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Is Life Ruthlessly Determined or Full of Possibility?

When social scientists overstate the role of surrounding causes and conditions, they fundamentally misrepresent the nature of human experience—while undermining fundamental moral agency, accountability, and possibility itself.

In our Introduction to this series, we made the case that Latter-day Saint psychologists should take up Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s invitation to build bridges between the Restored Gospel and the secular discipline while keeping our citizenship in the kingdom and maintaining our loyalty to core truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. We suggested what we believe are thirteen non-negotiables, or perhaps thirteen foundations, of a genuinely Latter-day Saint perspective. In the rest of this series, we will endeavor to expound upon each. The second foundation is thus:

Human experience is full of meaning and possibility. As Latter-day Saints, we believe that God has created, as Father Lehi taught, “… both things to act and things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14). Agency figures prominently in Latter-day Saint thought as a first principle upon which the rest of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ rests. God told Moses, “Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man … I caused that he should be cast down” In our teachings, Satan’s original agenda involved eliminating moral agency. 

Joseph Smith taught, “All persons are entitled to their agency, for God has so ordained it. He has constituted mankind as moral agents, and given them power to choose good or evil.” Further emphasizing the central importance of agency to the Plan of Salvation, Elder Boyd K. Packer taught:

If you put all the doctrines of the Church in boxes and laid them on a large floor and asked me to assemble them in some order, I would sort through the boxes and find one. It would be a long box and a heavy one, and it would say ‘Agency, Freedom, Agency’. I would put that down first, and everything else we believe would be stacked in proper order on top of that.

More recently, BYU professor Richard N. Williams has written, “Agency is the core of all that is most human about us. It defines our eternal character.” If we take this core Latter-day Saint teaching seriously, this implies that we cannot understand human action without understanding moral agency and its importance in our experience. Williams further explains:

Human agency is a genuine watershed issue for psychology and for a culture. It is not an issue to which one can be partly committed. Intellectual integrity … requires that we fall on one side of the issue or the other. … The reason human agency is so crucial to our self-understanding and our achieving our purposes is that agency is the core of all that is most human about us. It defines our eternal character. … We must either believe in the reality of human agency, seek to understand that it is and what it is or give ourselves over to an entirely different understanding of ourselves and the meaning and purpose of life itself.

If asked about our experiences, most of us answer in the language of possibilities, choices, and meanings. However, many psychological researchers and theorists argue that this is really just a kind of “folk psychology,” a sort of commonly accepted mythology that only the uneducated believe. As such, it is the sort of thing that can be discarded as psychologists provide us with a more scientific vocabulary for understanding ourselves. As a result, a great deal of contemporary psychological research, theory, and practice is shot through with the assumption that human experience should be understood entirely in terms of cause and effect.

We cannot understand human action without understanding moral agency and its importance in our experience.

Assumptions to challenge—Determinism. Many psychological theories assume that our actions are determined by either external or internal forces, or some combination of the two. This notion is called determinism. Determinism assumes that—given the same initial conditions—all events must happen as they do and cannot be otherwise than they are. The philosopher Charles Guignon explains:  “The physical determinism that most impresses philosophers holds that, for any event that occurs at a given time, that event is rendered inevitable by the state of the universe at some prior time together with the laws of physics.” In other words, given prior conditions, subsequent conditions necessarily follow. This is why some philosophers refer to this as necessary determinism.

In this view, human action is simply part of a complicated chain of cause and effect—we are living out a complicated programming of both nurture and nature. S. D. Gaede explains, “Determinism is the view that humans are entirely controlled by previous conditions. Thus, the history of humanity can be viewed as the result of conditioned responses to social, psychological, and other such stimuli.” Guignon further explains that, from this view, “Since human actions are events, they must be caused by antecedent events, and those causal events are themselves caused by earlier events, and so on.”

Simply put, many psychological researchers do not believe they have explained human behavior until they can render it in terms of necessary causes and effects. Guignon continues: 

In this formulation, explanation is taken as, by definition, a matter of identifying efficient causes that bring about specific effects in law-like ways. … We think that the kind of explanation found in classical physics is the paradigm for explanation in any area of inquiry. And, consequently, we assume that making things intelligible is a matter of showing how those things are caused to be, where the relevant causes are seen as law-governed efficient causes.

