Some thoughts on agency
September 11, 2017 at 5:08 am #4843
Take a sentence that might come out in a college discussion over beer: “Goedel and Einstein were fast friends, but Goedel, outside the context of mathematics, was a psychological mess.”
Now, I didn’t say that but I might have. I wrote it, however. And one thing I can tell you is that the words came out without much thought. I could have expressed the same though in a variety of ways, and yet this one came out. I can assure you—and I think you’ll believe me—that I didn’t select each word in the sentence by weighing all the synonyms. I didn’t generate this sentence because, after examining all the alternatives, this was the best way of putting it.
When we talk, the words, in a fascinating way, just spill out and yet make sense, even though how that happens, happens in a very unconscious and mysterious way. And why we say things this way rather than that is usually something we can’t articulate.
While we seem to be the cause of what we say and do, are we really the authors of everything we say and do. And if so, in what sense are we responsible for them?September 11, 2017 at 8:53 am #4858
Well, speaking is closely related to rational thinking, and both are essentially social activities, which means there has to be some accepted standards for how to make sense. Language is a structured vehicle for semantic meaning, and semantic meaning refers to elements of the real world. So, speaking is a grammatically structured way to convey information about the real world. If we say that someone is articulate, this means that they are especially good at doing this.
We live with the real world all the time, and we need to speak and think about it habitually, day in day out. So, evolution has provided us with the neural apparatus we need to achieve this smoothly and easily.September 12, 2017 at 1:19 am #4980
Typically, in extemporaneous conversation, we say what we mean without thinking about it in a conscious way. We may have a conscious idea of what we want to express, but the words that come out are coming out of a black box. The words just happen. It’s like there’s a homunculus inside the black box composing the words for us according to our intention. It chooses the words to use in a way we aren’t privy to.
You don’t see a problem with agency there? In what way are we responsible for what we say when what we say seems to just happen.
There’s that saying “Think before you speak,” but most of us don’t…because there’s no need to.
September 12, 2017 at 2:07 pm #4988
- This reply was modified 5 months, 1 week ago by Unseen.
Someone said to me, ideas get formed in the subconscious. I agree with this, because I find that the subconscious is excellent at summing things up. However, of course, they can also get formed in the conscious mind.
Sometimes we’re saying what our emotions tell us to say. So it can make no sense rationally, but perfect sense emotionally.September 12, 2017 at 3:10 pm #4991
There’s that saying “Think before you speak,” but most of us don’t…because there’s no need to.
I have a rather desperate need to think before I speak, because “business as usual” is actually working against me.
Last month, my therapist performed a battery of tests on me. Those test results, combined with some observations of his, have lead him to determine that I have what he called “Asperger’s Tendencies.”
How this manifests is that I have no filter. This means that I will say what is on my mind, which sometimes results in a brutal honesty. I think the best representation can be observed in this scene from Ghostbusters. “That’s why I invited clients, instead of friends” is something that I might actually say.
I also miss social cues and broadcast the wrong body language.
This is why I prefer forums to actual interactions. I can backspace and re-word things in a way that might be less hurtful to others.
When I say things like this, sometimes there are consequences. Sometimes those consequences are social in nature, and I’ll end up losing friends as a result. Other times they are related to business or finance, and I’ll lose a business connection, or I’ll end up saying something that lands my name in a file for reference when they later decide to do lay-offs. I might even get fired over a conversation, because what they heard and what I meant end up being two different things.
I’m not a psychiatrist at all, so this is just a guess. I wonder if you don’t have the same thoughts as me, but you somehow are able to filter those before they come out. Maybe you’re able to be more diplomatic.
It is also possible that you hear a question, and are then able to figure out the real question that is being asked. While I don’t have that Asperger’s problem of taking colloquialisms seriously, where I tell someone a story, they say, “Get outta here!” and I leave the room, I will often times miss the real question. A good example is when a woman in your life asks that dreaded question, “Do I look fat in this dress?” This question, I have learned, might not be the real question. Instead, the real question would be, “Can you please give me a compliment?”
