I'm a critical thinker and a free-thinker. I'm a PhD from the University of Chicago who's currently teaching IB Theory of Knowledge and Dual Enrollment American Government & Intro to Political Theory in a high school magnet program at Coral Gables Senior High. Florida International University (where I have taught as an adjunct professor) is the college side of the Dual Enrollment program. But that's just credentials. I think German, but I talk Irish, if you know what I mean!
Hard determinists, when arguing that free will is an illusion, make the case that all events, whether driven by physical forces or mental calculations are conditioned, that is, they are under the influence of prior events, whether these events originate in nature or nurture.
Let’s consider an example of determinism by nature. When one billiard ball strikes another, physical forces (the speed, mass and angle of contact) determine the subsequent movement of the impacted billiard ball. This kind of determination is so clear, its contributing factors so few and readily measured, that the outcome can be predicted, if the starting configuration and added forces are carefully measured.
Determinism by nurture (where the contributing factors are cultural) is much less predictable, partly because a huge number of variables are involved. Cultural conditioning is an incremental process that requires repetition and reinforcement and which proceeds differently in different individuals, some learning faster than others, with differences in outcome and final level achieved.
Moreover, subjects instilled with culture — as every human being is to a very high degree — have the learning capacity to absorb large amounts of transmitted cultural conditioning, as well as remembered experience and improvised habits (or routines discovered by trial-and-error) for managing and manipulating objects and events for their own survival and advantage.
Human beings differ not only by culture, but by their individualized experiences, recorded both in memory and in the habits of action, thought, and feeling which distinguish them as individuals over time, each having their own biographical accumulation of experiences and of habits developed in response to those experiences. But they carry these complex composites within them into every new encounter with experience.
The closer the conditioned response comes to stimulus-response, the more nearly predictable, measurable and observable it is a la B. F. Skinner. In other words, the smaller the role of means-ends thinking determined by cultural values, individual preferences, conventional constructs like language, or rational constructs like the operation of counting, the simpler the connections between stimulus and response, and the more readily they are observed and measured.
Psychological conditioning (whether operant or classical) observes conditioned linkages between stimulus (i.e., psychological cause) and response (i.e., psychological effect) simple and direct enough for the linkage to be both very general and easily observed. Pavlov’s pairing of a bell with feeding to produce salivation by the sound of the bell alone; a rat learning to associate pushing a lever with food rewards or electric shocks.
Cultural conditioning is much more complex and variable, whether the subject is being taught to speak a language or is raised within a religion. These are much lengthier processes, with many more episodes where incomprehension, resistance or error may prevent the desired transmission of cultural practices from occurring, or from occurring in its ideal form.
When giving causal descriptions of such processes, we have already come a long way from the clean and clear example of the billiard balls, as well as from the greater complexities of physics, chemistry, and pre-psychological biology.
The concept of a causality that is predictive loses much of its force here in practice, although it is always possible to maintain it in principle.
Consider the analogy of cultural transmission (education, essentially) to genetic transmission.
The adaptive character of biological evolution depends upon mutation. Were the transmission of genetic information always perfect, the mutations from which adaptive advances arise would never occur. This magnificently adaptive (in the long run) process depends on occasional breakdowns and slippages.
The deterministic model of science requires that these transcription errors be causally explicable, and themselves determined.
This can only mean that, while at the level of basic particles everything proceeds as it must, large, complex things compounded out of many smaller ones fail to compound in exactly the same way every time.
But then natural selection comes to the rescue as a sorting principle, sifting out the ill-adapted, and leaving only that which is so well adapted that it reproduces its lineage in a further generation.
Natural selection, too, is a causal principle, but in a somewhat different sense than, say, a force like gravity. It sifts organisms in accordance with a principle — survivability. Mutation can produce anything (without regard to any standard), but only that which meets the standard of survivability continues in its mortal lineage.
It’s not that the lower-level causes, and their deterministic outcomes have been violated; it’s just that a higher-level sorting principle has been added on top of them, requiring explanation in its own terms, not the terms of the lower-level forces to which it can be reduced (for the purposes of prediction and subsequent control rather than for higher-level explanation).
My takeaway from this analogy between genetic and cultural transmission: cultural transmission also never violates lower-level causal forces, but it adds further sifting principles, using social rewards and punishments (operant conditioning at the cultural level) to impose cultural standards.
