Free Will vs. Exogenous Agency. A term is born!

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Exogenous Agency.   When fate first had me create this blog a couple of days ago, the intention was to create a “Flickers of Freedom” like site for academic determinists.  Now it has me thinking that I should just use it as a personal blog, and create a separate one for the academics.

What is exogenous agency?  I haven’t gotten around to creating an about page yet, but essentially the term is meant to address a conceptual/linguistic problem with the free will vs. determinism debate.   What’s the problem?   Ask yourself; do we humans have a free will or…?  That’s the problem.  At that point you could say “is everything deterministic?”  But that doesn’t solve the problem because many people (not me) believe that some natural events are random, in the sense of uncaused.  You might want to amend the question to: do we humans have a free will, or is everything deterministic or random?  At that point, the conceptualization and phrasing becomes awkward.

Or, consider this question: are we free agents or…?  We’re faced with the same problem.  Essentially the problem is that, hopefully until now, there has not been a linguistically parallel antonym to the terms free will and free agency.

Introducing EXOGENOUS AGENCY.  What does it mean?  Well, here’s the first definition that came up when I did a Google search for exogenous –

Adjective:  1. Of, relating to, or developing from external factors.  2. Growing or originating from outside an organism.

What does “agency” mean?  Here’s the relevant definition –

Noun:  the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power

So, putting them together, we arrive at the concept of deciding on or initiating an action that has developed, grown, or, most precisely, originated from outside of the organism.  And that’s exactly what we human beings do any time we think, feel or do anything.  In other words, not only do we humans not have a free will, technically, we don’t even have a will

Why not?  Let’s first dispense with the notions of free will and human will as they apply to the prospect of randomness, in the salient sense of acausality.  If what we think, feel or do is random in this sense, then there is absolutely no way we can logically attribute those actions to ourselves.  Now we move on to causality. If events, including human thoughts, feelings and actions, are not random, then they absolutely must be caused.  There is no third option.  It is black and white.  Conceptually and empirically, something can be either caused or uncaused.  If you doubt this, just try to describe what this third option would actually be.

So, if everything that is not random, or uncaused, has a cause, that means that every human thought, feeling and action must have a cause.  Don’t get caught up in what the cause actually is.   Or, if you want the most general and comprehensive cause to anything and everything that happens in our universe, we can designate its cause as the state of the universe immediately preceding the caused event.

Let’s work with a choice, any choice.  Our choice has a cause.  That cause must either have a cause or be random or uncaused.  Since we’ve already explained how randomness, or acausality, makes free will impossible, we’ll just stick to causality for this example.  Our choice has a cause, and the cause of that cause has a cause.

At this point, keep in mind that a cause, by definition, must come before its event.  This is true notwithstanding physical relativistic factors because we are considering completely local phenomena.  In other words, you can’t apply the twins paradox to our causal chain because it is happening within one, and not two, time-frames, and because it is not happening at a speed approaching the speed of light.

To further illuminate all of this, let’s begin by referring to the cause of our choice as the brain state immediately preceding the choice.  So, that state is caused by the one immediately before it, and that state is caused by the one immediately before it.  We are now going back in time, moment by moment, brain state by brain state, in a causal manner.  This is what is referred to as a causal regression.

At some point, we discover that our chain of cause and effect takes us all of the way back in time to when our chooser’s brain suddenly emerged as a structure in the developing embryo.  But causal chains do not just stop because, remember, everything that is not random must have a cause.  Again, I want to emphasis that there is nothing in nature that is random in the sense of uncaused, but because the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics and other interpretations of quantum phenomena have so completely confused some of us, I’ve explained that random or uncaused choices cannot, by definition, be attributed to anything, including human wills.

So, we follow our chain of cause and effect to whatever physiological state caused the first brain cell to divide and the chooser’s human brain to begin to take form, leading to the brain states that ultimately led to our chooser’s choice.  At this point we can keep following the states of the developing embryo back in time, cause by cause, to conception.

