The Freewill of a Creative System

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.