Is agency the same thing as unpredictability?

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Because necessary determinism denies the possibility of human agency, many assume that agency is the same thing as indeterminism, which assumes that human action involves the capacity to make choices that are wholly disconnected from the past. This view treats agency as an inherent “unpredictability” in human behavior.

In contrast, we argue that agency requires (1) the existence of possibility in human action (something denied by necessary determinism) and (2) some kind of meaningful connection between human action and its antecedents (something denied by indeterminism). For this reason, agency requires a “third way” that is neither necessary determinism nor indeterminism, which we refer to as minimal determinism.

The Hidden Worldview: Agency as Indeterminism

What makes us agents is that we have free will and, thus, can make absolutely free choices that are wholly independent of our past, our context, or our biology.

Because necessary determinism makes agency impossible, many assume that agency is the opposite of determinism: indeterminism. Put simply, this means that actions that are the product of agency are unpredictable or unexplainable.

Let’s explore what this means. There are two terms that are important in this discussion: antecedent and consequent. An antecedent is something that “comes before”, or precedes whatever follows. A consequent is that which follows “as a result or effect” of the antecedent. In other words, antecedents lead to consequents, and consequents follow from antecedents.

Necessary determinism assumes that the relationship between antecedents and consequences is especially strong: consequents follow necessarily from antecedents. Given a set of antecedents, events cannot unfold in any way other way than they do. Things are as they must (necessarily) be. In contrast, indeterminism assumes that there is no connection between antecedents and consequents. Nothing necessarily follows as a consequence of prior events or conditions.

Consider what happens when we roll a pair of dice — the results are random and unpredictable. Even if, by blind luck, you roll ten double sixes in a row, the chance that you will roll double sixes on the very next roll is the same as the the chance you were going to rolls double sixes the first time: 1 in 36 (2.78%). Previous rolls have no necessary connection to the odds of future rolls. Each roll of the dice is a new event.

Sometimes we think of agency in the same way:  we assume that at each moment of choice, an individual can stand independent of their history, experience, biology, or relationships, and make an absolutely free choice that is not beholden to their past. In fact, this is precisely what the term “free will” means — our choices are the product of a will that is entirely free from influence by any external forces or conditions.  Indeed, some people would argue that if any influence comes to bear on a choice we are trying to make, then that choice is no longer free — and, thus, no longer a choice at all.

In this way, when we equate agency with indeterminism, we imply that to the extent that human beings are agents, there is (in principle) no way to predict human behavior. Furthermore, we imply that any behavior we can predict is therefore not the product of agency. Predictability becomes evidence against agency.  As Adina L. Roskies succinctly puts it, “The mark of a deterministic system is predictability, and of an indeterministic system is unpredictability.”((Adina L. Roskies, “Can Neuroscience Resolve Issues about Free Will?” in Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. Moral psychology: Free will and moral responsibility. MIT Press, 2014.)) Thus, if our behavior can be predicted, so the argument goes, then it must be determined and we do not have agency.

This assumption can play itself out in some subtle ways. For example, we sometimes treat “agency” as just another variable in the causal chain. For example, we might ask, “Was this behavior the result of brain chemistry, upbringing, or free will?” When we do this, agency becomes the variable we default to when other variables fail; it is a black box, a “mystery” in the causal chain. When agency is the explanation, we can say that a person’s behavior has no cause other than free choice. Using agency as an explanatory “add-on” often happens when people don’t act as we predict they will. The mysterious, “black box” of agency (indeterminism) gets “added” into an otherwise causal explanation because things didn’t turn out like we predicted they would.

This understanding of agency can be compared to the famous “God of the gaps” form of explanation. This refers to a perspective in which those things that have not been explained by science are used as evidence of God. In this view, God is found in the gaps of our knowledge. But as science explains more and more, the room for God shrinks; the more we explain, the less we need God. Similarly, if we treat agency as just another variable among many, we can slip into an “agency of the gaps” worldview:  the more we can explain and predict human behavior, the less we need to invoke agency. In this view, agency represents the “outliers” in research data, those individuals who do not follow the statistical models, or who violate expectations.

Many social scientists reject the role of agency in their research precisely because they see agency as indeterminism. If there are no connections between behavior and biology, context, and upbringing, then a scientific study of human behavior becomes impossible. Asserting that human beings have agency becomes the same thing as saying that human action is indeterminate, arbitrary, or random and thus beyond rational understanding. As Heiman noted in his textbook on research methods in psychology,

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.((Heiman, Gary W. Understanding research methods and statistics: An integrated introduction for psychology. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 2001.))