One can say that all the old lower-level causes are still at work — and they are — but they alone do not give the final form or its explanation. The explanatory framework of cultural standards is both purposive and symbolic, and explanations of it must be referred back to these frameworks (strategic thinking, as in Machiavelli or game theory, or the Verstehen position, as in Weber, are two broad approaches one might take).
Cultures impose standards (either the culture as a whole, or some subculture within it like the scientific community or the community of professional mathematicians).
And some of these standards are very precise, and are based on rational schema which preempt individual improvisation. One such is the mathematical operation of counting which designates a unit and increments a current total of successively incremented further units, producing the set of whole numbers.
The whole numbers are operationally defined by counting. This means that the relationships between numbers are locked into place by the operation of counting.
Thus, no matematician is free to deny, for example, that a count of five can be partitioned into a count of two and a count of three. This relationship is expressed as 2 + 3 = 5, and equally by 5 – 2 = 3.
From the perspective of lower-level causation, the consensus of mathematicians about these truths is enforced throughout their education, by bad grades in earlier years to the need to maintain their professional reputation in later years.
But from another perspective, it is the rational shema itself, the one generated by the operation of counting and demonstrated by the large and growing collection of arithmetic theorems, that determines the result.
Remember our analogy. Although every individual event making up the practice of trained mathematicians can be explained by lower level causes, the systematic structure of the whole is only explained by the rational schema.
So, the choices of mathematicians (these are choices determined by mathematical truth, taken as the value mathematicians strive for), while from one perspective conditioned by typical applications of social conditioning, are at the same time determined by the purposive character of mathematical practice (i.e., aiming at the demonstrable mathematical truth).
The real world is a muddled place, full of trade-offs and compromises. Learn to deal with that, because there is no other world.
Human beings in general aren’t half of what they think they are, but they could be much better than they bother to be.
The 3rd Law of Natural Thought: every dogmatic excess produces an equal and opposite dogmatic excess. (This applies especially in politics.)
No form of knowledge spreads faster than the tactical knowledge one group uses successfully against another. (What goes around comes around.)
I sometimes think that the the self-righteous attitude of being above politics manifested by the progressive minority in the Seventies (of which I was then a part — I’m more centrist now), has been adopted by what was then the Silent Majority, now that they feel themselves to be the bypassed minority (while claiming somewhat disingenuously, majority status).
Self-righteousness is the death of democratic politics because it leaves no room for compromise and it transforms fellow-citizens with opposing views (with whom one must seek a common ground) into ideological enemies (with whom one grapples for power). If this goes too far, as a great man once said “A House divided against itself cannot stand”.
There are no easy answers. Every actual community falls short of its stated ideals, erecting a facade and turning a blind eye to its shortcomings.
Open societies come closer to honesty in this regard than closed societies controlled by a single party; but even open societies only do this by maintaining institutions independent of government, capable of critical scrutiny: the press, Academia (and other communities of expertise), an electorate empowered through fair elections, freedom of speech, and the rule of law within which citizens can feel secure to speak their minds.
However, when some groups are denied some part of this, something must change. But not every needed change justifies overturning a system that works well by historical (i.e., imperfect) and comparative standards.
The other day I was taking a long walk and just avoided getting caught in a thunderstorm. I took refuge under the local park admin building canopy. While there, I used the restroom inside, where they were having some kind of community event. A woman, obviously part of the event, saw me standing there and asked: “Are you here for the…?” “No”, I replied, “I’m just an old guy with a bladder.”
There’s a technique used to motivate oneself called gamification. It essentially means turning work you have to do anyway into something like a video game in which tasks have point values and you are always aiming to raise your Highest Score. So, applied to the perpetual chore of adapting to getting old, I’m going to rechristen the process “Game of Groans” in which I put down insurrections in each of the seven kingdoms of my anatomy as they rise in rebellion against me, the true-born heir to the Groan.
Note: this is a longer read than the typical post, about double that size.
Free will is best thought of, not as a violation of causal processes or an exemption from them, but as an arrangement within causal processes from which new capacities emerge, capacities that breach the limits of pre-conscious causal processes — those in which the cause occasions its effect solely in terms of forces in play immediately at the point of contact, oblivious to wider concerns or longer-term factors.
