There May Be No "Free Will", But That Doesn't Mean There Ain't "Agency


A recent series of reports has cast doubt on the existence of "free will".  According to Wikipedia: "Free will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints."  The same Wikipedia entry states that the constraint of dominant concern has been the "metaphysical constraint of determinism".

Because I have greatly appreciated Sam Harris's early works, I am going to assume that he has done his homework on the neuroscience of human behavior.  Here is a blurb on his new booklet which I got from his website:

"A belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion.

In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life."
The webpage has plenty of praise for the book, including raving comments by Oliver Sacks and Jerry A. Coyne.

Jerry A. Coyne, also published an essay on "free will" in USA Today on New Years Day (2012) also dismissing the notion of "free will", and his article and the Harris book have provoked a lot of comment in the blogosphere.  Coyne summarizes his point:
"The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we're characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we're puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics."

My goal here is NOT to defend the the notion of "free will".  I am afraid the the idea of "free will" is a little bit too free.  It is as if we were in some imaginary "wild west" town with no sheriff in which "anything goes"--where there were no constraints on human behavior at all and external reality and the weight of tradition had 
no impact on how people behaved.

Instead I want to defend the notion of what is often called "agency".  As a sociologist of human activity focusing on what people do in concrete moments of social life, I have focused my eyes and ears on the nuanced ways in which situated activities, embodied performances, and interpretive procedures are brought into being as people "do" everyday life.

In "Doing Modernity" I have advanced an approach to studying everyday life that draws upon a variety of "interactionisms"--specifically ethnomethodology / conversation analysis and symbolic interactionism--to forge an approach to the moment-by-moment unfolding of social life through the situated practices of members of society.

Attempting to transcend the "micro / macro" divide in social theory, as well as the "agency / structure" antimony, I greatly appreciate those contemporary approaches that focus on how societal structures are reproduced through practices.

There seems to be much agreement in social theory that neither extreme versions of individualistic approaches nor deterministic approaches will work and that some sophisticated synthesis is necessary.  The careers of several great sociologists, including Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, and Margaret Archer, reveal top-notch thinkers devoted to finding ways out of these quagmires.

To me, an essential proposition supporting the notion of agency is that "things could always be otherwise".

Moreover, I am interested in seeing social actors as moral agents capable of making choices, and seeing that the voluntary character of social action means that humans can be held accountable for their actions.

Of course, we are not free to make any reality we please.  The external world does impinge on me.  If I go through a stop sign without stopping, I can get a ticket.  There are limitations and constraints on social action.

Agency also implies the possibility for the transformation of structures and elsewhere in this blog I have written about "reflexive praxis"--those moments when we turn off that "autopilot" that seems to rule much of our everyday lives,  deeply reflect upon our past habits and the potential unintended consequences of our actions, and then change directions, acting differently that we typically act.

This dynamism, creativity and reflexive autonomy of actors reveals the nature of agency.  That human being are able to not be consumed and overwhelmed by immediate circumstances shows the potential of human social behavior in the modern era.  Moreover, when we take into account resistance, improvisation, innovation and play, we glimpse at the nature of active agency.


  1. Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Outside the box." Here are three paragraphs from it:

    What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices...until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

    Sam Harris has written positively on mysticism and said “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.” Harris' personal background reflects his own search toward that goal.


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