To understand this view, you might think of the individual as a marionette. A marionette’s behavior is entirely determined by the string-pulling of the puppeteer. In the determinist view, human action is similar—except that instead of five or six strings, there are millions of them: genes, upbringing, social environment, neurochemical imbalances, brain injuries, hormones, environmental conditioning, socioeconomic status, social context, gender, race, early childhood trauma, birth order, and many other impersonal natural or social forces.

Williams summarizes the current situation concisely: “There are some ‘marginal’ perspectives that respect human agency; however, the overwhelming majority of positions either ignore it, dismiss it, or define it out of existence.” To further substantiate this point, here are a handful of quotes from prominent social scientists that demonstrate the widespread nature and acceptance of the assumption of determinism in psychology:

  • Robert L. Solso & M. Kimberly Maclin (experimental psychologists): “All human thoughts and actions are caused. Finding the cause or causes of our thoughts and actions is frequently a very difficult problem for experimental psychologists … Central to these inquiries is the assumption that behind each thought or action a cause exists. That assumption is basic to the scientific investigation of the human condition.”
  • Sigmund Freud (psychodynamic theorist):  “[Free will] is quite unscientific and must yield to the demand of a determinism whose rule extends over mental life.” Also, “Is [the proponent of free will] maintaining that there are occurrences, however small, which drop out of the universal concatenation of events—occurrences which might just as well not happen as happen? If anyone makes a breach of this kind in the determinism of natural events at a single point, it means that he has thrown overboard the whole Weltanschauung [worldview] of science.”
  • B.F. Skinner (behaviorist theorist): “The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application of the scientific method to the study of human behavior.”
  • John A. Bargh (social psychologist): “[T]he more we know about the situational causes of psychological phenomena, the less need we have for postulating internal conscious mediating processes to explain these phenomena. [I]t is hard to escape the forecast that as knowledge progresses regarding psychological phenomena, there will be less of a role played by free will or conscious choice in accounting for them. … That trend has already begun, and it can do nothing but continue.”
  • James W. Kalat (psychological researcher): “The scientific approach to anything, including psychology, assumes we live in a universe of cause and effect. If things “just happen” for no reason at all, then we have no hope of discovering scientific principles. That is, scientists assume determinism, the idea that everything that happens has a cause, or determinant, that someone could observe or measure. The test of determinism is ultimately empirical: If everything you do has a cause, your behavior should be predictable.”
  • Gary Heiman (psychological researcher): “If we were to assume that organisms can freely decide their behavior, then behavior would be truly chaotic, because the only explanation for every behavior would be ‘because he or she wanted to.’ Therefore, we reject the assumption that free will plays a role, as everyone does when discussing, say, the law of gravity.”
  • Justin Lehmiller (social psychologist): “As a starting point, it is useful to acknowledge that every single sexual act is the result of several powerful forces acting upon one or more persons. These forces include our individual psychology, our genetic background and evolved history, as well as the current social and cultural context in which we live. Some of these influences favor sexual activity, whereas others oppose it. Whether sex occurs at any given moment depends upon which forces are strongest at the time.”
  • Stanley Milgram (experimental psychologist): “Indeed, the creative claim of social psychology lies in its capacity to reconstruct varied types of social experience in an experimental format, to clarify and make visible the operation of obscure social forces so that they may be explored in terms of the language of cause and effect.”
  • John Baer (educational psychologist):  Determinism … makes psychology possible. If psychological events were not determined—caused—by antecedent events, psychology could make no sense.”
  • George Howard (experimental psychologist):  “If you want to be a scientist, you better be a determinist. Things are (and act) the way they are (and act) because something(s) caused them to be (or act) that way. It is a proper job for a scientist to find and document (via experimental studies) the cause-effect relations that form and guide human actions.”

Even psychologists who explicitly reject determinism often still operate as if human behavior can be reduced to cause and effect; at least, that is, in the way they tend to formulate their psychological explanations of human behavior. The norms of the discipline strongly tilt researchers in this direction.  For example, an increasingly popular perspective in psychology these days is Self-Determination Theory, an approach that claims to value agency but, ultimately, ends up relying on deterministic forms of explanation. This sort of thing happens because researchers’ questions, methods, and interpretations of data are generally translated into the language of “variables” so that they can be explored using quantitative, experimental methods. The language of variables, if used uncritically, can inadvertently bake the assumption of determinism into our methods, research, theories, and therapeutic practices.

