The Illusion of Agent Control

Perhaps one of the most problematic cognitive biases we have is the tendency to attribute agency when one doesn’t understand the cause of something and/or where none is needed. This cognitive bias is related to the Illusion of Control, where you overestimate your degree of influence over external events, but is applied to other agents than yourself. It is also related to the Illusion of External Agency, except instead of the external agent affecting your opinions, you think an external agent is affecting certain things in the world where agency is unneeded. Since I could not find a name for this bias I want to discuss, I’ll call it the Illusion of Agent Control.

Of course, when I make my argument, many other cognitive biases will come into play for my readers. There are those who will be guilty of the Semmelweis Reflex, which is the tendency to reject new information that contradicts whatever paradigm you believe in. Conservatism will prevent others from changing their beliefs, as will some degree of status quo bias. For some their bias blind spot bias will prevent them from even identifying they have cognitive biases such as these.

With the Illusion of Agent Control, a person sees order and insists that for that order to exist, there has to have been an orderer around to make the order. The existence of this bias is perhaps not entirely surprising or unexpected, since self-organizing processes are hardly self-evident. More than that, if you are living in a tribe 10,000 years ago, and you come across some rocks and/or sticks arranged in circles, it’s probably a good idea if your default is to assume that someone much like you was there. Those who thought otherwise and were wrong were less likely to recognize that unknown people were around, when the presence of unknown people was an extreme existential threat. Meaning, if they were wrong, they were more likely to die. However, those who were wrong about the existence of agents when there weren’t any didn’t face negative selection.

This tendency to think if there is some sort of order or structure, there must be an orderer was translated into religious thought. Things became endowed with spirits, spirits evolved into gods who each controlled certain elements of the cosmos — sun gods, earth goddesses, sea gods, love goddesses, even gods who introduced writing or created trade — and eventually there emerged in several major religions a single God who created everything in the cosmos. The works of man or other living things ended up being translated into the works of deity through the evolution of a cognitive bias that helped ensure our safety in our original tribal environments.

As a result, many people look at the exquisite order of the cosmos and insist there must have been a divine orderer to make it, to put it all in order. They look at the intricate complexity of living things and insist that for something so complex to exist, there must be a divine orderer to create or intelligently design it. Others look at the amazing complexity of society and insist that someone, somewhere had to have had the wisdom to create the laws that make everything work as it does. Surely someone, somewhere is deciding what to mine, what to grow, where to send it, what to invent. Someone has to be ordering all of that and preventing it all from falling into chaos.

However, the contemporary sciences of complexity, chaos, bios, information, flow, self-organization, spontaneous order, emergence, networks, and the mathematical theories underlying them all point to something else: self-organizing network processes with emergent properties. The same underlying rules result in similar patterns at different levels of complexity (something I go into at length in my book, Diaphysics).

The fact of that matter is, if you have a sufficiently large number of interacting elements — atoms, organisms, humans, organizations — you will get the spontaneous emergence of a complex order with its own patterns that in turn affect the (inter)actions of the underlying elements. This is true at the scale of atoms or the cosmos, organisms in an ecosystem or humans in an economy. We do not need anything external to “prevent it from falling into chaos” because the order, the structures are themselves driven by the underlying chaos of those interactions.

For many the Great Orderer is God, without whom no order could exist. I’m not going to argue that there isn’t a God, nor that God didn’t act as a “divine spark” to set things going from nothingness (perfect symmetry). Rather, I want to argue that any God that needs to then continue intervening to set things right isn’t really a God worth believing in. I prefer my higher power to have more competence than that.

The laws underlying evolution and self-organization are more than sufficient to create every single element of the cosmos and to evolve complex organisms and humans capable to think about these things and screw them up for far too long. They are also more than sufficient to give up technological innovation, the world’s various languages, free market economies, evolving artistic traditions, and other human social orders.

