Monthly Archives: November 2013

Agency and motive

Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

— Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2:16

I’m going to be approaching the problem of agency, alias free will, from as many different angles as possible, in the hope that eventually I can zero in on a meaningful understanding of the concept.

One way of conceptualizing the problem of agency is to consider the relation between agency and motive. The passage from the Book of Mormon quoted above summarizes the paradox neatly. (The entire second chapter of 2 Nephi, q.v., is essential reading for anyone interested in agency.) On the one hand, man has the capacity to “act for himself” (which entails, as the same writer explains a few verses later, the capacity “not to be acted upon”). Man is an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover, whose actions proceed from nothing other than his own free will. On the other hand, man cannot “act for himself” unless he is drawn in one direction or another by some external stimulus! This is a paradox. Man is something like an automatic door which won’t open unless you push it. If you have to push it, in what sense is it automatic? If man cannot act without the pushes and pulls of external stimuli, in what sense does he act for himself?


Lehi (the prophet in whose voice 2 Nephi 2 is written) makes a very important point: Motives — which come from “outside” the will, in the form either of external stimuli or of pre-existing dispositions — are necessary to free will. Man is pushed and pulled in various directions by his desires — desires which come to him unbidden, and which does not choose to experience. Yet it is not correct to say that he can act freely despite these desires; on the contrary, it is only because of these desires that he is able to act at all.

A moment’s introspection confirms that this is true. With no relevant motives, no reason whatsoever for preferring one course of action over another, a man can still “act” after a fashion — that is, he is capable of making a random choice; he won’t be paralyzed like Buridan’s ass — but such an act does not constitute a true instance of free will or of acting for oneself. The “liberty of indifference” (as Voltaire called it; see my earlier discussion here) is no liberty at all. What is not motivated does not come from the man; that is why a man can turn such decisions over to a random or pseudo-random algorithm such as a coin toss and feel that he has lost nothing.


So humans are not unmoved movers. We are — paradox alert! — moved movers. This is not merely to say that sometimes we are moved from without and sometimes we move ourselves; rather, every instance of acting for oneself is also an instance of being moved by external or pre-existing influences. The very same action is simultaneously self-caused and externally caused.

We express our intuitive understanding of this paradox every day when we ask such questions as “Why did you do that?” A true unmoved mover could only answer, “Because I chose to.” That would be the terminus a quo of all possible causal explanation. (“Yes, but why did you choose that?” “Sorry, does not compute.”) But we expect — and get — better answers than that.


When it comes to the motivation of free choices, no simple model of influence is adequate. We cannot, for instance, use conventional concepts of probability and say that a particular influence makes someone “more likely” to make a particular choice. Probabilistic reasoning applies only to rule-governed systems — which free agents, by definition, are not.  To say that I have an n-percent chance of choosing to perform a particular action is to imply that my choice is determined by some highly complex, random or pseudo-random process analogous to a roll of the dice. An act is not determined by any such process, though, but by the agent’s free choice.

Another model which is temptingly simple but inadequate is to think of various motives and influences as vectors, and the agent’s free will as one vector among others, with the final decision being determined by the sum of all relevant vectors. The vector model is inadequate for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it implies that the agent is not truly free — that sufficiently strong motives could force him to act in a particular way will he nill he. (If, on the other hand, his will is strong enough to counteract all other vectors, then those other vectors become irrelevant.) A more serious deficiency is that the vector model fails to explain how free acts are performed through motives rather than in spite of them. It treats motives and other influences as extraneous factors whose only role in the process of agency is to interfere with it. The vector model implies that someone subject to no influences at all — which means having no motives at all — would be a free agent in the fullest sense. In fact, though, we know that without motives, action is impossible — or, at least, meaningless and unintelligible. The Book of Mormon passage quoted at the beginning of this post sounds paradoxical, but it is undeniably correct: man cannot act for himself (that is, exercise agency) unless he is enticed (that is, subject to non-volitional influences). The vector model fails to explain how agency requires motives.


Another approach, which I consider more promising, is to recognize the absolute necessity of motivation*. There can be no action without a motive; motives are prior to actions and, in a sense, determine them. However, human action is not (or need not be) purely passive and mechanical, because each person is subject to multiple, often conflicting, motives — and can freely choose which to obey.

It is as if each human being is a slave and can do only what he is commanded to do — but he is a slave with multiple masters, and when the orders of one master conflict with those of another, he is free to hold to the one and despise the other as he sees fit. He has no power to do anything, though, unless at least one of his masters commands it.

