by Gene Callahan
In C. Mantzavinos’s Philosophy of the Social Sciences there is a paper by Philip Pettit entitled “The Reality of Group Agents.” (He decides, by the way, that sometimes it makes perfect sense to attribute agency to a group, but that’s a topic for a different day.) What I wish to talk about today is the following passage, a preliminary to the issue of group agency, which discusses when it is sensible to posit agency for an individual creature such as, say, a wasp:
“Consider the Sphex wasp that Daniel Dennett describes. This wasp brings its eggs to the edge of a hole that it has found or dug, enters the hole to make sure it is still provisioned with the paralyzed prey that is has previously deposited there, then comes up and takes the eggs back into the hole. But it turns out that if the eggs are moved even a little bit away from the edge while the wasp is in the hole, then the wasp goes through the whole routine again and that it can be forced by this intervention to repeat the exercise an indefinite number of times. The failure here prompts us to recognize that the wasp is not displaying the pattern of ensuring that its eggs are placed in a suitable hole, as if it were focused in an agential way on that abstract purpose.” (pp. 73-74)
I have two reservations about this passage. First of all, no agent can fulfill an abstract purpose. As Michael Oakeshott said, “I cannot want to be happy; what I want is to idle in Avignon or hear Caruso sing” (On Human Conduct).
Secondly, why not model the wasp as being like, say, a character in Awakenings: The wasp has a purpose, but can only realize it in a rather obsessive way: it dives in the hole, decides “Everything is OK,” comes up to move the eggs into the hole, and discovers someone has been messing with it! “Hmm,” it thinks (and of course I’m am depicting an extremely anthropomorphized wasp here, but you’ll get the point), “if things have gone wrong up here, then they could be all whack in the hole as well!” So back down it plunges to check on its victim. Finding the victim in place, it comes back up, only to discover the eggs have been messed with again!
Because what, after all, would a much more capable and flexible agent make of our behavior? Let’s say the agent was a perfect Bayesian reasoner; might she not decide that we really are not to be thought of as agents, since our actions do not display the requisite flexibility in adjusting to changed circumstances?
Now, I am not saying that the above is the correct explanation of the Sphex wasp’s behavior; nor am I even saying that we should attribute agency to the wasp. But I am skeptical of the reasoning that Pettit and Dennett use in denying it is an agent. What do you think?