Which gets us to another group of people who cannot imagine order without an orderer: those who insist all social order must have come from someone somewhere. Even a group of someones somewhere will suffice. There must have been a Great Legislator in the past. There must be some great legislators creating all the rules of society to ensure the wheat gets grown and the bread gets baked and the trucks all ship it all to the cities on time. They cannot imagine that all of this could occur without divine, beneficent legislators working to ensure everyone everywhere has what they need.

Naturally, if people aren’t everywhere getting what they need, that is the result of chaos, or greed, of people not “playing by the rules” our gods created for us in their infinite wisdom.

The problem is that this gets it all completely backwards.

When you look at a healthy natural ecosystem, like a section of the Brazilian rainforest, and see the majestic trees lifting toward the sky, the orchids and bromeliads growing on their branches, the monkeys, birds, and sloths, lizards, snakes, and tree frogs climbing through the branches, ants along the trunks and forest floor, jaguars creeping through the shadows, do you wonder where the farmers are who set all this up? Or do you recognize the fact that bringing farmers in would only mess things up?

Obviously, we need farmers. That’s not the point. But farmers don’t create ecosystems with high biodiversity. Their jobs are to actually severely reduce local biodiversity to increase yields. Their order is a simple one, and the famed legislators are little more than farmers in our societies. They have their role, but if we expect them to create all the complex diversity of our natural societies, we are expecting too much.

Human order is simple. The most complex social systems we can create are organizations, and even then, we cannot completely control them. We do somewhat better with physical technology, but even then things do break down (we can plan for things breaking down, but even then there are unexpected situations which will arise). Humans are great at creating simple order, and we are extremely impressed with all the inventions we have made using simple physical processes, but in the end, all our innovations have been quite simple.

If you want a better understanding of the impossibility of human planning or even regulation at the social level, treat technology as a social process instead. Can we control, outside of the people doing the inventing and innovating, what will be invented? You cannot force people to be creative, and if you are yourself creative, you will likely be creating rather than working in a government office.

The fact is that all of the innovations that drive economic growth are impossible for anyone to calculate, predict (if you could predict it, why not just go ahead and invent it?), or even manufacture and sell. There’s no person or committee anywhere who knows the absolute best use for a given material. Whatever is the “best use” for something is completely subjective. This person’s “best use” of iron may be completely different from another person’s “best use.” One person’s best use of wheat is for bread; another person’s best use of wheat is for beer. Who is right? The price a person is willing to pay for wheat is what will decide what the best use really is.

If you think you know for certain what the best use of something is, then all you are really doing is trying to impose your own subjective preferences on everyone else. In other words, you fancy yourself God, with wisdom surpassing all others’. But you’re not. You’re just someone with an opinion throwing a fit that others don’t share it. Behavior which is more demonic than God-like.

The fact is that when people are able to freely interact, they are able to discover what is best for them at that time. Thus are their lives improved. They don’t need anyone to guide their decisions as though they were children. They don’t need anyone to tell them they are wrong about what will make them better off, happy, or satisfied. Perhaps they will learn they are wrong; but unless they make their own free choices, they will never learn. A forced choice is no choice; with force, there is only acceptance, not learning. And with force, you overly-simplify things, reducing complexity, ensuring death instead of growth.

When we accept the Illusion of Agent Control, we are bound to make mistakes in understanding the cosmos, understanding nature, and understanding society. Humans do not control the structure of society. We can control the structures of our organizations, but only just barely. We can control our technologies, but not what others will do with those technologies once we release them into society. The inventor controls the direction of his invention; the scientist controls the experiments she conducts; the poet controls the words being used in his poem; the filmmaker controls the shots she’s going to make. But the inventor does not control technological innovation; the scientist does not control scientific discovery itself; the poet does not control what poetry is produced by the nation’s poets; the filmmaker does not control what films will be produced, released, or enjoyed (in turn affecting what films will be produced in the future).

For some reason, we think because we control the immediate, the close-by, that we can control networks of hundreds, thousands, millions, even billions. That’s complete and utter nonsense. It not only can’t be done, but it doesn’t even need to be done. Self-organizing processes work just fine. No Grand Orderer needed, or need apply.