Pragmatic Free Will for Individuals and Groups

If 5 rules for GSOT apply, then free will pragmatically works. It sounds right, but does the conclusion follow?

The 5 rules are as follows:

Rule #1.  Every sentence is first-person in its origin.

Rule #2.  The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.

Rule #3.  Unless it makes a difference in somebody’s disposition to act, then it makes no difference.

Rule #4.  Break these rules.

Rule #5.  Get back to the rules.

This blog series, Searching for GSOT, has tried to affirm human free will in the context of the 5 rules shown above. Up to now, however, we have not made free will a primary focus of inquiry. It’s time now to launch an extended discussion aimed at free will. To begin, let me recall a few key points made earlier.

The first encounter with free will in this series came in the second blog about positivism. It took shape as a personal testimony, as follows:

Science or faith? Would I follow in the path of my father, a path that I partially recognized had attracted some of the best minds of the era, or would I accept the faith of my mother?

But where in the scientific realm of positivist thinking was the mechanism that allowed me to make a choice at all? Are we only observers of the events that describe our lives, events that answer only to reproducibly defined stimuli, responses, and genetic traits? I pushed back against that thought. Science, I pondered, might not be the only way to gain knowledge, especially the knowledge of who I am and what I want.

I began to think that the deepest feelings and commitments that steer the course of our lives are mostly unscientific. My father would have said that evolution put the feelings and commitments inside of us. In his absence now, I ask different questions and observe that the process by which each learns about his own passion is not scientific at all.

One way to define “will” is the process by which each person learns about his or her own passion. Note how intimate the process appears to be, how connected with first-person pronouns I and me.

In the second blog on fundamentalism, the question of free will in groups of people received a tentative affirmation –

Is free will – if it exists at all – vested also in families, tribes, cultures, and not merely in individual people? I think that free will operates in groups as well as individuals. My identity is not merely an individual identity. I am bound to and lifted up by my wife, my family, my region and country, my community of faith that crosses borders, as well as other people of passion and will crossing boundaries of faith, and finally humanity and the world to which human eyes open in wonder. The operation of will may occur in all of these, enlarging my own small will immensely.

It is wrong, I believe, to tie our speculations about free will solely to the individual person. I am influenced here by the discussion of ontologic individualism in the remarkable book, Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah and colleagues.[1] Ontologic individualism is an assertion that the individual person has real existence (being) in whatever way a thinker conceives of real existence, coupled with a denial that groups of people have that kind of existence.

Ontologic individualism is certainly the rule among Americans. Consider that the average American believes in God and believes in the individual soul. Think about asking about a group of people – say, a group that forms a church, or even the group comprising all the citizens of the United States – does this group of people have a (corporate) soul? The typical American would say that a church or citizens of the U.S.A. have a soul only in a metaphorical sense. Only an individual person has a soul that really exists.

From the basic belief in ontologic individualism follows a conclusion that relationships among people consist only of spatial, temporal, genetic, experiential, and cultural similarities, and the communications and negotiations that pass between people aggregated according to those similarities.

Bellah and colleagues argue against ontologic individualism. The existence of the individual person may be real, but it is no more real than the existence of a group. Pertinent to our discussion is the idea that both individuals and groups provide venues for the operation of will.  I have tried to provide a schematic of this idea through the image of “intersecting and expanding domes” within which will presents.

A full argument connecting will with both individuals and groups is beyond the scope of the present blog. I suggest reading Habits of the Heart. My reasons shall be developed further in some blogs to come.

In the 3rd blog under Rule #1, Every sentence is first-person, I tried to show how differently an exploration of free will may proceed if that exploration is expressed in first-person speech, as opposed to the usual manner of expressing it in objective, third-person terms. The usual third-person attempt falls into a circular argument that is recognized to prove nothing. The first-person exploration finds meaning in the fact that the question continues to be asked, and the exploration continues.

A connection between free will and pragmatism dawned and seemed to clarify as the blogs on pragmatism proceeded. One way of stating the core principle of pragmatism could be “Truth that does not influence human decision is truth that makes no difference.” Of course, truth so conceived, lacking influence on human decision, must be noumenal truth in the Kantian sense.[2] But such truth, which makes no difference, will never be recognized by a person or group who remain in the actual human condition. Therefore, claims of truth that negate the possibility of human decision-making must be false claims. These false claims come from the perspective of a person or group standing apart from the human condition, usually a wannabe-universal perspective of positivism based on a demand for agreement among all persons “sufficiently trained in the discipline[s] of interest.”

The brief argument in the preceding paragraph is highly self-referential. I hope that through the course of this series you might have come to the conclusion, as I have, that we must come to terms with self-referencing logic. It is wrong to try to escape it. Your job or my job is to decide whether it fits your/my present complex of inheritance, experience, and desires, or…may I say it?…your or my will. Moreover, the argument need not claim to prove the existence of will in an ontologic sense. It should merely strive to justify my will or yours as an operator sufficient for making responsible choices in our lives. That is a goal of upcoming blogs.

In the next blog I’ll present an exercise – a kind of thought experiment – that might move the analysis forward.


Next post:  Free Will: An Exercise

Previous post:  Rule #5. Get Back to the Rules

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Header image:  3 oranges and a mango in a wooden bowl. Own photo. CC0 Public Domain.

[1] Bellah, R.N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W.M., Swidler, A., Tipton, S.M. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. New York, Harper & Row, pp. 143, 244, 334. Copyright 1985 by Regents of the University of California.

[2] Noumenal truth according to Kant means what is really true, but is not accessible to human apprehension. Phenomenal truth is that which is perceived through the senses and/or recognized by a priori modes of thought that define, for example, mathematics.



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