On Agency

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A reflection on the Kena Upanishad

I have previously examined how little agency we have in the grand scheme of our lives (see Monism Redux and on Capability) but have taken very little time to examine agency specifically. Taking this gap in my analysis as an opportunity, I will focus this reflection on the nature of agency and the role it plays in our lives.

As a bold adjust, I would suggest that we should examine the mind as the loci of agency, as its nature appears to be centred around choice. The human mind is a complex and only partially explained phenomena – and I hesitate to tread in the realm of psychology as a complete novice. However, it would appear that within the brain there is an initial division between those actions which occur without thinking – the automatic actions such as our digestion and circulation – and those which willpower can control. If choice has anything to do with agency, then consciousness can have little to do with automatic nervous reactions and must reside within those actions within our active control.

If we examine actions of the will, I would suggest that there are those actions driven by instinctual desires – to sleep, to eat and reproduce – and those taken without specific recourse to our basic needs. I am not suggesting that to sleep, eat or reproduce is necessarily bad (far from it), but that these actions have little to do with our agency. However, a complex biological argument exists that all actions of benefit, such as education and contemplation, are merely an outgrowth of evolutionary drivers of ‘fitness.’ Even the acts related to aesthetics, such as appreciating art or music, could be perceived as a hijacking of human pattern-seeking behaviours which allowed our predecessors to flourish. So, facing this indomitable argument, we must question: what is consciousness?

In line with the argument above, I think that when it comes to pleasure – whether of the sophisticated or base nature – there is an intimate mixture of instinctual urges. Even though I have previously argued – and still believe – that the admixture of pleasure can be useful in the pursuit of justice (see on Admixture), I would posit that consciousness is the act of choosing the beneficial, regardless of its relationship to the desirable. This definition does not condemn the pleasurable but reminds us that the path of desire and the good can, and will often, diverge. Although we cannot choose which dilemmas we face, the way that we react to them is within our grasp.

Original Text

The Kena Upanishad


S. H. Raza, Rajasthan, 2004

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