This is a guest post by Mike Travers, who develops software at Collaborative Drug Discovery, blogs on diverse topics at Omniorthogonal, collects his random hacks at Hyperphor, and has a PhD in Media Arts and Sciences.
The scientific picture of the world has some disturbing implications when its assumptions are worked out to their ultimate conclusions. Brains and bodies are pieces of machinery subject to the laws of physics, and If we are simply mechanisms, then our ability to be free seems to disappear, along many of the basic foundations of everyday cognition and action (choices, selves, values, morality, consciousness, etc). The scientific worldview has proven both extraordinarily powerful and immensely unsatisfactory, given how at odds it is with our everyday experience. The disjunction between scientific thought and traditional humanistic thought was captured by CP Snow’s Two Cultures in 1959 but has only gotten worse since then. As a scientifically trained person who has worked on the margins of artificial intelligence, I’ve always struggled for ways to reconcile these two worldviews.
One solution to the problem is to simply recognize that consistency is overrated, and having an embodied life in this universe means maintaining a variety of inconsistent worldviews for different occasions. This is what we all end up doing; even the most radical materialists must get on with their lives, which requires thinking of themselves and others as more than machines. Most scientists have no problem being materialists at their lab benches and normal humans when interacting with others. Philosophers may trouble themselves with the contradictions of free will; the rest of us have actual decisions to make.
Still, there is a constant flux of trade, immigration, and skirmishes along the porous border between the mechanical world of science and the value- and meaning-laden world of everyday life. The appetite for popular books on neuroscience is one indicator that people are not content to let these domains stay separate. For whatever reason, there is an enormous market for mechanical explanations of and interventions in our inner lives.
What is agency?
Agency simply means “the quality of being capable of taking action”. You and the people around you seem to have agency; while rocks generally do not. Inanimate objects are sometimes granted agency in a kind of humorous quote marks (eg “the washer decided to break today”); later we will try to take such constructions seriously. Agents (entities that have agency) have the additional implied quality of having goals, and that the actions they take are generally in pursuit of these goals. Agency thus carries a presumption of at least some rudimentary rationality, and a degree of autonomy.
Agency is a quality that seems to contradict physicalism – because in physics nothing is ever initiated, nothing acts. “In physics there are only happenings, no doings.”1 Yet we can’t understand the world without it – if agency is a fiction, it’s a necessary fiction. We live in a world of goals and actions, not merely mechanical forces guided by differential equations, and thus we are assigning agency constantly. Whether machines (including us) actually have agency is a philosophical black hole that we will try to avoid being sucked into. But the problematic status of agency frees us to consider it as not necessarily a fundamental feature of the universe, but more plausibly a kind of way of talking about phenomena. Agency is a conceptual framework, and one more suited to real life than pure science.
The quality of agency is deeply rooted in grammar. A well-constructed sentence has an agent (generally but not always the subject2), a verb, and a patient (object). Institutions and other collectives thus appear as agents just by dint of common usage – sentences like “Apple released a new iPhone”, “The bank foreclosed on my house”, “the crowd stormed the embassy”, all serve to cast non-humans in the agent role.
Human agency, despite its familiarity, is beset by well-known problems. We are subject to anomie and akrasia, to both overconfidence and crippling self-doubt. Psychologists have become adept at teasing out paradoxes of agency, such as that voluntary actions seem to start before we are aware of them, and that the startling number of false confessions to crimes shows we can easily be mistaken about our own agency. Freud and others since have dissected the unconscious and unintegrated goals that exist beneath the surface of everyday action. The model of the mind that emerges from these thinkers is that we are at our base bundles of autonomous and somewhat anarchic behaviors, tied together by higher-level functions that work on a kind of narrative basis – we hold ourselves together by telling stories about our actions, before and after the fact. But our tools for doing this are highly imperfect and limited. We are so conditioned to see ourselves as a unitary agent that the various malfunctions of our agency can be very troubling.
Locating Agency in Unusual Places.
