When you begin to ask questions like, “Do human beings have free will?” as we have done in my last few posts, you enter into thorny philosophical territory. My understanding of Charles Sanders Peirce logic tells me that he would say the difficulty comes from the fact that a question as subtle and complex as this sits on the peak of a mountain of other ideas and assumptions about what is true that inevitably contain innumerable inconsistencies, errors and fallacies. To come to some ultimate answer to this question would mean uncovering all of these and straightening out the whole mountain underneath.
As I have thought about this question these past couple of weeks the thing that has hit me is that before you tackle the question of human free will, you have to think hard about being human in the first place. What is a human being? The American Pragmatists in different ways all held a view of a continuous universe. This means that human beings are not just objects in a static universe, we are a continuous part of the universe and utterly inseparable from it.
It is common today for people to think of the “interconnectedness” of all things. Even that term, I believe, falls short of what Pragmatism was trying to point toward because it tends to imply separate elements that are connected by relationship – not one continuous whole.
The image that comes to my mind is an air bubble in water. The idea of taking the bubble out of the water is nonsensical. A bubble is defined by the water around it. The idea of a bubble has no meaning outside of the context of water. In the same way a human being is defined by its environment and the idea of removing the human being from its environment is equally nonsensical.
The layer of life around the earth is referred to as the biosphere and if you think about it a human being from one perspective can be thought of as a bubble in the biosphere like an air bubble in water. If, for instance, you were to want to remove an air bubble from a pond you would have to build a container (like a jar) that would hold enough water for the bubble to be held in. Similarly, if you want to remove a human from the biosphere you have to create a container (a spaceship) that would hold enough biosphere for the human to be held in.
The problem with the question about human freewill is that we tend to think of ourselves as completely separate entities and therefore think of freewill as something that exists in us completely separate from everything else. From our perspective inside a human bubble it looks like we have freewill, but if we are really an inseparable part of the biosphere our human bubble and all of its attributes including its freewill are defined by and totally dependent upon the biosphere. It might be more accurate to say that the biosphere had developed the capacity for freewill by producing a human organism.
Maybe the relationship between freewill and human beings is similar to the relationship between sight and eyeballs – a capacity and the instrument that allows for that capacity to come into being. As I continue to contemplate the philosophical ideas of the American Pragmatists it seems to me that it is essential to begin to see human being as an inseparable part of the universal whole in order to begin to get even a glimpse of the depth of insight that they were trying to bring to light. As I keep thinking about it I shift from the perspective of looking from the inside of a human bubble out, to a radically objective perspective of looking onto a whole “liquid” universe filled with bubbles – some of them human.
Jeff, this is elegant, beautiful, succinct, clear, and almost brings me to tears. Skinner talked about the environment/organism unit in much the same way as you are. Your metaphor of the bubble captures the relationship among parts of the Whole in a most wonderful way. I am so glad that you are putting your attention on this issue because I think you are making more headway on it than has been made in a very long time. You are penetrating a world of fixed ideas and knee-jerk reactions with a beautiful, fresh voice and a clear understanding. I think it… Read more »
The one short coming of the analogy of air bubbles is that air bubbles are made of two things, air and the water that surrounds the air. The Pragmatists all in their own way insisted that the universe had to be made of, as William James put it, “one kind of stuff.” So an analogy more like human beings are like currents in water would be better, or sound waves in air, or anything where there is only one stuff involved.
Greetings! Thank you for sharing your perspective. I have been in a space of recognizing we are spiritual beings in human bodies on planet Earth. This planet is in sequence of spinning everyday to receive sunlight to existence, in this galaxy. Yet we are in a galaxy of many. When thinking beyond the daily routines and life we can only know about, my being feels that life can be such a simple space not complicated by pride and ego driven rationals. I am grateful for the likes of you and other seekers sharing ideas of what their perspective is of… Read more »
Hello Leslie, Thank you for writing and for your interest in our place in this vast and mysterious cosmos. I look forward to future exchanges.
