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Friday, April 6, 2012

Origin of Agency

Humans typically understand the events of the world in terms of agency – the source of an action or process. This is slightly different than the idea of cause and effect, but it is an important difference. For example, those cause and effect relationships assignable to Newtonian physics, billiard balls and planets, are not normally thought of in terms of agency, or our ideas of agency are a separate consideration in those actions.  We understand that momentum, gravity, friction, elasticity, mass, rotational forces, etc. predict the detail the movements, yet we still ask about the “reasons for the motion,” the agent; who or what set them in motion.  We are not especially satisfied with the answer that ball ‘B’ is in motion for the reason that it was struck by ball ‘A’; we want then to know what caused ball ‘B’ to be in motion in a particular direction.  And again we are not satisfied if we are told that it was ball ‘Z’ that struck ball ‘A’ and set it in motion, quite at random, toward ball ‘B’.  Simple cause is not enough; we are asking questions of agency.

The need and habit of assigning agency to events, not only serves our immediate purposes; that is, we organize complex events, about which we can know little, into speculations of simple agency as a way of predicting the behaviors of biophysical events, plants, animals and other humans; but we also have been led, by the complexity of the world, into attempting to assign agency to events well above our pay-grade as really really smart forest hominids.

To understand our larger relationship with agency, we must first deal with what many have come to think of as the First Agent; really the last agent of all; the human notion of agency ultimately desires an agent:

New Oxford American Dictionary: God, noun, 1 [without article ] (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.
2 ( god) (in certain other religions) a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity : a moon god | an incarnation of the god Vishnu.

The typical view of Christians and many others is that God is an actual entity, a conscious entity with qualities not unlike those of human beings: desires, interests, concerns, goals, powers for action, empathy, capacities, but all greater, grander and more mysterious than held by humans.  In the most simplistic form this God is an ageless male person, “living” in some undefined domain in the universe, generally assuming an appearance of late middle age, often with a beard, but capable of any form –  not unlike the “pagan” gods of the Greeks and many others (and sometimes resembling Charlton Heston or Morgan Freeman).

Alfred North Whitehead’s view of God was as the absolute unity of all actuality.  This can be taken to mean a sort of Grand Unification Theory of the physical and moral universe, the most basic organizing principle, but definitely not an entity in any way limited to the human pattern; in point of fact, utterly unlike and unrelated to any human aspect and, as such, completely inaccessible to human understanding.

Contrast Whitehead’s view with the particular Christian view of Jerry Falwell, that God was a supernatural entity that sent plagues, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and tornados to smite people who pissed ‘him’ off.  Coincidentally, the people who pissed off God were the same as those that pissed off Falwell; it is unclear to the rational person who was guiding whom.

How can the organizing principle that relates all the forces of the universe into the orderly lawful system upon which our planet and its special living passengers ride, so utterly beyond human comprehension, be the same as the childish imaginings of a sick son of a bitch who sees justification for his prejudice and meanness in those imaginings. Giving them the same name is just nuts!

Falwell makes a good foil, but I could just as easily use the God of my mother: an old bearded man who protects her in the night, and has since she was orphaned at an early age, and who gathers the dead who have left her around him in a wonderful afterlife.  It is not as dramatic, and not at all mean-spirited, but still just as contrasting.

But this is not a missive to deny the existence of the supernatural, though it is in part about the confusion created for us by these ideas.  I take it as a certainty that humans are an organism evolved as part of the overall process of evolved life on this planet, though an organism with a new adaptation for the handling of information.  A property of this adaptation is imagination; in fact, imagination is one of the central forces of the adaptation.

It is natural and useful for imagination to create Stories about power centers that “explain” how the world works. Human action, from individual disease response to collective action in adversity, can be strongly influenced by such stories – giving such stories great power in human life, quite independent of their ultimate veridicality – so of course, humans have created stories of Gods, that once believed, become essential for a sense of stability and safety.

What this really teaches us about is how humans organize the ideas of agency and belief – how we imagine the forces that make things happen in the world – and nothing about the existence or non-existence of anything supernatural.