I’ve found it to be a good general-purpose cognitive tool to try to see the world with agency located in unconventional places. Normally, we like to imagine ourselves as the chief agents in our lives – making choices, taking actions, pursuing our own interests that we have identified for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. It’s no doubt much more healthy to think in that way than the inverse – to view yourself, for example, as nothing but a puppet of external forces. But it is not so good to be trapped in a single fictional model of the universe. To understand large systems we need to go beyond the everyday model of agency and think in new ways.
To refactor agency is to break up stale ideas about who causes things to happen and why. That book wants you to read it. The food in the fridge wants to be eaten, the mess in the sink wants you to clean it up. Your computer wants you to use it, to invest yourself further into the particular corner of the technosphere (Apple, Microsoft, web, whatever) that it embodies. Your car wants you to drive it, a million events in the city call to you to participate in them. The ocean tears at the cliffs, the cliffs hold back the ocean. Shops want your money, your money wants you to spend it. Blogs like this one cry out for your attention. If we learn to see the agency in other things we may get a more realistic and thus more useful portrait of our own semi-fictional agency.
There is history the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything. Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. …Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.” – Louis Menand
Our ideas about our personal agency are so entrenched that it can be quite difficult to go beyond them. There are some intellectual disciplines that do this: macroeconomics or some forms of sociology or systems thinking or Tolstoyan overviews of history. There are also some personal disciplines that also seem to head in this direction, such as Buddhist meditation3. Refactoring agency does not at present rise to the level of an intellectual, religious, or personal discipline – in its current form, it is merely a grab-bag of tricks for getting beyond normal patterns of thought; for learning how to ignore, subvert, or replace our usual stories about agencies with alternatives.
One rather immediate practical application of refactoring agency is that it can provide a better relationship with your distractors. All of us are fighting distractions – web sites, noises, snacking, minor tasks, watching episodes of Bad Lipreading: – anything that momentarily seems more attractive than the task we are supposed to be working on. It is slightly paradoxical, but I have found that endowing these distractors with agency helps me to politely but firmly dismiss their attempts to grab my attention. Maybe it’s not so paradoxical – if resisting distractors requires willpower, it is not so fanciful to think that it is easier to resist an agent than an inanimate attractor, if only because we have lots of practice and techniques for opposing other agents.
Patterns of Refactored Agency
This section catalogs a number of refactorings or patterns4 of agency. Each pattern describes a method in which agency is transformed or viewed from a non-ordinary perspective. This listing (not yet qualifying as a taxonomy) is tentative and almost certainly incomplete. Almost all of these patterns are well-known and in some cases have been the subject of study for millenia. But as far as I know the attempt to collect all these different modes of thought together is somewhat novel. I’ve tried to make a nod towards possible pragmatic justifications for each pattern, and also indicate some possible pathologies that might arise from it.
Splitting agency means taking an entity that is normally thought of as a single agent and viewing it instead as a composite of multiple agents. Minsky’s Society of Mind theory is the paradigmatic source of this refactoring for me, but it has acknowledged roots in other thinkers, notably Freud and Niko Tinbergen, an ethologist who developed a theory of drive centers in animal behavior. Given the cultural domination of Freud in the last century, it is not surprising that this type of refactoring is quite common. Everyone talks about how they have conflicting drives, or how a part of themselves wants something different from the whole. The human tendency towards akrasia (acting against ones own stated interests) goes back to classical times, as does its attribution to internal agents with their own interests:
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do / Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me… / But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. (Romans 7:19-23)
More recently, George Ainslie’s Breakdown of Will provides an intriguing economic model of the relationships between mental subselves, particularly as it relates to akrasia and time-inconsistent preferences.
Pragmatics: We all talk this way anyway, we might as well get good at it. Everyone should become adept at identifying, naming and tracking different subselves. Giving these names, characters, and being able to converse with them has been suggested as a therapeutic technique.
