Free Will as an Abstract Construct

Free Will as an Abstract Construct February 12, 2018

I am a conceptual nominalist so that when it comes to abstract ideas, I see them as constructed by the mind(s). In this way, humans create (using language, maths and so on) a map of reality as a way of interpreting real properties of the world around them. As Kant said, we cannot know things-in-themselves, and so we use our senses to interpret them. This map that we build ourselves becomes the way that we navigate around the world. However, we must also be aware that we should not confuse the map with the terrain; we should not think that the map that we have created is itself reality outside of an internal, mind-constructed reality.

I have applied this to abstract concepts like personhood and morality, but have not applied it to my favoured area of philosophy: free will. This is perhaps because I have always seen free will in terms of not existing at all in the sense of libertarian free will (LFW, the real and conscious ability to rationally choose otherwise in a given situation). For some, free will illusionism is the way to understand the phenomenon, such that some philosophers think that LFW does not exist but that it is a useful or necessary illusion – or, indeed, one that we simply cannot psychologically shake off.

I was recently linked to an academic paper in Conductual called “The Interbehavioral Alternative to Free Will and Determinism Constructs” by Noel W. Smith from the State University of New York. What was particularly pleasing, from a narcissistic point of view, was it quoted me several times from an article I wrote for the Free Inquiry. But, to the point in hand…

The abstract reads:

A review of various approaches to the old debate of determinism vs. free will shows little progress toward resolving the puzzle by any of the approaches. It is argued here that this is due to the failure to recognize that both free will and determinism are not things or events but imposed constructs, abstractions. Consequently, they cannot have causal or explanatory power. When we turn to observable events it brings us to a multiplex of things and conditions with which the individual interacts in the choosing event. This is an interbehavioral approach in which the interaction consists of this multiplex of events and constitutes the choosing. The interbehavioral resolution of this old conundrum has application in psychotherapy and criminal justice.

The paper takes an interbehavioural approach to discussions pertaining to free will:

An individual browses in a library, looks at several books of possible interest, and finally selects one to read. Is this individual exercising free will or is the decision a product of a series of antecedent causal events that determine the selection? The determinist would argue that the individual actually had no choice in the matter but selected the book on the basis of lawful cause and effect sequences. Each act was cause of the next and so on ad infinitum with any “choice” being also determined. The free will proponent would contend that humans can rise above physical cause and event relations and make free choices by exercising willpower. Still others integrate various mixtures of freedom and determinism. Some make a distinction between determinism and causality; causality is a motivating force: in a choice situation an individual uses will power to reject all motives but one, thus rendering the decision as one that is caused but not strictly determined. It is motivation that is currently often referred to as causal rather than will or determinism.

The argument advanced by the interbehaviorist is that the debate is a pointless one, for it invokes metaphysical forces, namely, will and determinism (and sometimes motives), and imposes them on the events. What are will power or determinism but empty abstractions? Where are these constructs tied to actual events? Such verbal creations should not be confused with events. What the observer actually observes are fields of interrelating objects and events. In the example of selecting a book, an event approach would require examining the individual’s interests, his or her momentary pressing problems that the book might have been considered to help solve, length of time available for reading as compared with the book’s length, recommendations by a friend, or other relevant factors. After fully describing the essential factors including the deliberating and choosing, there is no need to add a special force of any kind. The interacting and interdependent factors that comprise a field of psychological events are themselves the causal conditions. This is a functional descriptive approach rather than a prescriptive approach. Each event occurrence can be correlated with particular sets of conditions––examining a book, considering its desirability or appropriateness in terms of interests, needs, reading time. Change in a field of events comprises a new arrangement of field factors––deliberating on another book, rejecting the previous book. As new properties and conditions are present the organization must be a different one, a different correlation or co-presence. Finding the book that is most suitable, in which case it is chosen, is the final field of events for that series. Noting the time and walking to a check-out desk would be further ongoing fields of events. No invisible or impelling force is necessary.

This multiplex of interbehavioural events is part of an approach called field theory, defined as a psychological theory that examines patterns of interaction between the individual and the total field, or environment.

I cannot see this as being any different from determinism per se. Indeed, Smith quotes Pronko as saying:

An interbehavioral orientation, then, would view psychological occurrences as events in which the role of all the component factors would be assessed. Their relationship and the interrelationship of the flow of events is the focus of such an orientation. There is no glorification of the organism over the object. Consequently, there is no place for a prime mover, In other words in an interbehavioral approach the question of free will never comes up . . . . The free will-determinism controversy is an artifact of a self-actional procedure. If and where, in the distant future, such a procedure should be superseded by a field or interbehavioral type of theory then the question: does man have a free will or is behavior strictly determined?” will be a philosophical and linguistic fossil. It can only be nurtured by a self-actional approach in which it is embedded. The question never arises in field theory. (Pronko, 1972). [Pronko, N. H. (1972). Notes for a freshman: On the free will versus determinism controversy. Interbehavioral Psychology Newsletter, Spring, 3(2).]

Maybe I am misinterpreting things here, but it seems to me that a field theory implicitly accepts causal determinism. Causality must take into account every variable available and pertinent. We may call these fields, which is itself an abstraction of the properties, but I can’t see how this might eliminate the idea of determinism. Smith includes this statement:

Free will assumes an internal cause and determinism an external cause. In contrast, interbehaviorism treats cause as a complex of observable events. It identifies both free will and determinism as constructs that get imposed on the observed events and rejects them both. It insists that investigations must begin not with constructs but with observation of events from which constructs such as theories, descriptions, measures, diagrams, and inferences may be derived (Smith. 2007).

I would contest this that determinism assumes internal and external causes in every shape and form. I think that compatibilism is closer to seeing causality as external. Other than that, there’s not an awful lot to disagree with in the paper. Check it out.

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