Exploring agency through the ages

“Am I a slave to my deadlines,” and “what does it mean to be alive” might rank rather high in one’s list of existential crises.

After a sleepless night of homeworking and battling the raging desire to sleep, or to do anything other than that sadistically long problem set, one might ask herself “Do I control my own life?”

These questions are not relegated only to sleep-deprived college students’ early morning musings; they’ve been at the center of many intellectual debates over the past 600 years. A generation’s opinions about these questions are representative of their beliefs about the past and their expectations from the future.

This timeless fascination with the question of what it means to be living has been explored most recently be Jessica Riskin, a history professor at Stanford University. In her latest book, The Restless Clock, she moves past the previous theologically and philosophically grounded discussions and looks at these questions of autonomy through the lens of a historian.

Riskin’s work explores the definition of an “automaton,” or a human-like machine, as well as several theories surrounding the mechanism of life. The idea of mechanically creating another “human” is an intriguing one. This idea was first explored within a theological context. In the 15th century, automatons were often used to depict biblical scenes and dazzle the audience with the power of life-like presentations, convince them of the terror of devils, the holiness of angels and the “reality” of the Nativity scene.

Churches would often use mechanically operated (usually using pulleys) devils, angels, saints and other figures from the bible. These automatons would be used to put up a show that was intended to inspire fear and reverence into the audience. Soon enough, the public discovered that these contraptions were the work of man and not of the Divine Providence.

This led to the public trying to ascribe greater power over mankind’s actions to God as opposed to God that simply reacted to mankind’s actions.

This reimagined God — unlike the medieval God — had a monopoly over fate and like a clockmaker governed the workings of his clockwork world. This idea of having no agency (no control over your actions) became popular and still is. As the Age of Reason set in, and the Church’s authority came to be questioned by scientific minds like those of Galileo, Descartes, Mersenne, the idea of having no agency developed a different reasoning.

Descartes ascribed the products of engineering such as bellows, hydraulic systems, irrigation systems and furnaces to biological systems.

Furthermore, he argued that such systems were driven by external stimuli, essentially saying that we are completely governed by our environments (including expression of complex emotions like humility, liberality, veneration etc.) This Cartesian philosophy used the analogy of hydraulic systems, containing the vital fluid – “animal spirit” to “drive” humans.

This fluid would behave like all other fluids – it would pursue equilibrium, climb siphons, flow i.e., “have a purpose” (fluids are always flowing to somewhere). Fondly “rationalizing” life and agency (or lack thereof), Descartes in Riskin’s opinion sought to eliminate philosophy and theology from that was “obviously scientific”.

No doubt, this brought about an epistemological revolution (the way people think about how they think) imbibed with the belief that “Machinery means Intelligibility” — the association of hard data and empirical reasoning with intellect. Unsurprisingly, Descartes was also the first to explicitly express a “subjective sense of selfhood” in his opinions by acknowledging that his thoughts made him who he was. In response to this argument, Leibniz introduced the idea of a “living force”.

He differentiated it from the Newtonian concept of force by saying that motion wasn’t a real thing, it was the effect of an interaction between objects.

This force was “real”, an inherent property that belonged to the body itself. Both of these theories however, are incomplete. The “force” or “animal spirit” we’re unaccounted for and do hint at the involvement of either human will or divine intervention.

Pointing out these flaws. In 1856 Henry Huxley observed that despite it being common knowledge that water was formed out of the chemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen in a 2:1 ratio, we don’t understand “why” water has the properties it does.

Yet, we don’t assume that there exists something called “aquosity” that takes possession of it.

Then, what differentiates protoplasm that forms the interior of living cells? One can see that the answer to this question changes with time, and often demarcates significant changes in ideology over time.

While the above mentioned are only a few of the conversations that occur in the book, one must understand that as we as humans evolve, along with our ideas, and our technology, this question will get harder to answer simply because of the blurring boundaries between the “living” and “non-living”.

Thus, by putting forth these questions in the words of past intellectuals, Riskin engages the reader in evaluating these existential questions with respect to big-picture “processes” like evolution, artificial intelligence and epistemology.