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.