The Illusion of Freedom and Thought

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.