Agency and Mechanism – by Mike Moum

Some of the conflicted thinking about evolution in particular, and science in general, is a consequence of what logicians refer to as “category error”, which is treating two different things as though they were the same. A mundane example will help to illustrate the point.


I am sitting at my computer, typing this, when I feel the need for a caffeine jolt, so I reach for my coffee cup and drink. The mechanism by which I do that consists of the operation of muscles, tendons, nerves, cellular processes, and similar physical components of my arm and hand. What mechanism can’t explain is why I drink in the first place. That explanation belongs to the realm of agency, the non-material seat of the will. I decide to take that drink, but I could equally well have decided that typing was more important so I choose not to. In other words, the agent is me; the mechanism is my body.


In short, mechanism answers how questions; agency answers why questions.


Using that perspective, evolution addresses the mechanism of evolution, whereas religion addresses the reason behind evolution. Hence purpose and process are not at odds, are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.


The objection could be made that we don’t know how the immaterial and the material interact, but the lack of an explanation does not by any means mean that they do not. For example, we don’t understand exactly how gravity works, but only the very foolish would argue that gravity does not exist and act accordingly.