Remember, though, that the “masters” in this analogy are a man’s own motives, so the “slave” in question is freer than the analogy makes him sound. In fact, he can do whatever he wants. His slavery consists in the fact that he can do only what he wants — and he doesn’t get to choose what he wants and what he doesn’t want, at least not directly.

This model is consistent with some aspects of agency as we actually experience it. It explains how our actions follow from our motives but are not determined by them — just as the “slave” in the analogy is actually free despite the fact that he does nothing but follow orders. One serious weakness, though, is that it fails to account for the “easiness” of some choices and the “difficulty” of others. Some motives are simply stronger than others — a consideration which seems to lead us back to the discarded “vector” model — and yet sometimes it is the weaker motive that prevails and realizes itself as action. I say “sometimes,” and yet (as discussed above) it is not a “sometimes” that can be quantified in the language of probability. All possible courses of action must be considered equally possible; none is more “probable” than the another — and yet some are “hard.” In what can this “hardness” consist? (My coincidental namesake, William James, addressed this question in his Principles of Psychology. While his analysis is ultimately inadequate, I do feel that it is a step in the right direction, and I will probably discuss it in a future post.)

The deepest weakness, though, of this and all other models, is its inability to explain how agency constitutes a third kind of thing, neither deterministic nor random — how mechanical motives (for the algorithms of the practical syllogism are no less mechanical than the laws of physics) and arbitrary free will can combine into something which is neither mechanical nor arbitrary, and which can therefore be meaningful. This is the problem of agency, the one that no one has ever come close to solving. I have some inkling of an approach which may prove profitable, but that, too, will have to wait for a future post.

In the meantime, I welcome comments of all kinds. These often prove to be very helpful.


* WordPress’s spell-checker helpfully explains that the word motivation should be avoided because it is a cliche.


Filed under Philosophy

Calling things by their correct names is an aspect of self-control

From a comment by Bruce Charlton on this post (emphasis added):

Somebody who was married once told me that he was always ready to ‘commit adultery’ (he did not use those words) if ever the opportunity presented itself (plus of course he sought such situations), and that not to do this would be crazy.

From William James’s Principles of Psychology:

[I]n describing the ‘reasonable type’ of decision, it was said that it usually came when the right conception of the case was found. Where, however, the right conception is an anti-impulsive one, the whole intellectual ingenuity of the man usually goes to work to crowd it out of sight, and to find names for the emergency, by the help of which the dispositions of the moment may sound sanctified, and sloth or passion may reign unchecked. How many excuses does the drunkard find when each new temptation comes! It is a new brand of liquor which the interests of intellectual culture in such matters oblige him to test; moreover it is poured out and it is sin to waste it; or others are drinking and it would be churlishness to refuse; or it is but to enable him to sleep, or just to get through this job of work; or it isn’t drinking, it is because he feels so cold; or it is Christmas-day; or it is a means of stimulating him to make a more powerful resolution in favor of abstinence than any he has hitherto made; or it is just this once, and once doesn’t count, etc., etc., ad libitum – it is, in fact, anything you like except being a drunkard. That is the conception that will not stay before the poor soul’s attention. But if he once gets able to pick out that way of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving the various opportunities which occur, if through thick and thin he holds to it that this is being a drunkard and is nothing else, he is not likely to remain one long. The effort by which he succeeds in keeping the right name unwaveringly present to his mind proves to be his saving moral act.

Of course no one speaks of “being a drunkard” now, nor of “committing adultery.” Drunkards have been superseded by “alcoholics” (a medical term), and no one would be so gauche as to commit adultery when it is so much more civilized to simply have an “affair” or an “indiscretion.” (See documentation here and here.) Examples of such euphemistic treatment of vice and sin (two words which are themselves on the way out) could easily be multiplied.

We may think we are doing the drunkard and the adulterer a favor by finding gentler, less judgmental terms for their vices, when in fact the opposite may be true. Without confession — that is, admitting that a sin is a sin and refusing to call it anything else or make excuses for it — repentance is nearly impossible. Modern “sensitive” language makes it harder to think the thoughts which lead to reform. In shying away from judging others, we make it harder to judge ourselves.

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Filed under Ethics, Language, Psychology


Old Holden never dreamt, I bet,
How very phone-y life would get,
Nor how the conquered human mobs,
Those vassals of the horde of Jobs,
Each phoney to the very heart,
Would think themselves so goddam smart.

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How to use thee, thou, and other King James pronouns

Second-person pronouns

In modern English, you can refer to one person or to a group of people. King James English distinguishes between the singular (thou, thee) and the plural (ye, you).

