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Human agency in the twenty-first century: the views of P. S. Davies, R. Niebuhr, and A. N. Whitehead

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With neuroscience and psychology making significant advances in contemporary brain research, fundamental questions concerning the nature of human life and activity will become evermore critical as we proceed further into the twenty-first century. Put simply, are we creatures who exercise some genuine degree of freedom and agency in the world or are we creatures whose actions are largely if not wholly determined by biological, neurological, and psychological factors far below the radar of our conscious awareness? This article explores this important and timely question by examining the views of Paul Sheldon Davies, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Alfred North Whitehead. Drawing on contemporary science, Davies dismisses Niebuhr’s existential analysis of human existence and any meaningful conception of human agency. Succinctly stated, can one take both the results of contemporary neuroscience seriously, as Davies does, and the affirmation of human agency seriously, as Niebuhr does? The thesis of this essay is that Whitehead offers a constructive bridge between Davies’ affirmation of science and Niebuhr’s existential account of human existence. In sum, it is argued that Whitehead’s process philosophy enables us to affirm the genuine influence of nonconscious factors in experience as well as the authenticity of human agency and subjectivity in the world.

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  1. For instance in 2013 President Obama launched a major federal initiative to fund brain research. Whether the Trump Administration will continue to fund this research remains to be seen (they have removed the website link). Irrespective, significant advances in brain research will continue across the US and the world.

  2. I offer an extended analysis of Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology in Meyer, Metaphysics and the Future of Theology: The Voice of Theology in Public Life, Chapt. 6.

  3. Niebuhr’s point here can be illustrated by the painful and tragic story of Jacob Wetterling who, as an 11 years old boy in 1989, was abducted at gunpoint from his nearby home in St. Joseph, Minnesota by a masked gunman who took Jacob and left his brother and friend on their bicycles—with Joseph never to be seen again. The case was finally solved only in 2016 when a man in prison on child pornography charges admitted to kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and murdering Jacob and then burying his body in a field. The body had never been found until the man’s confession led police to it (See New York Times, September 6, 2016). Such heinous acts, Niebuhr asserts, are not the product of pure nature, however violent nature may be, but rather are the product of nature intertwined with the freedom of spirit.

  4. See Chapt. 1 of Dynamics of Faith or Tillich’s discussion of faith as ultimate concern.

  5. Niebuhr cites Die Krankheit zum Tode, 27.

  6. Davies later argues that, in addition to the subsystem that generates the appearance of conscious reasons for our actions, there is also another underlying subsystem that generates “the powerful feeling that we are the authors” of our actions (2009, 157). But neither the conscious thought nor the personal feeling, he insists, is an accurate indicator of the true cause of our action.

  7. Davies is here drawing on Daniel Wegner’s book The Illusion of Conscious Will. Though Davies critiques Wegner for still hanging on to and affirming the authenticity of the feeling of personal agency in spite of Wegner’s own argument concerning the illusion of conscious will (2009, 216–224), Davies clearly agrees with Wegner here on 219 in emphasizing that automatisms are the defining rule and conscious will is merely a separate add-on in need of separate explanation.

  8. Davies indicates that human actions are also to some extent causally determined by external social and environmental factors, along with the internal neurological factors (2009, 221). Within the limits of this article, I am focusing on the internal factors. The key point still is that Davies thinks human action is mechanistically determined and not the result of some degree of genuine human freedom and agency.

  9. Perhaps, in the spirit of the Stoics and Spinoza, Davies thinks that the only possible meaning of “agency” is to recognize rationally and consciously that we are not freely acting individuals in the world pursuing self-directed aims. But other than a brief passing reference to Spinoza in relation to German Romanticism and its reading of Darwin (2009, 4), which Davies substantively rejects (apart from some possible instrumental or rhetorical value), Davies never explicitly engages or suggests that his use of the term “agency” is developed along the lines of Spinoza or Stoicism.

  10. I’m indebted to the renowned Niebuhr scholar Ronald H. Stone for pointing me to this relatively unknown 1958 Niebuhr essay on Darwin.

  11. See Niebuhr (1958, 30–31) and (1964, 1) for Niebuhr’s affirmation of humans as evolutionary animals within nature, animals with a distinctive capacity for both overestimating and underestimating their distinctiveness.

  12. I unpack and develop Darwin’s point more fully in Meyer, Darwin in a New Key: Evolution and the Question of Value, Chapt. 4.

  13. The distinction between an aggregate and an individual is spelled out in detail in Schubert M. Ogden’s discussion of “Logical-Ontological Type Distinctions in Outline: Ten Theses” in his currently unpublished Metaphysical Notebooks, February 2011.

  14. See the index in Whitehead, Process and Reality for numerous sections in which Whitehead discusses perception in the mode of presentational immediacy. See also Donald Sherburne, A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Chapt. 5.

  15. See also Davies (2009, 45) for examples of his mechanistic thinking.

  16. Again, the distinction between an aggregate and an individual is spelled out in detail in Ogden’s discussion of “Logical-Ontological Type Distinctions in Outline: Ten Theses” in his currently unpublished Metaphysical Notebooks, February 2011.

  17. For further discussion of Niebuhr’s awareness of Whitehead’s thought, see Meyer, Metaphysics and the Future of Theology, 285–287.


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I am grateful to Franklin Gamwell for his careful reading of and critical feedback on the first draft of this essay. An abbreviated and earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, Texas, November 20, 2016.

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Correspondence to William J. Meyer.

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Meyer, W.J. Human agency in the twenty-first century: the views of P. S. Davies, R. Niebuhr, and A. N. Whitehead. Int J Philos Relig 82, 119–134 (2017).

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