UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Experimental Psychology Seminar - The Evolution of Agency and Free Will, with Kevin Mitchell

18 March 2024, 1:00 pm–3:00 pm


Are we really in control of our actions? Or are we just neural automata, playing out our preprogramming in any moment? Kevin Mitchell, Trinity College Dublin, joins us to trace the trajectory of increasing cognitive depth throughout our evolutionary history and its culmination in rational control over behaviour.

Event Information

Open to



Antonietta Esposito


26 Bedford Way
United Kingdom

Venue : LG04, 26 Bedford Way
You can also join via Zoom : 
Meeting ID: 928 6381 4752
Passcode: 768871

Title : The Evolution of Agency and Free Will

Abstract : 
Are we really in control of our actions? Or are we just neural automata, playing out our preprogramming in any moment? Or, even worse, are we just collections of atoms obeying the deterministic laws of physics? These concerns threaten our conception of human free will, and, equally, the more fundamental notion of agency of any organism. How could living organisms – as holistic entities, not just sites of complicated happenings – really act as causal agents in the world? Rather than debating how this could be, in principle, we can ask how did it come to be, in practice. At the most basic level, living systems do thermodynamic work to maintain themselves as entities, out of equilibrium with their environment. Causal slack at the lowest levels of physical reality allowed macroscopic functionalities that favoured organismal persistence to emerge and be selected for. In the simplest organisms, we can see the origins of action and the concomitant emergence of behavioural control systems. Through the evolution of multicellular creatures and the invention of nervous systems, we can follow the transition from pragmatic perception-action couplings to more and more internalised semantic representations. This led, on our lineage, to a trajectory of increasing cognitive depth and ever more sophisticated mapping and modelling of the world and the self, and eventually to the emergence of reflexive thought and metacognition – modelling the mind itself. The resultant accumulation of causal knowledge grants the ability to simulate more complex scenarios, to predict and plan over longer timeframes, to optimise over more competing goals at once, and ultimately to exercise conscious rational control over behaviour. This evolutionary perspective thus provides a way to naturalise agency and free will, without reducing organisms to machines or appealing to any supernatural forces.

Host : Steve Fleming

About the Speaker

Kevin Mitchell

Associate Professor at Trinity College Dublin

Kevin Mitchell, is an Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin.

His research is aimed at understanding the genetic program specifying the wiring of the brain and its relevance to variation in human faculties, especially to psychiatric and neurological disease and to perceptual conditions like synaesthesia.

​He also studies the biology of agency and free will, authors the blog; Wiring the Brain, and has recently published a book; “FREE AGENTS - How Evolution Gave Us Free Will” (Princeton University Press).

More about Kevin Mitchell