Pathologies: the pathologies of splitting are also an entrenched part of popular culture. Taken to extreme in Multiple Personality Disorder, we all have experience with our own or other people’s un-integrated subselves. It may be that encouraging this style of self-modelling could lead to even more disintegration.
Clumping or group agency means thinking about the agency of collections of people (so it is the dual of splitting). This too is a pretty common trope. Corporations, states, nations, and other human groupings are often treated as if they have agency of their own. Even the law treats corporations as persons.
Group agency may be so common as to not be worth noting, but after thinking about it for awhile, it can seem very strange. For example, a recent radio report mentioned how “Pakistan is becoming our enemy” (notable as news because Pakistan is ostensibly a current ally). It is fairly strange to think that an entire country can be friends or enemies with another one, and the fact that such usage is common does not detract from the fact that we are projecting the qualities of an individual human agent onto large collections of them. Pakistan has 100 million people and some undefinable but large number of social and political subgroups. Each person and subgroup presumably has its own feelings about the United States; for Pakistan to change its mind probably means that one faction is starting to dominate or outnumber another one. The fiction that an entire country has an opinion has a fascinating (and in the case of war, horror-inducing) way of becoming real – the more we think that way, the more realistic a description of the world it becomes.
Pragmatics: We are so used to talking of group agency that the most pragmatic thing to do may be to undo it – the next time you think that Pakistan or Microsoft has an opinion, force yourself to evaluate the component factions and individuals of this collective, if they are actually aligned or pulling in different directions, and how the group agency is related to its components, and whether the goals of individuals are being served by the agency of the group.
Pathologies: The pathologies of groups and group agency are a whole study in themselves. One particular cogent description of a group agency failure mode is the Iron Law of Institutions, which states that actors within an institution will act to preserve their own rank within an institution over the success of the institution as a whole.
A common pathological form of group agency attribution is the conspiracy theory, in which people imagine coordinated group activity where none exists.
Crosscutting agency is related to splitting, but rather than dividing a single agent into subagents, crosscutting focuses on interests that cut orthogonally across the boundaries of individuals.
For example, Richard Dawkins used the concept of the “Selfish Gene” as a way to convey the idea that the units of evolution are genes rather than organisms, in some respects relegating the individual person as a mere puppet being manipulated by genetic interests that were often at odds with the individual and each other:
Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up their freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. – Dawkins, 1976
A gene, in the sense above, is a genetic pattern that persists across generations and populations, one capable of being “selfish”, which in this context means something like “successfully perpetuating itself”. The gene is thus both bigger than an individual , but also smaller, since individuals are conglomerations of the products of tens of thousands of genes, all exerting their own selfishness.
Dawkins invites us to see the world in which the agents cut across the boundaries of the individual and predominate or preempt their interests.
Another example: The Marxist theory of class consciousness is an attempt to both describe and encourage the formation of a collective agency (a clumping) that cuts across the normal hierarchical control lines of society.
The post is making me write it.
The post is gnitirw me.
The post is ɓuıʇıɹʍ me.
Of course those inventions are unreadable and unpronouncible, but that’s what happens when you try to break through the boundaries of ordinary grammar.
Pragmatics: A little humility is generally good for a person. Also, since it is actually part of ground truth that we are pushed around by the world, this is a good way of becoming aware of some of the details about how that works. It may even enable forms of resistance, since the first step in resisting a force is becoming aware of its existence.
Pathologies: Seeing yourself as a passive victim of external action can lead to powerlessness, helplessness and depression.
When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of the maker that there is no room for its own nature. – Christopher Alexander
More recently a variety of philosophers have taken up the cause of non-human agency, such as Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter, and the movement known as object-oriented ontology. I’m not philosophically competent enough to evaluate these theories, but they seem to be about applying philosophical concepts usually reserved for human subjects and applying them to material objects, and thus well within our refactoring umbrella.