Some try and sidestep this conundrum by masking it in the language of influence. For example, we might conclude that Variable X did not determine someone’s behavior; rather, it merely influenced their behavior. Unfortunately, this can lead to circular reasoning:

Q. Why did Variable X only influence the behavior instead of cause it?
A. Because people can do otherwise.
Q. But why can people do otherwise?
A. Because Variable X doesn’t cause their behavior, it only influences it.

The word “influence” is merely a conceptual bandaid. As such, it simply postpones actually dealing with the question of agency. It ultimately treats agency as a dash of unpredictability in an otherwise predictable, causal world.

How does this view affect Latter-day Saints? It means that very few social scientists acknowledge the role of agency in human behavior, and those that do acknowledge it misunderstand it. This means that the vast majority of social science that filters into popular culture tilts us towards a more determinist view of human nature, in which our actions are the product of internal or external variables outside of our control. And this often puts the social sciences in an unnecessarily adversarial relationship with Latter-day Saint belief and practice.

The Alternative: Minimal Determinism

Agency and meaning require a strong connection between the past and the present, and that our actions make sense in light of our upbringing, biology, experiences and relationships.

The idea that agency is the same thing as indeterminism fails on at least three fronts: (1) It makes no more sense of moral accountability than necessary determinism, (2) human behavior is clearly connected with its antecedents, and (3) even our most predictable behaviors can be agentive.

Just like necessary determinism, indeterminism also undermines meaning and accountability.  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.” Just as we are not accountable for actions we did not choose, we are not accountable for actions that are the product of chance. While randomness does introduce possibility in human action (a prerequisite of agency), it cannot account for the meaningfulness of human action. Meaning requires requires coherent connections between antecedents and consequents.

Further, we can often predict individual behavior based on that individual’s prior experiences, our own prior experiences with them, and on antecedent events. There are meaningful connections between our present behaviors and our past behaviors. As Richard 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. It defies common sense to suggest that this happens on a large scale. Indeterminism in human events is decidedly refuted by experience.((Richard N. Williams, “Agency: Philosophical and Spiritual Foundations for Applied Psychology.” In Aaron, P., and Lane Fischer, Turning Freud Upside Down: Gospel Perspectives on Psychotherapy’s Fundamental Problems. Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah.))

Finally, is it really the case that predictable behavior is not the product of agency? I can predict, for example, with great certainty (and with 95% accuracy) who is and who is not going to speak in sacrament meeting merely by noting who is sitting where in the chapel. But does this mean that there’s no agency involved? Surely we need an account of agency that also allows for predictable actions to also be agentive actions.

Instead of necessary determinism or indeterminism, Williams offers a third possibility:  minimal determinism. This approach draws connections between antecedents and consequents, but of a different sort than necessary determinism. While necessary determinism draws billiard-ball causality-like connections between antecedents and consequents, minimal determinism allows for story-like connections instead.

Williams explains that “all events (and other things, including human actions) have meaningful antecedents [that is, prior events], absent which the events (or things) would not occur or would not be what they are.”((Richard N. Williams, “Agency: Philosophical and Spiritual Foundations for Applied Psychology.” In Aaron, P., and Lane Fischer, Turning Freud Upside Down: Gospel Perspectives on Psychotherapy’s Fundamental Problems. Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah.)) In other words, if you change the past, you change the present. However, the present as it currently stands is not the only possible result of the past. In this way, we can preserve connections between events and their antecedents, while also preserving possibility in human action. As Williams further explains:

We can find an example of such links in the strong relation that exists between the plot of a novel and any of a number of subplots. 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 anyone of a number of points in the plot. This example conforms to the requirements of determinism [that is, a strong connection between antecedents and their consequences], yet it preserves possibility and the agency of the author.((Richard N. Williams, “Agency: Philosophical and Spiritual Foundations for Applied Psychology.” In Aaron, P., and Lane Fischer, Turning Freud Upside Down: Gospel Perspectives on Psychotherapy’s Fundamental Problems. Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah.))

Imagine that you find your friend (Bob) weeping, and learn that his mother died the hour before. For the necessary determinist, Bob’s behavior is the only possible response Bob could have, given his personality, his relationship with his mother, and a host of other causal variables. For the indeterminist, there is no connection between Bob’s behavior and the death of his mother — upon hearing of his mother’s death, Bob made a free and independent choice to feel grief and cry; he could just as easily have cheered and gone out for drinks instead.

However, knowing what we know about Bob’s relationship with his mother, the latter choice would have made no sense. People don’t generally feel joy and cheer at the deaths of their loved ones, unless their culture provides it as an available and sensible story to tell (e.g., rejoicing that loved ones have reunited with God). What separates agency from indeterminism is that, as agents, we are enacting narratives and stories — narratives that leave plenty of room for possibility, but also in which our actions “make sense” in light of prior events of the story and the meaningful arc our story is taking.

