Pragmatism and Free Will

Can pragmatism and free will work together?

Pragmatism was the 3rd rule presented in our search for GSOT.[1] The rule of pragmatism can be stated simply: Unless it makes a difference in somebody’s disposition to act, then it makes no difference.

We have considered whether free will is valid under pragmatism. This does not mean proving that free will is true, probably an impossible task, but rather demonstrating that free will can constitute a clear and uncontradicted belief upon which a person can act.

It has seemed possible that free will might run afoul of a fundamental philosophical postulate – the principle of causation.  Therefore, we looked in some detail at the apparent conflict between these 2 propositions:

  1. Every event has its cause.
  2. The ideas I/we bring up and the habits of responsive action I/we form can produce effects in the world.

The first proposition is essentially the same as the Principle of Sufficient Reason put forward by Leibniz as the foundation of all philosophy. The second is a statement of free will, although it could be viewed alternatively as a statement that posits a sense of my self or of our group as a locus of will. I shall call it a statement of free will.

We looked at 5 ways of dealing with this conflict and found all of them to be wanting. 1. Simply to call it a paradox gains no ground at all. 2. To say that the will emerges in the biologic level of the hierarchy of matter gives false credence to the will, because the same rules of evidence in science-based modes of thinking apply at all levels in the hierarchy (see this blog for 1 and 2). 3. Chaos theory is a mathematical game or tool, not a serious attempt to explain GSOT. 4. The engagement of randomness by quantum physics does not work for free will, because random choice is not what free will means (see this blog for 3 and 4). 5. God is an answer in the sense of trust, but the appeal to God leaves us wondering what we are trusting God to bring about (see this blog).

Our 6th attempt now takes a deeper look at pragmatism. Charles Peirce, we may recall, defined his new philosophy in this way:

…the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it…. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtile it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.[2]

Peirce provides here a model of stimulus and response. The stimulus arrives by perception; the response is one of action (praxis) in the world. The model looks scientific, not surprisingly, because Peirce was a working scientist.

Pragmatism is Peirce’s model for clarity of belief. The model applies to an individual, you or me, or to some group, a family or a people joined by culture or the almost universal community of science. Therefore, pragmatism lends itself readily to science, and yet pragmatism goes far beyond science in its implications. One of those implications is the embedding of free will within the pragmatic model. Let’s look deeper.

Both pragmatism and positivism focus on stimuli and effects that can be touched and seen in the real, external world. But Peirce discusses stimulus and action in the context of a person responding and acting in the world. The locus of observation remains in that person – think you or me – or perhaps in a group – think us. In contrast, positivism appeals to an ideal, universal, reproducible observer. The personal and particular aspects of observer(s) fade away in positivism.

In keeping the focus personal, either singular or plural, Peirce in the first sentence quoted above appropriately uses the word “purpose.” He describes thought and action prompted by an external stimulus, aimed toward an external target, yet in the transition governed by a function of inner responsiveness. “Purpose” for me is appropriate because I am not asking what kind of responses are made by some class of humans under observation; instead I am asking in the midst of living what kind of choices I make. “Purpose” for us is appropriate because we are not asking what kind of responses are made by some externally identified class of humans under observation; instead we are asking in the midst of living what kind of choices we make.

Don’t be misled by Peirce’s use of the word “habit” to describe the response function. It should be understood as “choosing.” The formation of a new habit is the strongest form of choosing. As Peirce puts it, “the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action.” If these habits of action are produced, the clear implication is that they are newly instantiated, and if newly instantiated through a process of thought, then they are chosen.

In times past, when I would arrive at this point in thinking this through, an obstruction in the form of an unanswerable question seemed to block the path. I was then concerned to distinguish between a responsive act I might make that would be truly new and not pre-existing, on the one hand, and a responsive act, on the other hand, that would merely represent a new discovery of something pre-existing within my self – something like a particular function among an overall set of functional responses linking stimulus and action. 

Pragmatic pears 2
If it looks like a pear and tastes like a pear and nourishes like a pear, why then let’s call it a pear and eat!

Even then, I had the feeling that the unanswerable question, which is the distinction between those two possibilities, might make no difference at all. Now I’m sure that Peirce would agree: it makes no difference. There is no privileged, overarching viewpoint from which such a distinction can be made. We must start from where we are, inhabiting flesh, engaged in lives of action.

Thus it makes no sense to ask whether my human will creates a choice de novo or simply follows a particular functional response specified by sensory inputs interrogating a (possibly infinite) set of pre-existing functional responses. These alternatives form a pragmatic pair. If the only way to discover the particular response among many possible responses is to live it out, then the practical implications are the same.

Is this a philistine, sparse, mechanical view of what might otherwise be called soul or spirit? Again, don’t be misled by the language. It fits rather well with what Immanuel Kant saw when he looked at GSOT and declared,

Two things fill me with ever increasing awe and admiration – the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.

Kant’s moral law is an apt description of the functional responses that constitute human choosing. Here Kant describes the moral law as he discovers it within one individual person – himself. Elsewhere Kant makes the same mistake that Aristotle, Descartes, and other rationalists make, assuming that the pattern of choosing that he finds clearly within himself must be true universally. That’s wrong. There is no requirement for agreement (discussed here).