Well, the “stuff” on the inside of the body and the outside of the body seem to be different from one point of view or at one level of magnification, too. But much of the air and other mixtures of elements outside the body literally are just about to be the body or have just been the body chemically/physically at any given moment — there is a flow. I guess the idea that objects, atoms and other seemingly separate “things” in the universe are actually the same “stuff” at the level of energy is similar to the idea that the… Read more »
William James asserted that “pure expereince” was the stuff that the universe was made of. I think that Skinner essentially felt that ‘behavior” was the stuff of the universe. We are deep materialists and I think that the fundemental believe that “matter” is the ultimate stuff of the universe is what we are questioning, to find a deeper unity in reality I think we need a “stuff” that does not contain so many wholes around it. This is a fascinating and important discusion to have.
Yes, that is very interesting because it seems to me that we ASSUME we’re talking about “material” stuff, influenced by the Greek matter/form dualism that is embedded in our language and thinking. But what if we don’t have to think of it as “material” but just “what arises” or something like that? When Skinner talked about behavior, he included so-called “inner” or covert behavior, like seeing when there is no physical object (e.g., in a dream or when your eyes are closed) or thinking, when there seems to be no physical/external action. I don’t really think he was focused on… Read more »
A guru, a pandit, and a pragmatist walked into a bar. The bartender said, “Howdy fellas, what’ll you have?” The guru said, “This has never been done before!” The bartender looked puzzled. The pandit said, “It’ll be outrageous!” The bartender scratched his head. The pragmatist said, “I’ll have a Bud Light.” The bartender said “Yessir!” and gave him a beer. The guru and the pandit looked amazed. The guru asked, “Dude, what’s your secret?” The pragmatist raised his mug and said, “Forty nine percent.” “Forty nine percent?” the pandit asked. “Yeah,” the pragmatist replied, “our claim on the truth is… Read more »
Brian, I think you are confusing Pragmatism with Skepticism. Skepticism was the philosophy held by Descartes in which he believed that all ideas should be doubted. The Pragmatists stood in opposition to this, because they recognized that in order to act you had to believe in something. Part of the Skeptics fallacy is that they believe that they don’t totally believe in anything – but they definitely believe that “not believing” is the most intelligent way to be. The Pragmatists realized that while “not believing” feels safer than “believing,” it’s ultimately not safer. Believing in “not believing” is as big… Read more »
Jeff, Yes you are right!!! When I first wrote this one up, it was: “a guru, a pandit, and a sketpic.” But I changed it to “pragmatist” just to draw you in. I am a skeptic and fan of Michael Shermer. See http://www.michaelshermer.com. I see your work at EnlightenNext and also Integral Life as the best expressions of spirituality on the market. It holds up fairly well, even to my scrutiny. If you continue to engage with me, together we can strengthen its rigor. I pledge to be your helpfully skeptical counterpart and worthy foil. “I have made a ceaseless… Read more »
From: http://www.skeptic.com/about_us/ “Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be… Read more »
I have been thinking about what you said and would like to add this (it is sort of my own non-poem poem): 1. Cynicism means not believing in spite of any and all evidence to the contrary and generally being angry with the stupidity of believers. 2. Skepticism means not believing while remaining open to the possibility that evidence to the contrary could make you a believer. 3. Pragmatism means believing while remaining open to the possibility that evidence to the contrary could make you a non-believer. 4. Fundamentalism means believing in spite of any and all evidence to the… Read more »
Politically, I’m a moderate. So liberals think I’m conservative and conservatives think I’m liberal. I can’t win!
Looking forward to wherever your blog takes us next…
Hi Brian, re: ” In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.”
Maybe true and maybe not, IMO. It seems it’s the current zeitgeist with so many Americans that scepticism of any authority or pronouncements by government or science these days is knee jerk reflex and their method of operation, carte blanche. Distrust has become so endemic to people’s thinking, reflected in partisan politics and our nation’s malaise.
Agree or not?