ArgLab • Workshop

Human Agency and Self within the 21st Century Cognitive Ecology

With Mark Coeckelbergh

IFILNOVA – Universidade NOVA de Lisboa

Colégio Almada Negreiros, Campus de Campolide

Lisboa, Portugal

The concepts of self and agency are sometimes imagined in cognitive science and analytic philosophy in ways that are rather decontextualized and ahistorical. Yet it is clear that these concepts are undergoing change and are often being rapidly reconceptualized against a background of technological change. The concept of self, and arguably the nature of self, has a long history through which it has undergone much change (Taylor 1989) and may once more be undergoing radical conceptual change (Clowes, Gärtner, and Hipólito 2021). The notion of agency and human agency appears to be in flux against a background of ‘intelligent systems’ that are ever more active, autonomous and arguably agentive (Floridi, 2023).

As this new background of ‘smart’ technologies plays an ever more central role in regulating a host of human activities, it may be that we are moving into new territories of human self and agency.The Internet, smart phones, wearables, apps, smart speakers, virtual agents and most recently, generative AI, are all playing deepening roles in the way human beings carry out and structure their activities, regulate their lives and conceive of themselves. This ‘smart’ technological background creates a new environment for human cognition and knowledge, a new type of cognitive ecology (Hutchins 2010, Smart, Heersmink, and Clowes 2017), but its consequences for human beings and our minds is badly under-theorised. Smart technology makes available new affordances for action and new forms of cognitive opacity that may restrict the scope of human action. Arguably the shape of human agency and self is changing in the process and not necessarily in ways that are of advantage to individuals (Turkle 2011, Coeckelbergh 2022).

How might this new cognitive ecology change the nature of human self and human agency? What new resources for human agency do they make available? Which new forms of inhibition and control might they enable? What resources do we have to assess and shape this new potent environment?

The meeting will explore the following questions:

  • Do  new concepts of the self that have recently come into focus such as: data-selves, quantified selves, extended selves, often understood in the context of new technologies stand up to critical scrutiny? How well poised are these concepts to aid self-understanding, and to what extent may be reifications? Are we really becoming new sorts of selves?
  • How do data-tracking, social networking technologies and Artificial Intelligence (AI) change the nature of the self and how we relate to ourselves? Is it true that AI can “know us better than we know ourselves?” How does this change the deep history of our understanding of self?
  • Arguably this new phase of technologies creates a new sort of self, but how should we locate this within the deeper intellectual trends and traditions of thinking about self and agency? How does it relate to the humanist tradition that also depended on earlier technologies of the self such as the novel and the letter? How much do new movements such as the “quantified self” reflect new modes of self-understanding and how much do they imply new types of self and agency? Or even new forms of social control?
  • Scaffolding, Cognitive Ecologies, Exo-selves and Doppelgangers: How are we to theorise the new world of technologies and the solicitations it makes upon us? Do their affordances and solicitations give us new ways to express ourselves, practice self-control or exercise agency or are they better understood as providing new modes of distraction, inauthenticity and unhappiness?
  • Might the new technologies avail us of new forms of agency? Or do they rather undermine human agency both collectively and individually? Where do the real sources of agency lie in the new tecnico-socio landscape?

This workshop takes as its point of departure Mark Coeckelbergh’s book Self-Improvement: Technologies of the Soul in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. It is organised by Robert W. Clowes & Gloria Andrada, within the scope of the activities of the Lisbon Mind, Cognition and Knowledge Group.


Mark Coeckelbergh, Professor of Philosophy at University of Vienna


Ben White, University of Sussex

David Spurrett (University of Kwazulu-Natal)

Gloria Andrada (LMCK Group, NOVA University Lisbon)

Guido Cassinadri (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies)

Marco Fasoli (Department of Philosophy of University of Roma La Sapienza)

Maria Grazia Rossi (LMCK Group, NOVA University Lisbon)

Marta Pérez Verdugo (University of the Basque Country)

Robert W. Clowes (LMCK Group, NOVA University Lisbon)

Rui Vieira da Cunha (University of Porto)


Clowes, Robert W, Klaus Gärtner, and Inês Hipólito. 2021. “The Mind Technology Problem and the Deep History of Mind Design.” The Mind-Technology Problem, 1-45. Springer.

Coeckelbergh, Mark. 2022. Self-improvement: Technologies of the Soul in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Columbia University Press.

Floridi, Luciano. 2023. “AI as Agency without Intelligence: On ChatGPT, large language models, and other generative models.” Philosophy & Technology 36 (1):15.

Hutchins, Edwin. 2010. “Cognitive ecology.” Topics in Cognitive Science 2 (4):705-715.

Smart, P. R., Heersmink, R., & Clowes, R. W. (2017). The Cognitive Ecology of the The Internet. In S. J. Cowley & F. Vallée-Tourangeau (Eds.), Cognition Beyond the Brain, 2nd Edition (pp. 251-282): Springer.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. “Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.” Cambridge, MA.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.


April 12

Colégio Almada Negreiros, Room SE1

15:00–15:10 Welcome to the workshop from ArgLab coordinator Dima Mohammed

15:10–15:25 Robert W. Clowes & Gloria Andrada: Opening remarks on the themes of the workshop

15:30–16:10 David Spurrett: Bad Scaffolding

16:10–16:30 Coffee Break

16:30–17:10 Gloria Andrada (and J. Adam Carter): The Bounds of Intentional Action

17:10–17:50 Marta Pérez Verdugo: Autonomy-diminishing and autonomy-enhancing digital interfaces: personal autonomy, ‘hyper-designability’ and regulation

April 13

Colégio Almada Negreiros, Room 209

10:00–11:20 Mark Coeckelberg: Self-Improvement and AI

11:20–11:40 Coffee break

11:40–12:20 Robert W. Clowes: Self-Regulation, Doppelgangers and the New Generative AI Landscape

12:20–13:00 Marco Fasoli: Manipulation, Persuasion and Traps in the Digital Environment

13:00–14:40 Lunch

14:40–15:20 Ben White: Distributed Metacognitive Control: Ambient Smart Environments and the Case for Disruption

15:20–16:00 Rui Vieira da Cunha: Enhancement, Quantified Self and Psychopolitics

16:00–16:40 Coffee break

16:40–17:20 Maria Grazia Rossi: Disrupting Automatic Actions to Make Space for New Thinking

17:20–18:00 Guido Cassinadri: Rejecting the Extended Narrative: A Critique of Two Normative Arguments for Extended Cognition

To join the session on Zoom, use this link (passcode: 399967).

For further inquiries, please contact Robert W. Clowes at or Gloria Andrada at