For example, if you were to change history and prevent Bob’s mother’s death, Bob’s current behavior would be drastically different — and if it were the same, it would likely have a drastically different meaning (e.g., crying for joy that his mother yet lives). Bob’s behavior can be seen as legitimately connected to prior events; if we change the antecedents, the story plays out differently. Yet, despite the narrative continuity from past to present, Bob’s reaction is not the only reaction that could have provided that continuity.

Consider the more mundane example of a lunchtime conversation:  Each new word you utter is profoundly reliant on everything that has been said by either party up to this point in the conversation. However, despite the vital connections that exist between what has been said and done so far, nothing demands or necessitates that any particular word be spoken next. There are a great many words, gestures, facial expressions, and vocal tones that might be appropriate (or inappropriate) depending on the changing direction of the conversation and your own sense of it in that moment.

In this way, what comes to mind next, and the words that flow from your mouth as you further the conversation, are intimately bound up with many antecedent events, and yet are necessarily “determined” or “caused” by none of them. Rather, each word you speak, each gesture you make, and the particular tone you strike is an enactment of meanings and possibilities made available by the conversation thus far; and furthermore, they serve to further create create new possibilities (and constrain other possibilities) for the conversation moving forward.

In other words, our circumstances, history, habits, character, and prior events create context in which some behaviors are disclosed as quite sensible, and in which other behaviors are disclosed as quite nonsensical — like a certain plot of a novel might make some potential subplots very sensible, and other potential subplots very nonsensical. We enact possibilities and meanings made available to us by our upbringing, social contexts, habits of character, and antecedent events; and new possibilities for action and meaning become available to us as our culture, contexts, and character change in response to our actions.

Thus, while there is a strong connection between the past and the present, it is not a strictly causal or necessary one. We can explore how we, as rational, sense-making beings, enact possibilities that make sense given the circumstances without relying on any causal terminology. Human behavior, in this view, has “becauses” (i.e., reasons grounded in narrative meaning and sense-making) rather than merely “causes.”  It is, thus, an approach that assumes neither necessary determinism nor indeterminism.

Further, agency ceases to be merely one variable among many, or a dash of chance/indeterminism in an otherwise causal chain. Agentive actions have antecedents. Bob was weeping because his mother died; not simply because of some inscrutable variable called “agency” that introduces unpredictability in human behavior. And yet he is enacting this narrative in a fully agentive way; he is enacting one possibility among many (although some of those possibilities are less available/sensible than others, given the antecedents).

This means we can engage in a systematic study of human behavior without assuming necessary determinism. We can agentically enact the stories, templates, and narratives of our lives in very predictable ways. 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. The “becauses” of human behavior warrant study and analysis, and we can do this without resorting to the language of causation or indeterminism.

What changes, perhaps, is that social scientists who believe in human agency might spend less time trying to tease out variables and correlations from data, and more time exploring human behavior in narrative ways. This might tilt them towards more qualitative research methods, approaches that seek to investigate patterns in the meaningful stories we tell about ourselves and our actions. They might treat humans as sense-making beings rather than as complicated meat-machines or sophisticated marionettes (that is, controlled by measurable variables).

In short, a robust view of agency requires more than just attributing human behavior to random, inexplicable acts of “free will.” We prefer to use the term agency over other terms like “free will,” “autonomous choice,” or “self-determination,” because these terms imply that choice is “free” from all constraints of context, history, embodiment, and moral duty. We can (in most cases) render human behavior sensible in the context of personal and interpersonal history, moral duty, social and cultural context, and even biology.


    1. We don’t have one in the works right now, but it’s a fascinating question. I think that Dr. Gantt might argue against absolute foreknowledge, while I’m more agnostic on the issue.

      I personally don’t think foreknowledge negates agency. I think it’s possible to know someone so well that you know with surety what they will do in a situation. For example, I can predict with absolute certainty that, when tempted by a seductress, President Nelson will reject them and leave the situation immediately. And this absolute foreknowledge doesn’t absolve him or anyone of agency or moral responsibility. If it did, it would imply that agency is synonymous with unpredictability / indeterminism — a position we reject here. And it would imply that perfect character lessens moral accountability, by virtue of predictability in moral contexts.

      As for whether the future already exists, I’m also agnostic. I’m fine with views that the future exists only as a series of multitudinous possibilities, but I’m also fine with the idea that past, present, and future are all available to the gaze of Divine beings. I think linear time is an assumption we take for granted and now that I think about it, linear time could be a “hidden worldview” worth exploring at some point.

      1. I am a libertarian free willer. It seems we must be able to do otherwise. If we do otherwise we will have changed the past (God’s foreknowledge) by our actions in the present. I feel the future must be open for us to be able to do otherwise. I think if the future exists it would be evidence of a lack of free will. Coercion has nothing to do with this. It would be like being an actor in a play that cannot go off script.

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