mark | March 5, 2012
Seen from a distance, large numbers of dispersed human actions seem to conform to certain statistical laws and seem patterned, even predictable. It can be tempting to draw from this a challenge to freedom and a mechanical, rational-economic view of individual behaviour. It is perhaps more logical, certainly more inspiring, to draw from this a challenge to the concept of the more mechanical principles governing individual agent behaviour in comparable observed situations.
In other words, what we have is the observation that seen from a large enough distance and given enough common parameters and little chance for cooperative organisation, a multitude of agents acting with spontaneity and even free will appear to produce the same statistical and predictable behaviour as a set of simple, modelable actors with mechanical ‘agency’ and a dose of randomness.
What we take from this observation, however, should perhaps not be that we are a combination of mechanics and randomness – this would be assigning a reality rather than a utility to non-real world-models deduced from the maths of patterns. It perhaps should be, or at least logically is as deducible, that other behaviour in nature that exhibits the same ‘predictability’ and statistical conformity in similar conditions (lack of the ability to cooperatively organise, and broadly common parameters or goals) actually on an individual level are buzzing with their own version of our glorious freedom, self-direction and agency? That the ‘random’ and ‘spontaneous’ individual atoms have free will, but little chance to make it seen as such?
Of course, this inference the other way – that the presence of statistical patterns with elements of randomness implies the existence of free-willed agents – is clearly as unjustified.
(Thought drawn from ‘The Phenomenon of Man’)
One more thought, to follow:
What distinguishes the expressions of free will that cannot be mistaken for statistical noise from those which can, is a question of connection and coordination. This applies to the connections and coordination that enable our own thoughts to develop and our collected physical and mental being to direct our movement and action, but it also applies to collective human action. Dispersed, scattered and with few links between us, the economist may be able to predict our mechanistic, value-maximising behaviour. Connected, coordinated and therefore powerful, we are free to form and develop collective purpose and action that expresses loud and clear the unmistakeable presence of our freedom, creativity and will. The day atoms arrange themselves into letters, words and paragraphs is the day the powerful of the world sit up, take notice and do precisely what they are told.