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Diminished Agency: Psychological Science and the Role of Choice in Goals and Actions

James Van Slyke (with Response by Kevin Timpe)

Associate Professor of Psychology, Fresno Pacific University
July 3, 2019

Click here for Kevin Timpe’s essay, “Agency and Neuroscience,” and James Van Slyke’s critical response.

Part 1: Psychological Science and the Role of Choice in Goals and Actions

I love chocolate chip cookies, especially freshly baked, right out of the oven, ooey-gooey, doughy, falling-apart-as-you-eat-them chocolate chip cookies. There is nothing like walking into a house and one of the first things you notice is the smell of chocolate chip cookies, which in turn compels you to immediately hunt them down and devour them. One of my favorite psychological experiments involves freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and its effect on our capacity to make rational decisions. Peter Ditto at the University of California, Irvine ran an experiment that studied how our choices are influenced by visceral responses to olfactory (smell) cues.1 Participants were given a chance to compete in a gambling game involving the selection of a card from a deck of ten with chocolate chip cookies as the reward. There was a low-risk condition (chance of winning was 8 out of 10) and a high-risk condition (chance of winning was 6 out of 10).

For each risk condition, half of the participants played the game in a normal laboratory setting, but the other half played the game in a laboratory with the ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies literally baking in the next room. I bet you can guess which setting produced more risk-taking behavior! For the participants who played the game without the cookies in the next room the risk-taking matched rational expectations: more persons gambled in the low-risk condition and fewer persons gambled in the high-risk condition.  However, when participants could smell the cookies baking in the next room, persons chose to gamble in the high-risk condition as often as the low-risk condition. Thus, when a reward activates a visceral response, persons tend to discount potential risks in their choices based on the possibility of obtaining the fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookies.

This experiment illustrates many of the research findings in contemporary psychological science about decision-making: many of the choices we make on a daily basis are not free from, but instead highly influenced by, external and contextual factors. Many times, persons can over-estimate the amount of freedom they have in different types of choices they make every day. Consumer psychology has demonstrated that environmental cues can often activate certain types of consumer goals outside of conscious awareness.2 Thus, the experience of leaving the grocery store with many more items than we originally intended to buy demonstrates the unconscious role of cognitive systems that affect our daily choices. One study actually showed that playing German music in the background at a wine store increased the amount of German wine sold, while French music increased the amount of French wine sold.3

To a certain extent, the fact that cookies and music can affect our choices may not seem that bothersome, but unconscious processing also affects our moral perceptions and choices. The implicit association task (IAT) is a test that analyzes our unconscious associations between many different types of implicit perceptions. Persons who claim to hold no racial bias will demonstrate implicit associations that suggest otherwise. Nine out of ten white respondents show more difficulty (take longer amounts of time) associating positive words (peace or paradise) with black-sounding names (Latisha or Darnell) in comparison to white-sounding names (Katie and Ian).4 Persons who observe a black face flashed on a computer screen are more likely to misperceive a second object (wrench) as a weapon in comparison to a white face.5 These same types of negative implicit associations have been demonstrated in a number of different categories including age, gender, religion, disability, and obesity.6

“Free will is not a separate substance that directs behavior through a chain of efficient causes”

Implicit associations do not necessarily indicate prejudicial behavior; they influence rather than determine behaviors. Persons who demonstrate these types of biases may make different types of choices in real life, but it does demonstrate that many of the cognitive processes that influence our decision-making processes are not directly accessible by conscious reflective processes. This fact challenges many of the standard assumptions about the existence and efficacy of free will. The standard picture of free will sets up a causal chain of events where the will (usually associated with conscious reflective cognitive processes) chooses from among a number of different possible behavioral outputs. I will argue that the standard picture of free will is highly misleading based on research in contemporary psychological science. In short, we are not as free as we think we are. However, psychological science does not necessitate the rejection of free will and agency; rather, our understanding needs to be tempered and modified. Instead, free will should be understood as a limited resource that should primarily be executed to develop structures and habits that foster different goals.

Ghost in the Machine

Benjamin Libet conducted one of the more recent studies that tried to empirically investigate the standard picture of free will.7 Libet attempted to measure the brain activity associated with a person consciously willing themselves to move a finger. Participants watched a clock and reported to the experimenter what time they decided to move their finger. Libet was recording the occurrence of the readiness potential (RP), which had been previously associated with the motor action of the finger movement. He actually found that the RP preceded the participants self-report of deciding to move his or her finger. Thus, unconscious processes seemed to determine the action rather than conscious ones.

