Freewill, To Believe or Not To Believe

I saw that both Carl and Brian noticed my use of the phrase “caved in” in expressing the fact that I was not convinced about the Behaviorist view. There is so much fantastic insight in all of the comments that have gone up from all of you, but I wanted first to use this phrase to express something that I have been thinking about in relation to our discussion.

I think the reason why a phrase like “caved in” comes into play in a discussion like this, is because the scientific, deterministic, materialistic paradigm is so dominant in our culture and much more dominant in our own minds than we may be aware of. William James separated people into the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded.” The tough-minded were the scientifically inclined who believed in empirical facts and logic. The tender-minded were the romantically inclined who trusted in intuition and emotion. In reality we are all a bit of both.

What was so insightful about James’s conception was not the division itself, which is fairly common, but in his recognition that it is our tough or tender sensibility that leads us to believe one way or another. Most of us think that we are just looking at reality (be it facts and logic, or intuition and emotion) and that reality itself is leading us to our conclusions. But James was saying that a “tough-minded” person and a “tender-minded” person will look at the same reality and come to two completely different conclusions – because of their predispositions. That is why I am trying to leave so much room around the exploration of all these subtle ideas.

Science has a particular way of defining truth – one that we all take almost for granted. Scientifically truth is defined as that which explains present and future phenomenon using the least number of assumptions.

In regards to our discussion, Skinner was certainly tough-minded, and he looked at the facts from his experiments and realized that he could explain human behavior without needing the assumption of their being a mysterious “freewill” to guide it. So to Skinner the belief in “freewill” looked like some unnecessary superstition. To us, with our highly scientifically trained minds, this may seem obvious. In fact it can seem senseless to think that there would be another way to look and see truth.  After all truth IS that which is able to explain and predict the best, isn’t it?

But here is the problem. From the stand point of science I agree that it is best to go with the theory that does not need that particular assumption – but, and here is the problem, the fact that you don’t need the assumption to explain reality doesn’t necessarily mean that the assumption is untrue – it only means that you don’t need it to explain reality.

One of the problems with science is that it tends to be blind to its own assumptions. Because it prides itself on not having assumptions, it has a difficult time recognizing its own biggest assumption – that having no assumptions brings you closer to reality. Who says?

Fundamentalist  Christians believe that truth is that which is in agreement with the Bible. And you can see that for us who don’t see things this way that just sounds wrong. We all tend to be fundamentalists of one form or another, be it religious, scientific, romantic…whatever.

The Pragmatists created a different way of defining truth. Where science said what was true was whatever could explain reality with the least number of assumptions, Pragmatism said what was true was whatever idea led to the most good when put into action. Pragmatism attempts to add value to the nature of truth where the scientific definition of truth tends to be (and sometimes prides itself on being) valueless, i.e. objective. It has been argued that this is why science is responsible for some of our greatest achievements and at the same time some of our greatest catastrophes.

From a scientific perspective it could be argued that there is no “freewill” because there is no need to assume its existence to explain human behavior. What about from a Pragmatic point of view? As I had asked in my last post that would mean considering the question, “Is it better to believe in or not believe in freewill?”

Let’s imagine a Pragmatic experiment. Take300 people and from 100 of them, extract every possible present and future belief in freewill so that they truly saw themselves as a part of a fluid whole system without individual free agency. Then take 100 and inject them with a permanent sense of being an autonomous free agent. The last 100 people would be the control, and they wouldn’t know for sure one way or the other. Then watch them for a lifetime and see which leads to the best result. WDYT?

I am not saying that I don’t see the enormous explicative power of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning and Radical Behaviorism, in fact quite the opposite, the more I read the more amazed I am by its power to explain human behavior. I just don’t want to generalize that explicative power too broadly. I want to leave a lot of room for the fact that there is a lot we don’t know and we might want to keep the investigation as open as possible for as long as possible.

I also love what is coming together around some of your thoughts about freewill and creative systems. Many, like the contributions of Mary and Sandra are deeply compelling and I look forward to continue exploring this avenue of investigation with you.