Free will as we know it is found most clearly in human beings. It involves the awareness of possibilities (Daniel Dennett’s “degrees of freedom”) within the power of the agent to realize, no matter how wide the scope or how long the term of the expected benefit.
Free will is a special kind of will, one that involves deliberation, which is the conscious consideration of possibilities.
Wills aim at some benefit, whether to an individual (self-interest), to a group (altruism), or to a virtual group (universality, that is, a will benefiting equally anyone who meets a threshold requirement that is not morally arbitrary). The initial, and enduring self-interest of any organism (which alone wills things) is survival, but in a social and cultural species self-interest can expand to include: 1) first, the self-interest of the group which supports the survival of its members, and 2) second, presenting a character in one’s actions aligned with a self-image encouraged by either the group or the individual.
This second expansion of self-interest accounts for those who sacrifice their own survival to act as a good Christian or a good Roman. These are still interests in which the agent has a stake, but they go beyond the simple survival of the individual.
So, there are only three possible beneficiaries of a will: the self, the physical group to which the self belongs, or the virtual group to which the self belongs (some version of an Enlightenment universal, say, human beings, understood by definition as bearers of rights).
Free will aims at benefits selected from a range of possible outcomes and from a range of possible benefits. This introduces longer terms and wider considerations, both of which require sustained deliberation rather than impulse or instinct
Even if one only aims at survival, one can choose short-term risks to increase one’s long-term chances of survival. But as different kinds of benefits are considered alongside survival, deliberations become more complicated and such beings find themselves choosing within wider parameters and facing all kinds of trade-offs.
Yet free will does not happen outside of causal processes, but rather in spite of them. That is the core of compatibilism (the view that, when understood properly, free will and determinism are compatible). Free will comes into being when causal processes are arranged in such a way as to make possible the deliberate consideration of possibilities that the agent can initiate, as it considers the comparative benefits of different courses of actions.
But before that can happen, there must exist pre-conscious systems in which organic homeostasis occurs, that is, organisms in which system-wide equilibria are sustained by causal processes whose workings are determined by the blindly mechanical action of immediate causes on their immediate effects.
In other words, it is as if a machine were engineered with a purpose in mind, except that the engineer is blind causation, randomized over immense lengths of time. Evolution casts up mutations that mostly fail to produce a viable machine. But when, at long last, a viable machine is accidentally produced, the parts work together within a system that functions to a recognizable end. And organisms go a step farther than machines in that they are provisionally self-maintaining for the lifetime of the organism.
The most critical organ for free will is the brain, which, in order to enhance the prospects of survival, develops ever more in the direction of processing information about the organism’s environment and internally projecting imagined scenarios of action in order to safely test their viability before committing to them. This was at first purely a matter of perceptions of prey and predators and the instinctive emotions fueling the pursuit of prey (desire) and the flight from predators (fear).
As the brain increased its powers of inference, anticipation, and deduction, calculation began first to serve the driving emotions and passions (a` la David Hume) and then to begin to control, organize, and discipline those emotions to serve a desired self-image or character, that is, a honed ability to function as needed to achieve the agent’s chosen benefits. Early on, that meant the cultivation of the virtue of the gatherer, the hunter, the warrior, and the leader.
The cultivation of astuteness (prudence in the amoral sense) is the system-maintaining highest order that serves self-interest and survival. Machiavelli demonstrates the scope and limits of this in his two great works, The Prince, on how this works in principalities, and The Discourses on Livy, on how this works in republics.
The cultivation of moral virtue (prudence in the moral sense, now more commonly called probity or practical judgment) is the system-maintaining highest order that serves those final ends or values that go beyond mere self-interest, culminating in altruistic ends.
Free will, then, means an arrangement of causal processes that escapes the limitations of inorganic causality — that it is conditioned by immediate causes, and thus blind to distant consequences; it does this by enlarging the conditions of action to include considerations that go beyond the impulses of the moment, the interest of the isolated self, and the attainment of material benefits — beyond all that to the attainment of exemplary kinds of character, that is, to the perfection of the self (according to some code or standard) rather than its mere gratification.
Will: Absolutely Free or Absolutely Conditioned?
