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Friday, August 24, 2012

How Do Things Happen When There Is No Agency?

Human consciousness systems for modeling the world are completely dependent on the idea of agency; that some agent wills or otherwise directs events.  And since agency as we conceive it is completely illusory, we are doomed to be ‘wrong’ (also an agency dependent idea!) in the vast majority of our actions in the world. 

When we began as a species this was not a concern since our illusions of agency were functioning in a world utterly dominated by biophysical Reality; our notions of agency simply connected dots in that reality at a speed and volume unavailable to other organisms, giving our species a decided advantage.  Later on, the illusion became increasingly understood as reality to the point today when we cannot even imagine another origin for action or order.

Our notions of agency derive from an adaptation that formed through evolutionary processes which operate by principles devoid of agency.  It is these processes that mediate changes and apparently, to humans, changes that have direction and purpose.  The Consciousness System of Order (CSO) is organized around the illusion of agency; a device what functions to a particular advantage in the evolutionary process.  The capacity of the CSO to generate actions that have no precedent in the history of biophysical Reality, in the largest view, will be part of the consequence structure that permeates biophysical systems; like the bringing together of a formulary of chemicals that mix, act and react to become new forms that can exist in the ambient conditions.

I said a moment ago that the CSO was “a device what functions to a particular advantage in the evolutionary process.”  And at the same time I am suggesting that it has “gone wrong” in some way, that it is no longer functioning to advantage.  There are two parts to this observation.  One is that many adaptations “go wrong” as ambient conditions change: for example if the acidity of water increases, then calcium carbonate shells – so efficient and useful in conditions of near neutral pH – become a route to extinction.  The second part is that this adaptation is unprecedented in the history of the universe, has barely begun to be refined by the evolutionary process and, uniquely, by its own information handling designs; it may actually contain the possibility of true agency.

But before getting too much into the complexities of our present confusions it is important to get a sense of how the world functions without agency as humans typically understand it.  The first hurtle is that language is steeped in the structure of the agency illusion: an agent imagines, wishes, designs and implements; it is just “obvious” that that is how the world works.  Little thought or attention is given to the plain fact that the universe and solar system formed, life began and evolved all billions of years before there was human or any other “known agency.” What was functioning to give order and change, even directional change, before the structures and processes that underlie the CSO?  And more importantly, what is it that continues to be the actual functional order within which the CSO needs to comport?  The two questions, of course, have the same answer.
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The question should not be, ‘How can the world work without agency?’ It should be, ‘How can agency possibly work in a world of simple event causation?’  But we think that we understand agency and not causation without it, so that is a natural place to begin.

The substance of the universe is in motion; motion is an essential condition of a universe of energy (by substance I don’t just mean matter, but all the “stuff” that is the universe, known or unknown to humans). When the various forms of substance interact by the physical laws, a probability system forms and a reaction process/product occurs corresponding to the probabilities. After a time the composition and structure of a region changes to represent the most stable population of reaction process/products as determined by the ambient forces of the region: examples: hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water molecules when ambient energies are low enough; atoms are reduced to free protons, electrons and neutrons when temperatures are high enough; molecules of many types form, combine and recombine when conditions of stability, especially in an aqueous environment, endure for millions and billions of years.

Given enough time everything with a positive probability, almost no matter how small, will happen.  In a world of essentially infinite numbers even the clearly finite acts infinitely.  The earth’s oceans are a thin layer spread over much of the thin rocky crust.  How many drops of water are in the finite ocean?  There are about twenty drops of water in a cubic centimeter; a thousand trillion cubic centimeters in a cubic kilometer; almost 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water in the oceans – and that single drop of water has about ten thousand million trillion molecules of water.  So the number of water molecules on the earth is more than ten thousand million trillion times a thousand trillion times l.4 billion times twenty… pretty soon you get into numbers of some real size (magnitude 10 to the 47th power for you power-of-ten people).

And that is just the water.  Dissolved in the water are all the elements and compounds that can be formed in billions of years on a chemically and thermally stable planet; even the rarest of the rare will be there by the billions of trillions of trillions.  Imagine a molecule that forms by the chance action of interaction that can speed up the forming of another molecule like itself, then that particular molecule will increase in abundance; or another molecule that tends to break down a common molecule.  With these kinds of numbers interacting 100s and 1000s of times per second for millions and billions of years every combination that can happen will happen.

Some of those combinations will form systems of interactions; some of these systems of combinations will become self-sustaining.  The essence is that systems and molecules that are stable increase in number.  Systems and molecules that tend to increase the probability of their own formation increase in number.  In conditions of great variety, stability and duration these tendencies produce increases in complexity in the organization of substance.

This accounts for the forms of matter that we see, for the design of galaxies and solar systems, for the structure and natural history of stars and other celestial bodies, for the structure and physical systems of the earth and the other planets, for the origin of life and the evolution of the earth’s life forms… in other words, this accounts for almost everything. The only thing not accounted for is the behavior and imaginings of one species of life that has only been around for a few hundred thousand years at the most.  And that species is only not accounted for because of a unique adaptation (that I am calling The Consciousness System of Order) that gives the species the option to believe and disbelieve a process that every other species, ever in existence, simply lives.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the behaviors of that species are not accounted for by the imaginings of that species because of the limitations of the Consciousness Order, because its evolutionary design was to speed up and increase the detail of response to environmental events, not to understand the world.

What is not generally realized is that the changes and multiplication of objects and processes associated with humans are no more than the speeding up of the combinations of possibilities.  Our notions of agency are but illusions that mollify the weakness of our capacities for comprehending the true complexities of Reality.

Just as children do not require, and even benefit from simplifying, Reality so long as adults are around to deal with real events, so humans have been protected from their failures to comport with Reality by biophysical Reality itself.  But also like spoiled children who grow up, our species has grown to such powers that not even biophysical Reality can challenge our hubris short of denying us its continued stability and services.

It is now that we will discover if humans can muster true agency or if we are utterly without it and only the creatures of events like all other species.

The philosophy and psychology of agency has been a major concern of human thought, spawning everything from gods, ghosts, and a remarkable volume of almost completely impenetrable prose.  I hope to play with some of that silly putty shortly.