The historian of psychology Thomas Leahey has suggested that psychology’s desire to piggyback on the credibility of the natural sciences constitutes a sort of “physics envy” and ultimately leads social scientists to reject the language of agency in favor of more deterministic approaches. Indeed, deterministic perspectives are commonly treated in the discipline as a scholarly “default” setting that needs no justification. One important consequence is that any deviation from that default—that is, any account of human action that invokes concepts like agency or human freedom and purpose—is almost always treated as needing volumes of justification, if not as inherently less sophisticated and unscientific.

Determinism can influence every stage of research. Earlier, we explored how pre-empirical lenses can influence every stage of our research, including the questions we ask, the hypotheses we form, the way we operationalize our variables, the way we analyze our data, and the conclusions we draw from our results. Determinism is one of these pre-empirical assumptions. Even if we do not consciously or explicitly embrace determinism, it can still serve as an invisible presumption that influences our research decisions and analysis at every step along the way.

In 2016, Katrina Fincher and Philip Tetlock published a fascinating study that explored the ways in which perceptual dehumanization provides context for how we behave towards those we consider threats to our community. Perceptual dehumanization, the authors assert, refers to those times when we interpret human faces in a manner that engages the face-processing mechanisms of the brain less than we might normally—or, put differently, when we process facial images in the same ways that we process images of objects.

The central research questions of their study were, “Do people process the faces of norm violators differently from those of others? And if so, what is the functional significance of this differential processing? Does it make it easier to punish norm violators?” These questions have tremendous moral significance for not only how we perceive others but how we treat them. The authors raise the specter of explaining how we rationalize treating the condemned in ways we would otherwise consider to be cruel and intolerable—and how entirely unconscious processes are involved in this.

Fincher and Tetlock’s central argument is actually quite simple: our perceptions of social context play a role in the attention we give to the faces of those we encounter, and they do so in ways that are both (1) detectable using cleverly designed instruments and (2) genuinely consequential for our experience of empathy. Framed in this way, it is entirely possible to tell this story using non-deterministic language and concepts. A number of thinkers—from Martin Buber to C. Terry Warner and others—have noted that there are two ways we can agentically  respond to others: as persons or as objects. It would be fascinating if there were detectable correlates to this agentive response. However, that is not the sort of language Fincher and Tetlock use in their study.

We can only be held accountable for our actions when it is possible that we could have done otherwise.

Instead, the authors propose the following hypothesis: “We hypothesize a causal chain linking social information, visual perception, and social behavior.” Put simply, social information (social cues that a person is a “threat to the social order”) is taken to have a causal connection to visual perception (face-typical perceptual processing), which, in turn, is said to cause social behavior (tolerating or even celebrating cruelty to the condemned). Over the course of several studies, then, each of these constructs was operationalized into measurable variables, and the relationships between these variables were explored through statistical significance testing.

Fincher and Tetlock’s use of causal language throughout their analysis and discussion—in a manner not strictly required by their questions—reveals an implicit assumption of determinism. Determinism is also evident in the ways in which they operationalized their variables of interest. They opted to treat moral responsiveness as something to be explained entirely in terms of antecedent variables. If similar people behave differently in response to the same social cues, Fincher and Tetlock presume (or, so their analysis implies) that it is because of the causal influence of some as-yet unmeasured variable or set of variables. In this way, the assumption is preserved even in the face of potentially disconfirming findings.

This is just one example among myriads of similar examples that we could have drawn on here to make our point. And we should note, this study was not chosen because it was a particularly egregious example—it was not—but simply because it was among the first we found when reaching for a nearby journal to find examples. There are myriads of additional examples we could have easily cited here as well. Our point is simply that it is easy to assume that our research lends support for a deterministic worldview when instead, it merely presumed it from the outset. Our research questions, hypotheses, methods, and analyses can sometimes serve as a mirror, reflecting back at us what we already believe to be true about the world.

Moral accountability requires possibility. A strictly deterministic view is problematic from a Latter-day Saint point of view. Williams explains, “Without genuine possibility in life, all acts are simply necessitated and … without meaning.” Meaning is found in the superposition of things as they are against things as they could be. Sweet is only meaningful in contrast with that which is bitter. Life is only meaningful in contrast with the possibility of death. And love is meaningful only when set against the possibility of indifference or hate. Forgiveness is meaningful when set against the possibility of resentment. Politeness only has meaning when set against the possibility of rudeness and incivility. In short, for human experiences to have meaning, it must be possible for things to be other than they are. 

