Free Will 3: Agency, action, and choice

In an attempt to become more prolific on this blog, I’ve decided to pick a theme for each week and run with it. I’m going to start with a three day post sort of thing, so this shouldn’t be seen as an all-encompassing view on each theme. Enjoy!

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In the first post, I presented Sam Harris’ argument against free will. In the second, I showcased the arguments for free will (or free action) from Greg Boyd and Michio Kaku. Today, I’d like to take a stab at explaining my view which comes at something of a middle ground. Now, this isn’t me trying to be a middling and weak-kneed postmodernist engaging in some sort of relativism. The ideologies and views we have matter, and sometimes they can be very, very destructive. This flies in the face of a wholesale relativism that says anything you do/think is OK. Case in point, what we think of free will, or lack thereof, matters a lot. And for all the seeming amorality of postmodernism, I don’t think there is any philosopher/thinker in that camp that would argue against this point.

So, what do I think is dangerous about the views I listed previously? Plenty.

In both sides of the argument, I think there is immense danger in the extreme positions. The extreme position of Harris’ view would state that there is no ability for conscious human beings to effect the world around. We are simply puppets, left to the devices that control, monitor and maintain the world. This what I see, in Christian theology, as the ultimate expression of a Calivinistic determinism, where as humans (who are created in the image of God, mind you) we have no ability to influence the course of events or God. In essence, we are robots who have no hope whatsoever. After struggling with this theology for many years, I’ve come to reject it simply because I find it incredibly damaging psychology. I won’t get deeper, but the sort of helplessness that the extreme view of determinism that one can fall into is a serious stopgap towards advancing in your life in any direction.

However, I don’t think total libertarian free will is the answer (which is the extreme of the free will camp). This side essentially lays out that we are in total control of all our actions, thoughts, and movements. We are, and shouldn’t be, beholden to anyone or anything. The problem here is that this ideology rejects many of the advances in science, psychology, and knowledge that has shown how we aren’t really all that much in control. Similarly, the danger here is in leading individuals to assume that they are not accountable to anyone, as their actions are their own. Actions have consequences and no one lives in isolation. We interact with the world and things happen, many times with unanticipated consequences. If we have total free will, we will ultimately be the authors of our destruction. Wrapped up in this is the incredible burden that no one can save us but ourselves and when viewed theologically this doesn’t vibe with the idea of God becoming man to save us.

Where do I stand then? I find myself particularly drawn towards the notion of agency. Agency, as a philosophical notion, speaks towards an individuals capacity for action and movement. In a sociological vein, it is how much ability one has to enact in the structure of society. This is dependent on a variety of factors, such as income, place of birth, race, religion, education, etc. Each of these factors has a specific degree of control on our lives. As a white, mid-twenties male in America, I presumably have the most agency of any demographic. And truthfully I do. I don’t have preconceived notions of being a thug, illegal immigrant, or woman to hold me back. However, I don’t have the total free will to decide to say, buy a house, because my family grew up on the lower-end of the socioeconomic scale and I have followed suit as I’ve pursued education in my twenties. While I recognize my specific privileged state, I also recognize that there are factors that limit me. And, try as I may, I could very well remain exactly in the position I presently am for the rest of my life. There is movement in agency to scale the socioeconomic ladder, many have done that and it’s not a static thing. However, it is incredibly hard and more often than not, it’s not pure determination of an individual, but it’s how well they are able to play the cultural game. If I make the right connections with individuals who have more agency than I, I can ascend the ladder. Success stories (re: American Dream) we like to tell ourselves in America are very few and far between.

Theologically, I think agency fits well too. It provides room for God to still be the designer and author of the universe, but it doesn’t lead one into total helplessness as a thorough determinism does. Rather, there is an awareness that God is still “in control” as a being who is all powerful and all knowing, but there is room still for human action and choice. Whether this is allowed by God, given by God, or an intrinsic part of our being as creatures inhabited with the imago dei, I can’t say. I also think that misses some of the point, because it’s not where this agency came from, but that we have it. Lastly, I think this fits much more in with the notion of being in relationship (or as I prefer to call it these days, communion) with God, as there is the kind of give and take that happens in a relationship.

As I mentioned previously, this is not supposed to be a thorough examination of any of these points, but an exploration and chance for dialogue.

What do you think? Is agency a good way to look at this problem? Thanks for reading!

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4 thoughts on “Free Will 3: Agency, action, and choice

  1. I accept parts of what you are saying as true, and don’t actually believe that agency contradicts Calvinistic determinism. I would say that what you have described as Calvinism sounds more like “hyper-Calvinism”. Essentially, and simplistically, Calvinism says that all choices are predetermined, whereas “hyper-Calvinism” says that there are no choices. Calvinism says that our actions matter and are bound by our will, which is bound by God’s will. “Hyper-Calvinism” says that God is the only one who has any will, and therefore nothing matters because we are only acting out God’s sole will. Poetically, Calvinism is symphonic while “hyper-Calvinism” is robotic.

    The most glaring and damaging example theologically is in evangelism. “Hyper-Calvinists” don’t bother with evangelism (i.e. proclaiming to those who aren’t Christians the Good News that God saves sinners), because God will save whomever He desires to be saved. True Calvinists proclaim the Gospel because though God has predestine who will be saved, that predestination uses the will actions of Christians to accomplish His work. That God doesn’t need me to tell others about Jesus, but I am responsible to tell others because that is the method He has preordained to open someone else’s eyes. And I am equally responsible if I don’t tell others about Jesus. Either my will to obey or my will to disobey are a result of God’s will to work or not work in this world for His purposes. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t have a will.

    1. Because it’s predetermined that there will always be a sexy woman on youtube. I guess. Maybe.

      You are correct in that I am arguing against hyper-Calvinism. It’s my belief that most people who consider themselves Calvinists aren’t of the hyper variety and even if they were intellectually, I doubt they would live in a fashion that represents that. I just think that’s an untenable way to live in the world we have and you are right in that it goes against the gospel directive to witness and evangelize. I also don’t think agency contradicts Calvinism, but I don’t think it supports is either. Rather, I think the two can fit well together as there is a lot of common ground. There is less in a free will based theology for agency, but I don’t think it discredits it totally.

      I’ll probably keep pushing this point, but I do find myself in the camp that is more apt to reject free will as a “thing.”

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