…the initiation of the voluntary act appears to be an unconscious cerebral process. Clearly, free will or free choice of whether to act now could not be the initiating agent…this provides an important empirical example of the possibility that the subjective experience of a mental causality need not necessarily reflect the actual causative relationship between mental and brain events.8

We become consciously aware of the action after we performed it rather than the other way around. Libet’s study seemed to indicate that conscious will does not directly cause our fingers to move. However, the problem with the study was that it was based on the standard picture of free will, where conscious will is thought to temporally and causally precede subsequent actions. As I will argue, this picture of free will is highly misleading.

Probably no one has influenced the standard picture of free will more than Rene Descartes. Descartes articulated a form of dualism that had a profound influence on philosophy as well as contemporary cognitive science. Descartes argued that thinking, consciousness, and will were composed of a different substance than the tissues, muscles, and nerves of our bodies.9 This was partially based on a difference in phenomenology, but also on a difference in function. Descartes, as a physician and student of the human body, could not conceive how it would be possible for the bones, tissue, and nerves of the human body to be able to ascend to the abstract principles of reason. The body was primarily a reflex machine, but because the mind was a different substance it was able to accomplish the specifically human abilities of reason, reflection, and will.

This led to a view of consciousness and will tied to the Cartesian Theatre.10 Consciousness and will exists inside a theatre where the environment is engaged through a giant movie screen. Sensations and perceptions are monitored as they travel across the screen and decisions are made based on the analysis of different percepts. Because consciousness and behavior are composed of different substances with different functional properties, a standard picture emerged of the conscious will as the initial cause followed by behavior as a secondary and subservient cause.

conscious will (arrow) behavioral output

Thus, when Libet demonstrated that the brain activity associated with the behavioral output of moving a finger preceded the conscious experience of causing the finger to move, he seemed to explain away the causal relevance of the will.

However, the problem with the experiment is that the standard picture assumes that for conscious will to have efficacy it must immediately causally precede some type of effect. This is partially a result of the Cartesian Theatre, but also has roots in modern assumptions regarding causation.11 With the rise of the scientific method during the modern era, causation was primarily understood in reference to Aristotle’s notion of efficient causation.12 Efficient causation was primarily a linear model of causation based on a series of events that had some relationship to each other. Causal attribution was based on assessing what cause preceded another in any chain of events, assuming basic cause and effect relationships. Scientific methodology is based on identifying independent variables (cause) and analyzing their effect on dependent variables (effect).

Understanding free will through the lens of the Cartesian Theatre and the modern emphasis on efficient causation creates an inaccurate picture of how agency and choice works in human behavior. Free will is not a separate substance that directs behavior through a chain of efficient causes. Contemporary psychological science does not support this view of the role of free will and agency in human behavior. Rather, persons have a certain amount of freedom in setting up structures and habits that direct our actions toward some goal. Conscious will does not play a primary role in most of the behaviors persons engage in on a daily basis. Agency primarily works through the evaluation of different actions over time and the modification of those actions in response to different goal pursuits.

The Automaticity of Behavior

Humans are capable of a variety of different kinds of behavior. Some kinds of behaviors are more automatic and reflexive and require little conscious attention, which is highly adaptive for our species. When a baseball is heading directly at the face, perceptual and motor systems quickly and efficiently become active in order to avoid getting hit. If conscious awareness had to detect the trajectory of the baseball first and then instruct motor systems to react, many young softball players as well as professional baseball players would regularly go home with black eyes after practice. In comparison to motor reflex systems, consciousness is extremely slow and highly inefficient at executing quick behavioral responses. Thus, it is highly adaptive for the human species to slam on the brakes when cars slow down on the freeway prior to becoming consciously aware of the need to stop.

In fact, much of everyday behavior is automated, in that it does not require an extensive amount of conscious attention to perform the multitude of tasks accomplished every day. John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand suggest that “most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance.”13 This process is called automaticity and it refers to the ways in which much of our behavior becomes automated over time in that it requires less and less conscious attention to achieve the initial goals associated with the behavior. Mental or conscious goals drop out of most of our behaviors over time such that the situation or context activates the behavioral procedure without the need for conscious monitoring. This type of automation occurs in a variety of contexts including the acquisition of a new skill and various forms of social cognition.

