The Illusion of Freedom and Thought

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 9 Comments

Inevitably if we start to talk about social conditioning the topic of human freewill comes into play. When you begin to recognize, as John Dewey did, that so much – if not all – of the ways that we act and think and feel are really an outpouring of socially acquired habits, you begin to wonder – am I doing anything independently? The question of freewill vs. determinism is perennial in philosophy, and a favorite topic of mine on this blog. It is unlikely that we are going to solve the mystery of causality here, but it still seems valuable to gather opinions from different sides of the issue.

Dewey saw human activity resulting from impulses that emerge spontaneously within us in response to changes in circumstances. These impulses initiate a process of activity, either physical in the form of actions, or mental in the form of thinking. If the circumstances that we encounter are familiar enough to us then actions will spontaneously occur in response. This is how we end up getting up out of bed, showering, brushing our teeth, and getting dressed without ever having to think about it. It is all just the unfolding of habitual behaviors. If the circumstances are unfamiliar, or if something goes wrong in a familiar circumstance, the habit of thinking will initiate.

According to Dewey, when we deliberate over  which course of action to take in an unfamiliar circumstance what we are actually doing is  mentally rehearsing possible responses and imagining the result of each. Eventually one of the responses we imagine will initiate a physical response in the form of an action.  The question is, did we “choose” this course of action or did it just happen? I am not sure how Dewey saw this, but I believe that he might have believed it just happened, that we didn’t choose anything. In essence then when we enter into deliberation over a choice what happens is that a process of thinking is initiated. That process will generate all of the possible options for response and calculate which will give us the ends we desire.

Human freedom then revolves around the range of imagined possible responses that our mind is able to generate in a given circumstance. Obviously if you can only imagine two possible ways to respond in a given situation you have much less freedom than if you can imagine fifty possible ways that you could respond. And if you can only imagine one possible response then you have no freedom at all. For this reason Dewey saw a direct connection between education and freedom. Education increases our ability to generate possible responses to circumstance and therefore increases our freedom. Notice, however, that none of this requires that there be any human will in the sense of any entity which “causes” an action. Action just happens as a natural consequence of the interaction between circumstance, impulse, habit and intelligence.

FOOTNOTE (for Libertarians like me): For those of us who do not give up the notion of freewill so easily there may be a way to look at this that will ease our minds. The contemporary philosopher John Searle dispenses of the dilemma this way. Freewill may or may not exist – and he believes it probably doesn’t, but either way we will always experience freewill because of the time gap that exists between the recognition of multiple courses of action and the final action itself. During this time we experience ourselves as deliberating, as choosing between possible actions. It is possible; perhaps likely, that we are not choosing at all, that we are just watching the mind act out the habit of thinking through imagined possible responses. Still, it feels like we are deliberating and choosing and so we essentially have to act as if we are.

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Nanna
Nanna
9 years ago

So…John Dewey is nothing near what I expected. Thank you for the blogs.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

At the moment I am reading a book about Jung. The writer connects his archetypes with Platonic Ideas; they are there – independent of the individual. Archetypes are just like instincts (for biology) an a priory knowing that influences behavior. Archetypical motives would be an a priory knowing ‘ how to behave in primal situations of life. Both instincts and archetypes are unconscious factors that have a regulating, modifying and motivating function. They give patterns of behavior. On a more mental level, archetypes are just like the Platonic Ideas, mental (spiritual) models, with deeper meaning, with autonomous dynamic. According to… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago
Reply to  Liesbeth

This might be of interest to you Liesbeth (The Piper who is referred to was an American psychic that James befriended and he alwasy beleived that her abilities were real.) Letter July 23, 1949 from Carl Jung to Virginia Payne: Two personalities I met at the Clark Conference made a profound and lasting impression on me. One was Stanley Hall, the President, and the other was William James whom I met for the first time then. I remember particularly an evening at President Hall’s house. After dinner William James appeared and I was particularly interested in the personal relation between… Read more »

Mette
Mette
9 years ago

Great! I love this topic too. It is a mystery, but at the same time very helpful if we could get closer to it. I agree that we have to use the word “will” or “choice” in our daily life. If we start to look at the semantics of it, philosophers like Wittgenstein would perhaps say that it is all constructed words that we ourselves fill with meaning, and that meaning is what we have to define to agree, instead of letting it confuse us. In other words: We must define what we mean with “will”. And this can be… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

I just read an extremely interesting example of behavior caused by archetypical images. Young birds where taken away directly from any bird influenced, but at the time all birds where flying got very active in their cages..they tried out all kind of influenced that might have influenced this behavior and found that it was caused by the constellation of the stars, which means their must have been some kind of archetypical image of that. Then they pointed out to physicians that made early mathematical systems describing stars that actually only could have been done with a same kind of archetypical… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

I used to be a great fan of Freud, it is such an amazing idea to imagine all these great guys together! For your information, I have both parts of ‘the principles of psychology’ of James waiting to be read, so maybe now finally my interest in Jung gets alive..I had no more time to read this afternoon, but I had to think about the ‘deep structures’ that Andrew is talking about; it is not that a physician has ‘a picture of the constellation of the stars’ as I wrote, but somehow both matter and mind are influenced by the… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

Some lines from Mysterium Coniunctions p.96-97: ..The philosophers maintained that the father of the gold and silver is the animating principle of earth and water…the idea at the back of this is that primitive conception of a universal power of growth…which is to be found as much in the sun as in men and plants..so that not only the sun but man too, and especially the enlightened man, can generate the gold of virtue of this universal power. ..It was clear to alchemists that the gold was not made by chemical procedures, the miracle was performed by a hidden nature,… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

Reading William James, he is so actual, I understand your admiration. Entering the third chapter it gets interesting: Habits. Specific to humans is that we have a ‘long and painful road to learn things’ (like playing the piano, but also ‘act and dress like a gentleman, something that cannot be learned fully after being an adult..) real learning happens when growing up, then the groves that create habits can be stretched easily. Once an act is turned into a habit, it doesn’t take (much) consciousness anymore. Learning new structures takes a lot of consciousness and James stresses that when learning… Read more »

Danko
7 years ago

It is wonderful to have you back in town doing what you love snriahg your awesome gourmet culinary skills! My lunch was fantastic today!!! A spinach salad which was the BEST I have ever had. It is so good to have you back. Not only was the food outstanding, you made me feel like a rock star visiting my table (on your knees ) to fill me in on your brief time away from Route 140. Welcome back, James and Coryn!! A Hidden Jewel is correct!!!! Cannot wait to see you soon!!