The singular word for “you” is thou (subject) or thee (object). The possessive determiner corresponding to “your” is thy or thineThy is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and thine before a word beginning with a vowel. Either form is acceptable for words beginning with the letter “h”; thine is generally more common for h-words in the Bible, but both forms are used, sometimes even in the same verse (for example, Numbers 5:20 includes both “thy husband” and “thine husband”). Thine also serves as the possessive pronoun corresponding to “yours.” The sentences below illustrate the use of these four forms.

  • Thou hast a sword.
  • The sword belongeth to thee.
  • It is thy sword. (but: thine axe, thy/thine horse)
  • The sword is thine.

The plural for “you” is ye (subject) or you (object). The corresponding possessive forms are your and yours as in modern English.

  • Ye have a kingdom.
  • The kingdom belongeth to you.
  • It is your kingdom.
  • The kingdom is yours.

By the way, many people seem to have the idea that ye is “formal” and thou is “familiar.” That may be true of other European languages, and even of archaic English usage elsewhere, but it is not true of the language used in the Bible. In the King James Version, singular vs. plural is the whole story. Thou and thee are used even to address kings, and ye and you are always plural in meaning. This means, for example, that when Jesus says “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31), the word “you” is plural and thus refers not to Simon (as most modern English speakers would assume) but to the disciples as a group.

My and mine

The possessive forms my and mine follow the same pattern as thy and thine. That is, my is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and mine before a word beginning with a vowel. (Both forms are okay before a word beginning with “h.”) Mine is also the possessive pronoun, as in modern English. Psalm 108:8 illustrates all of these rules: “Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine; Ephraim also is the strength of mine head; Judah is my lawgiver.” (It would also be acceptable to say my head, a phrase which also occurs frequently in the KJV.)

Ways to say “its”

The possessive determiner its does not exist in King James English. Instead, the word his does double duty as the possessive form of both he and it — at least in theory. In practice, neuter his is rarely used; other structures such as thereof and of it are usually preferred. Here are some examples:

  • it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15) — This example makes it clear that his is to it as thy is to thou.
  • the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and sockets thereof (Numbers 4:31)
  • that the brass of it may be hot, and may burn, and that the filthiness of it may be molten in it, that the scum of it may be consumed (Ezekiel 24:11).

Subject-verb agreement: -eth

In modern English, a verb with a third-person singular subject takes the -s ending. In King James English, the corresponding ending is -eth.

  • The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth (John 3:8)

Two verbs are irregular in this regard: have and do. The third-person singular of have is hath. The verb do has two different third-person singular forms, doth and doeth. We use doth when it is an auxiliary verb, as in the following examples:

  • Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider (Isaiah 1:3)
  • Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice? (Job 8:3)
  • For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him (Isaiah 28:26)

The form doeth is used when it is the main verb of the sentence, as in the following examples.

  • He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3 John 1:11)
  • Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully (Jeremiah 48:10)

Subject-verb agreement: -est

If the subject of a sentence is thou (second-person singular), the verb takes the -est ending. Unlike -eth (and unlike its modern counterpart -s), this ending is required for all verbs, including even modal auxiliaries (such as will, can, may, etc.) and past-tense forms.

A few verbs have irregular -est forms:

  • are → art
  • were → wast / wert
  • have → hast
  • do → dost / doest
  • can → canst
  • will → wilt
  • must → must (no change)
  • shall → shalt

The normal second-person singular past form of “to be” is wast. The form wert is the so-called past subjunctive, used primarily in if-clauses and in sentences expressing wishes. It corresponds to were as in “If I were you…” or “I wish I were…”

  • Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created (Ezekiel 28:15)
  • If thou wert pure and upright; surely he would awake for thee (Job 8:6)
  • I would thou wert hot or cold (Revelation 3:15)

The distinction between dost and doest is the same as that between doth and doeth, discussed above. The shorter form is used as an auxiliary verb; the longer, as the main verb of a sentence.

  • But why dost thou judge they brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? (Romans 14:10)
  • If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Genesis 4:7)

For most past forms ending with the letter “d,” the ending is -st rather than -est. Exceptions include the past modals wouldest, couldest, and shouldest. (The forms wouldst, couldst, and shouldst are also used, but not in the Bible.)

  • Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the Lord, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the Lord? (1 Samuel 15:19)
  • O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! (Isaiah 48:18)
  • I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me (Matthew 18:32)

A note on direct address

The subject forms, ye and thou, are used in direct address.

  • Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33)
  • Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee (Luke 12:20)

(However, note that the King James equivalent of “Hey, you!” is not “Hey, thou!” but rather “Ho, such an one!”)

Also note that if a relative clause modifies a vocative phrase (as in, “Our Father which art in heaven”), the verb agrees with thou even if the word thou is not actually used. This is different from modern English, which uses third-person verb forms in such structures (modern translations have “Our Father who is in heaven”).