Most persons experience this phenomenon when learning to drive. When a teenager first learns to drive, they typically fumble at the controls, brake too soon or too late, and accelerate erratically. Over time, though, their motions become more fluid and efficient requiring less and less cognitive attention to get to where they need to go. In fact, for car routes driven regularly, persons can often get to their destination without consciously remembering how they got there! The idea of automaticity extends this same type of process to most of our everyday behaviors in that most of our thoughts, perceptions and actions are not produced by conscious deliberation in the moment, but depend on external and contextual cues to accomplish the goals originally associated with larger amounts of cognitive attention and effort.

At first glance, it would seem that free will might not exist; persons are really just prisoners of the various forms of automaticity, contextual cues, implicit biases, and other unconscious factors that actually produce behavior. There are no real choices; persons are simply another biologically determined species on this planet doomed to a prescribed future based on various forms of automatic behavior. However, the doomsday picture is also misleading. Psychological research demonstrates that persons over-estimate the amount of control and free will exercised in a variety of situations, but it does not follow that choice is not a possibility in certain contexts. Thus, the way forward is a realization of the limits of free will and an engagement of the malleability and flexibility that exists in human cognitive systems.

Thinking back, the initial classic model of free will needs to be revised. The initial model looked something like this, a linear causal perspective on how free will works:

conscious will (arrow) behavioral output

My suggestion would be to develop a model with consciousness playing a role in creating the contexts, structures, and habits that generate behavior, making the model look more like this:

conscious will (bracket) behavioral output

Thus, the conscious will does not play a direct role in most everyday behaviors; when it comes to “in the moment” decision-making situations, many of our behaviors are already determined by our biases and habits. However, habits can be modified based on changes to the structures and perceptions used in a particular situation.

Philosopher Fred Dretske provides a helpful analogy of this type of distinction by drawing attention to the difference between triggering vs. structuring causes.14 Imagine a scenario in which a bomb has been placed in a car and set to detonate when a general starts the car. The bomb explodes when the general turns the key of the ignition, however the ignition (or the general himself!) is not ultimately responsible for the explosion. The person who made and placed the bomb in the car is ultimately responsible for the general’s death. Thus, turning the ignition is the triggering cause and plays a role in the demise of the general, but the bomb maker is the structuring cause of the explosion and ultimately responsible for his death. The bomb maker created a context and a structure such that the events would unfold in a predictable way. Conscious will or agency works in a similar way, as a structuring cause that plays a role in creating contexts and pursuing the formation of habits that contribute to accomplishing different types of goals.

Problems with Moral Judgment

During the modern period of philosophy, many theorists attempted to develop a decision procedure used in moral judgment. In some ways this was similar to a decision tree with “yes” or “no” entries that allowed a person to go through a series of steps in order to arrive at a correct moral decision. For the deontologist, the primary confirmation for a correct moral decision was reason, whereas the utilitarian applied a cost benefit analysis based on the relative amounts of pain vs. pleasure. The problem for both of these accounts is that there is often not enough time to ponder various moral decisions when a moral circumstance presents itself.

Take for example the heroic actions of Wesley Autrey in a New York City subway station. Autrey was standing on a subway station platform with his two young girls, when a man started having a seizure and fell onto the subway train tracks. An oncoming train was about to enter the station and run over the man on the tracks who could not control his body because of the seizure. With seconds to spare, Autrey jumped on the tracks (leaving his two young girls) and laid on top of the man between the rails so the train could ride over both of them. The clearance for the train was 21 inches; Autrey lying on top of the man was 20-1/2 inches. The man and Autrey were both fine—although his daughters had a big scare.

The story demonstrates an incredible act of courage and bravery as well as the fact that there was not enough time to go through any type of decision tree or weighing of options. Autrey had to act instinctively and quickly in order to save that seizing man on the train tracks. What is remarkable about the story is how he later reacted when asked why he rescued the man, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”15 His statement is interesting for two reasons: (1) He is extremely humble, and does not see his behavior as somehow out of the ordinary, (2) His perception of the event caused him to do what he “felt” was right, suggesting more of an emotional or motivational component to his act of bravery. I would argue that his actions were primarily the result of his character, a general disposition towards helping other persons even with the possibility of serious harm.

