BYU Studies Quarterly

BYU Studies Quarterly

Article Title

Each Atom an Agent?


Steven L. Peck


BYU Studies, agents, panpsychism, consciousness


An agent, broadly conceived, references something causally efficacious. More narrowly, the word agent is usually deployed in at least three senses. The first is as brute causality. For example, to say that water is an agent of erosion on vegetatively barren hillsides is to claim that water directly causes the removal of the soil in particular drainage systems. The second sense, used predominately in biology, recognizes an agent as an individual autonomous system that constrains the flow of energy and matter such that its actions are performed for particular functions or goals. For instance, a simple bacterium is drawn to move upward toward light where food is more abundant. Typically, this is a much more complicated agent, in which information is used to sense environmental conditions and to respond to those conditions through metabolic functions, such as when energy is used for things like movement, reproduction, or energy capture.1 In these first two instances, we note that since the time of Isaac Newton, these simple kinds of agents were thought to be part of the clockwork universe—a perspective that conceived of everything in the universe as nothing but deterministic machines with no freewheeling parts. The third sense of the word agent, the one most of this paper engages, is that of intentional agents that have, at least in some sense, volitional attributes based on information with which they make choices, possibly free choices for some advanced animals (including most vertebrates).2 These agents may be loosely described as having attributes such as sentience, sensing, consciousness, qualia detection, the ability to prehend,3 and other terms that suggest awareness of at least some aspects of the universe. Examples include bees, cows, and humans, all of which are suspected of harboring some kind of awareness. Even such simple organisms as bacteria and earthworms may sense the world in certain ways. Determining how far down the “chain of being” this awareness exists may be an insoluble problem. Are individual atoms aware of anything? What about electrons? Quarks? Photons? In a real sense, we cannot even tell if our neighbor is conscious or whether a honeybee is aware of its world in any way analogous to what we experience, so determining which organisms share these experiential capabilities is tricky. And at least since the early Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, some people have speculated that these capacities might reach all the way down to the very fundamental atoms of the universe—an idea often called panpsychism.