Agency and autonomy IV: Agency and religion

So, let’s go back to Wittgenstein’s quote. In the second part of the investigations, now called Philosophy of Psychology, a fragment, chapter iv section 22 he writes: “My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.” In section 23 he continues: “Religion teaches us that the soul can exist when the body has disintegrated. Now do I understand what it teaches? – Of course I understand it – I can imagine various things in connection with it. After all, pictures of these things have been painted. And why should such a picture be only an imperfect rendering of the idea expressed? Why should it not do the same service as the spoken doctrine? And it is the service that counts.”

Here, I believe, Wittgenstein is trying to point out that there is after all something fishy about this notion. The “of course” shows how we slip, how we let ourselves be led astray, and he sort of confirms that in section 25 where he simply states: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” – something can read to mean that we have an attitude towards a soul to bodies.

Now, the importance of these sections to our examination of agency is two-fold. First it shows how agency is determined by an attitude to a soul, that we in many ways ascribe agency not through analytical approaches, but in the adoption of an attitude (which is quite different from the coming to a conclusion). It seems to suggest that we cannot discover agency through reasoning, but reason only about agency after we have indeed adopted that attitude towards a soul that Wittgenstein points to.

The second observation, however, is equally interesting, and that is the strong relationship between agency and religious thought. We already discussed the relationship between agency and punishment, and it now seems obvious, or likely, that agency actually follows the application of a language game based on concepts like soul. Agency is connected with an old language game, and ultimately perhaps connected with the notion of sin – just as it is connected with the notion of will.

Agency follows duties, and establishes rights. If we ever say of a system that it can sin, we have established agency beyond a doubt.

Agency and Autonomy III: The consequences of agency

Let’s assume that we have designed a good way of determining agency. How would we, then, determine the consequences of liability where we have established that there is agency? Here we encounter an interesting observation. It feels wholly unsatisfactory to assign agency and thus liability to a system that cannot recognize that it is being held responsible. Think about it: assume that we say that a system killed a man by, say, scheduling the working of a machine in the wrong way, and that we have determined that it did so to kill the man – because it found him inefficient, say. Would we then say that the system should be held responsible for murder? If we have established that it has agency, that it acted autonomously, then the answer seems to be yes.

But does shutting down the system really feel like a good response to a murder? Is it really the equivalent of the death penalty? This question reveals something interesting about agency. It seems that one way of thinking about agency would be to say that we assign agency only to that we think can feel guilt, remorse or a sense of self-preservation. Or those systems that we think can feel regret.

The relationship between regret and agency are interesting, and have to do with our innate will to punish. We know that people are neurologically hard-wired to feel pleasure when punishing social wrongdoers. This seems to suggest that we view punishment as a recognition of agency. Is it then first when we feel satsified with punishing an actor that we can safely say that our attitude to that actors is the attitude towards a soul? That seems an awful thought, but it is probably not far from the truth.

When we believe a punishment is felt, we also believe there is agency – someone might say. And we may say that it is only when we have an attitude towards a soul that we also punish someone.