The notion of absolute free will, metaphysical free will, or libertarian free will, is misleading. To face choices free of all conditioning would be to face them without any formed character or any awareness or experience of consequences. Such freedom would be meaningless because it is stripped of the context that gives it meaning. It would be the freedom to act randomly and without purpose. That describes the condition of infancy or mental breakdown, not the condition of a fully-functioning moral agent.
I am suggesting that the concept of absolute free will slips free of the real-world context in which alone it makes any sense.
Aristotle discusses a similar slippage from context in those who ascribe actions to god (as Aristotle understood god, the prime mover). Aristotle’s prime mover was perfect and complete, and as such had no need of action, for action is a necessity only for imperfect beings, who have needs and desires arising from their incompleteness.
I argue that both Aristotle’s complete god and absolute free will’s unconditioned willing are limiting cases, that is, reference points outside the range of meaningful free will, that serve only to define the limits of the concept, but do not define the concept itself.
Thus, free will concerns the choice of appropriate ends and of a suitable organization of the self (created by good actions leading to good character) rather than the creation by fiat of possibilities that did not exist previously.
Habit is both a help and a hindrance to free will. Experience allows us to build our astuteness and technical abilities (instrumental capacities) and our probity (moral capacity). In both cases we enlarge our capacities by developing suitable habits, by discovering useful routines and, by making them routine, reserving our active deliberation for special cases, borderline cases, and the careful weighing of the highest-ranking ends, when trade-offs among them are necessary.
But a habit is a purposeful rut, and when the rut has become obsolete or counterproductive, it is hard to break (for the same reasons it made choices easier when it served our purposes).
To act without being subject to any conditions would be to act without purposes, experience, abilities, or character. It would mean being reduced to the state of a helpless and dependent infant.
One of the problems with lengthy linear arguments within established traditions (orthodoxies) is that such habits of thought crowd out the real-world context which alone gives the topic its real meaning.
Advocates of absolute free will model their idea of will on a context-free ideal that is impossible and that would be without meaning or value if it could exist.
They also ignore that agents undergo an organic process of maturation. If free will is anything, it’s a capacity. Agents begin as infants lacking even the capacities necessary to survive. Maturation is the organic processes of acquiring abilities through nature and nurture, and a a third kind of conditioning, experience (sometimes included under nurture). Free will, like any other skill-based or knowledge-based capacity, can only be acquired through some combination of these kinds of conditioning.
By contrast, hard determinists disregard that, as agents, we act on our own agency, selecting from among ends available to us, but starting from pre-existing limits.
Agency as a Self-Correcting Condition
Agency should work much as Karl Popper says science should.
Both activities are neverending and perpetually incomplete.
Both are prone to error and false or premature certainty, but both are capable of self-correction.
Both work within the limits of their current assumptions (i.e., beliefs, paradigms), of their methods for comparing alternatives and hypotheses, of their technical capacities, and of their current store of process-tested tentative knowledge.
And, crucially, both have the capacity to review and reconsider every previous choice using new data, new considerations, and new and different minds, if necessary.
Instead of defining free will in terms of an idealized, absolutely unconditioned and context-free concept (of dubious applicability), modeled on the fiat creation capacity of the biblical God, free will should be defined comparatively, in terms of the more limited capacities that precede it in its development.
These include the inorganic cause operating immediately on the object it affects, the organic homeostatic cause operating to maintain a self-regulating system (i.e, an organism), a sentient system of desired opportunities and feared threats, typically mediated by pleasure and pain (i.e., a personal character formed within a culture and its enforcing institutions), a self-conscious system that calculates self-interest, and, finally, a self-conscious system that both calculates self-interest and also recognizes values beyond self-interest (in the simplest sense) and evaluates opportunities and threats in terms of those values.
Science can describe the causalities involved in these processes up through calculations of self-interest (for such things as survival , health, wealth, status, and power can be observed and measured, bringing them within the scope of science).
But science stops short at values (distinguishing them as value-judgments, distinct from the empirical statements that can be made about observable facts) since they are not precisely measurable. Values as well come in different kinds which are not measurable by a common measure (i.e., they are incommensurable, apples and oranges), and thus can only be balanced in a painful kind of value-judgment known as a trade-off (a characteristic focus of economic evaluations and moral dilemmas).