Schemas or Choices?

Kristen Monroe has done extensive research on holocaust rescuers, persons who rescued Jews during the holocaust in Nazi Germany during World War II.16 These persons went to incredible lengths to save and shelter Jews at an incredible potential and actual cost to themselves and their families. For example, Irene was a Polish nurse who was forced into slave labor for a Nazi General, but she was actually able to hide Jews in the General’s home and help them to escape. Or consider Knud, who took part in the rescue of 85% of the Jews in Denmark. He was captured and turned into the Gestapo, but later escaped and continued his efforts to help the Jews. In a similar way to Autrey, most rescuers don’t perceive themselves as doing anything that extraordinary. In fact, they can’t imagine themselves doing anything but helping those who were being persecuted.

Quotes from different interviews with rescuers include: “You don’t walk away from somebody who needs real help”; “How can you refuse them?”; “When you have to do right, you do right.” Monroe argues that rescuers did not “choose” to help Jews during the Holocaust in terms of weighing several options and then deciding it was the right thing to do. Rather, a particular moral identity was the primary defining characteristic of rescuers: “identity perceptions created a sense of moral salience, the feeling that another’s suffering was relevant for the actor, and hence necessitated action to help alleviate the suffering.”17 Additionally, rescuers had a particular view of the sanctity of human life in comparison to bystanders: “Only rescuers had integrated the value of human life into their worldview. Only rescuers thought it was natural that others would help their fellow human beings. For everyone else, the tragic calamity of the Holocaust was something judged so far beyond their control that it was not even remarked on.”18

“It is more important to think about the development of habits and practices that contribute to a schema that helps to constrain possible actions, rather than expending energy to try to strengthen your will”

One way to understand the mindset of rescuers is to use schema theory. A schema is a particular cognitive frame we use to perceive contexts and situations that we routinely encounter. Brewer and Treyens performed the classic study on schemas in 1981 when they had participants sit in an office and then later remember what was in the office. Participants had the easiest time remembering things that most persons regularly associate with an office (i.e. stapler, pencils, desk, chair, etc.) and had more difficulty remembering objects not normally found in an office. Participants would also mistakenly remember seeing objects consistent with their office schema that were not actually present in the office. Thus, rescuers have developed a particular moral schema, which allows them to perceive certain types of situations from a particular moral standpoint.

Rescuers’ moral schemas were developed through habituated caring behaviors, often modeled by parents and other significant others, which became a general part of their identity and personality.19 Some of those important habits of caring included tolerance towards differences with others and a worldview that did not make strong in-group vs. out-group distinctions, but conceived of all persons as part of a common humanity. This schema constrained the possible actions rescuers could take in this context, limiting their menu of possible behaviors towards actions that would help and not ignore others. Bystanders would say, “But what could I have done?”, feeling helpless and unable to make any difference in the fate of the Jews. Rescuers would say something similar but astonishingly different, “But what else could I have done?”, speaking to the constraints their moral schemas placed on their possible actions in this kind of particular situation.

This is why I would argue it is more important to think about the development of habits and practices that contribute to a schema that helps to constrain possible actions, rather than expending energy to try to strengthen your will, which actually has little causal efficacy “in the moment.” Consider the example of trying to lose weight. If your goal is to get into shape through a combination of eating right and exercise, it is better to try and ultimately think about and use your conscious will less rather than more. The ultimate goal is to make exercise a daily habit such that you don’t have to think about it or struggle to accomplish it; rather, it becomes a regular part of your day and your identity as an athlete, such that you expend less and less reflective cognitive resources to accomplish the goal. It becomes a natural part of who you are; it becomes a part of your character and identity.


Research in psychological science has shed light on the fact that most persons do not have as much free will as many would assume. Our ability to make choices in a variety of contexts is greatly constrained by external factors and much of our behavior is automatic and does not require extensive input from conscious resources. When looking at the behavior of many moral exemplars, their moral actions were not significantly impacted by choices in the moment, but were rather the result of a particular moral schema that constrained their behaviors and led them to do what “they felt was right.” Thus, to reach different types of goals, it is most effective to enter into different types of practices that foster the development of certain types of habits. Persons will experience the most amount of success reaching different goals by applying their conscious, reflective cognitive resources toward character and identity formation.

