Seeing Agents

As I got about half-way through my undergraduate degree, a key thought process in my brain began to change. It was an intentional change on my part, and one that took quite a lot of effort. After several years I was able to stop seeing agency in things that were not alive. I was able to get away from the mindset of everything happens for a reason and I started to accept that some things were random, some things were only imbued with meaning by me, and potentially everything in the universe is the result of physical laws of nature.

 

Today I don’t believe that the table at which I write has any emotional experience of me using it to type out a blog post. I don’t think my car actually knows if I drive it today, and I don’t think that it has some preference deep inside to be driven. I don’t believe that the house I am about to move out of will actually be sad (or happy) to see me leave. But there was a time in my life where a piece of me may have believed such things. I certainly knew the houses, stuffed animals, and cars were not alive, but somewhere deep inside I was assigning agency to inanimate objects, imbuing them with emotions, thoughts, and desires of their own.

 

It is more than just cartoons that made me think the way I did about inanimate objects, and that is why it took several years late in my undergraduate degree to begin changing the way I thought about the world. I was seeing agents where there were none, and it was hard to remove agency from things that I had animated in my own mind. Research presented in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow¬†helps explain what was happening inside my mind:

 

“The perception of intention and emotion is irresistible; only people afflicted by autism do not experience it. All this is entirely in your mind of course. Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities. Here again, the evidence is that we are born prepared to make intentional attributions…”¬†

 

Kahneman describes a study in which participants watch geometric shapes chase each other around on a screen. People see random shapes and assign meaning, intention, and agency to the two dimensional objects. We create a story that justifies the behavior we intuit from them and gives them life. Our mind is geared to see agents where there are none, probably to help us understand other people, to be able to reflect on our own emotions, and to become better social beings. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens discusses how the cognitive revolution may have brought about this ability in our minds, by giving us the capacity for imagination, and the capacity to create narratives and stories to foster social cohesion and shared meaning.

 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much if you name your car and view it as having agency, you might even treat it better if you do. However, this can spill over into other aspects of our lives in problematic ways. We can become too attached to material objects, unable to let go of clutter and stuff. As Kahneman continues, and as I’ll write about tomorrow, this is also likely part of why we see the world so often through religious eyes, and conflicting religious beliefs and values have certainly been at the root of much violence and death in human existence, even if religion has given us community and social mission. Seeing agents where they do not exist is an interesting part of our humanity, and it can help us gel together, or can serve as the base for out-casting others and bringing violence upon them. Its not easy to overcome, but I think it is necessary if we are to have accurate beliefs about the world and advance as a global community.

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