The goal behind the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT] is to help me build a filter of sorts. At least, that’s my understanding of it. In some ways, I do not know how it will help. I often times miss social cues, or I’ll broadcast the wrong body language. Someone might think that something is wrong, when nothing is wrong, because of my body language. They might think I’m angry, when I’m just thinking.
I wonder how the concept of agency plays a role in this. Can I learn how to think before I speak? Can I change? Can this serious problem be fixed? Is there anything that I can do about it?September 12, 2017 at 8:39 pm #5003September 12, 2017 at 8:48 pm #5004September 12, 2017 at 9:10 pm #5008
@Dang – Have you ever delved into ideas about “Theory of Mind“
I read that link, and it’s got some fascinating ideas.
I could be wrong on a detail of this that was not addressed. When Maxi put his chocolate in the cupboard, he knew that it was there. At some point, it switched from knowing it was there, to believing it was there. My guess is that this happened, at some point between he left the chocolate bar in the cupboard to do other things, and after his mother moved it.
His belief was then supported by some prior knowledge. Kind of like how I believe that my car is parked in Spot X, because I know that I parked it there last night. What I do not know is whether it has been stolen or towed away. It is not a blind belief.
If this has happened before, where Maxi’s mother has moved his chocolate to the refrigerator, then he will return to the cupboard, believing that his chocolate is there. When it is not there, he will then believe that it is in the refrigerator, based on historical experience.
When I’m at work, I write everything down. Everything. That’s because when someone asks me if I did something, I automatically question myself as well, and then I do not trust my own answer. Did I do that? I think that I did. I may believe that I did, but I have suddenly lost my certainty, and I don’t want to be certain and then be wrong.
Yes, the paper says that I did, because I wrote it down right after I did it.
I’d be interested in knowing if I’m off-base in my understanding of this.
September 12, 2017 at 9:30 pm #5014
- This reply was modified 5 months, 1 week ago by Dang Martin.
My recent interest is in body language, especially its behavioral evolution among animals since that’s where it all started. From a behavioristic perspective, we could just say that each individual animal has its own agency, but the part that the agency plays in family or pack or group or out-group must overwhelmingly be interpreted or described in a social context. I.e., like “no man is an island”, what meaning can ever be made of our constructed term “agency” without a wider context of a sea (or at least a pair) of interacting agencies?
So one could approach the question of the origins of unconscious body language, e.g. baring teeth in anger (or in laughter e.g. in primates) because it instantly engages multiple agencies in a usually-meaningful, contagious communication. And it usually has a positive or negative valence that is easily measured, i.e. are we laughing with each other (positive), or at each other (negative). In either case, just the baring of teeth is enough to alert us all at an unconscious level.
There are many other examples wrt body language I can’t go into yet… maybe someday. Meanwhile, do you think about how to ride a bicycle? Maybe not so much when riding it, but most certainly there was some kind of agency there back in childhood that was paying attention to learning how to ride it. The conscious act of learning how to ride soon got memorized in muscle memory as balance control, until the riding itself became an increasing unconscious skill.
Our learning agent had to rely solely on underlying unconscious skills and control circuits that even at the lowest level did not exist. Did the learning of body sensations and ability to control movement begin as far back as in utero? At what point would one say that “agency” could be defined and detected?
Finally [only due to limited space and time] the last pov/question I’ll present, regarding discussion about theory of mind and agency, perhaps our biggest challenge is to overcome our tendency to oversimplify explanations of it. It’s complicated! People invent outside agencies when attempting to explain or explore things they don’t yet understand. We’re here because of God, right? (Actually I and you readers are here because human agencies invented and promulgated the idea of God.)September 12, 2017 at 10:39 pm #5016
While we seem to be the cause of what we say and do, are we really the authors of everything we say and do.
