Agency Is About Influence

Only by framing it as a question of absolute control can it be denied

Photo by Max Felner on Unsplash

By now, just about everybody who has taken an interest in the question of free will is familiar with the arguments for and against it. On the one hand, it can be shown that it is at least possible under the laws of nature to do otherwise in certain situations and it can be demonstrated that many people do otherwise under the same or similar situations. On the other hand, the strict determinists respond, everything has a cause and therefore, all things being equal (right down to the last atom), anyone finding themselves in exactly the same situation could not have done otherwise.

Both arguments come with their own particular set of weaknesses that makes absolutism in defense of either total agency or unyielding determinism difficult to take seriously. When it comes to agency, though it may be possible to do otherwise under the laws of physics — stand up or keep your seat, for example — it’s impossible to prove that the person doing the standing or the sitting possessed enough agency to make that decision entirely free of the influences of either her genes or the environment. If you don’t believe it, just try creating a test in which a human subject makes a choice, mundane or otherwise, completely independent of either external environmental or internal biological inputs.

And of course, the determinists are right: everything does have a cause(s). But who is to say we can’t be one of the causes? To argue that a gene or collection of genes caused me to stand up while the rest of me had nothing to do with it is taking reductionism to a ridiculous extreme. After all, genes lack any knowledge of either sitting or standing. Likewise, my back pain may cause me to either want to take a load off or stand and stretch, but can it truly be said that it made me do either?

A single action may be the product of multiple causes, while a single cause can open the door to several choices that each invite us to act upon them. Roy F. Baumeister pointed out in his 2008 paper, Free Will in Scientific Psychology, “Most psychological experiments demonstrate probabilistic rather than deterministic causation: A given cause changes the odds of a particular response but almost never operates with the complete inevitability that determinist causality would entail.”

That, when provided with a particular stimulus, the outcomes are more like a roll of the dice than throwing a light switch won’t come as a surprise to most people. That’s exactly how it feels to have agency. The fact that the dice are often loaded won’t be coming to determinism’s rescue because even loaded dice are an example of “probabilistic rather than [absolute] deterministic causation”.

That said, free will deniers will be quick to point out that we have no choice when it comes to rolling the dice and no control over which numbers turn up, but that’s true for all living things. If you’ll forgive me mixing my metaphors, the fact that we all must play the cards we were dealt doesn’t mean we lack the ability to play them creatively.


In the opening pages of his book, Freedom Evolves (2003), the philosopher Daniel Dennett lays the groundwork for what is to follow by emphasizing the important role language played in the development of Homo sapiens:

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute.

Other animals, Dennett points out, “can’t compare notes.” Since Dennett wrote those words nearly two decades ago, we’ve learned that there are, in fact, other creatures engaged in their own kind of mental and linguistic note taking too. But none of them do it in as many ways or cover nearly the variety of topics that humans do.

Using language to “compare notes” via so many mediums means we have integrated numerous opportunities to learn from each other into our individual lives as well as our cultures. As new information comes in, sooner or later we accommodate it by altering both our thinking and our behaviour in response, creating more space for even greater possibility in the process.

The capacity to intentionally attempt influencing the course of events using the information we’ve gathered from others and from our surroundings is the most likely place to find a little bit of freedom, albeit nowhere near as much as we imagine ourselves to possess. Our influence is always shared with other actors and forces pushing and pulling upon the universe, making the exact quality and strength of our contribution difficult if not impossible to determine with anything like precision.

Sam Harris and other critics of free will like to point out that the problem with the concept of free will isn’t that we lack any influence, but that we lack any capacity for intention in the first place. Rain is the product of a number of atmospheric conditions combining at just the right moment, but none of these intended to cause a downpour. As biological creatures, ultimately we are no different even if the processes involved in keeping us alive and conscious are far more complex than the weather.

Those denying we have the capacity to truly act intentionally have abundant research available to them to help make the case. In the 1980s the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet demonstrated a brain state which he dubbed the “readiness potential”. This potential could be detected on an EEG before a person was even conscious of the “decision” their brain was preparing to carry out. How can a person be said to make a decision at all when their brain knows what they’re going to do before they do? That’s a good question.

Some have responded to Libet’s research by arguing that free agency doesn’t come in the form of “free will” but “free won’t”. Having become conscious of a temptation that we had no power to prevent — for example, the sudden urge to break our diet and eat the box of chocolates we just got for Christmas — we are faced with a choice of either giving in or not to our desire. Maybe we compromise by rationing the chocolates or we decide to remove the temptation altogether by giving the chocolates to a neighbour. Regardless, these choices arise from our awareness of the temptation to consume the chocolate, not an absolutely uncontrollable impulse to eat chocolate whenever it’s available. Our consciousness of the desire is what gives us the power to say no to the desire.

In these “free won’t” situations, psychologists like Baumeister don’t think the tests by Libet and others really tell us much about how free will actually operates. He writes, “Modern research methods and technology have emphasized slicing behavior into milliseconds, but these advances may paradoxically conceal the important role of conscious choice, which is mainly seen at the macro level.”

It’s tempting to conclude that Libet and others using his research to once and for all bury any possibility of free will are merely stating the obvious. All information in the universe is necessarily generated before we can become aware of it. The light from my laptop screen travels to my retinas and is converted to neural signals before I am conscious of the letters and images appearing on its screen. That some part of me should already be formulating a reaction to this information before it has reached every corner of my skull and become an integrated part of my present reality not only seems natural, but inevitable under every conceivable scenario.


