Sunday, April 13, 2014

Delusion of Agency

Going through the philosophical schools of thought in general, one can’t help but notice two things – the anthropo-centrism and the excessive assumption of agency of human beings for their destiny. The first of these I will deal with separately but the second merits some explanation here.

Our studies of matters concerning ourselves – i.e. ‘humanities’ and social studies – have been afflicted with this limitation since early days. Our notion of self is one of active decision making individual – who acts for better or worse and makes judgment calls, right or wrong, and assesses situations and decides. It is axiomatic and is rarely questioned. There is no doubt the discussion on free will – but that is one-zero. While it captures an important part of this delusion, it still misses the crux of this matter – even if we are free to decide, what we decide matters only so much.

What I am proposing is an alternate view of our selves. We are not the analytical, rational and in-control selves we think we are. We are organic machines that have skills to navigate the world to survive as long as possible and procreate. Our skills make several additional things possible – which eventually brought us wonderful things like language, technology, arts and so on. However our pre-programmed aspiration at the fundamental level is still the same as our ancestors. We of course infuse additional aspirations on the way – driven by our cultural context amongst other things. Nevertheless the end result is a much messier sum of several drives rather than the neat segregation that many psychological models have us believe (e.g. id, ego, superego or rational self and emotive self etc). No doubt such models help us understand ourselves a little better – with the hope that we can use that to advance our innate and acquired aspirations and to avoid pain. However, these are approximations. And given our tendency to long for clarity, we quickly fall in love with these models and start thinking of them as realities rather than the maps (territory and the map again! J)

In my messier formulation, human beings are a combination of constrained, guided and self-willed individuals who are still prone to internal randomness as well external one. They act within the roles partially bestowed/imposed on them by their context and partially conceived and built by themselves. The evolution is itself messy though. It does not progress in a linear manner of input leading to output – of whatever proportion. Instead the output is always a complex function of input from agent, context, and some random factors. The agent then evolves partially by its own will and partially without it. The without it portion need not be in accordance with the own will – it can be neutral or even against.

The evolution within is mirrored on the outside as well. In fact, briefly visiting the excessive anthropocentrism mentioned at the beginning of this article, one may conjecture that ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ is a human-centric view of the reality. In contrast to this, one may take an alien’s point of view and see the continuum which includes some organic life-forms – whose ‘insides’ are merely additional material for study in the continuum, without a special place.

Anyway, the evolution is mirrored on the outside in the sense that the output of an activity in general is a complex function of actors’ inputs and context. Thus over time, both the actor and the context evolve – in complex ways which are very hard to predict. The actor however has the reflective faculty – which models the reality on an ongoing basis. In this reflection the actor may choose to accord a disproportionate share of the outcome of internal evolution as well as evolution of the context to her own inputs. Owing to the complexities of both evolutions, it is quite hard to disprove such delusion. In any case, there is nobody that has an interest in doing so. Also the actor moves forward not so much by accurately describing reality but by surviving as long as possible. In physical matters, an accurate enough description is coincidental with survival – knowing where mountain ends and not trying to walk in air is a good choice for example. In matters more epistemological or philosophical, such urgency is missing. Believing that one controls one’s destiny – or at least one’s internal situation – is hardly a survival handicap. Given the vagaries of life, it may even confer an advantage (refer to Kahnemann’s Engine of Capitalism for a parallel – incorrectly overoptimistic entrepreneurs push forward innovation – thus benefitting the society but not necessarily themselves, at least in a material sense).

Am I saying anything non-trivial? Probably. If we allow for this worldview to create the (admittedly fluid) foundation of our representation of reality, we will probably not even ask many philosophical questions, answer many others differently (at the very least more tentatively) and in the domain of sociology, economics and psychology, frame our research in a manner very different than it is being done now.
Same holds for political science as well as active discourse on politics.

I am proposing combining behavioral school of thought with the awareness of the overwhelming important of context and with the recognition of randomness inherent in evolution within and without human actors.

At a personal level, I use this awareness to find peace and tranquility – although I am quite aware that these are aspirations and not foregone beliefs once I accept the foundation. That is because my inside is also not entirely under my active control and I can only hope to steer it towards this worldview over time as much as I can!

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