Even within an individual person, the set of functional responses which is discovered and discoverable only through living out each one, then moving to the next, might be infinite, or if finite as large as the brilliant canopy of heaven.

We cannot know truth as such. Our commerce is with belief, and belief is a product of thoughtful human activity. More specifically, belief is a product of thoughtful decision-making by you and me and us.

Even so, some beliefs turn out to be wrong, and other beliefs turn out to be right – that is, they turn out to predict what happens. Therefore, some beliefs move closer to truth than others.

What is the criterion by which we can judge some beliefs to be more true than others? The criterion is the probability with which beliefs predict the future as we experience events rolling past.

You and I choose our beliefs, it would seem, through one of 2 paradigms. The first is a paradigm of observation-experiment-calculation, which might be regarded as the paradigm of science. The second is a paradigm of personal preference arising from within. This has been considered to constitute free will.

But are the two paradigms really separable? For both involve the interaction of a person with the surrounding external world. The paradigm of science never entirely escapes the touch of personal preference, most prominently the inner urge to do science at all. Moreover, no person works generically as a scientist, but each chooses some field of study, as well as the methods, samples, conditions, and degrees of certainty that will satisfy her or him. If someone were to ask why you study mitochondria in yeast, you might well reply that such work in the pursuit of knowledge is fulfilling. Such a reply expresses personal preference.

Likewise the second paradigm obviously involves the interaction of a person with the surrounding external world. It demands repetitions of observation, calculation, and experiment, in which a multitude of scenarios from the world are presented as hypotheses to the inner person, and one of these evokes the strongest response. That is what we call a choice of personal preference. The result becomes a belief about what the inner self wants. Yet the process – interaction of a person with the surrounding external world – has the same fundamental elements as the process of science.

Pragmatism asserts that the paradigm of science and the paradigm of will are not separable in kind. They only describe the degree to which agreement and public verification of predictability apply, or conversely that to which individual spark or conjoined effort of a group, less than all, finds meaning by application in the real world.

Let’s go back now to the question that began this discussion several blogs ago. Does pragmatism really have an answer to the paradox that arises when we try to believe both of the following statements?

  1. Every event has its cause.
  2. The ideas I/we bring up and the habits of responsive action I/we form can produce effects in the world.

Statement (2.) is a straightforward declaration of human agency. All belief must be understood pragmatically through the lens of habits/inclinations of responsive action. Free will is not a conclusion at the end of a theoretical proof. It is instead part of the process by which we assign meaning.

Statement (1.), on the other hand, has no such clear and straightforward interpretation. We have to recognize that “Every event has its cause” is in its barest sense a metaphysical statement. When spoken by a religious believer, it invokes God setting forth a rule by which the universe is going to operate. Without the theological reference, “Every event has its cause” is simply an unprovable statement and just as much an article of faith as belief in God. Thus “Every event has its cause,” unqualified and without acknowledgement of faith, is not a meaningful construct for human understanding.

Let us then decisively choose statement (2.) as the basis for practical living in the world. Recognizing that (2.) is in conflict with (1.), we must just as decisively reject statement (1.). It is neither demonstrably nor self-evidently true that every event has its cause. There is no sufficient reason to accept The Principle of Sufficient Reason as a starting point.

When he was 24 years old, Charles Peirce in a speech to the Cambridge High School Association announced his judgment that David Hume, the Scottish skeptic, had invalidated the Principle of Sufficient Reason formulated by Leibniz, as follows:

In [Hume’s] day, the philosophical world was divided between the doctrines of Leibniz and Locke, the former of whom maintained the existence of innate ideas while the latter rejected them. Hume, accepting the latter doctrine, which was prevalent in England, asked, “How do we know that every change has a cause?” He demonstrated by invincible logic that upon Locke’s system it was impossible to prove this, and that it ought not to be admitted as a principle at all.[3]

In rejecting “Every event has its cause,” therefore, we find ourselves in good company.

But it is only when “Every event has its cause” oversteps its limits, when we let it pretend to excise purpose and will from human life, that we must reject it. In ordinary terms “Every event has its cause” blooms with pragmatic meaning, as we consider endeavors of scientists unveiling the forces of nature, advances from engineers deploying technology for human progress, and evidence-based solutions from physicians caring for health. These and other activities enlarge the scope of human freedom.

It is only in the metaphysical sense that “Every event has its cause” can be found to conflict with the affirmation of human free will. Now pragmatism has superseded metaphysics. The principle of causation, also known as the principle of sufficient reason, when pragmatically understood in the context of human activity, functions as a highly reliable interpretive foundation that supports purposeful action.


Next post:  Rule #4. Break these rules

Previous post:  Born in Suzhou, Huston Smith

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home


[1] GSOT, the grand scheme of things, introduced in the first blog in this series.

[2] Ibid. p 123.

[3] The Place of Our Age in the History of Civilization, first published in Cambridge Chronicle, a Weekly (Sat., Nov. 21, 1863), vol. 18, No. 47, p. 1, reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings ed. Wiener, P.P., Dover, New York, p. 7.


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