Epistemic Status: sometimes you hear a platitude and it seems like nonsense, and then it clicks and you get it, but don’t have the ability to express it in a way that would help anyone who doesn’t already get it. Other times, it clicks and you have a mechanistic model that you think can explain it better than the platitude. This post feels something like 80% the first, 20% the second. It’s an analogy that crystallized for me recently, but ‘just an analogy.’
I view agency as integration of / balancing act between two ‘forces’. The first, which I’ll call ‘self’, is outward-flowing, preferences, morality, and particularism. The second, which I’ll call ‘no-self’, is inward-flowing, observations, system dynamics, and universalism. The labels come from meditative practices, and hopefully won’t cause too much of a namespace collision, but seem like the best labels of the thing to me at the moment.
The extremes, of course, are deficient. The person who is totally given over to their preferences hallucinates everything is already how they want it to be, and accomplishes nothing; the person who is totally given over to observing the unfolding of the universe also accomplishes nothing. Accomplishing something relies on observing how things are and what changes will make things different, and having a ‘something different’ to change towards.
The balancing act is complicated by the fact that the two have different types. It isn’t a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but instead a battle between ‘morality’ (a sense that it is better for things to go one way than another) and ‘amorality’ (a sense that there is one way that things will go, and ‘better’ has nothing to do with it). The fundamental element of nihil supernum, I think, is the visceral sense of the universe as no-self instead of self (in the sense of a loving God, or historical materialism, or so on); this is described in Beyond the Reach of God.
Well, not a ‘battle’. Those generally involve things of the same type; one army against another, one contestant against another, and generally they have a sole winner. This is closer to ‘design specifications’ meeting ‘engineering constraints’, where success looks like both being satisfied. One of the interesting features about balancing is that you can remain balanced while making both sides heavier; deepening in self often requires deepening in no-self, and vice versa. (Gaining a better model of the world / being more open to feedback from the world, or ‘deepening in no-self’, can cause one to be more effective at reaching one’s goals. Gaining a better model of what one wants and accumulating more resources, or ‘deepening in self’, can cause one to be more effective at learning about the world, or the right parts of it.)
“Wait,” you might say, “why not just say agency is about the interaction between design specifications and engineering constraints? Why have this mystical ‘self’ and ‘no-self’ bullshit?”. I think what I actually want to do with them is point to the psychological stances associated with the concepts, as distinct from the concepts; what they feel like from inside instead of what they look like from the outside. Being able to track your stance towards your intentionality / preferences / morality / etc., and being able to track your stance towards your updating / observing / learning / etc., sometimes helps you identify when you’re ‘in the wrong mode’ or not balancing correctly or are hung up on something. ‘Deepening in no-self’ is the equivalent of, say, ‘getting better at reading,’ where you’re now better able to take in the world as it actually is, and the label is the suggestive reminder that often this is done by ‘getting your self out of the way.’ Normally, meditative traditions focus solely on deepening no-self, since for humans in general self is a robust and persistent thing; but sometimes you need to reverse that advice too. Advice to ‘clean your room’ is an example of ‘deepening in self’, where you practice having preferences about the universe and reshaping reality accordingly.
This feels similar to what I was trying to get at with the Bridge of Theseus between is and ought. Parallels in predictive coding as well.
Paraphrased from a sutta from memory: "If one were to preach a doctrine of the self as existent, one falls into error. If one were to preach a doctrine of the self as non existent, one falls into error."
Serendipitously, there are some fascinating parallels between this dichotomy/opposition and what Zevedei Barbu describes in Problems of Historical Psychology (a short, fairly readable book which I recommend, not because most of what Barbu says is right—his views are rooted largely in a psychodynamic perspective, after all, so there’s an upper bound on literal correctness/truth of what he says—but because the book is packed with fascinating and, to me, fairly novel perspectives, some of which make predictions that sound like surprisingly familiar descriptions of social phenomena and dynamics which we have all observed).
In particular, Barbu describes the evolution of civilization as the result of the arrival on the scene of the second part of a dichotomy very similar to (but also importantly different from) what you describe (and the beginning of a corresponding conflict/interaction). Under this view, we might construe personal development (of the sort of category that “increasing your agency” might fit into) as a sort of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” echo of that same process.
(I don’t endorse any of this as a literal description of either historical nor personal development—but, again, the perspective is an interesting one.)
Reading this, what I'm imagining is that the development of individuals happens through this conflict/interaction between 'individual desires' and 'external reality', and that the development of civilization happens through the conflict/interaction between 'individual desires' and 'external social reality'. (Using the same sort of labeling scheme, I'm thinking of this as 'self' and 'others'.)
I suspect there's a detail being added by the "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" reference that I'm missing; the obvious echo is "if you already have machinery for managing the conflict/interaction of two forces that you need to do for individual agency in physical reality, just do the same thing for individual agency in social reality." Thinking about it more, it seems like if we take the individual as the 'fish' and the civilization as the 'reptile', there's a way in which the development of the reptile includes within it the development 'as a fish', either through the Sowell-style "Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late" or the forward-looking "when you try to develop your civilization, you have the options of 1) developing yourself and 2) developing others / the dynamics of the civilization."