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Incommensurable Worldviews

March 27, 2018

These days I don’t really think too much about philosophy, but the concept that I am still intrigued with is phenomenology — the study of that which appears, of subjective experience. Whatever the outside world is, I have to live with myself, after all. I am a big fan of subjectivity, as a lot of posts of this blog doubtlessly reveal.

So, when it comes to discussing things with others, I place objectivity on the window sill — I’m looking more at intersubjectivity, where my subjective experience agrees (or does not) with yours. I think we can hope for intersubjective agreement to the extent that we are, objectively, built similarly, and I think we generally hope that we are objectively built similarly because we are members of the same species.

But what happens if we are not? When we are not?

I’ve found some conversations to be almost comical in how incommensurable the worldviews underpinning them can be.

Today, I am thinking about the difference between free will and determinism. You can glance at the name of this blog to get an understanding of which side I am on. How strange is it for someone raised in a religion that puts free will as a primary theological virtue to end up having a blog named for a concept in a very deterministic religion? And yet, when I read about Calvinist understanding of the will, and the understanding of why religion appeals to some and why it doesn’t to other, it made sense to me. At least, more sense than the idea that some people just don’t try hard enough to believe.

But what gets me is talking with people who do believe in free will (especially for beliefs). Because they really do believe in it and they really do seem to experience things that way. In the past, I would usually try to break down that belief, appealing to how experience the world and expecting them to experience the world in the same way. I thought that if we were built similarly enough, we’d hit some point of intersubjective agreement, and then I would be able to reveal that their free will (or my determinism) was really a misunderstanding.

Well, I act because I have certain desires…I believe because certain things seem more likely than others. But I didn’t choose to those desires. I didn’t choose for one thing to make sense and another thing to seem unlikely. I may have competing desires, and they may fluctuate, but I don’t choose which one is stronger. So, is that really free will? Ah, yes, I can sometimes choose to act in ways that everything in me screams at me is wrong, but is this what you mean? To me, that seems like lying to myself, not actually choosing to believe something else. To me, trying to consciously change beliefs is more like gambling: I can try to stack the odds in a number of ways (only exposing myself to certain material and not others), but would you say a gambler “chooses” to win the jackpot? Would you say buying more lottery tickets and going broke is “choosing” to win?

But no example is sufficient. At each time, they zigged every time I zagged. It’s not just that they believed different things. But that they experienced different things. I was (am?) incredulous that they experience things as they say they do, but I have to admit that if they do experience things as they say they do, then their beliefs make sense.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be an absolute chameleon, to change your personality and values and beliefs to fit any scenario? At the extremist end, you could choose to never be unhappy, never be bored, never upset, because you could simply change your beliefs and feelings about the things in your life, whatever they might be.

I don’t suspect that free willers think things can go so far, but maybe I’m just incredulous because of my own position. Maybe that is what they mean by peace and joy and all of that?

And if this is possible, is it possible for everyone? With just enough training and practice and agonizing? And what are the costs? What are the down sides?

Or is it only possible for some? Are we simply built differently, so different people have different capacities and capabilities?

Or is it a gift that God gives just to the elect?


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  1. Agellius permalink

    As you know I’m one who believes we have some choice in what to believe or not believe. But what I’m not saying is this:

    * That we can change our beliefs at will, on a dime, whenever we choose and as often as we want. I can’t choose to believe the Gospel at 1:00 and disbelieve it at 2:00 and resume belief at 3:00.

    * That we can choose to believe or disbelieve things that are self-evident, e.g. that 2+2=4.

    * That we can choose to believe or disbelieve things that have been demonstratively proven one way or the other.

    * That we can choose to believe things for which there is not sufficient warrant in reason or fact.

    But, if there is sufficient warrant for a belief, yet the object of belief hasn’t been proven demonstratively and is not self-evident, then I think we can choose whether or not to believe it, or at least take actions which affect our disposition to believe or disbelieve it.

    Take politics as an example. A lot of people of either party are predisposed to believe ill of the other party. It’s easy for a Democrat to believe a Republican is being dishonest (and vice versa), or if he does something wrong, that he did it with malice aforethought. At the same time, it’s possible for people to decide to make an effort to be openminded, to not jump to conclusions, to not assume the worst about people. Otherwise, all of the calls for civility in political discourse are pointless.

