The Evolution of Agency

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 6 Comments

What matters most about human beings is our capacity for active agency. We can do things, we can change things, we can create things. One way to think about evolution is to think about it in terms of the evolution of agency – the evolution of the ability to act effectively as an intentional being.

What is it that makes an entity and agent and not just a thing?
Active agents are able to do three things.

1. Perceive the way things are.

2. Hold an an ideal for how things should be.

3. Act in ways that move the way things are now closer to the way they should be.

If an entity cannot do anyone of these three things it is not an active agent. If you were unable to perceive you would certainly not have any chance of being considered an active agent.

If you were able to perceive the ways things are, but not able to act in ways that could effect change you would also not be an active agent.
If you were able to perceive the way things are and effect change, but could not hold an ideal for how things should be then you could only be a reactive agent.

Human beings have agency. We are agents who can effect change that moves us from where we are toward an ideal of the way things should be. And our agency is not fixed – it can grow. We can attain greater levels of agency.

How does agency grow?

The three things that effect agency are perception, performance and vision and all three of these can grow. Our ability to effect change definitely depends on the subtlety of our perception. If you ask a master chef and an average person to go into a kitchen cupboard and produce a meal from what they find, the master chef will be able to exercise a greater degree of agency. They will be able to do more with what they find partly because they will see deeper into what is there. They will also be able to do more because they will have greater skill as a cook – they will be able to perform at a higher level.

Lastly they would be able to do more because they would hold a higher vision or standard for what a meal should be. They would be striving for a level of an ideal meal that was much higher than the average person. One person might see spaghetti and tomatoes and make a meal using just that. The chef might pull out 10 different other items and make a three-course meal because their ideal for what a meal should be would not allow them to settle for less.

Our ability to act as an autonomous agent increases as our perception gets wider and subtler, and as our skill levels increase, and as we hold a higher vision. Many of us are interested in the evolution of consciousness. I would say that thinking in terms of the evolution of agency might even be a useful way to think about it.

Our agency as individuals certainly increases through our lifetime and also the potential for human agency in general has evolved through history. Agency is not limited to individuals alone though. Groups of individuals can also act as agents. Groups can perceive things the way they are, hold an ideal for a higher possibility and act to move the way things are closer toward the collectively held ideal. Evolution marches ever forward toward higher and higher levels of agency. And we are agents in the universe that have the ability to apply our agency to increase our agency.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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allen zeesman
allen zeesman
9 years ago

What is the difference in this case between agency and will?

9 years ago

Please allow me to add another aspect of agency:

4. Agents are aware of their own agency

With a systems view: agents act, check the results, then act again. This became particularly exiting starting 150 years ago when we became aware of our own evolution. Now we can purposefully act on the trajectory of life itself, both physical life and cultural life.

Happy New Year!


[…] The Evolution of Agency « Evolutionary Philosophy. We can do things, we can change things, we can create things. […]

Frank Lke
Frank Lke
9 years ago

Re diff between will and agency:

One may have the will but u;nless it’s acted upon, it’s may continue to be merely an intention, IMO. I have spiritual work I know I must still work on and at this point those tasks remain still unresolved. I continue to postpone acting on them but hope eventually to become courageous and strong enough to be able to act successsfully.

Frank Lke
Frank Lke
9 years ago

Best wishes for a happy new year with great spritiual growth for all !!