I’m a big fan of metacognition i.e. thinking about thinking, or an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. This includes knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or problem-solving.
Discovering and exploring new thinking strategies can expose a lot of “faults” in our mental processes. When I say faults I mean one of three things:
- The thinking process or mental habit causes us to have an inaccurate view of the world, which produces suboptimal results.
- A particular mental pattern is causing unnecessary stress, unhappiness and lowers quality of life.
- The perspective we’re holding is blinding us to possible opportunities.
Thinking is messy. These patterns interact a lot, firing chains of thought, triggering associations and jumping all over the place. It can be difficult to navigate your cognitive jungle. It takes a deliberate effort to introduce a new pattern or replace an old one.
Unlike most sane individuals, I do this shit for fun. 😀 It’s actually enjoyable to introduce new higher-order thinking styles just to see what happens. On rare occasions I get an A-ha! moment that sheds new light on an issue I didn’t even know I had and percolates through my entire worldview. Sometimes it even collapses whole structures of unhealthy thinking.
Today I’ll explore two concepts that have been bouncing around my head for a few weeks. These are mostly addressed at numbers 1 and 3 on the above list.
Agency is the capability of autonomous, intelligent and goal-oriented behavior.
People are agents, clearly. So are corporations and governments, insofar as they pursue goals (like ‘maximizing shareholder value’ or ‘defending territory’). Even a plant can be said to have agency, since it ‘wants’ to grow toward the sun. Not all agents need to be selfish — e.g., a non-profit — but any system that can be called selfish […] will necessarily be an agent.
But agency isn’t binary; it’s not something you either ‘have’ or ‘don’t have.’ Instead it admits of degrees. The more autonomous, intelligent, adaptive, and purposeful a system is, the more agency we will attribute to it. Thus children tend to have less agency than their (more intelligent, purposeful) parents, and slaves less agency than their (more autonomous) masters.
Another key fact is that agency isn’t intrinsic to a system, but rather something we ascribe to it. It’s a way of describing a system at the level of abstraction that includes goals, obstacles, motivations, etc. If you look too closely (at a sufficiently low-level of abstraction), the agency might seem to disappear. A plant, for example, is ‘merely’ growing its stem according to the concentration of auxin, just like we (humans) are often ‘merely’ acting on our drives and instincts. But zoom back out, and once again it will be productive to describe the system at the agent-level of abstraction. Thus explanatory power, not free will, is the hallmark of agency.
– Kevin Simler
An interesting way to think about agency is to start looking for it in places you wouldn’t expect could find it. For example, this blog wants you to read it, and it will do what it can to captivate your attention. That chocolate bar wants you to eat it, your phone wants you to recharge it, the ball wants you to hit it etc.
You can clump together individuals into a whole and consider its agency, as if the whole was alive and had goals, decisions, obstacles, opportunities and behavior. For example:
- Your social circle – What does your friend network want as a whole? Does it want its nodes (individual people) to have fun? Engage in drama? Look for new nodes to join or remove incompatible ones?
- Companies – What if your company had agency? What does it want? Maximize profit? Enrich the lives of its elements (employees)? What behaviors does it exhibit to achieve its goals? Are the goals of the collective agency aligned with your individual goals?
- A whole country – This perspective is actually ubiquitous. You can read it in the news all the time (e.g. “UK is leaving the EU”). Countries have allies and enemies, they communicate and strive to achieve things like developing it’s economy or acquire territory. How do the goals and behaviors of a group agency serve your goals as an individual agent? Does your country represent you accurately?
- Technology – What’s the goal of technology? How is it achieving those goals? Here I like to draw parallels with biological life. You could say biological life wanted to become self-aware, so it evolved from single-cell organisms to humans who have brains capable of supporting consciousness. In the same sense, technology started evolving from mastering fire to computers and heading steadily towards AI, which basically means technology itself could achieve self-awareness. 😀
You can split agency into smaller pieces. The “self” is an interesting example. Try to think of your mind as more of a collection of agents, and your “self” as sort of team leader. You sometimes exhibit completely contradictory behavior. During the weekday you may want to work hard, slouch in the afternoon, hit the gym in the evening and go drinking with your friends on weekends.