Aristotle described moral formation as a type of practice:

For the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing, e.g. men become builders by building, and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.20

Thus, to change our behavior, we often have to start by acting in a different way; imitating persons who have certain types of skills or abilities, in order to change or modify different types of habits. With the modification of habits, there is the possibility of developing different types of moral schemas or ways of viewing the world such that the possible moral actions are limited to behaviors consistent with our character and identity. Agency allows for the modification of structures that better enable the achievement of particular goals.

Part 2: Kevin Timpe’s Critical Response to Van Slyke

I would like to begin by thanking James Van Slyke for this exchange. As I said in my original contribution to this exchange, I think that our best reflection on agency will be informed by both philosophy and the empirical sciences. I would like to thank Van Slyke for raising a number of really interesting issues that I think are worth pursuing in future lines of interdisciplinary research. Some of the issues that he raises in his contribution, such as the Libet experiments for example,21 I think I’ve said enough about in the first round. So instead I here way to respond to Van Slyke by focusing on two places where I think that further interdisciplinary work would be exceedingly helpful, namely how free will is affected by situational factors and how it might relate to what Van Slyke calls ‘automaticity’. But first, I need to say a few things about what I think free will is before addressing these relationships. (I know: typical philosopher wanting to get clear on definitional issues before getting to the issues.)

Definitional Issues

I don’t want to repeat much what I said in my original post in this series. But I do think some points I raised there about definitional issues make considerable difference to a number of things Van Slyke says in his contribution. He writes, for instance, that “many of the choices we make on a daily basis are not free, but highly influenced by external and contextual factors.” I think the second claim here (i.e., that our choices are highly influenced by external and contextual factors) is exactly right, as ample evidence from experimental psychology and behavioral economics shows. I’m willing to grant for this exchange that the first claim is likely true as well. But what’s not clear to me—the central claim that I think the relevant science has not shown—is that many of the choices we make on a daily bases are not free because of the influence of external and contextual factors. In this section, I want to focus on the importance of getting precise about our terminology as a necessary first step in evaluating the claim that many of our daily choices are not free for this reason. This is one place where I think that philosophy can be helpful, even if it is sometimes (wrongly, in my view) claimed that philosophers are so concerned with language and precision that they lose track of the importance of the original issues.22

As indicated above, definitional decisions make a difference to the truth of the claim that many of our choices are not free.23 If, as Peter van Inwagen suggests, free will just is the ability to do otherwise, then there may be many cases where we lack that capacity. Van Inwagen’s view is an instance of what I refer to as an ‘alternative possibilities conception’ of free will, similar to that which we found in Coyne’s work. Van Inwagen also endorses a position called ‘restrictivism’,24 which is the claim that we have “precious little free will”25 insofar as there are “few occasions in life on which—at least after a little reflection and perhaps some investigation into the facts—it isn’t absolutely clear what to do.”26 (Now, to be honest, I wish my life were more like van Inwagen’s, where it’s almost always perfectly clear what to do! But that’s not my experience.) Van Inwagen mentions three, he thinks fairly rare, kinds of cases were he grants we do have free will as he understands it: Buridan’s Ass cases, cases where we are torn between duty versus inclination, and cases involving incommensurable values.27 He thinks we are rarely in such cases, and so are rarely free. But he doesn’t think that we only rarely exercise morally responsible agency:

The inability to prevent or to refrain from causing a state of affairs does not logically preclude being to blame for that state of affairs…. An agent cannot be blamed for a state of affairs unless there was a time at which he could so have arranged matters that that state of affairs not obtain…. It is an old, and very plausible, philosophical idea that, by our acts, we make ourselves into the sorts of people we eventually become. Or, at least, it is plausible to suppose that our acts are among the factors that determine what we eventually become. If one is now unable to behave in certain ways … this may be because of a long history of choices one has made.28

And here we directly encounter issues of moral character and habituation. We’ll come back to these issues below regarding automaticity. But the point to be made here is that whether or not we have and exercise free will on a particular occasion will depend on what free will is. And this is a philosophical issue that requires care and precision. I don’t see why we should think that we lack free will regarding a particular action simply because that action is highly influenced by contextual features.

