flexibility, plasticity and agency

symposium on flexibility, department of social anthropology, university of oslo, 15-17 march


Few would dispute that flexibility is one of the defining characteristics of the human species. Humans inhabit an extraordinary range of environments and exhibit an extraordinary range of behaviour. We are highly responsive to novel situations - we have been able to invent means of exploring both outer space and the ocean depths, environments as alien from that in which we evolved as it is possible to get.

But what makes humans so flexible - and so different from any other creature? Over the past half-century this question has been debated largely through the nature-nurture prism. In the decades following the Second World War, the experience of racial science, eugenics and the Holocaust led many scholars to denounce genetic theories of human behaviour and to insist on the importance of nurture in shaping who we are. Ruth Benedict suggested in her highly influential 1934 book Patterns of Culture that humans were flexible because they had no essential nature:

The vast proportion of all individuals who are born into any society always... [assume] the behaviour dictated by the society... Most people are shaped to the form of their culture because of the malleability of their original endowment.'

More recently, disillusionment with social explanations, and advances in genetics and evolutionary biology, have helped swing the pendulum back, resurrecting concepts of human nature not simply in biological, but also in anthropological, psychological and sociological theories. Against this background there is an increasing tendency to view flexibility in naturalistic terms. As Steven Pinker put it in How the Mind Works:

Having a lot of built-in machinery should make a system respond more intelligently and flexibly to its inputs, not less... Our vaunted flexibility comes from scores of instincts assembled into programmes and pitted in competition.

Both these functionalist approaches, I want to suggest, conflate two meanings of flexibility: flexibility as plasticity and flexibility as agency. Plasticity refers to a sensitivity to external conditions, and an ability to tailor the particular path to a set goal according to the state of the environmental conditions. This concept of flexibility comes over well in a discussion by the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

Cosmides and Tooby suggest that behaviour is the outcome of three types of mechanisms. First, there is a set of mechanisms that define an organism's goal, such as 'find food' or 'find a mate'. Second, there is a set of mechanisms that can compute the responses most likely to achieve the goal - 'go hunting' or 'hit the local disco'. And finally, an organism must have 'the ability to implement the specific response once it is computed'. According to Cosmides and Tooby, 'then (and only then) is it disadvantageous to be inflexibly prevented from implementing those changes by some fixed element in the system.'

Such a view suggests that our innate dispositions set our goals while 'flexibility' resides in the way we implement those goals. Indeed one could characterise the nature-nurture debate as a debate about the mechanism by which human goals are set, and the limits to behavioural plasticity in implementing these goals. The nurture side of the debate tends to believe that goals are set externally or culturally and that human behaviour is highly malleable in response to these goals. The nature side of the debate suggests that goals are selected for through the process of evolution by natural selection, and that there are strict limits to behavioural flexibility.

I want to insist, however, that what is distinctive about humans is that it is we who often set our goals. We are, in the words of the psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith, not just problem solvers but also problem generators. Another way of putting it is this: Humans are, as many have observed in recent years, shaped by both nature and nurture. But humans are also defined by our ability to transcend both. Unlike any other creature, humans have developed the capacity to overcome the constraints imposed both by our genetic and our cultural heritage.

Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws, and social beings, moulded and patterned by the societies and cultures in which we live. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of both biological and physical laws and of our social and cultural heritage. To talk of humans as 'transcendent', is, therefore, to recognise that as subjects we have the ability to transform our selves, our natures, our world, an ability denied to any other physical being.

Many thinkers on both sides of the nature-nurture debate reject this idea of humans as transcendent. On the one side, many argue that human properties and powers arise from our natural constitution and hence should be understood in the same way as we would attempt to understand the properties and powers of any natural being. On the other side, human properties and powers are derivative of society, that a human being, in words of Rom Harre 'is not a natural object but a cultural artefact'. Sociality, and in particular language, limits the possibilities of agency and of transcendence. Richard Rorty, for instance, views the self as simply 'a network of beliefs, desires and emotions with nothing behind it – no substrate behind the attributes'. There is, he insists, 'no such thing as getting outside the web which constitutes oneself, looking down upon it and deciding in favour of one portion of it rather than another'. In other words, no possibility transcendence, only of a passive adjustment to the environment.