At this point something interesting and absolutely relevant happens.  The causal regression behind our choice has now moved back in time to before the person making the choice was actually a person.  Pretty amazing, right?

And we could keep following that regression back in time, moment by moment, all of the way back to the Big Bang if we wanted.  But that’s not really necessary to our present purpose.  What we’ve just shown is that the cause of our choice did not originate in the chooser.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that the “chooser” did not really choose anything.  He or she simply played out the choice that was caused by events preceding the chooser’s birth.

That is why we humans do not technically have a will, and why if we don’t have a will we can’t in any sense, compatibilist or otherwise, say that we humans have a free will.  Both randomness and causality, as just explained, make free will completely impossible.

So, if we don’t have a free will, what we have is exogenous agency.  We act out the choices of whatever initiated the causal regression that ultimately results in our choice.   As far as we know, that’s the Big Bang, but that’s only as far as we know.

And if we are not free willers, what are we?  We are exogenous agents.  Which reminds me, if I create another separate blog where academic philosophers and scientists who understand that free will is an illusion can post articles, that’s probably what I would call it.  Not as a result of any free will, or will that I clearly and obviously do not have.  But as a result of AUTONOMOUS AGENCY.

I hope you enjoyed my first post here.  Let’s see if the Big Bang (if you’re religious, you could say God) has me follow up soon with another.

Finally, if you want to better understand why we humans do not have a will or a free will in many other ways, and why our understanding this matters, check out my website Exploring the Illusion of Free Will.



16 Responses

  1. Hey George! I was wondering what had happened to you. Hope all is well.

    Ps check out my new blog too:

  2. Hey Johno! I’ve still been doing the shows, now with my co-host on his NYC show also co-hosting my White Plains show, but usually find it hard to get much work done during the months before a major election. And I’m not even keeping track of if this time. I just visited your blog. It’s great that a lot of people are reading and commenting.

    This blog isn’t indexed by Google yet, so I’ll delay future entries until that happens, hopefully within a week or two. I also want to start doing regular short (under 3 minutes) YouTube videos, but fate just won’t let me get that going yet.

    If you want to cross-post your free will refutation articles on Exogenous Agency, let me know; I’ll create a contributing slot for you.

  3. Your analysis is originating from the prevalent view on the nature of the chooser, that a person is born and dies with his physical body. If you take the view that consciousness is a fundamental property of spacetime then the chooser is everalive and anchored at the Big Bang. The regression of causes goes back with time flowing backwards and forwards, as the chooser makes the choices comprising of a stream of discrete conscious moments. I wonder if you have read the following new research which validates backward flow of time.

    • Nitin, Thanks for the excellent reference. Quantum mechanics really does force us to struggle with understanding the fundamental fabric of reality. It may be that in the case of entangled particles, their connection transcends our understanding of not just space but also time. However, even in these cases causality is not violated; the second particle’s behavior causes the behavior of the first.

      Applying the findings to a personal choice, we might find that a choice we make at one instant was caused by a thought an instant later, however we are still left with determining the causal direction of that determining thought. As quantum mechanics does not violate the law of conservation of mass-energy, meaning that mass-energy can neither be created nor destroyed, we are still left having to acknowledge that any human choice would theoretically have to be the ultimate effect of a causal chain of events either preceding the chooser’s birth or somehow originating from the chooser’s after-life future.

      I hold the personal belief, (more of a hope) that living organisms have a soul that existed before incarnation and continues to exist after life. It’s origin may, in fact, stretch back in time to before the Big Bang. However, since we are not in control of that soul, and since such a soul would be presumably making choices in conflict with our present-time experience and desires, it doesn’t seem like this prospect would give us a free will.

