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).
Let’s distinguish three kinds of scientific theories: predictive, origin, and comprehensivetheories.
Predictivetheoriesdeclare universal laws or rules that always apply. These typically apply to measurable or verifiable quantities, so they can either be measured against a common scale or their instances can be counted and then measured by the probabilities of an occurrence. Newton’s 3 laws of motion are an example.
Origintheoriesare chronological accounts that explain how the particular configurations we observe came about. Our current understanding of the 8-planet solar system is an example of this; as these theories build from incomplete evidence and records by connecting the dots, they are always somewhat speculative, and are routinely revised as further evidence comes in.
Comprehensive theories are much more expansive, providing a conceptual framework for the topic as a whole. They typically combine multiple predictive theories and origin theories along with some overarching principles or axiomatic assumptions that provide coherence and context for the other two, but are not themselves directly testable. Newton’s and Einstein’s theories of gravity are examples of this; both made claims that were not immediately testable, while containing predictive theories that were testable.
Predictivetheoriespredict what will happen in limited or controlled circumstances where the universal laws they declare can be put to decisive tests. The ideal experiment or observation controls all variables except for two, the independent variable which the experiment or observation controls and the dependent variable, changes in which can be directly correlated to changes in the observer-controlled independent variable. Universal laws said to determine the correlation between these two variables can thus be put to a test controlled by the observer.
Predictive theories are governed by unchanging laws that apply throughout the whole universe and in each of its parts. To test these theories empirically, one need only create a microcosm of the universe, setting up a carefully limited, controlled, and measured (and, thus, artificial) original configuration. In this microcosm, isolated variables can be measured and correlated as one systematically varies only the independent variable, providing measurable, quantified data. The controlled experiment creates an isolated module in which the forces, laws, and causal correlations operative in every other module in the universe can be isolated, made thereby observable, and put to decisive tests.
Origin theoriescannot be so tested. Remember, they try to explain the creation of a particular configuration — a result of universal laws and original configurations, but vastly complicated by the unplanned interaction of all events in the ongoing sequence of events leading up to the particular configuration. There can be few if any observer-controlled variables here.
Origin theories, unlike predictive theories, cannot be directly tested. 1) They are not isolated, controlled modules, but uncontrolled event free-for-alls, in which multitudinous independent chains of causality interact in ways too complex and multivariate to be controlled and made predictable by the observer. 2) They are not representative modules, in principle, repeated everywhere else in the universe; they are unique chronologically accreted results of the random, undesigned interactions of causal events blind to everything outside the forces acting immediately upon them. 3) Because they generate one-of-a-kind situations and entities, they are often mistaken for history (i.e., what happened in the human past to give us the present that we humans find ourselves in), but they are not history, because the generative events occur without intentions or purposes, being strictly causal and deterministic, in the strong sense. Such origin theories include cosmological accounts of the origin of our present day planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe, as well as geological accounts of the origins of geographical features, rock strata, and continents, as well as evolutionary biological accounts of the origin of all species, and of the extinction of lost species.
Origin theories are random from the perspective of design or purpose, yet not arbitrary, for, if one could observe, measure, catalog, and inventory all the constituent events, the outcome is necessary in accordance with universal laws. For the current configuration resulted from universal laws acting on a long-ago original configuration; but that configuration has been so altered in the meantime, and impacted by so many independent variables, that we can neither observe nor measure its constituent events. No controlled module can be constructed from such a menagerie.
Instead, we must piece together a narrative, roughly analogous to the investigation of a homicide, especially if we focus on the forensic evidence, and the testimony, not from human observers, but from mechanical recording devices. Short of directly observing the final homicidal event itself (rarely possible for the jury and judge), we can only examine the current configuration of evidence, piece together a sporadic chronological and forensic record from the evidence, and match it against a list of suspects, each suspect’s status as a suspect being supported by an origin theory claiming that the suspect’s doings sufficiently match the evidence at hand to account for the origin of, in this case, a murder victim. And if the comparative matching of each origin theory makes one such theory the likeliest, the suspect named by that theory becomes our prime suspect.
But where is this top-down functionality I’ve been hinting at?
Evolution may produce one primal function, but it’s entirely accounted for by blindly mechanical, purely reductive forces and mechanisms.
Let’s look again at our early self-replicating network of complex molecules.