Necessary determinism, on the other hand, eliminates possibility. In a strictly deterministic world, therefore, things are as they must be—there is no possibility of being different or otherwise, given the initial conditions that produce necessitated outcomes. This eliminates moral accountability. For example, when a boulder falls down a mountainside, we do not thank the boulder for swerving at the last second and missing a hiker, nor would blame the boulder for not swerving and instead hitting the hiker instead. Whatever the outcome for the hiker, boulders just do as they must. 

More concerning, however, is that the same thing would be true of human beings and their actions in a fully deterministic world. We can only be held accountable for our actions when it is possible that we could have done otherwise. The concepts of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness both depend entirely on the possibility of people being able to genuinely do otherwise. Otherwise, human beings are really just forces of nature, no more responsible than the boulder above. The neuroscientist David Eagleman, a staunch determinist, makes a case that human behavior should be thought of as the inevitable outflow of brain chemistry and neural anatomy. He explains that this obviates the possibility of blame as we think of it:

The bottom line of the argument is that criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise. … [C]riminal activity itself should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality, regardless whether currently measurable problems can be pinpointed.

Furthermore, a deterministic world is one that ultimately leads us to moral relativism. Without moral accountability, the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Plan of Salvation at its heart, are rendered pointless. There can be no divine law without moral accountability. There can be no judgment, no justice, no mercy, and no Atonement for sin. After all, sin is only possible for people who could do otherwise than sin, and judgment is only just if we are the sorts of beings who can act rather than merely be acted upon. In fact, there can be no God at all, for the existence of a God—at least, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—implies the existence of a moral sovereign to whom we, as agents, are morally accountable (see Alma 42:17-22). The Fall and Redemption of God’s children, thus, cannot be understood from the perspective of an absolute, necessary determinism. In fact, Lehi made a case for agency along very much these same lines:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. …

And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon. … Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself (1 Nephi 2:11-16).

In this context, when Lehi refers to “opposition,” we interpret this as possibility. He seems to be using the term opposition to refer to the existence of opposites, or the differences and potentialities that give all things meaning. And to this end, God instituted moral law and made us moral agents. Lehi continues:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself (2 Nephi 2:27).

Lehi’s teaching makes very little sense if, in the grand scheme of things, all of our actions can be made intelligible only and entirely in terms of a deterministic universe of necessary causes and effects. In other words, if every “choice” we make—whether to forgive or resent, love or hate, to hurt or to help—is really just the product of certain biochemical processes taking place in the brain, or the effect of environmental forces operating on us from outside, all unfolding deterministically according to naturalistic laws, then the entire core of the Restored Gospel (which includes the reality of sin, culpability, accountability, repentance, and redemption through Christ) is rendered void and without meaning.

Pitfalls to avoidIndeterminism. Many researchers embrace determinism because they assume that endorsing agency requires that we believe that human choice—if it exists at all—is fundamentally random and, thus, unpredictable and inexplicable. In other words, they worry that assuming that human freedom means that our history, experience, biology, and relationships have no real bearing on our choices. This idea is what is referred to as indeterminism, or what we find at the opposite end of the spectrum from determinism. As we saw above, determinism assumes that the relationship between antecedents and consequents is especially strong—i.e., given a particular set of antecedents, events cannot unfold in any way other than they do. In contrast, indeterminism assumes that there is very little (if any) relationship between antecedents and consequents (at least, in whatever string of events we call a “choice”).

For an example of this, Edmund Rolls—a neuroscientist who explores human decision-making —argues that there are multiple decision-making processes within the human mind/brain, some of which are more affective and intuition-based, and others that are more conscious and deliberative in nature. Which process we use depends greatly on our individual contexts at the moment of decision. However, Rolls argues that there is an inherent randomness in brain activity, a sort of neuronal indeterminism that makes the process fundamentally unpredictable.

Rolls makes the case that this biological randomness actually provides us with an evolutionary advantage. It can be compared to the random variation in genes that allow natural selection to do its work. That little bit of randomness in our decision-making processes, he argues, serves as a slight chaos factor that allows us to experiment and try new things. “The slight element of randomness,” Rolls suggests, “is in fact advantageous in decision-making … and contributes to processes such as creativity.” He further states:

First, we can note that insofar as the brain operates with some degree of randomness due to the statistical fluctuations produced by the random spiking times of neurons, brain function is to some extent non-deterministic, as defined in terms of these statistical fluctuations. The stochastic dynamics of the brain play a role even in how we understand free will.

