this sense I consider myself a naturalist.

But in recent decades there has been redefinition of naturalism which is now widely taken to mean not simply the rejection of supernatural explanations but the acceptance of the idea that the explanations of natural science suffice to explain all phenomena, not simply the phenomena of nature; in other words that mental and social phenomena can be reduced to the physical. In contemporary naturalism, as Frederick Olafson put it, ‘The world and nature are one and the same, and everything in them is of the same ontological type.’

Thus E.O. Wilson suggests ‘that sociology and other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology’. And Richard Dawkins believes that ‘Science is the only way to understand the real world.’

It’s a view, I believe, that confuses the physical world with the ‘real’ world. For, as Mary Midgley has pointed out, ‘Toothache is as real as teeth’ and ‘debt is as real as the house that was bought with it.’ The social and the mental are as real as the natural. But the social and the mental cannot be understood as if they were simply natural.

The distinction I’m trying to draw is between a materialist and a mechanistic view of humanness. A materialist view understands human beings without resort to mystical explanations. But it also sees humans as exceptional because humans, unlike any other beings, possess consciousness and agency. And understanding human consciousness and agency requires us to understand humans as not just natural, but also historical and social beings. A mechanistic view, on the other hand, sees the human being largely as an object through which nature acts. Few scientists, even those with a mechanistic worldview, would dispute that human beings possess consciousness or free will. Yet their desire for a purely naturalistic explanation of the world denies them the resources that allow them to understand humans as subjects.

Why have mechanistic views of humanness become fashionable? In part for a variety of scientific and philosophical reasons too complex to explore here. But in part, also, the shift has taken place for political and social reasons. As I have already suggested, not just in science but in politics and culture too, we have moved away from viewing humans as subjects, and away from a faith in human-directed change.

As we have become more pessimistic about the human condition, as the exceptional status of human beings has seemed a mere self-delusion, so the idea that humans are just animals or machines has appeared both scientifically plausible and culturally acceptable. The pessimism of contemporary culture has cleared a space for a more mechanistic vision of humanity, a vision that seeks to deny the special, exceptional qualities of being human. Such pessimism also underlies much of the fear of biotechnology. Given the disillusionment with human capacities, there is a growing tendency today to make humans more natural and nature more human, imbuing it with sense and purpose, a fount of wisdom and knowledge.

‘The human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable’, suggests the microbiologist and co-founder of the Gaia hypothesis Lynn Margulis. ‘Our self-inflated moral imperative to guide a wayward Earth or heal our sick planet is evidence of our immense capacity for self-delusion. Rather, we need to protect us from ourselves.’

In almost every aspect of life, today – from health to food to energy sources – the ‘natural’ is regarded as morally superior to the artificial, or human, as ‘the virtuous opposite of the degraded manifestations of humanity’s fallen state’, as Norman Levitt has put it. ‘Natural’, he points out, ‘has become a code word for the way things are meant to be rather than the way they are.’

Against this background, it is perhaps inevitable that biological technology that threatens to transform humanity’s relationship with nature is seen as problematic. ‘Have we the right’, the molecular biologist Ervin Chargaff asks, ‘to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years?’ Or as the writer Brian Appleyard has put it, ‘it is a struggle with the givens of human nature that defines humanity, not the progressive effort to transform that nature.’

The idea that nature embodies certain verities, and these verities define the boundaries that we transgress at our peril, is at the heart of contemporary fear of the new biology. Jonathan Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth, worries that ‘the “hard lines” between different organisms and species are beginning to melt away’. We can, he writes, ‘now pick and choose individual genes from one organism to introduce into a totally different and unrelated organism, crossing all biological boundaries, in combinations that nature never could and never would bring together.’

There is something unnatural, Porritt seems to believe, about the way that genetic engineering dissolves the old boundaries of nature. And in an age in which social and moral boundaries appear so fluid, it has never seemed more important to view natural boundaries as solid and permanent. ‘Living things are no longer perceived as birds and bees, foxes and hens’, the American writer Jeremy Rifkin observes in The Biotech Century, ‘but as bundles of genetic information. All living things are drained of their substance and turned into abstract messages.’

In this new science there is no sense of ‘sacredness or specialness’. How could there be, Rifkin asks, ‘when there are no longer any special boundaries to respect?’ In this new way of thinking about evolution, ‘structure is abandoned’ … ‘Nothing exists in the moment.’ There is more than an echo here of John Donne’s response to the scientific revolution in the 17th century. ‘New Philosophy calls all in doubt’, he wrote, leaving ‘…all in pieces, all coherence gone; / All just supply, all Relation.’ The demand by thinkers like Jeremy Rifkin and Prince Charles that we rediscover a sense of the sacred in our relationship with nature is really a plea to restore a degree of structure and order to our lives. A strong God makes for firm boundaries.

There is a widespread sense that human nature is fixed and unchanging and that we have to bow to the wisdom of nature. As Francis Fukuyama puts it, ‘There are good prudential reasons to defer to the natural order of things and not to think that human beings can easily improve upon it through casual intervention.’ But why should the ‘natural order of things’ be better than human creation? After all, we only need medicine – and hence biotechnology – because nature has left us with badly designed bodies that tend constantly to break down with headaches and backaches, cancers and coronaries, schizophrenia and depression. And as John Stuart Mill once asked, ‘If the artificial is not better than that natural to what end are all the arts of life?’ It’s precisely because we have lost faith in the arts of life – in human creation, in human agency – that we feel compelled to accept the givens of nature.

Francis Fukuyama’s argument illustrates this well. Human values, he believes, are rooted in human nature. Human nature is rooted in our biological being. Messing around with human biology could alter human nature, transform our values and undermine society. We therefore need regulation to obstruct any technological advance that might ‘disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature’. In reality, though, human values are not fixed in our nature, but emerge from our capacity to transcend that nature, from our capacity to act as conscious agents. Fukuyama himself recognises this. For instance, he suggests that violence ‘may be natural to human beings’. But so, too, is ‘the propensity to control and channel violence’. Humans are capable of ‘reasoning about their situation’ and of ‘understanding the need to create rules and institutions that constrain violence’. Humans, therefore, by virtue of being subjects, not just objects, possess the capacity to rise above their natural inclinations and, through the use of reason, to shape their values.

But, as I have argued, it is just this capacity for transcendence that many question today. What is fragile is not human nature, as Fukuyama and others suggest, but the contemporary sense of human possibilities and of the capacity of humans to create ethically meaningful lives. So such critics attempt to bolster our moral values by rooting them not in the contingencies of human action, but the seeming certainties of nature’s wisdom.

But such a move can only weaken our capacity for political, social and moral progress. Whatever calamities human beings have brought upon ourselves and our world, it is not because we have tried to bring reason to bear on a problem, or tried to impose greater control upon the world. It is rather because we have acted irrationally, or ignorantly, or have had an insufficient means of control. The barbarism of the past century, and the catastrophes of today, are the products not of the quest for progress, but of the lack of it. It is when we stop thinking of ourselves as conscious agents, with the capacity rationally to change the world, and begin to believe that the answers to human problems lie beyond the human sphere, in God or in nature, that we unleash the monsters. That is why the retreat from human exceptionalism makes for both bad science and bad politics.

This essay originally appeared in Consciousness, Genetics and Society: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2002.


Kenan Malik