It seems both reasonable and “clear” that agency works in the world; that is, each moment is not in random relationship to the previous moment, but is in some causal relation; it is in our comprehension of the nature of that causal relation that our differences and confusions occur.  The greatest error is to take a complex system like human experience and apply it, uncritically, to the rest of world’s working.  First of all, we have almost no clue as to the actual workings of human experience and so applying the “lessons” about which we know nothing to less complex situations about which we know little is a poor beginning indeed: this is, of course, what we have done.

Assigning causes is one of the most common activities of human cognition.  Most intelligent animals assign causes over short distances and within very narrow time frames; we, on the other hand, do so over the greatest of distances imaginable and for the duration of the known universe.  We have made the assigning of cause an essential part of our responses to the world.  But, this is not an easy, obvious or direct process; and the ways in which we do it are not always strongly related to the actual processes and structures we are trying to comprehend with causal statements. The cognitive processes by which we assign causes (or agency) are limited by either the quality of the information that we enter into the considerations, the weak, often distorted, existing structures of understanding upon which we make judgments or both.

It is also obvious (a combination of ‘reasonable and clear’) with a little refection that the “causes” of any, even a simple, event spread out rapidly into an unfathomable infinity if we try to trace them in detail.  And then we are led to attempt the distinguishing of the causes of substance from the causes of happenstance.  How much easier it is to say that “Johnny (or Sergio or Wong or the dog or the god) did it.”

As a way of putting a little flesh on these bones, I’m reminded that Aristotle, all those many years and thoughts ago, puzzled with these ideas.  He produced a model of causality made up of 4 parts and we are still benefited by being familiar with them:

Aristotle’s four causes: Material Cause – the material used in the change or event; Formal Cause – the rules by which the change or event occurs; Efficient Cause – the agent or agency which performs the change or event; and Final Cause – the motive for the change or event.  (example: the growth of a tree: Material Cause – CO2, H2O, minerals, sunlight; Formal Cause – DNA, ecosystem conditions; Efficient Cause – sexual process that produced the seed; Final Cause – momentum of life force.)

This is confusing enough as it is, even when honest efforts are made to make clear the causes of any event, but when we add the human tendency to use complexity as a cover for self-advantage this becomes extremely dangerous.  I know of a child (even children do it) who when slapped for taking a cookie surreptitiously from the cooling rack said, “Don’t slap my face, it didn’t take the cookie; slap my hand, it took it.”  Almost needless to say this bit of cleverness from a tiny tot got the child off with only minor troubles and still in possession of the cookie.  This same gambit is used in much more grievous situations.

Using Aristotle’s model for understanding causes immediately puts us onto seeing cause arising from a system rather than from a single event.  I would think that understanding the systemic causes, untangling the web of types and complexity of causes would be a priority for an animal that lives by its wits – correctly understanding the world’s events being the most wit-ful thing we could do.  But I would seem to be wrong.

It is the long time, and perhaps biological, habit for humans to fold the complexity of systemic cause into a version of Aristotle’s Efficient Cause and to look for and be satisfied with assigning agency; this has a natural origin in human experience where a human person seems to generate the motive, collects the knowledge, tools, materials and then performs the action.  We then see this as model for how the world works when, in fact, it is not even the way humans work.

And so we are presented with our two primary ways of assigning causal agency: the naïve ‘direct agency’ in which a single identifiable agent does the deed, and ‘systemic agency’ in which a collection of causes are arranged in a particular way to account for the change or event.  We have come to a time in our history and our power over the world when the naïve use of direct agency with its creation of religious behaviors and beliefs, its usefulness in political expediency and its unacceptable levels of injustice, must be understood and replaced except for the most benign occasions.

Since you have read this far, you will have no difficulty in seeing how these ideas relate to Trayvon Martin’s killing, Fukushima, lying Limbaugh’s limp laments, the general state of political crudity, the madness of the religious right, the rejection of science and enlightened knowledge in general and more.  The conflict between direct agency and systemic agency, the use of direct agency in controlling perceptions and power advantages, the tendency of systemic agency understanding to expose such controls, these and more are seen as the layers are peeled back on understanding our relationship to agency.

Note 1: George Lakoff discusses these same ideas of direct agency and systemic agency in his book ‘Whose Freedom.’ He relates them to strict father and nurturant parent families and seems to see them as secondary effects.  My view is that how our societies relate to agency and the most basic processes by which humans form concepts of agency are critical to the nature of our societies.  It is my suspicion that strict father v nurturant parent families are not the direct agents in defining political differences.

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