    I’m someone who used to be a liberal but am now a conservative; who used to be an atheist but am now religious. At any given moment during these stages in my life, I could not have instantly leapt to the other side; I didn’t have free choice of belief in that sense. But I also deny that my own actions and attitudes had no bearing on my change of belief. In fact I can point to a specific moment when I changed my religious beliefs, and another moment when I changed my political stance. It wasn’t by sheer force of will, it was more like a dawning realization based on things that had gone before, that I no longer saw things the way I had. But “things that had gone before” included my own efforts at learning new things and seeing things in new ways.

    I think “sufficient warrant” is a key concept here. If I could simply choose to believe one way and then another way at will on the flimsiest of grounds, then I would know that my “beliefs” lacked substance. But even when sufficient warrant for a belief exists, belief is not always thereby compelled, even if it is justified.

  2. Agellius,

    Thanks for commenting as always! And thanks for clarifying.

    At the risk of ruining the moment, I’ll fall into the trap of trying to poke and prod to see when the zigging will be met with zagging:

    I’m thinking about your paragraph on the change in your political and religious views. I definitely acknowledge that people’s views can change, and that yes, often times, there were things that they did that contributed to that. It gets back to the gambling analogies to me. Yeah, you have a lot better chance at winning the lottery if you buy more tickets.

    But I’m wondering: you say you can point to a specific moment when you changed your religious beliefs, that it was more of a “dawning realization” based on things that had gone on before, and that those things that had gone on before included your own efforts.

    I think that makes sense. But to me, the language doesn’t fit. Like, I would probably agree with a lot of that, but say: “I can point to a specific moment when *my religious beliefs changed*” — I would not say I changed my religious beliefs because I would not say I chose the dawning realization, even if I chose efforts without which such realization would not have occurred.

    Past me would probably say we’re referring to the same thing but just using different language for it. Present me suspects that I’m probably not referring to the same thing since you feel comfortable saying you changed your religious beliefs — taking ownership of that dawning realization.

    And I like what you say about sufficient warrant, but my potential zig-zag moment is that I think that sufficient warrant is…you could probably guess what I will say…subjective. I think we want to believe we would be persuaded by objective warrant, even if we make mistakes, but…these days with the political landscape being what it is…..

  3. I’d like to address this: “I may have competing desires, and they may fluctuate, but I don’t choose which one is stronger. So, is that really free will?”

    My questions are these, (1) if it wasn’t you, then who (or what) was it? (2) And why did they (or it) make that specific choice? (3) And how did they (or it) compel you to accept that choice as your own?

    Free will is not about the absence of causation, but rather about who or what is doing the causing. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.

  4. Marvin,

    I agree with this compatibilist approach. That is to say, we can say that “I” am the collection of my desires, personality, etc., So we can make a distinction between decisions made by the collection of my desires, personality, etc., vs decisions made by external parties/forces. this also fits well with a calvinist approach.

    But I find that people seem to want to use a definition of free will that is more than just “decisions made free of coercion or other undue influence.” That is, the free willers I am talking about seem to want to make decisions that can go contrary to one’s desires or personality. “Even if I want to do x and have no competing desires not to do x, I could just brute force choose not to do x.”

    From this perspective, our desires, personality, genetics, neurology, whatever, even though they are “ours” in a compatibilist approach, all get treated as coercive/undue influences. Like, since I didn’t choose my genetics, for it to determine my decisions doesn’t count as free, even though my genetics are not your genetics.

    • Ah, “brute force”? It’s much easier than that.

      I was a teenager in the public library, reading about the determinism “versus” free will paradox. The idea that everything I did was inevitable bothered me, until I ran across this thought experiment:

      Suppose I have a choice between A and B. I feel myself leaning heavily toward A. So, just to spite inevitability, I’ll choose B instead! Seems too easy. But then I realize that my desire to spite inevitability just made B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A to avoid the inevitable. But wait, now A is inevitable again … it’s an endless loop!

      No matter what I choose, inevitability always switches to match my choice!

      Hmm. So, who or what is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?

      And that’s when I saw through the riddle. The only way that the idea of causal inevitability compromised by freedom was when I tried to take it into account. It was always me, all along.

  5. Marvin,

    from a deterministic/compatibilist sense, you have to have a competing desire “just to spite inevitability” and that one has to be stronger than your desire to do A. I think you yourself acknowledge this in your analysis.