Neuroscientists and other psychologists often use the term “stochastic” when talking about things like free will, agency, or choice. The term is essentially just another word for random. It refers to fluctuating or noisy phenomena that can sometimes be described and predicted on the aggregate level but is impossible to predict at the individual level. It is in this randomness, Rolls argues, that the illusion of free will arises. In this way, he attributes “free will” (or, as we prefer, agency) to indeterminism or randomness, actions, and choices that are disconnected from their antecedents and fundamentally unpredictable.

Interestingly, this is not actually a new idea, but one that is very, very old and which dates back at least to the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who proposed that human freedom came about because the atoms of which we are composed occasionally and unpredictably “swerve” out of their predetermined paths. Thus, even though most of what we do and think is determined by the motions of atoms, there is a certain degree of randomness inherent in the system, and it is this that grants us the ability to be creative, spontaneous, and unpredictable. Stephen Greenblatt expounded on this as well. 

However, this sort of indeterminism does not actually save agency in any meaningful sense. David Eagleman—himself a determinist—explains why:

People have proposed several other arguments to try to save the concept of free will. For example, while classical physics describes a universe that is strictly deterministic (each thing follows from the last in a predictable way), the quantum physics of the atomic scale introduces unpredictability and uncertainty as an inherent part of the cosmos. The fathers of quantum physics wondered if this new science might save free will. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. A system that is probabilistic and unpredictable is every bit as unsatisfying as a system that is deterministic, because in both cases there’s no choice. It’s either coin flips or billiard balls, but neither case equates to freedom in the sense that we’d desire to have it.

Consider, for example, what happens when we roll a pair of dice—the results are random and unpredictable—no roll of the dice has any causal connection with the previous rolls. But it does not preserve the concept of moral accountability, since dice are no more blameworthy for their rolls than a boulder is for the way it happens to roll down a mountain. In other words, random actions are no more meaningful than determined actions. As Williams explains, “agency as indeterminism provides for no more meaning in human actions than does determinism. There is no meaning in random, unconnected events.” Meaning requires more than mere possibility. It requires coherent connections between antecedents and consequents.

If there are no connections between our behavior and our biology, context, and upbringing, then a scientific study of human behavior becomes impossible.

Furthermore, if there are no connections between our behavior and our biology, context, and upbringing, then a scientific study of human behavior becomes impossible. As Kalat argued earlier, “If things ‘just happen’ for no reason at all, then we have no hope of discovering scientific principles.” On this point, he is correct. An indeterministic universe is a difficult one to study in any scientific or systematic way, and if choices really are like “dice rolls,” then there is very little to study and very little to learn from study. If indeterminism is how we conceptualize agency, it is no wonder that so many psychological theories keep the idea of agency at arm’s length.

In addition, we do observe reliable patterns in human activity, and this means that human action—including action we see as reflecting or embodying “choice”—is not random or wholly unconnected with its antecedents. As Williams explains, “[I]t is patently obvious that human events are not random but are meaningfully connected. It seems to violate our very nature as well as our experience to suggest that we behave without reason or rationale.” In other words, human behavior does not “just happen,” and our day-to-day experiences demonstrate that.

And finally, the view of agency as “indeterminism” leads us to conclude that agency is found in unpredictability. This implies—wrongly—that predictable behavior is non-agentive behavior and that agency resides in the “noise” of our data or the “error” term of our regression equations. This leads to an “agency-of-the-gaps” approach; that is, we only invoke agency when there is something “left over” in our explanations that we can’t (yet) account for in terms of specific causes. Unfortunately, this is really just a “stop-gap” strategy because eventually, we end up methodically squeezing out agency as we are able to account for more and more variance in our statistical models by specifying and controlling more and more causal variables.

It is also worth noting that this leads us to absurdly conclude that we are only acting as moral agents (and are thus only morally accountable) when we are acting unpredictably! Since this is clearly not the case, we might instead conclude that we are moral agents even when we act in predictable ways. For example, it is fairly easy to predict with great certainty who is going to speak in sacrament meeting merely by noting where people are sitting in the chapel. We can also predict that a dedicated member of the Church is more likely than not to accept a calling when one is extended to them by their bishop. Or that someone we love will grieve at the loss of a family member more than the death of a stranger. Does this mean that there is no agency or moral accountability involved in these matters? Surely not.

