The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy envisioned the passing of history as a kind of storm.
Rather than the standard narrative of a linear storyline shaped by great men and women, he instead thought of it as a broader system in which people operated with limited free will.
Everything in the past heavily shapes the direction of the future, and each of our decisions isn’t made independently by the strength of our consciousness, as we commonly think.
If everything is cause and effect, then the argument goes, the effects of the future have already been determined by prior causes. It’s an unbroken chain, which we don’t control.
He wasn’t the first to tackle this problem, and nor did he settle it. In fact, the degree to which humans control their own destiny has been debated by philosophers for over two millennia. As with most such questions, we’re no closer to answering them today than we were then.
The only thing that does appear relatively certain is that, regardless of whether free will exists or not, we at the very least have some illusion of agency relating to our choices.
We can feel a sense of control and purposeful orientation and this feeling can positively contribute to our experience, which makes things relevant regardless of the answer.
From this point of view, a feeling of agency is about the ability to take or forgo an action. It determines everything from how you see the responsibilities in your life to the way you go about meeting your personal goals.
As such, it’s worth fully maximizing.
1. Seek Out Pivots of Awareness
The biggest difference between a child and an adult is awareness. The aging of a person by itself doesn’t cause us to grow up, but the experience of being alive over time slowly does.
Our circle of awareness expands as we start to realize that there is a world far larger than just what we understand through our immediate senses. We move from seeing reality as something small and narrow to a world that’s richer, broader, and contains more possibility.
There is a reason that a high IQ child will still behave like a child despite its superior intellect.
While time undoubtedly changes all of this, it does so at different rates for different people. If you experience more, the chances are your circle of awareness will be broader than others.
The reason that this relates to agency is that, ultimately, your awareness is what determines your beliefs and establishes the boundaries of what you perceive to be possible. This in turn directly impacts the daily decisions you make about what to do with yourself.
If you read any biography of a prominent person, there will almost undoubtedly be a mention of an event or an instance that completely changed how they approached their lives.
Sometimes, it’s a brush with mortality, but other times, it’s something as simple as realizing that maybe the rules they had always assumed to be facts weren’t actually set in stone.
We all have these pivots of awareness that shift our perspective about what is real and what is important and what is worth doing. We can’t intellectualize them beforehand because they require first-hand exposure through experience. They expand agency by redefining possibility.
The more variety and experimentation you engage in, the more likely you are to experience the acquisition of such agency, and often, that will make the biggest difference in your life.
2. Work to Improve Functionality
While a highly intelligent child isn’t necessarily the most capable agent, its intellect does give it an edge in a different way. It allows the child to make sense of what it already knows.
If awareness shapes the outer boundary of what is possible in the life of a person, then the ability to operate effectively within such a boundary determines the probability that they will.
Once you’ve expanded your horizons by hitting the pivots of awareness necessary to start whatever journey it is that you are after, then the pressure increasingly falls on the day to day choices you make to ensure that you can align your decision-making with your intentions.
At any given point, agency is about either choosing an action or intentionally overlooking it.
That means that it depends on how well you absorb, filter, and manage information before you apply it to a particular situation. It depends on your ability to interact with complexity.
Much research has consistently shown that IQ, which is mostly genetically inherited, does correlate with prosperity in various ways. That said, functionality is about more than IQ, and there are many other things we can all do to ensure we operate as effectively as possible.
The ability to think intentionally and mindfully, the grasp you have of the patterns behind how the world works, and the way you sense and see your surroundings all play a role, too.
It’s a game of probabilities. If the maximum potential available at any point — as defined by your circle of awareness — represents the ultimate success level, then being a maximally capable agent would mean your functionality is strong enough to hit 100% of that potential.
Everything you do to improve this functionality gives you an edge to control your direction.
3. Strengthen Against Akrasia
While both awareness and functionality can increase the scope of our potential agency in the world, they don’t necessarily protect us from getting in our own way, which can also limit us.
The term Akrasia is Greek for lacking command of the will. It was discussed in Plato’s dialogues with Socrates, but it wasn’t thoroughly dissected until Aristotle later talked about it.
If a person has two options to choose between — A and B — and they know that A is the better choice in this instance, but somehow, they end up going with option B, then they have engaged their Akrasia. Today, we assign this to various types of behaviors.
Aristotle, however, attributed it to one of two: a lapse in reason or a personal weakness. Either the temptation of a passion was too strong, or we were afraid to assert ourselves.
Both of these reduce our agency because rather than doing what we know we ought to do, we instead get trapped into making sub-optimal decisions even though we know better.
In modern psychology, the concept of the modularity of mind attempts to explain this.
It suggests that we have different neural modules in the brain that are sometimes in conflict with each other. Some modules want one thing, whereas different ones want another.
The trick is to find ways to overcome the short-term allure of the modules encouraging sub-optimal decisions. If you label Akrasia when you sense it and are able to slip out of its grip once, then the next time will be easier. The time after that will be even more so.
Anytime you make a decision that aligns with your intentions, you strengthen the relevant module while weakening the opposite one. If you know this, you can intercept when needed.
The more agency you exert, the more you will have in the future to guide your momentum.
All You Need to Know
From a philosophical point of view, we will likely continue to debate whether or not free will exists and to what degree for the foreseeable future. The answer may even lie beyond us.
From a practical point of view, however, there is little influence that this problem has on our daily lives. Some degree of engagement with our choices is important to realize regardless.
History may not be defined entirely by individuals and their will, but completely discounting the role of such individuals is another extreme. Illusion or not, a feeling of choice matters.
Agency determines your capacity in an environment. It’s on you to maximize its reach.
I write about philosophy, science, art, and history for a private community of smart, curious people. Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access.