    Really, it doesn’t matter which wins: desire to do A, or desire to spite inevitability. What matters is that your choice is responsive to reasons that you didn’t choose. (This isn’t the same thing as “inevitability” forcing your choice. This is you acting according to your own desires, but the hangup is that you didn’t choose your desires.)

    As a compatibilist, I would agree that my desires are mine. As you say, “it was always me, all along.”

    But in discussions with libertarian free will folks, they are not satisfied that that is free will. From the LFW perspective, the idea seems to be that you should be able to choose regardless of desires. That there is a “me” apart from my desires. This seems incoherent to me.

    • Well, there are three separate classifications of causes: physical, biological, and rational. I imagine that the LFW is reading “desire” as a biological drive or urge, and correctly asserting that, by rational thought, they can choose not to follow that desire. So, part of the problem is clarifying the biological nature of sexual desire versus the rational nature of a “desire” to do what is “right”.

      I suspect that their non-theological claims about free will are likely to be empirically true. For example, it is always logically correct that, if “today I can choose A or B”, then tomorrow it will be true to say that “yesterday I could have chosen A or B”. That’s the way the language operates.

      However, it will also be the case that, given the same person, circumstances, and choices he “would have” made the same choice.

      • However, it will also be the case that, given the same person, circumstances, and choices he “would have” made the same choice.

        yeah, I wish I could find the comments from other discussions on this topic, but I have talked with people who have rejected this very idea.

  6. Instead of physical, biological and rational I would say there is the intellect, the will and the passions. Desires fall under the category of the passions. The passions are a non-reasoning faculty and are involuntary. The intellect obviously is the reasoning faculty and the will is the choosing or doing faculty.

    While it’s true that you have no direct control over your passions — feelings and emotions, likes and dislikes — you do have control over your will. Your intellect and will don’t have to follow the dictates of your passions; you don’t have to eat vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate just because you like vanilla better. For that matter you don’t have to eat just because you’re hungry, otherwise fasting and hunger strikes would be impossible.

    • If I may, the biological drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce forms a sort of “biological will”.

      The intellect is a collection of mental processes, one of which is “choosing”. Choosing inputs multiple possibilities, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice. When we choose what we “will” do, we have literally chosen our will. And this would be a “deliberate will”, resulting from the mental process of deliberation.

      The cause of this choice is us. We are our brain and the mental processes “running” on it. So, whatever the brain decides, we have decided. Whatever the brain chooses, we have chosen. Whatever the brain deliberately controls, we deliberately control.

      The mistake made by the hard determinist is the delusion that “reliable cause and effect” is a “thing” that goes around causing stuff to happen. But it is not a “thing”. We, on the other hand, are physical objects, living organisms, and intelligent species. We actually go around causing stuff to happen, according to what best suits us, our purpose and our reasons.

      The fact that we don’t “choose ourselves” is irrelevant. If a prior cause is required to be its own prior cause, before it can be said to cause anything else, then no cause would ever qualify! So, that’s a bogus requirement.

  7. I agree that we don’t have to eat just because we’re hungry. But I also don’t think we fast or do hunger strikes “just because”. Rather, there are reasons for doing those things, and if we don’t have those reasons (or those reasons are not personally compelling to us), then we wouldn’t do those things. People who do hunger strikes do them for reasons that seem to them to be very valuable, important reasons. But someone who is not similarly convinced is not going to be going on hunger strike.

    Choosing vanilla ice cream over chocolate because I like vanilla better makes sense. Even though I could choose chocolate over vanilla, it doesn’t make sense that I’d ever do that if I didn’t *want* to do that, and that *want* still gets back to passions, doesn’t it? There were some other compelling reason, whether another passion or a matter of intellect. But it seems I don’t choose for a reason to be compelling or not.

    I guess this circles back to your original comment, and there I’d circle back to my original response. Would you say that “dawning realizations” that allow you to change your beliefs are part of the intellect? To me, I get back to the idea that the dawning realization, though I can do something to affect it, is still involuntary.

    • Agellius permalink

      You write, “People who do hunger strikes do them for reasons that seem to them to be very valuable, important reasons. But someone who is not similarly convinced is not going to be going on hunger strike.”

      Agreed. I’m just saying that it’s the intellect and will that decide whether something is convincing enough to act on, and not the passions. The fact that the passions are involuntary doesn’t change the fact that your mind is free to evaluate the pros and cons rationally and make whatever decision seems best. The way you express yourself confirms this: “If we don’t have reasons then we don’t do it,” implying that if we do have sufficient reasons then we can and will defy our desires.

