42fy t1_j1zwkok wrote

The concept of AGENCY seemed to clear up a lot of confusion on this topic in my initial education about the free will/determinism debate (which affected me profoundly, to the point that I would compose an entire rock opera about it 35 years later!).

A leaf falling from a tree follows a trajectory entirely determined by physics—I think we can all agree.

A skydiver falling from an airplane also follows a trajectory completely determined by physics. The difference is the skydiver has eyes and ears that take in information, and memories and training, and a brain that can make calculations based on these factors, plus muscles that can move things in the world. The pulling of the rip cord at time “t” and not “t+x” is a product of the skydiver’s agency—her ability to take an action (among a seemingly wide range of actions or particular timings thereof).

Here’s the rub: although she is not falling “helplessly” in the sense that the leaf is, her trajectory—including the exact time of pulling the rip cord—is following the laws of physics just as ineluctably as the leaf’s. It’s just that the causal stream is much more complex because the exact timing of the rip cord pull is a result of the actions of an agent—that is, a thing that can process information, have memories and do things.

From the vantage point of the agent, it very often seems as though there are indeed many options to choose from whilst deliberating. That internal sense, though, is just that—a feeling from within a deliberating organism. And I think that is what many consider to so “obviously” be free will. And they are insulted/put off by the idea that they don’t have “free will” (when they are really thinking about agency), which they wrongly conclude suggests they are merely like the falling leaf. This ability to deliberate and act on those deliberations is agency, but not free will, in my view.

The question of whether we have free will to me comes down to an entirely different question: Whether we actually could have decided otherwise if placed in exactly the same circumstances with the exact same environment and exact same brain states, etc.

We most definitely have agency (“I” decided to choose option A instead of option B). But agency does not magically allow us to escape determinism, because agency itself is a completely determined—if complex and sometimes conscious—process.

Our having agency does not justify compatibilism, in my view. But a lack of incorporation of this distinction seems to explain how people can believe such a weird idea.