It’s complex, and fragile, readily disintegrating into its lifeless, and ultimately inorganic, components. This thing can’t last. Internal replication and self-repair isn’t enough. It’s got to recreate itself in a fresh form that can survive beyond the original, which must ultimately succumb to the wear-and-tear of the combustible, energy-consuming, and risk-ridden processes of life. It must procreate, and colonize. This will require new functionalities, greater complexity, more differentiation of parts, and those differentiated parts are structures, tissues, and, at a certain level of complexity, organs.
Even before procreation, and the procreative organs, there was differentiation within the organism, to perform the several integrated functions that support life and survival amidst competition for resources, for living things use up resources and must compete with other living things for the available resources.
Even single celled organisms must have differentiated parts: a cell wall to keep its internal resources from dissipating into its surroundings, cytoplasm through which needed materials can move within the cell to where they are needed, ribosomes to manufacture proteins for constructing body tissues, DNA for reproduction, and sometimes flagella for locomotion or pili for anchoring. With greater complexity comes organelles, functional units like the energy-producing mitochondria, separated from the cytoplasm by membranes to maintain their internal integrity.
Each differentiated part of a single cell organism serves a necessary function aiding the survival of the organism as a whole. We now have a top-down hierarchically-organized system of differentiated parts serving the top-level function of survival by performing useful subordinate functions.
Something new has erupted into our so far purely reductive universe: organized wholes composed of differentiated parts networked together functionally within an integrated system ordered from the top down by the primal function of survival, and survival of a unique genetic lineage, nothing universal.
As such organisms continue to evolve, more complex, and more differentiated organisms emerge. They grow large enough that organelles must be replaced by specialized tissues and organs, such as the circulatory system which circulates a plasma substitute, blood, to transport oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body. This system, in turn, needs tubular vessels to carry the transport fluid, a pump to drive the fluid’s circulation, a filter to remove toxins and waste, and so on.
With consciousness and sense perception, a whole new realm of functionality appears, within which elaborate behaviors of pursuit and avoidance pit predator against prey. Tactics now emerge, some pre-programmed or hard-wired, others left to develop through learned experience and habit in organisms blessed (or cursed) with consciousness.
Yet in this world — organized, guided, driven, and ruled by function — metrics still matter, and empirical science can still be done.
Think of the cheetah, a smallish cat, the fastest land animal, capable of reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour in short bursts. That metric matters because its speed gives it an edge in its pursuit of its prey. So, the metric matters, even though it is encapsulated within the functional network of competitive pursuit and flight.
Now consider stotting, a vertical leap performed by gazelle, especially when they detect predators such as wild dogs that run their prey down (as opposed to stalking them, as do cheetahs and other cats). Stotting seems to be an announcement of the health and strength of the gazelle, which stronger gazelle use to deflect the attentions of wild dogs from them to weaker, easier prey.
(Not very sporting but, as Leo Durocher famously said “Nice guys finish last”; he just left off the part about getting killed and eaten.)
Stotting cannot be understood in terms of a simple metric; after all, it wastes time and energy. Stotting must be understood in terms of tactics; it signals to the predator a better tactic that redirects the predator to other prey.
So, in the world of organisms, function trumps metrics, both in understanding differentiated parts, organelles, and organs, and in understanding behavioral reactions, habits and tactics. In the world of organisms, function is primary, metrics (though still significant) are secondary.
The analysis of organisms — whether biological and anatomical or behavioral, psychological, and social — is top-down and functional more than it is bottom-up and metric. But, as one moves from the biological sciences to the human or social sciences, one moves from mechanically deterministic functionality to deliberate functionality, purposiveness, and choice, in all of its human dimensions, from the instrumentally prudent choices about which Machiavelli and Sun Tzu advise princes and generals to the ethically prudent choices about which Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Kant and John Stuart Mill advise the likes of you and me.
Darwinian nature is a system of organisms each of which expropriates parts of its surroundings to serve its own survival. Excepting photosynthesis, expropriation means destroying other organisms to refuel or rebuild the predatory organism’s body. Nothing in nature is sacrosanct: every organism is potential fuel for an organism evolved to expropriate it.
Social Darwinism is a pseudo-morality that stops here.
Limitations upon this evolve among social animals, since consuming parts of the society upon which they depend would undermine their own survival. So, natural predation is transformed into pack behavior or tribalism, in which members follow an internal code of restraints on how they use one another, that need not apply to outsiders.
Act Utilitarianism (as typified by Jeremey Bentham’s remark that the concept of rights was “nonsense upon stilts”) stops here (at least when aligned with the power to enforce, because that is always limited geographically).
