Reasons for action in non-human organisms: Exploring the intersection between philosophy action and biology

September 14, 2023 - September 15, 2023
Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science, Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven

Kardinaal Mercierplein 2

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Leibniz Universität Hannover
University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
University of Bristol


University of Oslo

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This workshop will examine the boundary between intentional and etiological explanations of goal-directed behavior in non-human organisms.

Goal-directed behaviors are typically explained by reference to reasons. Think of a rabbit darting zig-zag across a field while an owl hovers above. A natural interpretation of this behavior is that the rabbit is fleeing. Fleeing, then, acts as the reason explaining why the rabbit behaves as it does. But saying that the rabbit is fleeing does not entail an ascription of intention or awareness of the reason to the rabbit. It might be an instinctual behavior whose initiation the rabbit exerts no control over. It can be explained etiologically—as a result of natural selection having acted on a population of individuals varying in their disposition to flee given certain visual stimuli and favoring fleeing behavior. In other words, the reason for why the rabbit is fleeing can be expounded in terms of principles by which the rabbit itself is totally unaware. The only reference to the subjective perspective of the individual rabbit is its capacity for visual perception and an inherited stimulus-response pattern.

Such etiological explanations are reason-explanations, and they are undeniably parsimonious. They do not commit one to the ascription of any complex mental states underlying or causing the relevant behavior. A putative behavioral disposition tied to a relevant stimulus-response pattern is sufficient.

However, are we right in taking etiological-explanations as the standard for explaining goal-directed behavior in non-human organisms? Are we always right in avoiding or suppressing the introduction of subjectivity in explaining goal-directed behavior in non-human organisms? That is, are we correct in limiting reason-explanations to etiological explanations when dealing with non-human organisms?

These questions are pertinent, as many of the recent claims about mind, agency and/or cognition across the tree of life rest on a negative answer to these questions. In particular, if there is nothing gained by using intentional explanations over etiological ones in explaining goal-directed behavior in non-human animals, then the motivation behind regarding them as minded or as agents is challenged.

The workshop will address questions of the following sort:

- What makes a reason-explanation intentional? Is a belief-desire pair necessary?

- Is subjectivity necessary for agency?

- What role do concepts like ‘control’, ‘influence’, etc. play in deeming something agential?

- What role do open-ended processes like plasticity or learning play in challenging etiological explanations of goal-directed behavior?


- Samir Okasha (University of Bristol)

- Hans-Johann Glock (University of Zurich)

- Philippe Huneman (CNRS Paris)

- Hugh Desmond (Leibniz Universität Hannover/ University of Antwerp)

- Fermín Fulda (University of Toronto) (TBC)

There are a few slots open for non-invited speakers. If you wish to attend as a speaker, please send an abstract of 150-350 words, prepared for blind review, to [email protected]. These will be considered on a rolling basis, and the author will be notified with a decision shortly after submitting.

Therefore, there is no deadline to submit, but the call closes when the open slots have been filled. The event will be updated with a notifcation when this happens.

For any questions regarding the workshop, please contact Dr. Bendik Hellem Aaby ([email protected]). 

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Université Libre de Bruxelles

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