Determinism and Free Will

How is it that free will and determinism both seem to make sense to us, and yet, can, at once, seem so directly at odds? Considering that the penning of lengthy philosophical treatises on this seeming contradiction has sacrificed so many trees through the centuries, we might hope at least for better explanation—if not reconciliation. But the seeming contradiction has, for the most part, remained a conundrum.

If we limit ourselves to traditional ways of thinking, it will continue to do so. While free will and determinism as conventionally conceived each seem self-evident, they present mutually exclusive realities. You would not be reading this book, and I would not have written it, if we did not believe in free will. We see our choices as ours to determine. Yet, at the same time, the underlying assumptions of our various Modern Age explanations negate such freedom. Indeed, our ultimate human explanations have always done so. In science’s classical mechanistic picture, one “gear” turns and the next is engaged, whether the subject is a chemical reaction, an amoeba—or ourselves. Traditional religion presents a world that is just as ultimately immune to our influence. Certainly we can sin if that is our want. But if God is in fact omniscient and omnipresent, in the end, nothing is going to get past him. Traditional assumptions leave us at an impasse.

Integrative Meta-perspective’s more “living” systemic vantage offers us a way past the apparent contradiction—though to get there we have to rethink familiar beliefs. Our specifically creative interpretation provides a particularly effective approach for doing so.

Integrative Meta-perspective starts by challenging the usefulness of how we have framed the free will/determinism question. If we look at the question through a developmental/evolutionary lens, we recognize that the fact that we’ve thought of causality in terms of free will on one hand and deterministic processes on the other has had more to do with how cognition has functioned in times past than how things actually work. The way we have viewed the debate has been a product of a developmentally understandable, but systemically incomplete view of the world.

For example, all along free will versus determinism has been a falsely framed dichotomy. The way we commonly think about free will reflects the Modern Age conception of conscious awareness described in Chapter Six. To think of free will as free and willful in the unfettered sense implied by this now-outdated picture in the end translates into but another kind of determinism. It is just that with this kind of determinism it is we who get to do the determining. (Psychiatrist Carl Jung challenged our Modern Age interpretation of human will back in the middle of the last century with these words: “Where there is a will there is a way is the superstition of modern man.” He went on to observe that “what we commonly call ‘self-knowledge’ is a very limited knowledge.” (See Jung, Carl, Man and His Symbols..)

So, more accurately, the traditional debate has pitted alternative determinisms. These alternative determinisms have served us. Each has, in similar ways, protected us—as polar explanations of every sort do—from life’s ultimately rich, but also easily overwhelming uncertainties and complexities. And as with other polar explanations, today each equally leaves us short.

Our creative interpretation provides language and perspective for thinking in the needed new ways. I’ve described how Cultural Maturity’s changes make conscious awareness’s function inherently creative. I’ve also described how human intelligence is structured to support formative process. When we combine awareness’s altered significance with this more complete picture of intelligence, cognition’s function as a whole becomes more explicitly creative. The resulting more dynamic picture changes what we see all the way around.

As far as free will, conscious awareness remains just as amazing—in its creative possibilities in many ways more so—but it is also no longer free and willful in the same unrestrained sense its has been our preference to assume. Certainly freedom in a creative reality does not translate into being able to do whatever we might choose. In a creatively engaged life, both limits and uncertainty play necessary roles. Choice is also always contingent, at least in relationship to its creative time and place. Our freedoms are always exercised within systemic contexts.

We see related changes on the determinism side of the equation. Traditional determinisms of all sorts stop being cut and dried in the ways we have thought them to be. Causal relationships tend to involve a multiplicity of systemically related factors, frequently more factors than we can begin to keep track of. And more often than not, “living” systemic factors are involved, factors that necessarily function beyond our ability to fully anticipate or control. Of particular importance, one of those factors that always intercedes is ourselves. Thus limits and uncertainty, again, play necessary roles in what we witness. Life is ordered, deeply, but this is not the order of one thing guaranteeing another. At its best, it is the order of creative possibility.

Viewed from an Integrative Meta-perspective, free will is not as free and as much ours to direct as those of an individualistic bent might prefer. And neither is determination as determined as advocates of either right-hand or left-hand causalities might propose. In the end, all this is rather a good thing. Were this more creative picture not the case, life would be much less interesting. Indeed, life of our particular human sort would not exist.