The Agency Error

In a recent post about the Double Rainbow Man video I was disingenuous. I claimed that the impulse to ascribe meaning to natural phenomena was something people got passed down from on high, from priests and gurus and other authority figures. (I didn’t actually say “Opiate of the masses” but sometimes it’s the notes you don’t play that sound the loudest.) However true this may be, it is not the whole story. People don’t need much encouragement to read a human-directed meaning into every event that happens across their way. As much as I have problems with the word, I’d say this comes naturally to us.

Strictly speaking, I don’t think it’s meaning that is over-ascribed but agency. When searching for the cause of a phenomenon, the default assumption is that some one or thing made it happen on purpose. Given that the universe appears to consist primarily of empty space with the occasional hydrogen atom here and there, this is an error, and a pretty vain one too, since we’re basically saying that human-like things with familiar intents, desires, and emotions are what make it all go round. (And don’t try to tell me that God makes it all go around, because God is still an agent even if he isn’t human–although a father figure who gets angry when you question him sounds awfully human to me.) Appearances to the contrary, it really is all about us.

So: vanity–but you can see where it comes from. Humans are social animals. The most important entities we encounter in our daily lives are other humans. In my yoga class, someone will occasionally say something to the effect of, “When you put out positive energy, you change the universe for the better,” which is actually true if you take it to mean, “If you are generally pleasant and polite to the people you encounter on a daily basis, those people will be more inclined to be pleasant and polite to the people around them, including you.” This is good advice, albeit phrased in an oddly grandiose way that equates your spouse, coworkers, and the guy who makes your coffee with the whole entire universe.

And if you think we’re solipsistic now, remember where we came from. As little baby philosophers each of us believed the universe to consist of a single substance, Mama, whose defining characteristic was that she fed us when we were hungry and comforted us when we were sad. The process of discovering that there are aspects of reality not wholly concerned with the immediate satisfaction of our every need is long, painful, and extraordinary. Similarly, in an ontogeny-recapitulates-philogeny kind of way, mightn’t our earliest ancestors have only dimly perceived the inanimate world as a backdrop against which bright real living things moved? I imagine primitive man’s inner monologue to have gone something like the following:

Man. Man. Other man. Woman. Tree. Man bigger than me. Man smaller than me. Damn mosquitos. Rock. Woman. Woman. Mongoose. (Edible? Does it bite?) Cute baby. Branches in my way. Man. Woman. Fertile woman. Rock. Rock. Other rock. TIGER!

There’s an economy to this. A large chunk of our cognitive capacity is going to be devoted to negotiating interpersonal arrangements no matter what, so it makes sense to leverage those neurons for the non-animate stuff too. Why exhaust yourself finding a unique cause for each thing when agents are already one-stop-shopping causal sources? Having a single God to rule all the gaps is a real time saver.

Finally, depending on the circumstances, the Agency Error may not be a mistake. Consider the old military maxim, “Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is an enemy action.” This is a lousy way to do empirical science, but a prudent way to make your way through hostile territory. Maybe the early hominids who bumped this up to “twice is an enemy action” just to be on the safe side were the ones who survived to reproduce. The Agency Error is wrong, but you can see where it comes from, and it explains a lot.

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3 Responses to The Agency Error

  1. Pingback: “It’s pronounced [fɹɑŋˈkɪnstin]” | Corner Cases

  2. Pingback: Murphy’s Power Law | Corner Cases

  3. W.P. McNeill says:

    Obviously I’m not the only person to think this.

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