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Agency and Purpose

mgz24's picture

 As I go through exam week I can't help returning to the idea of purpose and its importance.  I remember in one of our discussions we talked about whether we needed things in life to have a purpose.  My original thought was that I only need purpose for certain things.  I used the example of running.  I hate to run, but I'm an athlete so I don't really have a choice.  I explained that when I have a reason for running, for instance in a game, or to prepare for a season, I can get through a long run, whereas if it's just running to run I can't force myself to do it.  Versus just hanging out somewhere or sitting outside, which I don't need a specific purpose for doing.  I'm starting to think now though, that maybe purpose is kind of like agency.  I believe that whether or not we truly have agency is inconsequential because we'll never really know, but that each individual can believe what they want about it.  In that sense whether or not we have agency is an arbitrary idea.  While it's not a perfect parallel, the idea of needing purpose is similar, because we can choose what the purpose of something is, which is the real reason that made me think about this.  When studying for an exam, or researching for a paper the purpose of doing so comes into question.  This means that it's up to me to assign just what the purpose of each task is, which then means that I'm in charge, which I guess can translate to me having agency.  This then brings me back to the question of whether or not we have agency, and brings me to a new conclusion.  Maybe there are different levels of agency.  Maybe we won't ever know on the big scale of the universe whether or not we have agency, but on the small scale, in our everyday lives, there are some times when we do have agency and that we need to be aware of that in order to take full advantage.  


Lethologica's picture

Agency and Purpose?

I, myself, am a fan of the idea of both purpose and agency. I don't care if it's the kind of purpose that comes from some higher being, a 'destiny' if you will, or the kind of purpose that we make ourselves, but I need to believe that there is some sort of purpose to life and living. There is a problem, however, that I have long since tried my best not to struggle with; I often find myself stuck within the conundrum of purpose vs. agency. I firmly believe in higher powers, and an overall (maybe cosmic?) role in life. I believe that things happen for reasons, that nothing is completely pointless (I have seen too many coincidences to comfortably believe otherwise). I also like to believe in agency, free-will and such. I like to think that our decisions effect our paths through life, and the world in general--that is what makes the most sense to me. Both ideas work perfectly for me, as long as I keep them separate. As soon as I try to put agency and purpose together, in the ways that I see them, and attempt to make them coexist, they tend to protest and my brain short-circuits. I want to believe in both, I'm comfortable with my present theories for each, but they can't seem to work together, and if that makes sense I don't know how. How can both (logically) be true, if they almost directly contradict each other?
In in the end I sort of just came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter. I don't have to reconcile the two ideas to believe in both. After all, we have no way of truly knowing what the absolute 'truth' is, there is no conformation one way or the other for either idea. I believe that, while the lack of logic sometimes bugs me, that logic is not absolutely required in every single aspect of my understanding of the world. Everyone's perception of the world is (and should be) unique, so I don't have to compare mine to anyone else's. As far as I know there is no pop quiz hiding in the light at the end of the tunnel. And most of all, I enjoy the bizarre and absurd--so it's alright if my human condition falls a little within that category, right? Just because we can't make it work inside the box yet, doesn't mean I can't look outside of it! Perhaps all I need to do is turn my perception on its head...
And on a lighter note (perhaps it will explain my general argument better than this rant does...):


Cremisi's picture

  I too am often frustrated

  I too am often frustrated with the definition of purpose. I suppose, in that way, that I am suffering from "the plague" as we have discussed in class. Anyway, back to the point. I often feel like these words are garbled marbles in my mouth and i'm reluctant to use any of them for fear of misusing them. And then, if I stand back and look at what I just wrote, I see that I have this embarrassingly human, innate desire to strictly categorize and define things for them to make sense for me *sigh*. My current frustrations are trying to detect the subtle nuances between agency and free will and existentialism and absurdism. I was curious, when you say agency, do you mean that we simply have the ability to make our own choices? I haven't quite decided what I take the meaning to be. Free will, on the other hand, I see as the ability to make choice or act on them without them being already determined or set in place in the whole of time. After writing that sentence, I think I actually came to a better conclusion about my definition of agency: it's the active role you play in your life of your ability to actually make your own decisions and act on them rather than just being a "pattern" and responding in a predictable way to stimuli. 

After how frustrated I became while writing that I realize now that I need to stop caring about being right, because I don't think I cold ever come to a right answer about any of this. I feel as though I lack many of the tools and essential knowledge to combat this distinction head on..though it may seem like I could just "think about it for a while" I feel as though these concepts, in order to be understood, must be built off from other ideas and concepts..and perhaps they only hold meaning in relation or contrast to other concepts.


I've become very fond of existentialism--it's become quite an appealing way for me to look at life. Anyway, again with my struggle. Existentialism=existence precedes essence..that, because we don't necessarily have a purpose, we need to make our own (again, I find myself typing all of this very slowly for fear of not defining it correctly..[even though there is often debate over what is correct...]) and absurdism is that everything is essentially purposeless. However, it’s the futile effort that we put into life that gives life purpose. This is tricky for me, because as I take it, it’s not the conscious effort that makes purpose, (it’s not saying, ‘you worked hard, which is good, that’s what matters in life’..that would indicate that the outcomes in life are a direct result of hard effort) it’s more of the fact that we are doing anything in life that is the purpose. As Professor Grobstein was saying..that even though Sisyphus is pushing the boulder up the hill, and even though that is the purpose he has created for himself, it is futile because it keeps rolling back down. However, the fact that he is pushing the boulder up the hill over and over..that is what makes up his life. It is the effort--what he is doing to occupy his time that is the purpose of his life at the moment. I think that’s a way to help me understand absurdism. Existentialism, to me, seems to have more agency--that you are able to make your own destiny and be in control of your life despite the futileness of it all. Absurdism, on the other hand, seems a bit more passive. That you do not create purpose, but rather, what happens to you as a consequence of what you do or how you occupy your time is the purpose of your life--purpose happens to you, and life may have meaning, but there is no grand meaning to life.



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