Agency Be Damned

I don’t believe that humans have the agency presumed they have, so I’d like to set out to prove it—at least rhetorically. In the ages-old battle between free will and determinism, I’ve tended to lean toward the determinism camp, but there is something keeping me from gaining full membership. I feel that proving hard determinism may be too hard a nut to crack, so I am aiming at just the agency aspect.

There are two major themes in my thinking.

  1. Humans have no material agency
  2. Power structures require the presumption of agency

Although this concept has been rattling around my brain cage for a while and I still have a ways to go, I feel it will be helpful to sketch out my ideas. I feel inspired by people like Robert Sapolsky and Daniel Dennett. And I feel I can draw insights into counter-arguments from people like Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and even Steven Pinker. I feel that my experience in behavioural economics may be useful for additional context—people like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Dan Ariely. But I feel disheartened when it appears that Galen Strawson and his father before him, Peter Strawson, people much more connected and elevated in the field have been treading the same territory for decades — over half a century — ahead of me, thankfully beating a path but not necessarily making much headway. Perhaps I can build upon that foundation if not substantially at least perceptibly. Of course, the seminal work by Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty.

We may act as we will, but we cannot will as we will.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Besides the aforementioned, a correspondent has suggested other source references. He shares: Physics, including quantum mechanics, is fully Lagrangian. According to Stanford’s Leonard Susskind, Lagrange derived his formalism from the principle of ‘Least Action’. Jean Buridan’s principle of ‘Equipoise’ renders a Lagrangian model of the world perfectly deterministic. So, the physical domain is not probabilistic; and all indeterminacy is actually epistemic indeterminability. He also suggets Thomas Hobbes’ “De Corpore”.

About my second point, my corresponent agrees:

I think your “meta” is right. We feel that we are “free agents”, and we don’t know to what to attribute our feeling that we freely choose; so we imagine that we have “free will”. In my view it also doesn’t exist – we really are, as Sapolsky describes, zombie robots – we just don’t (and cannot) know it. Free will is thus a mere (but compelling) illusion on both individual and emergent scales. And yes again: all of morality, jurisprudence, etc., depends on it.

Unattributed Correspondant

My correspondent is a professional philosopher who shall remain anonymous until such time as he agrees, if ever, to make his identity known. I am quiet aware that some of my ideas are contentious and polemic. Not everyone wishes to be mired in controversy.

Humans Have No Material Agency

Humans have little to no agency. This is the point I am making in my Testudineous Agency post. From what I know until now, this likely qualifies as soft determinism, but this might shift as I acquire new nomenclature and taxonomic distinction. I’ve discovered this taxonomy of free will positions, though I am not well enough versed to comment on its accuracy or completeness. For now, it seems like a decent working model to serve as a starting point, but I am fully cognizant of possible Dunning-Kruger factors.

A Taxonomy of Free Will Positions

In essence, hard determinism says that the world is not probabilistic. Some event triggered the universe as we know it, and it will unfold according to the laws of physics whether or not we understand them. A weaker form, soft determinism, allows for some probability and trivial ‘agency’. I feel that Dennett supports soft determinism. I feel that because we, as ‘individuals’, are a confluence of multitudinous factors, we have little agency (interpreted as responsibility). More on this later.

Power structures require the presumption of agency

To be honest, the free will debate is only interesting to me in context. To me the context is power. The ‘meta’ of this is that society (and human ‘nature’) seem to need this accountability and culpability, but it doesn’t actually exist, so it is created as a social construct and enforced in a Foucauldian power relationship through government through jurisprudence mechanisms.

This is the part of the debate I haven’t heard much about. Sapolsky did write in Behave, chapter 20X, that criminal justice systems need to be reformed to account for diminished agency, and I’ll need to return to that to better comprehend his position and assertion.

The rest of the story

As a handy reference, these are the authors and books I’ve encountered to date and in no particular order:

Then there I those I have yet to read:

I’ve got a lot of essays and lecture notes not referenced plus general content from Reddit, Medium and other blogs sources, YouTube, podcasts, and so on. I probably should have documented some Classical philosophers, but I don’t generally find their argumentation compelling, though I might add them later.

The aim of this post is just to capture my intent—if it is indeed my intent. Oh, the questions and implications of a lack of agency. Please stand by.

2 thoughts on “Agency Be Damned

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