We exist in a universe that is a chain of causes and effects, with effects inevitably turning into causes for more effects, and so on. Humans are, like everything that has come before and that will follow, both a cause AND an effect. As information enters consciousness, that that awareness should become a cause for effects like intention shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

That we are beings trapped in a web of causes and effects is an ultimate argument against free will. But we are proximate creatures. There are good reasons we cannot defend ourselves from criminal charges by arguing that we had no say in our conception or the Big Bang and are therefore ultimately not responsible for our actions. Free will is about what we do or don’t possess while we are alive, not whether we had any choice about entering the world in the first place.

There’s no intuitively obvious place to put the brackets around concepts like determinism and free will. But if we start assessing agency at the moment I “decided” to write this article or to accept a new job offer a few weeks ago instead of the moment the universe started around 15 billion years ago or the night in 1968 my parents were feeling particularly amorous, the arguments for strict determinism blur quickly. I don’t have article writing or job offer genes, and saying that I suddenly felt like writing about free will because my blood sugar had spiked doesn’t really bring any clarity to the question either. Other people feel like going for a jog or take a trip to the mall to do a little shopping when they’re feeling energized. Why an article on free will in my case?

That our capacity for self-control diminishes when we are hungry or tired doesn’t weaken the case for agency either, even if it usually does come in the form of free won’t. The state of our blood chemistry at the critical moment is certainly matters. How we react to low glucose levels or high levels of adrenaline provide evidence that self-control and highly conscious states require our body to be functioning in a particular optimal condition, but that’s a far cry from proof that blood chemistry determines our actions.

Our brain is a glucose consuming machine. It’s not in its interest to waste energy resisting a box of chocolates when it’s running low on the very fuel it needs to effectively exercise self-control. Restraint demands more brain work (willpower) than just going with the flow. If the box of chocolates will help you resist the pack of cigarettes, reaching for the chocolates can actually be a good choice even if it’s not the ideal one.

I, like Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, and others, am a firm materialist. I have yet to hear anyone articulate how a force liberated from the laws of physics could even function. To say something like a soul is responsible for free will without offering any sort of description of what a soul is, where it came from, or how it acts upon our brain is just a cowardly evasion of the issues arising from consciousness. Arguing a soul rather than a biological entity is conscious merely moves the problem of consciousness and questions regarding free will to another realm. It doesn’t dispose of them.

If free will exists to any degree it will have emerged as a property of a materialist universe. We need not default to some sort of ill-conceived dualism or deny we live within a universe governed by physical laws to make room for it. It could very well be that because each cause is itself the effect of another cause it’s impossible to distinguish where intention begins and internal biological and outside environmental influences end.

Even free will skeptics like Sam Harris and Robert Sapolsky spend a great deal of time making ethical arguments about what we should do. Should implies can, which is very different than must. In the opening chapter of his book, The Moral Landscape, Harris states “I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want — and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” (Italics included in original)

If, in fact, Harris believes we have absolutely no control over what we do, let alone what we want, his argument regarding science’s ability to contribute substantively to moral issues — an argument with which I largely agree — isn’t merely dubious, it’s self-contradictory. Plants or animals that lack any capacity to develop informed intentions regarding how they are going to behave in the future are by definition amoral creatures incapable of giving any meaningful consideration to what they ought to do. In such a world Harris’ “moral landscape” isn’t made up of peaks and valleys, it’s perfectly flat and featureless.

Robert Sapolsky, like Harris, has gone on record stating he doesn’t believe humans have anything like free will. Yet in the final chapter of his book Behave, Sapolsky also can’t resist reaching ethical conclusions when it comes to how knowledge of our implicit biases should shape our actions. He writes, “revealing implicit biases indicates where to focus your monitoring to lessen their impact. This notion can be applied to all the realms of our behaviors being shaped by something implicit, subliminal, interoceptive, unconscious, subterranean — and where we then post-hoc rationalize our stance.” Sapolsky concludes, “For example, every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate.”

Sapolsky and Harris can’t have it both ways. While it’s true, judges tend to issue their harshest sentences just before lunch, you can’t tell a judge they should mitigate the effects of low blood sugar by having a glass of lemonade or a candy bar handy by no later than 11:00 AM in one breath and use the fact that low blood sugar leads to harsher sentences as proof people have no free will in the next. If a judge’s knowledge of her implicit bias can truly lead to choices that will minimize or eliminate the bias, isn’t acting on this knowledge an example of the moral exercise of free will? Is a judge with normal blood sugar in a better position to make wise rulings probabilistically speaking or isn’t she? Is a judge capable of intentionally regulating their blood sugar toward this end or not?

If by free will we mean absolute control over ourselves and our environment, then I agree, we don’t have it. But if by free will we mean something more subtle — the capacity to intentionally influence our world, even if only a little bit — then the answer is at worst a qualified maybe. People are complex creatures, prohibited from ever gaining an outside objective view of themselves. We are both cause and effect; both subject and object. As animals with consciousness that makes us both determined and intentional at once. Just how much our intention matters may be impossible to know, but it does matter.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on 71Republic.com

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