Contextual and Situational Factors

One of the strengths of Van Slyke’s previous contribution is what he says about the situational and contextual factors that impact our agency. In my previous essay, I mentioned Situationism as one of the places where scientific research can help us come up with a more empirically plausible account of agency (thereby helping us satisfy the ‘Principle of Minimal Agential Realism’ that I introduced there29). So I’m very much in agreement that we need to take seriously what the relevant scientific research tells us about the ways and degrees that situational and contextual factors influence us, especially in ways that we don’t see.

But I also think that we need to be careful about what lessons we draw from this kind of literature. Van Slyke thinks that this research calls into question what he calls ‘the standard picture of free will’: “The standard picture of free will sets up a causal chain of events where the will (usually associated with conscious reflective cognitive processes) chooses from among a number of different possible behavioral outputs.” First, notice in passing that Van Slyke appears to be using an alternative possibilities approach to free will, an approach which differs from mine.30 But more importantly here, notice that he also thinks that these alternative possibilities we’re choosing from need to be least ‘usually’ conscious. While we typically may think about the will being conscious, it need not be. Van Slyke admits this when he discusses habituation (to which we’ll return shortly). I think we should reject the view that the relevant factors need all be conscious if we are to have free will. I think there is good reason to think that many of our mental states in general are not conscious—e.g., I don’t think we’re always consciously aware of what our desires are.

In a recent and very accessible book,31 Al Mele summarizes a number of reasons why the Libet experiments and other neuroscientific work regarding consciousness doesn’t have the implications that our beliefs are not free, as a number of scientists claim. Here, let me mention just two. First, even if the experiments show that the decisions in these kinds of experiments are made before we are aware of having made them, that by itself doesn’t mean that consciousness plays no role, or that it fails to play the kind of role necessary for free will:

Maybe consciousness is just a little slow to pick up on our decision…. After all, I was doing a lot of conscious thinking in trying to figure out what to do. And it seems to me that my decision was a product or upshot of that conscious reasoning—my conscious weighing of pros and cons. If that’s how it happened, the fact that I made my decision a few milliseconds before I think I did—if it really is a fact—doesn’t make me worry about free will.”32

Second, there are a number of important features of the set-up of the Libet experiment that make it importantly disanalogous from the kinds of decisions that free will has typically seen as prototypical. Libet’s subjects were instructed to move to hit the button at a random time, for no particular reason. But this is importantly different from many prototypical choices where we think we do have free will where a lot of conscious weighing of reasons go into our choice. The more important we take acting for reasons, the more dissimilar the actions in the Libet experiment will be.33 So I think that many of the skeptical conclusions that some (though not Van Slyke) have drawn for the experimental data regarding consciousness are unwarranted.

“The recognition of human dependency should lead us to worry less about it as an individual property and to recognize the multitude of distributed factors that influence its exercise in humanity”

In his contribution, Van Slyke writes that “agency primarily works through the evaluation of different actions over time and the modification of those actions in response to different goal pursuits.” I think that this is right. But we need not understand this to be non-causal, or purely conscious manner. I think there’s good reason to believe that some of the various factors that our agency is responsive to are ones that escape our conscious awareness. I also agree with Van Slyke that the research seems to suggest that “persons over-estimate the amount of control and free will exercised in a variety of situations,” even if it “does not follow that choice is not a possibility in certain contexts.” The reason why we can still exercise free and responsible agency in these cases is that the “implicit associations do not necessarily indicate prejudicial behavior; they influence rather than determine behaviors.” As an incompatibilist, I think that if it could be shown that implicit associations or other contextual features beyond the agent’s control determine our behavior, then we’d have good reason to believe those particular actions aren’t free. I don’t think we have good reason to think that our actions are determined, however, and so I’m glad to see that’s not what Van Slyke is claiming. And I think we’d need a lot more work than we currently have to reach any kind of skeptical conclusion from the scientific data about consciousness. We’d need an argument for why free will must always be conscious (an argument which would, interestingly enough, have to be a philosophical argument); and then we’d have to have reason to believe that the factors influencing us that we’re not consciously aware of don’t just influence us but determine us. But in general, I think that Van Slyke and I are in pretty close to agreement about the importance of research on situational factors’ impact on our agency.

Automaticity and Habit

The fact that I don’t think that our agency—even free and responsible agency—always needs to be conscious leads us into the second area where I think Van Slyke’s essay raises some really interesting connections with philosophy, and that is ‘automaticity’. Wheatley and Wegner define automaticity as “thoughts and behaviors … that occur efficiently, without the need for conscious guidance or monitoring.”34 And I take this understanding to be quite close to what Van Slyke has in mind.

