The Freewill of a Creative System

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Human Freedom and Freewill, Philosophical Inquiry 12 Comments

I am amazed by all of the insightful comments on my last post. It seems that many of us are comfortable with the idea that perhaps freewill is not a characteristic of an individual, but is somehow implied in the system of the individual and its environment. This is what Carl (our behaviorist commentor) has been telling us all along and it is well aligned with the philosophy of the American Pragmatists. And I do think that our “human-centeredness” is a huge limitation to our ability to perceive reality. We see things and judge things from a distinctly human point of view and we are emotionally deeply attached to a certain human understanding of everything.

That accounts for the emotional response that many of us have when “our” freewill is taken away. But when you start to think about freewill in the context of Creative Systems the freewill is not being taken away. It is simply being dislodged from its human anchor and placed in the more generalized system of human and environment. As Carl has said and Mary, Mette (more commentors see previous blog) and now I am agreeing with, this still leaves room for a generative or creative element in the universe.

But wait! I am not ready to cave completely to the behaviorist view – after all if it were all this simple then we have just solved one of the great philosophical riddles that has plagued great thinkers since pre-Socratic times. (Are we that good?)

One problem that arises for me in this Creative Systems view is the belief in freewill itself. I am beginning to see that Skinner had a very broad view of the environment that conditions us, it includes the physical objects around us, but it also includes our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. This means that one of the things that conditions our behavior is the thought “I believe that I have freewill.” Or the thought “I don’t believe that I have freewill.” This question of believing in freewill was at the very heart of the philosophical position of William James who felt that a belief in ones freewill was essential for living.

It is well known that a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish a goal plays a huge part in their ability to accomplish it in actuality. If I am convinced that I can never bench press 500 pounds it is highly unlikely that I will ever achieve that goal even if I want to. Do we run into problems if we project freewill into the “creative system?” Do we cease to feel personally responsible? How will this affect our behavior?

This has been a long standing problem that libertarians have always had with deterministic philosophies – the fear that without a sense of freewill, people will feel a decrease in responsibility and society will fall into a state of depravity.

The other classic problem with Behaviorism/Determinism is the infinite regress that one gets into when we talk about adjusting the environment. If we are adjusting our environment to optimize behavior, aren’t our choices to adjust the environment also being conditioned? So we end up in the trap of infinite regress, which is one of the great arguments that has been used to justify the belief in God. If every current behavior is conditioned by the past there must be something that started it all. God is the initial cause, the thing that started the ball rolling.

I find all of this hard to think about – but it seems to be more complicated than perhaps the idea of a creative system alone will deal with. Skinner, from my meager understanding, would avoid all this because he considered himself a scientist and didn’t see much value in philosophy. Of course the big post-modern criticism of science is that it refuses to see itself as a philosophy containing a set of implicit assumptions about reality that are not beyond question.

I still haven't gotten over the fact that the Radical Behaviorist view (to the extend that I understand it) still makes me feel suffocated. Sure we can replace the word “conditioned” with “learned” and I will feel better, but that is only because the two words don't mean the same thing. Conditioned implies controled from without, learned implies taking in information that increases your abilities.

I also have to look into the work of Epstein, but there seems to me that there is a difference between “generative” and “creative.” It is one thing for me as a human being to act in unpredictable ways, it is another thing for life to emerge from matter. I need to think about novel more, and I also agree with Mette that Skinner does seem to deny interiority – but I am looking through a swarm of half-formed thoughts and emotional reactions and pre-judgements.

I still have a lot of thinking to do. I like the idea of creative systems, but it doesn't all hang together for me yet. Maybe I should dive back into  some of Skinner's writing – something is coming, but it isn't there yet.

Thanks to everyone for your fantastic contributions to this investigation.

An online community of inspired individuals dedicated to spiritual transformation and mutual evolution.
Become a member
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

I wonder, could each part of a creative system and the whole system itself have access to it free will in whatever measure makes sense at each level? If both free will and inertia are characteristics of the contiguous universe of which we are a part, then we must have some measure of both available to us, both individually and as that contiguous whole …

If that is true, then what is our task as conscious agents of the interplay between free will and inertia, between novelty and continuity?

13 years ago

Jeff, this is a great post! A lot of interesting questions and points that bring things in sharper focus. Here are a few comments on some of them. I think the point you make about our “human centeredness” being a problem is really good. Just as we can be ego-centric, we can be species-centric, etc. How about if we were Kosmo-centric and, as you suggest, agree that creativity is a feature or process of the Whole and that it manifests through us, as well as through countless other parts of or nodes in the Universe in countless ways? In that… Read more »

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
13 years ago

Thoughts around the primary will, the will to live: If the will to live is the primary will that gives birth to all other kinds of will, then that will is one, and we share it with all other life. The will of an individual is unique in the sense that exactly that developed life has its own history and therefore its own shape. We normally identify our will with that historical self. But if we step back, and maybe even give that narrow perspective up, then we can discover the primary will, that is the cause of our own… Read more »

13 years ago

I have a hard time to think “will of live” as beyond subjective experience.

13 years ago

(All in fun) Jeff won’t cave to science? A sizable share of Americans won’t cave to the science of evolution, either. The result is an ill informed population. Take the science quiz to see how you stack up against the average American at

To blog participants from other countries, please be patient with Americans, bless our hearts!

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
13 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Just for the record (and also all in fun) – I got 12 out of 12 correct on the quiz you sent(Yes, and I am copmetative enought to have done it.) It’s not that I don’t know science – I just like to think for myself. :)

13 years ago

Jeff, This post generated a lot of ideas I wanted to respond to, but for now here is one of them. One of the ideas that really struck me in response to “conditioned implies controlled from without”: What came to me was, what is “without”? There is nowhere for without to be, no where for “control” to come from. If we are the potential itself arising into being/action/awareness, conditioned behavior is just an expression of who/what you actually are in that moment—what considerations, actions, behavior you are capable of. And the ability to choose one “better” thing over another is… Read more »

13 years ago

Are we “inside” the Universe, or is the Universe “inside” us?

shizuka mori
shizuka mori
13 years ago

I have a hard time to think conditioned behavior as “Big Bang”,creativity.

13 years ago

… in my experience free will collapses when you experience a permanent shift that thought itself has nothing to do with what is happening … it comments, that’s all …
freedom then arises as free will is shown as the pale ghost it really is …

… and Carl ~ this depends on the level of your view … for myself, all of this hits my senses and plays inside here somehow – like the world appears in a goldfish bowl around your head ( to
use sight as an example ) …

Frank Luke
12 years ago

Hi Carl, re: “Are we “inside” the Universe, or is the Universe “inside” us?”

Just having some fun with you:

If you think of us as fishes, the fish are in the water but the water is also in them. We swim in the atmospere and the atmosphere is within us, right?

You know the story where the man dreams he’s a butterfly. When he awakes he wonders is he’s a butterfly dreaming he’s a man.

They say life is but a dream.

Aloha, namaste!

11 years ago

that x certaed x, he presuppose the existence of x in order to bring x in to existence, however x always was in existence. This is self contradictory, is logically inconsistent & incoherent.But perhaps it’s much worse than that when He says because the law of gravity exists the universe will create itself from nothing. So setting aside the logical problem let’s look at the other noose that Stephen ties around himself. Stephen states that gravity already existed for spontaneous creation; but that’s not nothing. Indeed when physicists talk about nothing, they mean much more than simplistic nothing, they normally… Read more »