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Agency vs. Determinism: Redefining Reality One Creative Idea at a Time

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A surprising number of people believe that the universe is deterministic (Hawking, 2007; Kurzweil, 2005; Skinner, 1971--among many others). Determinists believe that humans don't have any control over their lives, or the world around them. Further, determinists reject the idea that humans can think or act innovatively. From a deterministic perspective, the environment controls everything. No matter how purposeful, self-willed or innovative individuals may believe they are, determinists contend that freedom of choice and individual creativity are naught but an illusion.

In contrast with determinism, in Good Science ( ), I argue that humans have a capacity for agency. Agency can be defined as as a form of individual-level intellectual creativity that enables individuals to conceive original ideas and then act upon those inspirations--often in opposition to limitations that are imposed within a particular environment. For example, Wilbur and Orville Wright employed their capacity for agency to invent heavier-than-air flight. Had the Wright Brothers' fate been strictly determined by the limitations of their environment, they would never have dreamed of flying. However, humans are equipped with a creative ability to imagine alternatives to "the world as it exists" and then, through an active process of redefining reality, humans can transform their fantastic visions into facts (McGettigan, 2011). Before 1903, heavier-than-air flight was a fantasy. Whereas, following the Wright Brothers' famous first flight at Kitty Hawk, their fantasy became a reality.

As of 1903, the Wright Brothers transcended the environmental limitations that had previously prevented heavier-than-air flight. As a result, the Wright Brothers created new facts (e.g., flying machines), new truths (e.g., humans had become aviators) and reality has never been the same since. Air travel is the new normal.

This is simply one of many examples of the capacity that human agents have to transcend the limitations of environment, e.g., space travel is another illustration of the human capacity to transcend environmental limitations. Consequently, for humans, the universe is not deterministic, rather, the future is what we decide to make it.


Hawking, Stephen, 2007. The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe . New Edition. Beverly Hills, CA: Phoenix Books.

Kurzweil, Ray, 2005. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology . New York: Viking.

McGettigan, Timothy, 2011. Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality . Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Skinner, B. F., 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity . New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University -- Pueblo. Tim's primary research interests are in the areas of science, technology, society (STS) and the future and Tim blogs about those topics at the following sites: The (more...)
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For humans, the universe is not deterministic, rat... by Timothy McGettigan on Thursday, Jul 14, 2011 at 9:47:18 AM