Imagine all the different subselves that manifest through you as agents. The fitness freak in you has goals and ambitions, the social animal as well. And if you have addictions, that could be viewed as another agent pulling you away from most of the others. Don’t take this too literally, I’m not talking about a dissociative identity disorder. It’s a metaphor, a mental tool to analyse yourself and hopefully gain some insight into the inner workings of your mind.
Can you think of other examples in your own environment?
Patterns of Refactored Agency [Mike Travers] – An essay on different patterns of agency and the pragmatic uses and pathologies of each one. A very profound read.
Mechanical vs. Organic Thinking
Mechanisms come together by assembly, when a creator arranges raw material in just the right way to serve a particular purpose. They’re typically made out of discrete parts, each with its own purpose that fits into the overall structure. And they’re cleanly factored and globally optimized: the result of a far-sighted design process.
Organisms, on the other hand, aren’t assembled from the outside. Instead they start out small and simple, and expand outward while gradually complicating themselves. In other words, they grow. The result is a hacky mess of tangled parts, vestiges, fuzzy boundaries, and overlapping purposes: the hazards of a short-sighted, local optimization process.
– Kevin Simler
In Western culture we tend to favor the mechanical perspective. This has improved our understanding of things that are clearly organisms. We looked at the human anatomy and asked the mechanical questions, e.g. “What are the parts that assemble the human body? How do the individual elements (organs, tissues, cells) work? What is their purpose?” etc.
Just like with agency, we can gain some insight by switching places and looking at things from a more organic perspective. It’s even more useful not to look at it in a binary either-or fashion, but as two poles at opposite ends of a spectrum:
Try looking at technology, government or a code base (if you’re a software developer) and think of it as an organism. I’m sure you can find other examples as well. How would you explain the concept you have in mind on different points of the above spectrum?
One pragmatic way I found to expand outward while gradually complicating myself was transitioning from merely consuming (books, blogs etc.) to creating, from impression to expression. My prefered medium is writing, but it could be anything you like: singing, dancing, coding, painting, sculpting etc.
Getting into a habit of writing about your experience can overlay every aspect of your life. Doesn’t matter if it’s work, relationships, health or whatever. Writing about it could help you organize and solidify your knowledge or be used as a tool for exploration. I recommend public writing because it is usually more motivating than writing for yourself.
Also, framing new incoming knowledge as a lesson to teach others can help you solidify the material in your memory and connect dots that were previously unnoticeable. To become better at something, start teaching it to others. Summarize what you have read in a book or turn it into a lesson complete with drawings and diagrams. Imagine realistic questions being thrown at your explanations and try answering them.
Technical Debt of the West [Kevin Simler] – The article that inspired this post. Explores the mechanical vs. organic perspective in more depth.
Asking interesting questions
In terms of personal development, you could do some intriguing introspection with these two concepts.
Imagine your mind as an organism. At any point, you’re going to have budding parts like different interests, fears and goals. It’s where most of your mental energy goes. The top things on your mind. What parts of your mind are growing? How would you facilitate that growth, give it more energy/nutrients?
Do you have vestigial parts? Interests that you put aside? Emotional baggage? Wounds and scars from previous relationships or loss? How could you heal or cut off those parts so you can divert more of your energy to other parts that could use more growth or maintenance?
You may experience overall growth or decline. What would facilitate the growth or stop the decline?
In terms of agency, can you identify different subselves and what they want? Which of these have goals that should be given more attention?
How does group agency affect you? Do the goals of your social circle, company, country align well with your goals? How about the methods used to achieve them?
Would it be helpful to externalize your agency and give it to a tool, like a work schedule or to-do list? Would that save you time and mental overwhelm?
I’ll write more about this as my thinking matures. I don’t have a workable framework that could be repeatedly used for practical purposes. Not yet, at least. 🙂
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