Most, if not all, forms of cultural or historical morality — understood as general, society-wide habits of behavior, rather than as the behavior of the truest models and moral icons of a given culture-wide morality (e.g., as Christians rather than as Christ) — have treated insiders and outsiders dramatically differently. And so too with not only pure outsiders (i.e., aliens) but also underprivileged classes within slave societies, caste systems, and hierarchical societies of every kind and degree. In other words, these are still forms of tribalism, in which degrees of membership can be described in terms of innermost, middling, and outermost circles.
Naturalistic moral theories are limited to the foregoing. Their purpose is limited to the surviving and thriving of some organism, or collection of organisms.
Empirical natural science can only produce or support naturalistic moral theories. Anything else would be either beyond its scope or beneath its notice.
Morality so conceived meets here a dead end.
To conceive of a different kind of morality, one must move beyond the natural organism.
That can only be, I think, the conceptually-defined member of a possible community. Let’s call this hypothetical being an agent.
Morality, in this view, becomes the conditions for the existence of the community the agent desires to form.
If the agent or agents impose their community on others by force, they fall back within the confines of naturalistic morality, that is, pseudo-morality (or the morality of the free dictating terms to the unfree). At best, theirs is a relative morality, moral among the rulers, tyrannical over the ruled.
If, by contrast, the community is an elective community of free agents, the conditions of that community must be acceptable in principle to all potential members, otherwise they would not freely elect to join.
This follows whether that community is the national community among fellow-citizens of a social contract, of spouses within a community of marriage, of friends within a community of friendship, or of all human beings within the community of humanity.
In each case, to the extent that the community is one of free agents, the conditions of community, what each owes the other, are the rights of membership for that community.
Rights, then, are the basis of morality as it applies to the relations among agents.
Using the scientific method, one builds a causal chain (in a simplified image) of correlated causes and effects which, in principle, explains everything that can be strung together in chains of causality whose correlations can be correlated through observation and measurement. (That may leave some things out, but covers a hell of a lot.)
For the pre-biological part of this causal chain, this process is pretty straightforward, mechanical, and purposeless, each moment of causation being determined entirely by external forces converging upon it, without any resistance (as from a local system organized to maintain itself), oblivious to any and every possible future (because there is no organized system whose continuance is a matter of interest to the principles that regulate the system, whether organic or psychological).
Evolutionary biology is driven by a purely mechanical process of trial and error random mutations whose outcomes (mostly disadvantageous) are sifted for survivability by natural selection.
But with the advent of the living organisms of biology, we have something more than a randomly connected complex of independent particles. We now have a self-sustaining system (an organism capable of maintaining itself and surviving by regulating its intake and its discharge, its output and growth, and, if animate, also its movements and activities).
We have a system with a “history” and a genealogy, with a linear developmental history of the type or species, as well as of the individual organism.
If the linear development of the individual is broken, it dies and will not be reconstituted by the natural processes that brought it to life; if the linear development of the species is broken, it goes extinct, and will not be reconstituted by the natural processes that brought it to life.
More advanced organisms, have, beyond their physical constitution, a behavioral constitution, a set of characteristic movements and activities, actions and reactions, which develop through some combination of genetics and environment, of nature and nurture.
Agents are organisms that reflect on their behavioral constitution and compare it to others of their kind (initially their parents) and models of behavior presented by their parents (whether in word or in deed, the two not always being the same) or others (whether persons known to them, iconic persons of their culture, or mythical or legendary images with or without historical correlates).
Thus, agents have, not only biological constitutions, but also behavioral ones. As members of a culture (a group of agents which, as a group regulate the behavior of the group’s members), they have a group or social identity.
Agents also have an individual identity, the basis and the product of their own self-regulation.
We are now dealing with something very different from the transmission of a linear chain of causes from one independent object to another, each cause acting as an external force upon an independent particle, with both cause and effect reflecting nothing more than the momentary summation of immediately relevant forces just prior to the event. Now that linear intrusion intrudes upon an organized system, which reacts to that intrusion as best as it is able in the interests of maintaining its internal regulatory system, which itself has a causal history, though of a different kind.
So we are now dealing with a bifurcated determinism, one that describes disassociated objects (studied as physics and chemistry) and one that describes organized and self-regulating systems, biology and behavioral studies.
Rational agency produces another fork or two in the forms of descriptive determinism.