      I agree that at any given moment, whether something seems true to the intellect is not something we can control, it’s not a switch we can flip. We can only act on the information and understanding that we have, and it has to be genuinely convincing or it won’t be a true belief or a strong conviction. I don’t agree that this makes our intellect un-free or predetermined. If that were true, then the fact that 2+2 is 4 would also make us unfree, since we’re unable to believe that it’s 5.

      Your point, though, is that we can’t choose whether or not to believe something, whereas I said we could. But I also said that there has to be sufficient warrant for the belief. Sufficient warrant is not the same as conclusive proof. When you can’t prove something conclusively, then there is more or less room for believing what you choose, and I think people do this all the time. By “choose” I mean, again, that you believe it despite the fact that belief is not compelled intellectually. Your position seems to be that belief has to be compelled; you must have no choice but to believe it, or it’s not true belief. But I don’t agree with that.

      The point where we’re missing each other may be related to what I mean by “choosing”. As I said, I don’t assert that at any given moment you can choose to believe one thing rather than another. But I do think that you can often choose whether to assent to something or suspend judgment. I have had the experience of persuading someone who was ready to believe ill of someone else, instead to suspend judgment since all the facts were not known, or were open to more than one interpretation. Sometimes people are amenable to being so persuaded, and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the thing that impedes them from being persuaded is their passions; they are unwilling to calm down and look at the situation rationally because in a sense they like being mad. But once they calm down — whether by an act of will or by the passage of time — they become willing to look at things another way. So the passions can interfere with rational thought in people who, either momentarily or habitually, let their passions rule them. This is why, in traditional Christian spirituality, so much emphasis is placed on mortifying the body, so that we are ruled by reason and not passion. To be ruled by our passions is basically to live irrationally.

      To answer your question about my dawning realizations, to be honest it’s hard, at this far remove, to sort through how much of it was pure information and how much was a clearing away of “passionate” obstacles. I do remember that in my political “conversion”, part of my previous resistance to it was based on my upbringing and my ingrained prejudice against all things Republican which, I see in hindsight, colored my view. Once I changed my stance on abortion, I could look at Republican ideas in a different light. Before, the Democrats were the good guys and the Republicans the bad guys, and I saw everything through that lens. But once I changed my stance on abortion, the good and bad guy roles were reversed and I was able to see Republican policies in a different light. (I then became a “passionate” Republican, but I got over that too.)

      Maybe by “choosing to believe” what I’m really talking about is subduing the passions so that they don’t color or distort the information upon which we base our beliefs. Although on the other hand, you could say that subduing the passions is just an explanation of *how* one goes about changing or choosing beliefs. You can choose not to let your beliefs be influenced by your passions, and in so doing, find that your beliefs have changed.

      • Although I can presume perfectly reliable cause and effect, I find the idea of “predetermination” to be irrational. One might in theory be able to predict (determine as in “to know”) what will happen but it is impossible for any event to be “causally” determined (as in “caused”) until ALL of its prior causes have played out. Something cannot be “already caused” until it is completely caused.

        I describe it in my blog using the example of a woman building a playground for her kids:

        A woman decides to build a playground in the backyard for her kids. She draws up the plans, buys the materials, spends hours sawing, drilling, putting it together, and painting it. The playground, now in her backyard, is the inevitable result of prior events, specifically, her decision, her planning, her purchasing, and her labor.

        In theory, we could trace back, through an ever-widening network of prior causes, to explain how the woman happened to be there, on the planet Earth, at the time she decided to build the playground. But the farther we move away from the current event, the less relevant and more coincidental each prior cause becomes.

        The most meaningful and relevant cause of the playground was her love for her children. And that did not exist anywhere else in the universe prior to her.

        Therefore, we cannot attribute the cause of the playground to, say, the Big Bang. There was nothing about the Big Bang that “already caused”, “already destined”, “already fixed”, or “already determined” that there would be a playground in that backyard.

        We may say that it was inevitable, from any prior point in eternity, that a playground would show up in her backyard. But we cannot truthfully assert that it was “caused” by that prior point. An event is never caused until it is completely caused. It cannot be “pre-caused”. And it never would have happened except for the desire of the woman to bring it about.

        When we choose what we will do, and act upon that choice, we are the final responsible cause of the inevitable result. And while our choice was itself inevitable, it was never anything other than our own choice.

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