Filed under Language, Scripture

Tackling the problem of agency

Free will, or agency, is an extremely confusing, self-contradictory, seemingly incoherent, concept — which is why in the past I simply denied that it existed at all or that it was even a meaningful idea. That was a cop-out, though. It very obviously is a meaningful idea, and even a philosophically necessary one. Everyone acts as if they had free will — which implies that, on an intuitive level, we all understand what that means — which, in turn, implies that there is something to understand.

Granted, no one actually does understand free will in an explicit way, but that’s not such an unusual situation. No one fully and explicitly understands all the syntactic rules of his own native language, either, but the fact that we effortlessly follow those rules every day is proof that they exist and are, in principle, intelligible.

So I’ve decided to tackle the problem of free will instead of evading it. The first step is to admit the truth — there is such a thing as free will, and we don’t have a clue what it is — and to resist the temptation to deny either part of that statement, either to pretend free will is nonsense or to pretend that any of the lame “explanations” of it is satisfying.


As a name for the problem to be solved, I currently find the term agency to be more helpful than free will. This is partly due to my Mormon upbringing, and partly to the more recent influences of Goethe — whose declaration “In the beginning was the Act” seems deeper and deeper the more I think about it — and of Gurdjieff.

Fundamental to Gurdjieff’s philosophy is the distinction between things that people do and things that just happen. Happening is mechanical; doing — that is, action — is conscious. When a cloud drops rain or an arrow flies through the air, neither the cloud nor the arrow is doing anything. Raining happens; flying happens. The role of the cloud or the arrow is entirely passive; each simply receives pre-existing causal influences and passes them on in a mechanical, predetermined manner. In the strictest sense, neither the cloud nor the arrow can even be said to exist as an individual thing; each is simply part of that amorphous “it” to which we ascribe mere happenings (as when we say “it is raining”). Gurdjieff believed that most of what most people “do” most of the time is also mere happening. We go through our lives on autopilot, mechanically responding to stimuli and running the preprogrammed subroutines of habit. Most people most of the time have no real consciousness and no real will; they do not even exist as individuals. Rather, “it wants or it does not want,” and things happen accordingly.

To a pure determinist, that’s the whole story. But Gurdjieff also believed that true will — doing — agency — was possible, as it indeed it must be. A universe of pure happening — in which everything is caused, everything is predetermined, but nothing is caused or determined by anything — is unintelligible. At the very least, there must have been an agent to set the ball rolling — the First Mover of Aristotle. But there is no reason to assume only one agent, and common sense and our immediate subjective experience tell us that humans, too, are or can be agents. Gurdjieff may have been right that most of the time “it happens” — but sometimes we act.


One key feature of agency is decision. When an agent acts, he decides something that was undecided before. Prior to his action, two or more different courses of events were possible, and his action consists in the realization of one of them. Predicting which of them would be realized, using only information about the world prior to the act, would have been impossible even in principle. (An action which can be predicted from past information is not a true action because it does not decide anything; everything has already been decided, and all that remains is for it to happen.)

The other key feature of agency is the agent. Things are not just decided; they are decided by somebody. And this is where the difficulty — the seeming antinomy which once led me to reject the whole idea of agency — comes in. The decision must “come from” an agent who already existed prior to the decision, and it’s hard to know what “come from” can mean here if it does not refer to a relationship of cause-and-effect.  But if a decision is determined by some previous state of affairs, then it is not really a decision. Everything was already decided before the so-called decision was made.

This, then, is the fundamental antinomy. The idea of an agent doing something seems to entail cause-and-effect, meaning that the state of affairs at any given time can be derived from the state of affairs at a previous time. However, the idea of decision seems to entail the opposite: unpredictability-in-principle — the idea that a thing becomes determined at a particular point in time, and that prior to that point it was not determined. Yet agency necessarily includes both of these seemingly incompatible elements. Agency requires that decisions can be made by agents — which means that one and the same event is both caused an uncaused, derived from a past state of affairs and yet not predictable from that past state of affairs. Unless both of these contradictories can be incorporated, we don’t have agency; we just have things happening — happening either mechanically (if no decisions are made) or randomly (if decisions are made, but not by anyone), but either way, still just happening — not being done.


It appears that what we need is a non-deterministic form of causality — some way to say that P caused Q, but that P could just as easily have caused not-Q instead. This is complete nonsense logically — it means that “P, therefore Q” and “P, therefore not-Q” are equally correct. Is there any way to make such an idea intelligible without destroying the meaning of “therefore”?


Filed under Philosophy