Pragmatics: Mystics and drug users will often report visions of pervasive agency – of being aware of a kind of living energy that pervades the cosmos. This is “pragmatic” in the sense that such visions often bring joy and a sense of oneness and inner peace. Of course such visions may well be harmful delusions, but people who have them seem to value them.
Pathologies: We are afraid of pervasive agency when it appears to be inhuman or disconnected from human values. Science fiction has so often imagined technology as a unified hostile agency (The Matrix, Skynet) that escapes human control and become destructive that it is a hoary cliche.
Elimination of agency is sort of a dual to the pervasive stance. While the latter is concerned with the universe as a living thing, filled with a mysterious vital quality, eliminative materialism wants to banish all that nonsense in favor of a strict materialistic, mechanistic, physical picture. We won’t get sucked into the philosophical debate, but will note that banishing agency-related concepts may be necessary to let a more physics-like model emerge. We can see this kind of practice, for instance, in macroeconomics, where the agency of individuals is not very important but the resultant collective behaviors may be described by physics-like models.
The Buddhist idea of “emptiness” may also be a form of eliminative refactoring3. Buddhist meditation appears to be a technology for training the mind to loosen its grasp on certain fixed concepts, and certainly agency seems to be the kind of thing (if not the exact sort of thing) that makes up samsara:
If you look at your I right now, you’ll see that it appears to be permanent, whereas you know that in reality it is impermanent in nature. Other views hold, for example, that while the I is dependent upon parts, there is the appearance and the belief that it exists alone, not dependent upon parts, or that while the I is dependent upon causes and conditions, there is the appearance and the belief that it exists with its own freedom, without depending on causes and conditions. These gross hallucinations are described and posited as the object of refutation by the first Buddhist school, the Vaibashika.
Pragmatics: the mechanical view of the universe may seem cold, but its subversion of moral righteousness and anger has some utility. B. F. Skinner tried to elucidate the value of a purely causal view of human nature; he was not very convincing but his arguments are worth a look.
Pathologies: Eliminative materialism is a manifestly silly philosophy, and by denying the reality of concepts that are quite obviously real (minds, selves, thoughts) it makes itself too detached from human reality to be useful. Furthermore, denial of free will means denial of responsibility and threatens the system of morality and justice, as when evil acts are blamed on causal factors such as brain chemistry.
A distant relative of eliminativism, an acephalous refactoring means deliberately subverting ordinary patterns of leadership, substituting either anarchy or a diffuse system of control. The Occupy Movement is the most visible recent example of an attempt to create a leaderless structure, along with a vocabulary and technology of doing so (eg, the mic check). While that is an explicit attempt to create a leaderless structure; another more cognitive form of acephalous refactoring is to train oneself to see that despite the hierarchical control structures of a corporation or other organization, people really act on their own and for their own interests. A presidential election may seem to be extremely important, but the president does not run the country, CEOs don’t run their corporation, and generals don’t run their armies. But it takes deliberate effort to see that.
Other types of acephalous forms of agency include the flocks and schools formed by animals and superorganisms such as ant colonies. Such collectivities seem to act as a unit while having no individual in charge.
Pragmatics: The world is anarchic at its roots, but humans are prone to see and believe in leadership. Learning to think about leaderless collectivities is a valuable skill for seeing reality.
Pathologies: learning to distrust leaders and leadership is healthy to some extent, but taken too far can result in alienation, since most social structures do in fact rely on explicit or implicit leader figures. Leaderless groups have a tough time coordinating (see again the Occupy Movement).
Locating agency in supernatural beings is of course as old as humanity. Pascal Boyer theorizes that the origins of religion might be found in an evolved tendency to over-attribute agency. Since religion is a central feature of culture, Gregory Bateson’s suggestion that it has a functional role in compensating for an overly short-term outlook seems plausible:
“I suggest that one of the things man has done through the ages to correct for his short-sighted purposiveness is to imagine personified entities with various sorts of supernatural power, i.e., gods. These entities, being fictitious persons, are more or less endowed with cybernetic and circuit characteristics…. I suggest that the supernatural entities of religion are, in some sort, cybernetic models built into the larger cybernetic system in order to correct for non-cybernetic computation in a part of that system.” – Gregory Bateson
Or in other words, gods are conceptual tools used by humans to envision (and/or create) the larger-scale agency of their social groups.
