What would Daniel Dennett say about the agency of a simple earthworm? Does it think freely?

Do animals make their own decisions? However small an input they have, are they free? Or are they just collections of cells—organisms—operating together according to the physical laws of the material universe?

For, you see, we are animals too; and if we believe in free will, we ought to be able to establish signs of agency in other animals—that is, if we believe in evolution—because we share similar origins.

One particularly influential theory belongs to Daniel Dennett. Dennett grants animals agency if animals are able to act on intentions. As per his ‘Intentional stance’, if an animal (an intentional system) possesses the ability to act on mental activities, such as beliefs and desires, it has intentions which can be treated independently from the physical laws that govern its behaviours. For Dennett it doesn’t matter that these intentions can be wedded to the deterministic predictions of physical sciences because free will and its rudiments in ‘lower’ animals can say nothing of its immaterial intentions.

Dennett purportedly finds what free-will theorists are seeking: freely born, subjective intentions, which can’t be deprived of their agency by predictions. Of course, however, there is a range of mental capacities. From the minds of lowly entities, such as clams and earthworms, to the cognitively advanced minds of orangutans and Asian elephants, who show semblances of self-awareness, agency is graduated and ranges with the sophistication of intention.

The crazy thing, though, is that Dennett doesn’t require consciousness for his theory to work, granted consciousness can certainly affect what kinds of intentions animals have. Thus Dennett can’t even rule out thermostats and other inanimate objects which ‘act’ on ‘considerations’ of their surroundings! That is, a thermostat is physically programmed with the goal of a making a room a specified temperature; it can, therefore, be said to have an intention, with which the thermostat’s inner workings find a way to achieve that temperature as the thermostat interacts with its environment on its own accord.

So animals and potentially inanimate objects can be agents of their own futures despite each facing one physically possible future, as per the thesis of determinism. Let’s repeat that thought because, while it’s quite cool in principle, it’s also pretty radical: an earthworm can be barely conscious, an earthworm can face one physically possible future, and yet an earthworm can be treated as a responsible agent of whatever future is determined to transpire by the physical world around it.

Is Dennett too ambitious? Maybe. But his account is widely respected and popular amongst determinists.