Narrative coherence is an alternative to both determinism and indeterminism. If agency is central to the very idea of moral accountability, then we must have a much more robust concept of agency than “error variance,” “noise in the data,” or stirring in a dash of unpredictability in an otherwise deterministic universe. Genuine agency and meaning require that human action be deeply saturated with possibility but also deeply connected to its antecedents and context in a way that can be empirically studied. Elder Parley P. Pratt taught:

[I]f man were altogether the creature of circumstances, his free agency would be completely lost, and his responsibility annihilated, he would be as a sheet of paper that has lain perfectly passive under the hand of the writer and is completely filled with matter. While on the other hand, if man were not affected by circumstances, his free agency could not be called into exercise, and he would cease to act and be as a blank sheet, that has received no impression from the hand of the writer.

Put in a slightly different way, agency and meaning require our actions make sense in light of our upbringing, biology, experiences, and relationships. It requires us to be able to tell coherent stories about human action and experience—stories where the antecedents and the consequents are intrinsically related (unlike indeterminism) but in which the characters of the story are still taking up and enacting possibilities in their lives (unlike determinism).

Human action is always agentic, even as we enact possibilities that flow out of and are afforded to us by prior events, meanings, and relationships. While determinism draws billiard-ball-like connections between antecedents and consequents, we could explore story-like connections of meaning instead. This is why we use the term narrative coherence—it places emphasis on the narrative connections between human action and all that comes before.

In other words, moral accountability requires possibility, but it does not require unpredictability. We should reject strong versions of determinism, but we can embrace the idea that our past experiences, physiology, and social contexts matter. How do we thread this needle? As we said before, we can posit a different kind of connection between human action and its antecedents. That is, rather than acting as causal conditions that necessarily produce particular outcomes, antecedents simply serve to tie all the events of our lives together in a meaningful and coherent story but also preserve possibility. Below are a handful of metaphors that might help to envision what we are getting at here:

The subplot of a novel. The subplot of a novel takes on meaning in the broader context of the main story. Given the main plot of a novel, there are some subplots that would be sensible. There are other subplots that would be nonsensical. Furthermore, if you change the main plot of the story, you inevitably change the subplots (and even if not the story points, the meaning of those story points will change as the backdrop—the main plot—changes). 

A lunchtime conversation. Consider the example of a lunchtime conversation: Each word you speak enacts meanings and possibilities made available by the conversation thus far. The conversation’s history creates and constrains new possibilities for the conversation moving forward. There are some things that you might say that follow naturally from the conversation thus far, and yet other possibilities that would be foreclosed. 

The topography of the terrain. Consider a hiker surveying the terrain around him. The terrain influences the possibilities available to a hiker. Some directions are downhill, others uphill. Some directions lead towards impassible ravines or steep cliffs. Others have natural paths that make walking easy. As the hiker moves in various directions, the horizon of possibilities continually shifts and evolves.

A role-playing game. Consider players in a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. The players have an immense but not unlimited array of creative possibilities before them. A good dungeon master will respect the choices of players but will also ensure that the constraints of the in-game universe and the history of the game are honored. If a player has broken a sword, he cannot use that sword in a future battle until it is mended; or if a player does not have a certain skill set, he cannot use that skill to solve a problem.

Just as with an unfolding conversation, our current actions find meaning in light of our past, our environment, and even our biology. All these things open up some possibilities for the future and foreclose other possibilities, sometimes with regular patterns that can be studied and documented. Just as with the terrain or topography of a map, our environment, our culture, our genes, our childhood, etc., influence the topography of the terrain we are traversing. But even as these alter the horizon of our choices, none of these eliminate possibility in our actions. But this changing horizon of possibilities can be explored without resorting to causal or deterministic terminology. 

The future is “unwritten” and subject to immense possibility, but this does not mean that there are no narrative constraints. In a role-playing game, for example, players can approach a given problem from any number of directions—but must still respect the constraints of the game’s universe and the limitations of their characters. And players who act extraordinarily out-of-character might also get pushback from other players and the dungeon master. In a similar way, acting in ways that do not respect the narrative flow of your life and the constraints and affordances of your social context is often a signal of an underlying psychological or medical disorder. Sane humans act in ways that make sense given the circumstances, which is why not doing so is taken as a de facto sign that one’s ordinary faculties have been interrupted in some way.