      The same reasoning would apply to an omniscient or self-aware God or universe. If this entity knew a million years ago what it would be experiencing in the present moment, while we may speculate that perhaps back at the logic-transcending eternal beginning it had a free will, it is since locked, by causality, into it’s present choices, thereby denying it a free will, as the term is generally understood and accepted.

  4. I have never read anything so confusing in my life. Victor Frankl said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
    ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

    I may not choose the circumstances of my life, but I choose my response to them. That is my free will. I am free to choose my attitude and actions in response to my circumstances, but I am not free to choose the consequences of my choices. I have choices to make every day whether to be lazy or industrious, whether to save money or waste money, whether to be charitable and generous or mean and miserly. Each of my choices has a consequence.

  5. Bonnie, if all natural events, including human choices such as responses attitudes and actions, result from a universal causal chain of events that progresses from the Big Bang, it’s not even correct to say that we even make choices. We manifest the will, or choices, of the universe. Also, it would be wrong to suggest that I or anyone else could take from you a free will that you do not have. More so, the question is not whether or not we make choices, it is about whether those “choices” are *free* of factors over which we are not in control. They clearly are not.

    • Thanks for taking the time to answer me. You’re right. There are always factoring affecting us over which we have not control, but I always do have a choice in how I respond to my life.

  6. While I understand your views on free will, they seem to deny the individual or relegate them to nothing but the result of causal events. I’m curious how you view individuals you may admire. In my case I’ll use John Lewis the civil rights activist as an example of an individual for which I have great admiration. Do you admire the person while giving them no credit for their accomplishments as they were the result of causal events for which they had no responsibility? If we do not have free will or control over how we live our lives is admiration for the person (as opposed to their actions) a misguided notion?

    Thanks for your work in this important field of thought.

    • Hi Russell,

      That’s a great question. I’ll start by explaining that when I do any good, while I can’t fundamentally take credit for this good, I feel grateful that I was compelled to do it. Also to the extent I may do something great, and our society is structured around acknowledging that greatness, and even rewarding it in various ways, I would accept that recognition and reward as a helpful motivator for my and other people doing more good in the future.

      So, I certainly admire John Lewis and other great civil rights leaders for their extraordinary gifts to this Country and to the world, and feel that his greatness should be wisely acknowledged and rewarded. Again, because I recognize that Lewis was compelled in his greatness, I would, like I view myself and everyone else, not place him fundamentally above anyone else because of his great deeds, while fully expecting that society should acknowledge his greatness and reward it in various ways.

      I find this attitude preserves our motivation to do good and great things in our world while providing rationale for us not becoming arrogant about what we have done, or envying others who may have done greater things than ourselves.

      • Thanks for responding George. While I think I see both sides of the argument, it still feels like you are denying the individual. When you say a person has exogenous agency, I would agree in the sense that we are the result of our genetics and experience, however the combination of these two distinct components results in each of us being unique in the world and in my view results in our having agency. We take the lottery of genes and early life experiences we are given and move though life making choices that creates that which we become. It is not my genes making the decision or my experiences making the decisions, but me, an agent comprised of those two components.

        When “I choose vanilla ice cream” you seem to view the “I” as simply a causal series of events going back the the big bang with no distinction between an individual and say a tree that we would both probably agree does not have free will.

        When I look at an individual like John Lewis, I see a person with very few advantages that made choices in life that were extraordinarily admirable. The man he became was the result of an extraordinary number of heroic choices. While he made those choices given his genes and experiences, the unique person that resulted from them is to be admired because of those choices. From your perspective of exogenous agency, none of us has any influence on who we become, so the war hero would be no more admirable than the town drunk.

        I would appreciate your thoughts…Thanks…Russell

        • Russell, I am indeed denying our conventional understanding of “the individual” in the sense that we simply and most fundamentally manifest the “will” of the Big Bang (or whatever proceeded). Remember that because the causal antecedents to any decision regress to before our birth, the nature/nurture distinctions simply reflect the chain of cause and effect that regresses to before our birth as individuals, while we may be unique, we are not autonomously so.

