Denis Walsh is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy, the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, at the University of Toronto. He holds a PhD in Biology (McGill University) and PhD in Philosophy (King’s College London). From 2005 to 2015 he held the Canada Research Chair in Philosphy of Biology. He has taught at the LSE, University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College, and MIT in addition to the University of Toronto. Recent publications include Evolutionary Biology: Conceptual, Ethical and religious Issues (2014 Cambridge University Press, co-edited with Paul Thompson), Organisms, Agency , and Evolution (2015, Cambridge University Press), and Challenging the Modern Synthesis: Adaptation, Inheritance, Development (2017 Oxford UNiversity Press, co-edited with Philippe Huneman).
Philosophy of Biology; Philosophy of Science; the metaphysics of evolution; the plurality of scientific explanations (mechanistic, causal, statistical, teleological); Aristotle’s biology; philosophy of mind, in particular the theory of action; meta-ethics
Agency in the Natural World
One of the most striking features of the natural world is the prevalence of agency. The capacity of humans (as cognitive and moral agents) and organisms (as biological agents) to act in pursuit of their goals structures the entire biosphere. Yet, a satisfactory account of the nature of agency has eluded the natural sciences and their accompanying philosophies. As agency involves purposes, norms, and reasons, it is thought by many to fall beyond the ambit of the natural sciences. The natural sciences approach the world as a system of law-governed mechanisms, in which agency has no place. I contend that there is a comprehensive naturalised account of agency (and its cognate phenomena) to be had, but it requires a significant departure from the foundationalist mechanism that has held the natural sciences and natural philosophy in its grip for over three centuries. My project develops the idea that agency is an ‘ecological’ phenomenon; an agent is a certain type of goal-directed system, embedded in an ‘ecological setting’. An ecological setting, in turn, is a set of conditions that is experienced, and responded to, as salient to the attainment of the system’s goals. I propose to extend my ecological account of agency to three philosophical realms: (i) the dynamics of organic evolution; (ii) the dynamics of human rational agency (intentionality and action), and; (iii) the dynamics of human moral agency.