The analogy of the plot and subplot of a novel illustrates that the relationship between our actions and their antecedents can be fundamentally different from that of strict causation. If we change our childhood experiences, genes, and social environment, our actions and choices will probably change too.  Richard Williams described it this way: “[A]ll events (and other things, including human actions) have meaningful antecedents, absent which the events (or things) would not occur or would not be what they are.” He continues:

Mechanical and biological links are clearly destructive of agency, as are stimulus-response links governed by environmental forces requiring no active participation by an agentic person. It is obvious that neither nature nor nurture as classically conceived in psychology —the hallmarks of social scientific explanation—can explain events without destroying agency. Yet, even if nature and nurture fail to preserve agency, it does not follow that all meaningful links between antecedents and events destroy agency. …

Without the plot, certainly, any subplot would not be at all, or, at least, it would not be what it is. However, there is never just one subplot that can possibly arise from any particular plot. Once a subplot arises, it can be rewritten, abandoned, or woven back into the plot at any one of a number of points in the plot.

In short, it is possible for psychological researchers to explore in a rigorous way how we (as rational, purposive, sense-making beings) enact possibilities that make sense (i.e., are coherent and meaningful) given our personal, interpersonal, and cultural circumstances. Human behavior, in this view, has becauses (i.e., reasons grounded in narrative meaning and sense-making) rather than merely causes. We can explore how we agentically live out and engage the stories, templates, and narratives of our lives in very predictable ways.

For example, it is no surprise that someone weeps at the loss of a family member, that continued fighting leads to divorce, or that reciprocated kindness cultivates gratitude and lasting friendships. As embodied beings, it makes sense to explore the effects of physiology on our experiences and the way our physiology alters the horizon of possibilities before us. In short, the “becauses” of human behavior warrant study and analysis, and we can do this while resorting neither to the language of deterministic causation nor the language of indeterministic unpredictability.

What changes, perhaps, is that social scientists who believe in agency might spend less time trying to tease out variables and correlations from quantitative data and more time complementing conventional approaches with more qualitative or mixed-research methods. This might tilt Latter-day Saint psychologists and researchers towards approaches that seek to investigate patterns in the meaningful stories we tell about ourselves and live out in our actions.

Further, an approach centered on agency might lead us to treat human beings as fundamentally sense-making beings that enact the various possibilities afforded them by their environment, antecedent events, biology, relationships, etc.—and to reject approaches that treat human beings as complicated meat-machines or sophisticated marionettes whose behavioral and emotional strings are being pulled by myriads of measurable variables.

Phenomenological accounts of agency. It might be helpful to explore the way some phenomenologists approach the question of agency—if for no other reason than to equip us with additional vocabulary for advancing alternatives to determinism. While not as well-known in contemporary psychology as more traditionally natural-science-oriented approaches (e.g., behaviorism, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, etc.), phenomenology embodies a long history of careful, critical thinking about human nature, meaning, and agency. 

A central focus of phenomenology is “the study of human experience and the way things present themselves to us in and through such experience.” As such, the phenomenological approach “seeks to meet phenomena on their own terms and not to press them into the mold of preconceptions,” especially naturalistic, causal, or individualistic preconceptions. Thus, rather than measuring behavior in controlled laboratory environments to determine the precise nature of the causal forces presumed to produce behavior, phenomenologists seek to carefully describe those ways in which human actions and relationships unfold in the meaningful context of daily life.

In other words, rather than privileging naturalistic and deterministic accounts of human experience, phenomenologists privilege the concrete reality of human experience as actually lived and understood. In so doing, as Gantt, Williams, and Fischer note, they tend to reject accounts of human action that invoke the sorts of hypothetical constructs or abstract causal forces favored by so many in contemporary psychology. Because phenomenologists usually take human experience to be inherently meaningful and purposive—because that is precisely what it shows itself to be in our daily lives—they are deeply interested in exploring and describing the narrative threads and themes, the various plots and subplots of meaning, that constitute our uniquely human way of being in the world. These things become for them the starting point of their investigations into human experience.

In most “free will” thought experiments, the conversation tends to unfold like this: “When you wave your arm in the air, there is a causal chain of events that unfold that cause your muscles to contract, and nerves to fire in your brain. At what point is that causal chain interrupted and a ‘choice’ made?” A number of phenomenological thinkers have challenged this framing altogether. They argue that the thought experiment itself treats a naturalistic and deterministic universe as a starting point of inquiry, a default within which agency is an interruption.