I want to examine the argument against transcendence from both the naturalistic and social constructionist perspectives. In so doing I want to reassert the claim that human flexibility entails not just plasticity but agency, and most importantly the capacity for transcendence.

A paradox of natural science is that its success in understanding nature has created problems for its understanding of human nature. The success of science derives from the way that it has 'disenchanted' the natural world, to borrow Max Weber's phrase. Whereas the prescientific world viewed the universe as full of purpose and desire, the scientific revolution transformed nature into an inert, mindless entity.

Humans, however, are not disenchanted creatures. We possess - or seem to possess - purpose and agency, consciousness and will, the very qualities that science has expunged from the rest of nature. The challenge for any naturalistic theory, then, is to explain the teleology of the human world in non-teleological terms.

There have been two approaches to meeting this challenge. One is to deny teleology. The other is to ignore it. Some argue that teleology is an illusion, something that natural selection has designed us to believe in, not because it is true, but because it is useful. As the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore has put it, when 'we feel ourselves to be in control of an action, that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.'

We think we are in charge, but in reality there is no self that can take charge. There is simply the machinery of the brain churning away, thanks to a chain of causal links that goes back to the origin of the universe itself.

An extreme version of this argument is provided by 'eliminative materialists' such as the philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland who argue that there are no such as things as desires, beliefs, and minds. These, they believe, are simply figments of a 'folk psychology' that will eventually be swept away by a proper science. (Though, of course, they believe no such thing as, in their universe, beliefs do not exist).

A variation on this argument is provided by thinkers such as the Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore who adopt Richard Dawkins' notion of a meme, a unit of culture that inhabits, or rather parasitises, our brains. Blackmore suggests that 'Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied.'

She denies that there is any such thing as a personal belief, a self or agency. 'What does it mean to say I believe?', she asks. 'Since we cannot find either the beliefs or the self who believes' by looking into somebody's head, so we must conclude that 'there is only a person arguing, a brain processing the information, memes being copied or not'. Blackmore suggests that 'the word "I" is a convention that both you and I understand, but it does not refer to a persistent, conscious inner being behind the words.'

Such an argument, however, cannot bear the weight of its own claim. In a discussion about science and religion Blackmore concludes that 'I do defend the idea that science, at its best, is more truthful than religion.' The defence of scientific objectivity is, of course, necessary for any naturalistic view of the world. But as the evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith asks, 'What is the "I" that holds this view if not "persistent" (she will still believe it tomorrow), "conscious" (she would not write about it otherwise) and "inner" (where else could it be?).'

As Maynard Smith's comment indicates, many naturalistically-inclined thinkers find implausible the notion that human agency is an illusion and the self just a story. They therefore adopt a different approach - accepting, in principle, the existence of consciousness and free will, but ignoring them in practice when formulating scientific concepts of human nature.

Steven Pinker, for instance, is 'as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything.' Moral reasoning, he points out, depends upon our acknowledgement of ourselves as sentient beings. The concept of sentience 'underlies our certainty that torture is wrong and that disabling a robot is the destruction of property but disabling a person is murder'. Pinker acknowledges that, as yet, we have no idea how to explain sentience scientifically. But, he argues, 'Our incomprehension of sentience does not impede our understanding of how our mind works.'

It seems strange, to say the least, to hold that sentience is both central to human thinking and also irrelevant to our understanding of how the mind works. As the neurologist Raymond Tallis points out, to construct a theory of the human mind while ignoring sentience is a bit like 'trying to build a house by starting at the second floor'. Sentience, Tallis observes, 'is the first, not the last, problem... of psychology. It is not merely the most difficult of the problems of consciousness or mind; it is also the pivotal one and addressing it cannot be postponed until one has solved the "easier" problems such as those pertaining to "cognitive functions" like intelligence, memory, thinking etc.'