          • George-Interesting…I agree with everything you said, but reach a different conclusion. Perhaps we disagree on certain fundamental notions or definitions.

            I don’t consider myself autonomously unique, but rather randomly unique and I agree that perhaps most of these random events preceded my birth. So far I think we are on the same or at least similar page.

            As a point of reference I do not believe in dualism so I really see me as the sum of my genetics and experience with a dollop of hormones/etc. thrown in. And while my choices are the influenced by prior causes, “I” did interpret and assimilate those prior causes; I was not held hostage to them. I’m certainly more than a conduit as I interpret them in nuanced ways unique to me. Through this iterative process we gradually change over time as certainly none of us are the same person at age 50 that we were at age 20, however we are the agents that interpret and determine the degree and nuanced way in which we assimilate those experiences into our lives. Each of us does this individually and uniquely and that seems like free will. Yes my decisions and choices are the result of my preferences but to choose otherwise would require me to be someone else.

            I have the ability to create my life through choices (you can see the influence of the Existentialist such as Sartre/Jaspers et. al). I think our differences may be how we view “I”….You appear to see “I” as an infinite regress of causal events without personal agency. I see “I” as uniquely created (not in the biblical sense) with agency that allows me to act in the world in a way unique to me subject to causal events but limited and affected by the way I uniquely interpret and assimilate those causal events.

            Thanks for your response and I look forward to thoughts…Russell

            • Hi Russell,

              You may be interested in a brief scholarly work (only 56 pages) that I published in April that should answer the points you raised above. The paperback is available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and the digital version as a Kindle edition, however, here’s a link to a free pdf file of the work –

  7. George-Thanks for referring me to your book on this subject as it was very helpful in gaining a better understanding on this area of thought. I hope I don’t sound too dogmatic or argumentative in my response, but appreciate that if I have a philosophical orientation it would be from the existentialists such as Sartre.

    On pages 6/7 you say that a freely willed decision must be free from the determination of any entity, event, or process over which the human has no control. Since I had no control over my DNA or early life experiences, clearly the restrictive nature of this statement would as defined make free will impossible. On page 41 of Sam Harris’ book Free Will he says “And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this?” brains and experience etc. is who I see as me. So to say you can only have free will if you are not you seems like a well constructed paradox.

    Would you agree with the statement that a person has the freedom to choose as long as he realizes that the basis of his choice is the result of caused events unique to him as interpreted and assimilated by him that may go back hundreds or thousands of years?

    In a deterministic world one can predict. Yet as William James so eloquently said, every thought is part of personal consciousness. They don’t exist in the world only within a person. The context in which a thought resides in my head can’t be replicated in anyone else. The world has 7 billion unique thinkers thinking their own thoughts. This makes prediction at the human level slightly more difficult than domino behavior. In a deterministic world the only way to predict how I will act is to be me…not to know what I think, but to actually be me. This too creates somewhat of a paradox for the person trying to predict my behavior….you can predict it but to do so you must be me…..much like I can have free will as long as I’m not me.

    Again, I would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks..Russell

  8. “So, we follow our chain of cause and effect to whatever physiological state caused the first brain cell to divide and the chooser’s human brain to begin to take form, leading to the brain states that ultimately led to our chooser’s choice. At this point we can keep following the states of the developing embryo back in time, cause by cause, to conception.

    At this point something interesting and absolutely relevant happens. The causal regression behind our choice has now moved back in time to before the person making the choice was actually a person. Pretty amazing, right?”

    It is especially amazing to be talking about the development of an embryo. I am sure you can see why this would be relevant in discussions people have about when a person becomes a person. Since conception only happens when the sperm meets the egg, it can in no way be said that any of us choose our own existence.

    And you have already covered the topic of asking when a child would gain a free will. I believe that this is perhaps the strongest case against it that I have ever heard of.


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