To illustrate their perspective, we can consider a blind man’s cane. There are two different ways of being with respect to things and experiences in our lives. In one way of being, the blind man can heft his cane, examine it, and study its properties. It is the subject of his attention. In this approach to the cane, the blind man is the subject, and the cane is the object. As an object, it can be weighed, measured, and examined in a scientific way. When we start talking about the neurons and biochemistry of hand-waving, we are approaching the human body in a similar “subject-object” approach.

There is another way that the blind man relates to the cane, one in which the “subject-object” distinction dissolves entirely. The following example from philosopher Hubert Dreyfus may help to illustrate this distinction:

We hand the blind man a cane and ask him to tell us what properties it has. After hefting and feeling it, he tells us that it is light, smooth, about three feet long, and so on. … But when the man starts to manipulate the cane, he loses his awareness of the cane itself; he is aware only of the curb (or whatever object the cane touches) or, if all is going well, he is not even aware of that, but of his freedom to walk, or perhaps only what he is talking about with his friend.

In this other way of being, the cane is revealing the world to the blind man but is itself invisible to him, for it is an extension of himself. There is no “subject-object” divide. A number of phenomenologists, such as Charles Guignon, argue that the subject-object approach is never the default in day-to-day living. For example, when driving a car, a person does not normally treat the steering wheel as an object that she is moving in a circle in order to exert an influence on a vehicle by means of a steering mechanism and drive train. Rather, she is merely turning left onto the street where her dearest and oldest friend lives in a quaint red house at the end of the block.

Similarly, someone learning a new language might treat the grammar of a language as an object of explicit study, as words that must be put together in a specific order and arrangement with deliberation and care. In contrast, someone more fluent might merely be asking for lunch. In most day-to-day activity, we are immersed in a world of possibility and meaning, in which the biochemical processes in our brains rarely become meaningfully relevant. It is only in moments of breakdown, Guignon argues, that the “subject-object” distinction comes to the fore and becomes relevant. For example, when the cane breaks and needs to be repaired, when the power steering of the car breaks down, or when we have a stroke in the Broca’s area of our brain and struggle to speak.

The point of all this is that the original question—one that treats the motion of the arm as part of a causal chain starting somewhere in the brain and ending in the muscles of the arm—is framed in a way that presumes that the subject-object divide, which is a mode of engagement with our choices and our bodies that is never the default. In ordinary, everyday lived experience (the kind of experience that we most truly want to understand), the “default” mode of engagement with our choices and our bodies is more like the blind man with his cane—rather than objects of explicit concern to us as subjects, those everyday choices are largely invisible to us, even as reveal the world to us and unfold new possibilities for us. 

In other words, most day-to-day agentic action takes place against the backdrop of our thrownness in the world, a horizon of possibilities within which all aspects of our lives are interpreted. Guignon explains that this mode of engagement is “a way of experiencing and grasping things that cannot be adequately captured in the terms dictated by the objectifying model.” He continues: 

The aim of phenomenology is not to solve the problem of free will — indeed, given the framework in which the problem is poised, phenomenologists would say that there can be no solution which would accord with common sense. Instead, the aim is to dissolve the problem by challenging the very framework in terms of which the problem is formulated.

To some, this may feel like a dodge of the original question and insist that the question of agency remains opaque until an answer is given in the terms in which the question is asked. But phenomenologists like Guignon might respond that this merely treats the subject-object way of being as a primary default, and the language and vernacular of materialism, naturalism, and determinism as the only way to make human action intelligible. It assumes that until an account of agency is inserted into that particular world and made intelligible in those terms, agency itself cannot be made intelligible. However, that set of vocabulary for talking about the world is merely one of many. It does not have to be a straitjacket default, nor does the human experience of possibility have to be rendered in those terms to be intelligible and—most importantly —study-able. Perhaps, as Gantt, Williams, and Fischer argue, the most fruitful and genuinely scientific approach to the study of human behavior is one in which agency is taken to be that about us which is most definitive of our being human and, thus, the most natural, reasonable, and coherent place both to begin and end any serious study of what it means to be a human being.

About the authors

Jeffrey Thayne

Jeffrey Thayne blogs at ldsphilosopher.com, and is the coauthor of “Who is Truth?” He has a Ph.D. from Utah State University in Learning Sciences

Edwin E. Gantt

Edwin E. Gantt is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues and Who is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (co-authored with Dr. Jeffrey L. Thayne). He has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University.
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