'Evidence and Agency'
Prof. Berislav Maruši (PHIL) discussed his book and winning the 2016 Sanders Book
“Human beings have dignity; they don’t have a price. That’s why human beings can’t be bought or sold,” said Prof. Berislav Marušić (PHIL) in an interview with the Justice, paraphrasing a conversation he had once had with his son. “What’s dignity?” his son prompted. Marušić replied, “Dignity is the idea that every person gets to make decisions for themselves” — to which his son artfully responded, “Well then, why can’t I watch TV whenever I decide?” And so his young, amusingly ruminative son rendered the 2016 recipient of the American Philosophical Association Sanders Book Prize speechless.
Professor Marušić is originally from Croatia. He started working at Brandeis in 2007 as an assistant professor, making this his tenth academic year here.
When asked why he chose Brandeis, he explained that he didn’t really choose it but that, rather, the University chose him. That is to say, he was offered the position, and Brandeis’ dynamic and intellectual ambiance, in addition to its refreshing and staunch devotion to social justice, was reason to look no further.
Though the subject always fascinated him, it was only in the spring semester of his undergraduate sophomore year at Harvard University that Marušić wholeheartedly committed to philosophy as his field of study.
“For me, the main challenge … was realizing that philosophy is enough, that there was enough substance there and I didn’t need something else.”
Marušić began his own freshman year, as an ambitious undergraduate is wont to do, with a medley of courses - math, history, physics, linguistics and literature.
“I tried to do philosophy and something else. I started out in philosophy and physics, then the physics was hard and I wasn’t really interested in the physics part of it, so I did philosophy and literature, and literature was good, but I was really always interested in the philosophy part,” which is how his sophomore year ended with a schedule consisting of five philosophy classes.
The motivation for his book was the question of how we, as agents, should consider evidence when deciding what to do or how to do something, both before and as we make the decision.
His book, “Evidence and Agency: Norms of Belief for Promising and Resolving” (Oxford University Press), is about “the difference between deciding what to do and predicting what we will do,” as the opening sentence of the book reads.
Marušić defines the distinction between the two by the grounds on which each is made: “When we’re making a decision, we decide based on what the philosophers say are ‘practical reasons’ — based on what we want, what we value, or what we ought to do, whereas when we make predictions, the grounds for the prediction consist in evidence of what will likely happen.”
To expound, Marušić gave an example of someone trying to quit smoking, a venture at which many, based on widespread testimony, tend to fail.
And perhaps the hypothetical motivated individual has the added drawback of a bad track record. This is ample temptation to not follow through. “How should I think about that — that evidence that I might fail — as I make a decision? That’s what the book is about. The book is called ‘Evidence and Agency’ because it’s about how you take into account evidence when you are the agent and when you think about your own agency.” To make a good decision, then, explains Marušić, or to make a good promise, you have to predict that you will succeed.
In his book, Marušić defends the idea that we do still make decisions, even in the face of evidence that we may flounder, because “the grounds for our decision or promise are not somehow evidence-based but are rooted in what we value.” The important thing, he says, is that we are shrewd about our decisions, taking into account the difficulty in keeping our promises and subsequently taking the proper steps to make sure we follow through. He further emphasizes, “This does not mean making predictions about your success.
“As an agent, you are not in the business of making predictions about yourself. To the extent that you do, you treat what you do as something that merely happens. As an agent, you have to be mindful of the difficulty but still make decisions.”
Marušić admitted, “Now, is that good life advice? I have no idea. I’m not in the business of life advice. I’m in the business of trying to understand what would be rational.”
He shared his approach to philosophy: keep it fairly close to life experience. This, he explained, is a less conventional method, as philosophy tends to be rather abstract, entailing the sort of terms that don’t always translate directly into life.
It may be this very methodology that produces pensive, witty children like Marušić’s, as he relayed an anecdote about his daughter: “There was a place she really didn’t want to go, and we were telling her, ‘Listen, you really gotta go.’ And she was saying, ‘But I have my dignity!’ And she’s four.”
And even though the existence of her dignity means she gets to make her own decisions, explained Marušić, when the family is going to see friends who want to see everyone, certainly she has to come along.
These opposing observations are another example of puzzling philosophical dissonance in life that demands our reconciliation. Marušić’s philosophy is that philosophy plays out every day in nearly every part of life, and seldom do we take the time to sit down, undo ourselves from the cacophonous masses of evidence being constantly thrust in our direction and really consider that we are the agents of the decisions we make and, as such, have the ability to look at the same considerations in a distinctly practical way.
Marušić is currently working on a second book that explores the concept of emotions as a response.
Oftentimes, when we experience emotions in this way, after some time, the feeling diminishes fairly quickly, even though the stimulus to which we responded remains the same.
The book, he says, is “an effort to understand my own emotional response. … My mother died some years ago, and I was very sad, but then fairly quickly I stopped being sad. But what my sadness was a response to — her death — that remains the same to this day.”
He specifies that his books are not an effort to understand his own life as his own but rather an effort to understand life as lived by us in this time period. When he writes about grief, love, or evidence and agency, “It’s not about me — it’s supposed to speak to others, as well.”