Pragmatics: One particular religious move is to use god’s agency to dissolve your own, in order to achieve things beyond the reach of normal consciousness. Soli Deo gloria is how Bach prefaced his works, meaning “Glory to God alone”. Was this just false humility, or an empty gesture, or did this reflect a genuine attitude which was integral to his accomplishments? Of course giving glory to God also means giving responsibility to him, which can be a great weight off one’s shoulders.
Having been raised a hardcore materialist/skeptic, I find it very useful to appreciate religion and god-talk using an as-if framing: if there was a god, what would be my prayer? This may be cheating from an authentic religious perspective – it is anything but the whole-hearted worship they encourage – but it is a useful cognitive trick, in effect allowing even the materialist fundamentalist to deploy the agency-related parts of their brain.
Pathologies: the pathologies of religion are too well-known to need discussion here.
Externalizing agency means allowing yourself to be controlled by your own tools – eg, once you construct your to-do list or other task management structure, you to some extent free yourself of the burden of agency and allow yourself to be driven by your list, or calendar, or inbox, or issue tracker. This of course is a very common pattern, and there is a whole industry of time management techniques and software to encourage it. Externalized task management also permits the construction of shared agendas within groups, providing a nexus for group agency.
Pragmatics: The burden of everyday agency can be overwhelming in modern lives – so many tasks, responsibilities, and decisions cry for our attention, and having external cognitive scaffolding can be a great help in structuring time.
Pathologies: Some people get so caught up in externalizing and formalizing task management that they lose sight of their larger purpose. There is even a technical term for this pathology, “addiction to busyness”. Over-scheduling of life is akin to the over-design of space noted by Alexander. And of course while one can always ignore a personal to-do list, that is harder to do when similar tools are used by a group, and can more easily become oppressive.
Agency is a powerful and important concept; something of a master key that that is capable of unlocking a wide variety of phenomena and concerns; and perhaps providing practical traction on some intractible problems. But agency as a mere conceptual category seems to not quite capture what is important about it. Yes, sentences have agents, everyday activity is a dance of agents and agent-based cognition, but isn’t there something more going on here? Agency is not merely a conceptual category, it is a conceptual category that comes close to the essence of who we are. We are agents, our selves are prototypes for all the other agency we see in the world, and/or vice-versa.
You go through life as an agent, you interact on a daily basis with other agents. Perhaps it would do you some good to have at your fingertips the idea/tool that agency (and hence daily life) is a type of semifiction; that we are all constantly telling and enacting stories about ourselves and the things around us, but we have an enormous and little-explored freedom to change the kind of stories we tell, to break the bounds of conventional genres in search of more effective tales.
Everyday life and social structure conspires to make certain conventional fictions about ourselves seem to be as realistic and seamless as possible. It takes a real effort to penetrate behind this particular type of illusion, an effort which also entails some risk, since these are to some extent necessary illusions. But to the extent that our default ideas imprison us, any possibility of escape must be investigated.
2 In fact, the grammatical subject of a sentence is not always the agent. Agent and patient are technical grammatical terms that are distinct from the subject and object. The passive voice switches the usual roles of subject/object while leaving the agent/patient distinctions intact.
3 For some reason I feel a need to apologize whenever I pretend to know something about Buddhism, although my knowledge of some of the other things I write about is equally incomplete. But: a key Buddhist idea is that the self is not a solid thing, and that thinking of the self that way is at the root of a good deal of human suffering, and that you should stop.
4I have a lot of quarrels with the design patterns movement in software, but I have to admit that the pattern people (and Christopher Alexander whose style they have somewhat crudely appropriated) have invented a uniquely useful way of speaking and thinking.