Determinism vs. Agency, The Great Debate
There is one debate that stands out in human history. It is an ancient debate–common to every human discipline that attempts to understand human behavior and the human condition. The debate is often called determinism vs. freewill, however, dozens of terms can be attributed to the debate. Both sides of the debate have derived evidence from the hard and social sciences, from various religious doctrines, and from sound philosophical axioms.
Determinists argue that we, as humans, actually do not make any decisions of our own, but that our decisions, thoughts and emotions are determined by the social and/or physical world that has dictated everything we think, feel and do. This assertion upholds the notion that whatever we do, we did not choose it; it was the mechanics of the inevitable and universal laws that naturally and predictably brought the experience to our consciousness. To deterministic thinkers, everything is “destiny” per se. It was always “going to happen.” Determinist’s believe that freewill, both individually and societally, is an illusion.
Advocates of agency offer the opposing view that though the universe is in-arguably bound by certain laws and reactions that make it highly predictable (gravity for example), there is a randomness that creates a degree of unpredictability. From this randomness within universal law, creatures with intelligence can derive the ability to escape the dogmatic and certain future that is otherwise destined. Advocates of agency feel that human beings are able to “choose” their own path and fight off an often grim and oppressive existence. They believe mechanical determinism cannot account for the unpredictability of human nature nor the apparent randomness of physical reactions, ranging from holocaust survivors to the double-slit experiment.
Despite the historical value and powerful physiological implications behind the debate, it may be that the entire ancient dialogue is entirely irrelevant to daily living and discovering authentic happiness. Regardless, the debate becomes relative to me every day as a counselor of mental health and a therapeutic recreational specialist. Many times, I have observed people who appear to have no freedom in their cognition’s, emotions or behaviors. I have interacted with people, often children and teens, who do not appear to even control the most basic of human function, the most basic expressions of freewill.
So I am left to wonder what allows some humans of similar (or lesser) abilities to master the expression of freewill while others do not. While I am certain that factors such as genetics are influential variables, every day I am less certain of their absoluteness. Only today I witnessed a bold demonstration of change while in session with a client. I watched as she was able to lower her defensive mechanisms only moments after a large, uncontrollable outburst. I marveled as she expressed insight that was impossible only moments earlier, wherein we ascertained that her need to be right was more important than her need to be happy. In this moment of observation, I recognized that her degree of freedom is directly correlated with her level of defensiveness. Furthermore, her defensiveness is directly related to her self-perception which is contrasted with her perception of others. In other words, her core beliefs about herself and the world around are her largest indicator of her freedom.
I continue to be astounded by the change my clients find within themselves. Whether an illusion or an authentic manifestation of freewill, I have seen observable, measurable change. It is change from negative behavior that allows the individual to “return” to her true self and into the person that she had always known she could be. I am truly grateful for my miraculous career.