Here, Van Slyke brings up work by Monroe regarding Holocaust rescuers: “Monroe thinks that the “rescuers did not ‘choose’ to help Jews during the Holocaust in terms of weighing several options and then deciding it was the right thing to do. ” This is consistent with the survivors being free, at least for those who reject van Inwagen’s restrictivism. For the restrictivist like van Inwagen, such a case would be one where the agent is morally responsible for her action despite not being ‘able to do otherwise.’ If, on the other hand, we take free will to be the control condition on moral responsibility, we may have free will even in cases where we’re not torn between two different options. It may be that, given their moral character and reasons, it was obvious to these individuals what they should do, but that were acting on what they say as good, even overwhelming, reasons. In a previous book, I argued for what I called the ‘reasons constraint on free choice,’ which states that a person can only freely choose some course of action that she sees a reason for choosing at that time.35 And this may be what explains why the rescuers acted as they did.

In part because of how I see an agent’s choices connected to her character through what reasons she has for acting, I strongly endorse Van Slyke’s suggestion that we can change the options we’re capable of choosing by habituating ourselves in particular ways: “‘in the moment’ many of our behaviors are already determined by our biases and habits. However, habits can be modified based on changes to the structures and perceptions used in a particular situation.”36 It very well may be, as Van Slyke suggests, that the rescuers’ moral schemas found in Monroe’s research

had previously habituated their characters toward caring and helping behaviors; but had they developed a diferent character earlier on, they may have acted more like those individuals that were complicit in Nazi atrocities against Jews and others. And here we can see another role that consciousness can play in agency, even if it doesn’t have to play a central role in every exercise of agency. I think Van Slyke is correct in noting that “conscious will or agency works in a similar way, as a structuring cause that plays a role in creating contexts and pursuing the formation of habits that contribute to accomplishment of different types of goals.”


Despite approaching the issues regarding agency that we’ve focused on here from different disciplines, I think it’s interesting and helpful to see how we’ve both arrived at similar conclusions regarding agency and character. Van Slyke thinks it “more important to think about the development of habits and practices that contribute to a schema that helps to constrain possible actions, rather than expending energy to try to strengthen your will,” While I suspect that strength of will is itself something that can be formed or strengthened via habituation, I think that there’s good reason—both philosophical and psychological—for focusing future attention on practices (including social practice) that can shape our agency.

Part 3: James Van Slyke’s Reply to Kevin Timpe

First off, I want to thank Dr. Timpe for an amazing conversation about free will. I’ve learned a lot and have been inspired to dig more deeply into the issue. As Timpe stated in his round 2 contribution, I think we are in close agreement on a lot of these issues and there are many areas of overlap between our evidence and arguments. I would define free will as the ability to modify cognitive schemas and corresponding habituated actions over time toward different goals using both conscious and unconscious processes—with the caveat that we need to be aware of the fact that we often over-estimate the role of consciousness in this process. Further, I would define free will as a distributed property residing in the social relationships, institutions, and artifacts that constitute our context, rather than a property of individuals.

Alasdair MacIntyre notes that persons go through differing periods of relative dependency on others, with the highest levels of dependency occurring at the beginning and the end of our lives; dependency on others is a natural part of human existence.37 Infants have little to no free will, they are fully dependent on their parents and as we age our control over our bodies and often our own mind can diminish. I think this same type of dependency also applies to our ability to exercise free will. We are dependent on a number of external resources in order to make different decisions about a variety of issues, both mundane and profound. Humans are social animals and the types of social groups and cultural environments that make up our specific context significantly determines the person we are and will become. Thus, part of our use of free will should be applied to creating social structures and institutions that facilitate human flourishing and increase the possibility for more and more persons to exercise their own free will. It seems like the philosophical discussion of free will often centers on free will as an individual property that persons either have or don’t have. I think the recognition of human dependency should lead us to worry less about it as an individual property and to recognize the multitude of distributed factors that influence its exercise in humanity. Viewing free will as a distributed property allows us to move beyond a ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ approach and in turn recognize the many different types of systemic factors that influence the exercise of free will. Social and environmental factors play such an important role in our own character formation and subsequent habituated actions. Thanks again to CCT and Dr. Timpe for a wonderful and fun conversation that I am sure will continue.