Agents, though initially formed from without, are self-forming, if in no other way than by their attempts to mimic the behavior of their parents as they learn the skills they will need to survive. Simple organisms, like insects are largely self-sufficient when born, formed largely by nature, with minimal learned behavior. So one of the hallmarks of agency is a period of guided self-development during which the growing individual is under the care and protection of parents (mammals, birds, and some reptiles)
Human agents are overwhelmingly influenced by their parents and family members until adolescence, at which point they may become troubled by dissonances between their group identity and their individual identity.
So, where is choice in all of this, and how does it stand with determinism?
Choice is a feature of agency. From physics through chemistry through pre-behavioral biology, there is no foreseeing, planning, or deciding. These begin with learned behavior, and hence appear most strongly among birds and mammals.
An individual agent is an organized system, both biologically and psychologically, and to the extent that it consciously takes part in regulating its own systems, it is choosing, exercising a new power not available in less developed organisms.
The agent is formed from without in its biological constitution and also formed largely from without in its early behavioral constitution. But it at least chooses in the interests of its own internal constitutions and their continued existence. If this be determinism, it is a determinism determined by the agent’s perception of its own future prospects rather than an external combination of forces determined by the past without regard to the future of the agent or anything else, for that matter.
We have now two determinisms of very different colors. One, is a blindly mechanical imposition of external forces that only references the past, while the other is a self-regarding response to intrusive external force (i.e., threats), as well as an improvisational exploitation of available forces (and the resources that fuel them), both chosen with regard to possible futures and preferred outcomes.
So, if the agent is, in one sense, fully determined by nature and nurture, it is still itself a determining agent when it acts as a deliberately self-regulating part of its self-regulating system. It is responsible to itself for outcomes within its control, and it determines those outcomes in its own interest to the best of its ability.
Methodological note: a higher-level category term, like determinism, can be used to accentuate similarities between its sub-categories that might otherwise go unnoticed; but it can also be used to hide significant dissimilarities, like those between agent-driven determinism and future-oblivious determinism. For some purposes, it makes sense to merge them (theoretical purposes, as when doing science), while for other purposes it doesn’t (practicalpurposes, as when planning one’s life or reflecting upon it).
But there’s more (for the low, low price of only $0.00…)! See the post “Scientific Determinism (Part 2)…”
Physics and chemistry examine the eternal cycle of permutations possible, respectively, of particles at the sub-atomic level driven by fundamental forces and of elements and their molecular combinations at the atomic level. This cycle goes on working its way through every possible permutation, over and over again. After a few eons, watching it would be like watching a cosmic dryer set to forever.
Biology examines unstable compounds that tend continuously to dissolve unless they replenish and replicate themselves. Here we must shift our focus from units of stuff to genealogical lines of self-replicating compounds always on the verge of dissolution. These unstable, self-replicating compounds, called organisms, continually generate new biological/genetic constructs which are sifted by natural selection (evolutionary biology) for suitability for survival in that organism’s habitat. In short, species are biological constructs conditioned by natural selection, and maintained by adaptation, that is, the generation and selective retention of new genetic constructs when they are suited to survival.
This is the realm in which Daniel Dennett’s scientific image is decisive (see Dennett reading, pp. 69-72, accessible from this blog’s home page menu item “Peripatetics Summer Seminars 2018”).
Anthropology, sociology, and psychology examine human beings, respectively, as a species, as societies, and as individuals. Human beings are organisms, biologically unstable compounds. But as well as being organisms, they are animals, and the cultural animal in particular.
Culture and its chief medium, language, continually generate new cultural constructs which are sifted by historical selection (history) for suitability for survival both as individuals within their cultural habitats and as cultures within their inter-cultural habitats.
Political science, economics, and religion examine different kinds of social constructs, as do ethics and art. To say that they are constructs is not to demean them, for they are what make us human in more than a biological sense.
This is the realm in which Daniel Dennett’s manifest image is decisive (see Dennett reading, pp. 69-72, accessed as above).
Biological constructs and cultural constructs are game-changers. They create whole new arenas in which unprecedented possibilities can emerge, and they operate by different rules and dynamics than things did before the game changed. Organisms are colonizers in a way that atoms and particles aren’t. So are cultures. But just as organisms cannot violate the laws of chemistry or physics, neither can cultures or their constructs.
But the processes of physics and chemistry, and of evolutionary biology and history, can be initially imitated and ultimately, in principle, controlled, by human beings and their cultural constructs. How human beings understand and exercise these growing powers, how they see themselves and their purposes, will be crucial to the future of at least that part of the universe subject to human control.
This might just mean that the critical cultural constructs for human beings will turn out to be ethics, religion, philosophy and art.