Everyone should know by now that credible news sources are something you earn, not something you can recieve passively.
If you simply take as news what’s pushed at you, you’re being manipulated.
If you simply follow stories that appeal to you, you are allowing your preconceptions to limit what you take in, locking in your preconceptions.
I offer three rules-of-thumb for avoiding these pitfalls, but bear in mind, that there is no purely perspective-free perspective.
#1: Credible news sources distinguish between fact and opinion.
#2: Credible news sources perform their own fact-checking, seek to meet generally-recognized standards of fact-checking, and acknowledge their occasional lapses.
#3: Credible news sources acknowledge their own perspective and, while obviously preferring it, present it along with differing but still credible alternative perspectives.
#1: Fact v. Opinion
One standard way mainstream newspapers distinguish between fact and opinion is to separate out open and avowed opinion pieces in what are called the op-ed pages (Opinions & Editorials). The publisher typically presents its own opinions in unsigned editorials (meaning that they represent the views of the chief editor and/or publisher). Authored opinion pieces by columnists, named and pictured, are often paired to represent opposing perspectives, often more liberal v. more conservative ones. While not a perfect solution, media that follow such practices are showing a degree of good faith.
The limit to that good faith becomes evident in an in-between category, the interpretation of facts.
One useful media bias monitor that addresses the role of interpretation in news analysis is the Media Bias Chart at https://adfontesmedia.com. This site (which is transparent about who runs it, their background, and the methodology used in their ratings [always a good sign!]) categorizes media into four broad categories: 1) news, 2) fair interpretations of the news, 3) extreme/unfair interpretations of the news, and 4) nonsense damaging to public discourse.
The Media Bias Chart acknowledges that facts alone are not sufficient. They can be checked and verified, and thus should form the basis of any fair discussion. But to formulate and enact policy takes more than facts. It takes judgments about what those facts mean and judgments about both the appropriate ends to be served and the effective means of serving them. In other words, there is room for legitimate differences of opinion, and expressing these is another legitimate role for the media.
Prominent in the category of news only are the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and United Press International (UPI). These are newswires, businesses that provide bare-bones factual accounts to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and other media. In other words, their business model requires them to be neutral and factual because they must serve the broadest possible market. In a city newspaper like The Miami Herald, you will find articles sourced to that paper’s own staff, to other papers and their staffs or to newswires.
The business press, in this ranking, also clusters in the mostly news with some fair interpretation zone at its center to center-right. Explanation: businesses and investors want stability, both economic and political.
With the advent of social media, the news cycle has sped up dramatically, squeezing the time available for fact-checking, meaning there will be more errors and more need to follow up and retract. Credible media will issue retractions from time to time, usually about minor factual slips on verifiable matters.
While credible news sources do their own fact-checking, they also hold each other to account, and are collectively held to account by third-party fact-checking organizations.
But those organizations themselves may embody perspectives, and those can change over time, especially with changes in editorship and ownership.
For a list of reputable fact-checking sites: webliteracy.pressbooks.com/chapter/fact-checking-sites/; these mostly focus on particular claims made by politicians and other opinion leaders.
For a general sense of the reliability of news media , mediabiasfactcheck.com rates a huge number of news media in terms of both their quality of fact-checking and their general left/right bias. This site has a “Factual News Search” feature that allows you to key in topics and see a clickable list of relevant articles from factually reliable media. You can even designate levels of bias, say, designating “least biased” sources only, or perhaps comparing views from “left-center” and “right-center”.
#3: Acknowledgement of Credible Alternative Perspectives
I don’t think there’s a formula for this, just as there is no set formula for how many counter arguments are needed in an argumentative essay nor a set rule as to when those counter arguments are presented fairly. These will be judgments based on experience with best practices and wide exposure to different perspectives. In other words, this calls for a degree of education and expertise, along wiht a good faith attempt at open-mindedness.
It’s easier to identify bad practices than good ones. One giveaway of bad practices is using emotion-laden terms designed to appeal to preexisting emotions and group identities rather than to a rational discussion between parties willing to listen to one another and seeking a common ground. Campaign speeches and presidential debates are more about this than about the fair comparison and evaluation of ideas and policies, though each candidate makes their own choices about the degree to which one or the other prevails in their remarks.