This can’t be answered in black or white, yes or no terms. Even if one assumes that free agency can exist, there would have to be a variable range of freedom that exists per individual, per day or minute, per contemporaneous environmental circumstances, and so on. Even if one assumes that free agency cannot exist, the question begs what kind of agency should it be called, if not free, but it still feels free?
And if so, in what sense are we responsible for them?
That’s a moral question. Anyone know what Sam Harris would say, and can it be answered in any purely empirical way?September 12, 2017 at 11:36 pm #5017
The person committing the crime is not responsible because fate made him do it? Maybe.
It doesn’t matter, because in the vilification of the criminal behaviour, the collective of people benefits in reinforcing the sense of what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the group.
Punishing the hapless criminal is a useful tool for moral cognizance.September 13, 2017 at 12:29 am #5018
RE: Now, I didn’t say that but I might have. I wrote it, however. And one thing I can tell you is that the words came out without much thought.
I’m not 100% sure if I understand the premise of your post but I had a few thoughts while reading it.
It really comes down to brain development and cognitive functioning. It’s effortless for you – but (for example) I see my niece who was drug affected in utero struggle with language and how to position certain words in a sentence. I see my grandmother refer to herself as “we” which (I suspect) may be a biproduct of childhood trauma manifested as “splitting” (a symptom of borderline personality disorder or perhaps disassociative identity disorder.
Also I thought about the fact that the English language in its sentence structure is different than many (and possibly most) other languages, so when we are learning another language you are also learning another way of THINKING. This is why children absorb second languages best because their brains are in the process of making connections.
I remember learning much more on this subject in linguistics – I’ll have to see if I still have those notes…September 13, 2017 at 5:01 am #5023
The person committing the crime is not responsible because fate made him do it? Maybe. It doesn’t matter, because in the vilification of the criminal behaviour, the collective of people benefits in reinforcing the sense of what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the group. Punishing the hapless criminal is a useful tool for moral cognizance.
Sam Harris in a rather long video cites the example of a man many view as a monster. Charles Whitman murdered his wife and mother and, shooting a few more while on the way, went to a tall tower on the campus of The University Of Texas at Austin and picked people off one-by-one until a cop sneaked up behind him and killed him. The death toll at the time was 16 total. A 17th died later of causes related to being shot by Whitman.
It turned out to be a kind of suicide-by-cop when a note was discovered in which Whitman said he had feelings and impulses he didn’t understand and he hoped that scientists would examine his brain after his death to see what they could learn.
They learned by autopsy that he had a pecan-sized growth tumor nestled between his thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala which MAY have caused his actions.
Let’s say it did.
Harris says that if it did account for his actions, there’s no way we can hold him accountable for them, and had he survived, it would have been wrong to punish or (as happens a lot in Texas) execute him for murder. This is because the cause of his actions were beyond both his understanding and control. It would be hard to explain to the survivors of his victims, but he would have been neither blameworthy nor responsible for his actions. He would have been equally undeserving of accolades if the tumor had impelled him to do heroic acts of good and kindness.
Do you see where this is going?
Harris then says that, aside from the incredible misfortune of having had a malignant and devastating tumor, Chapman was in the same position as every one of us, who do what we do but don’t understand the processes which generate our actions.September 13, 2017 at 1:13 pm #5042
Harris uses the tumor as an extreme example because he has less argument for fates inevitability – some of us here do subscribe to the position that everything that happens, happens inevitably due to previous events, and that humans may have no true say in how they behave. The position that Harris is trying to start from is the same – a person who through no fault of their own, carried out an atrocity for which they could not be expected to carry blame.
Perhaps for tumor man, had he survived, the case should still go to court, but assuming the verdict was Guilty, the judge should be able to levy the appropriate sentence which would include surgery and rehabilitation, and possibly prison time but also suspended, i.e. Probation.
Mercy can be applied to mitigating circumstances- the judge is there to do just that.
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