One of the ironies of the naturalistic argument is that its starting point is usually a critique of Cartesian dualism. Yet in insisting that human subject can be understood in purely naturalistic terms, naturalistic thinkers are forced to adopt what can only be regarded as a dualist viewpoint. As Pinker himself puts it, from a naturalistic viewpoint, 'sentience floats in its own plane, high above the causal chains of psychology and neuroscience.' Descartes would not have disagreed.

There is another irony too. The naturalistic reluctance to acknowledge the human subject has clear parallels with anti-realist, social constructionist and postmodern views of what it is to be human. Most naturalistically-inclined thinkers are implacably hostile to postmodernism, constructionism and anti-realism. But despite such hostility, what links naturalism and social constructionism and postmodernism is the common distrust of human subjectivity. For naturalists, consciousness and the self are either illusory phenomena, or ones that can be ignored while we go about the scientific business of understanding humans in a purely naturalistic fashion.

For postmodernists, the human subject is not a physical illusion but a historical and linguistic construction. 'The individual', the historian Jeffrey Weekes writes, 'is constituted in the world of language and symbols which come to dwell in, and constitute, the individual'. Or as Rom Harre, whose 3-volume Ways of Being is one of the most cogent defences of such a constructionist view of agency, puts it, 'What people call "selves"', he writes, 'are by and large produced discursively, that is in dialogue.' For Harre, an individual is simply to be regarded as a socio-spatial location. 'The study of the mind', he writes, 'is a way of understanding the phenomena that arise when different sociocultural discourses are integrated within an identifiable human individual situated in relation to those discourses':

[The] singularity we feel ourselves to be is not an entity. Rather it is a site, a site from which a person perceives the world and from which it acts. There are only persons. Selves are grammatical fictions.

For Harre 'My life is not a sequence of historical events but a story which I tell myself and which is forever being updated and revised.'

This is almost exactly how Susan Blackmore or Daniel Dennett view the self. Daniel Dennett conceives of the self as a 'Centre of Narrative Gravity' a web spun out of the words and ideas in our minds. 'Our tales are spun', Dennett writes, 'but for most part we don't spin them, they spin us.' Dennett's self, like Rorty's and Harre's, does not act upon the world, but is acted upon by the world, a self that does not speak for you, but is spoken as you.

In his comic novel, -, David Lodge satirises postmodernism in the person of Dr Robyn Penrose (Temporary Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Rummidge), for whom 'there is no such thing as the "self"... there is only a subject position in an infinite web of discourses - the discourses of power, sex, family, science, religion, poetry, etc.' And for whom 'there is no such thing as an author', because 'Every text is a product of intertextuality, a tissue of allusions to and citations of other texts.'

According to Daniel Dennett, 'Robyn and I think alike': 'We are both fictional characters of a sort, though of a slightly different sort.' This bizarre love-in between the naturalists and postmodernists is a bit like discovering that Osama Bin Ladin agrees with Salman Rushdie that magical realism is an appropriate literary form through which to debate the merits of Islam. Naturalism and postmodernism are like the two heads of a pushme-pullyou, constantly tugging at each, determined to travel in different directions, never realising that they are stitched together at the waist. And the twine that makes the stitching is the common distrust of human subjectivity, a view of human beings not as subjects capable of acting autonomously but as objects who are simply acted upon, whether by nature or by culture.

The defence of human agency is of more than academic interest. The question of agency reaches into the very heart of our academic and political lives.

There can be no academic life without a notion of objective truth. And there can be no objective truth without a subject to embody such a truth. Nor can there be a political life either. Politics, and the belief in social change, requires belief both in the capacity of humans to transcend their both their evolutionary and cultural heritage, and in the transformative character of human rationality. Indeed, the degradation of politics we have witnessed in recent years is the direct consequence of the degradation of the idea of human subjectivity. If we wish to defend both political freedom and the scientific process, then we need to make a stand in defence of humans not just as flexible in an animal sense, but also as possessors of agency in a uniquely human sense.