Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Aggregate Thinking and Objectification

   Thinking in the aggregate is a nearly ubiquitous and irresistible human impulse, an impulse born perhaps in an increasingly complex, changing world that requires quick decisions and survival smarts. We plug people into groups, draw inferences based on averages, then move on as if all is well. But is it rational, and does it lend itself to the making of accurate, humane, and meaningful life decisions? This essay will explore the premise that such thinking is neither rational nor beneficial, and that ultimately all assessments of human beings that lean on aggregate statistical analysis, and other forms of abstract generalization, are in essence subtle and damaging forms of dehumanization. Philosophically, attempts to establish a conclusive interpretation for any individual human action by employing aggregate based calculations and related assumptions is an ontological nightmare, not unlike the epistemological quagmire we find ourselves in with platonism, structuralism and moral absolutism.
The term aggregate is used in different ways by different groups, one being the concept of aggregate demand or aggregate supply in macroeconomics, signifying some comprehensive or total value. People working in statistics, in the credit industry, or in the fields of predictive analytics and actuarial science also make extensive use of aggregate concepts. As used here, aggregate thinking is defined as the practice, whether codified into a mathematical formula or through simple every-day observation, of simply grouping and making assumptions about individual human beings derived from an analysis of the many, ostensibly to predict some future outcome, level of risk or value.
How does such thinking differ from the formation of the common stereotype, or prejudicial thinking in general, both of which are almost universally deplored? I would suggest that they differ only on a very superficial level. Judgments which seem entirely arbitrary, lacking any kind of statistical support or detailed argument, certainly appear more prejudicial. But garnish them with even the slightest amount of statistical reasoning, however superfluous, and the acceptance level rises accordingly. Conflating the abstract with the particular, and the realm of thought with flesh-and-blood existence, seems particularly easy when the subject of our analysis is of a conceptual nature, such as people, or society, as opposed to a living, breathing, individual human.
What choices do we have, really, when assessing our fellow human beings? We can consider individual people as entirely unique, living, breathing, sentient creatures, each with his or her own 100-percent unique life experiences, level of intelligence and genetic predisposition; or we can view them as something lesser, in the abstract, as just one part of a large group, defining them according to some mathematical algorithm or set of averages -- or generalization -- which assume that similar creatures think and reason in 100-percent identical ways.
Consider a group of 100 people. If 80 people out of this 100 are determined to have X characteristic, and if all those who have X characteristic engage in Y, can we take each of these 100 individuals in isolation and say that each of them has an 80 percent chance of engaging in Y? Not without committing a number of logical fallacies we can't. We commit the fallacy of division when we say that something which is true for the whole is necessarily true for each or some of its parts. We commit the ecological fallacy when we infer that statistics involving an individual can be deduced from inference for some group to which an individual belongs. The fallacy of composition involves falsely reasoning that what is true for a part is also true for the whole. The informal fallacy of hasty generalization is made when a conclusion is reached without consideration of all variables, which in this case would be those unique to a specific individual.
Put another way, is it fair to assume that each and every person in a group with predominantly similar characteristics carries the same degree of risk that the entire group does, in the aggregate? Most of us would say no, yet this type of assumption is exactly what happens in all sorts of enterprises -- in the field of insurance and actuarial science, in the determination of credit scores, in setting security clearances, in establishing citizenship, indeed with just about everything and anything that requires certification or a license. Conformity, predictability and risk aversion may be the underlying motives, but at what cost? One could make the point that the fundamental nature of organized society itself, governed by a universal set of rules and regulations, is all about the common good, and with it the implicit expectation that individuals will accept some degree of sacrifice and individualism to maintain the dominant ideal. But how far is too far, and when does mass conformity and group-think overwhelm that which makes us truly human?
Requiring people to sacrifice their individuality on the altar of the abstract, the aggregate, and the hypothetical seems to me to be fraught with dangers, among them deindividuation, defined in social psychology circles as the loss of self-awareness in groups and the diminishing of a person's sense of individuality. The belief that such states are a factor in antisocial behavior has been explored by a number of researchers, among them French psychologist Gustave Le Bon who described it as a process whereby individuals' minds become dominated by a “unanimous, emotional, and intellectually weak” collective mindset, leading to a loss of individual responsibility
In a 2002 working paper series for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, writer Thomas Garrett points to another danger, this one involving the use of regression analysis and consumer sentiment indices, and how the use of data aggregation can lead to misleading conclusions about individual economic behavior. The irony of formal regression analysis as it relates to economics is that it still involves a form of objectification, by treating a person as a mere variable. As commonly defined, regression analysis is simply a statistical forecasting method used to estimate the effect that an independent variable has on a dependent variable.
Garrett states: "Every field of economics uses aggregated data to test hypotheses about the behavior of individuals. Examples in macroeconomics include the use of aggregate consumption and income to test the permanent income hypothesis (Hall, 1978), and forecasting national personal consumption expenditures using consumer sentiment indices (Caroll, et al. 1994: Bram and Ludvigson, 1998). The use of aggregate data to explain individual behavior makes the assumption that the hypothesized relationship between the economic variables in question is homogeneous across all individuals. When the behavior of economic agents is not the same, a regression analysis using aggregated data can provide conclusions regarding economic relationships that are different than if less aggregated data were used."
Jean JacquesRousseau, in The Social Contract and Discourses, parses the foundation that we give to a very old ideal – the idea of "the strong" – seen by some (in particular the strong) as the implicit arbitrator of morality and an element of that class of things considered to be truly real.
Rousseau writes: "The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the strongest, which though to all seemingly meant ironically, is really laid down as a fundamental principal. But are we never to have an explanation of this phrase? Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will – at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty? Suppose for a moment that this so-called 'right' exists. I maintain that the sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. For, if force creates right, the effect changes with the cause; every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right. As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest."
Where Rousseau questions the idea of force making right, we may just as well question the utilitarian idea of the right action always being that which results in the greatest good for the greatest number. In either case, we are dealing with non-physical elements of discourse, and the impossible challenge of determining what is infinitely “right” and what is infinitely “good” apart from complete omniscience, and against the great expanse of time.
The common denominator that aggregate statistical analysis, regression analysis, and utilitarian ethics all share is a reliance on non-concrete, abstract, absolutist thinking, and on the belief that it is possible to accurately define and relate to human beings as static things, things which can and should be compared to some abstract infinite quality existing entirely outside of normal time and space. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum described the process of objectification as something that occurs when a person is used as a tool, as something that is owned or interchangeable, or as something that may be destroyed without any additional permission needed. Similar to the concept of dehumanization, objectification negates the feelings and humanness of an individual, either indirectly or directly, through various levels of oversimplification and denial.
The debate over the role and reality of the immaterial is an old one and entails a number of metaphysical positions which I think are worth summarizing. They include:
Platonism: Abstract objects exist in a non-physical and non-mental realm outside of normal time and space. (Historical Platonism adherents: Plato, Numenius, Plotinus, Augustine, Ploclus. Modern platonism, small "p" adherents: Bernard Bolzano, Gottlob Frege, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel, W.V. Quine, Hilary Putnam, George Bealer and Edward Zalta).
Nominalism (anti-realism): Universal entities and abstract objects do not formally exist, as do particular concrete entities and objects. (Francis Bacon, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Nelson Goodman.)
Conceptualism (mentalism, psychologism): Abstract objects such as numbers do in fact exist, not as independent entities but as mental constructs. (Locke, Husserl, Brouwer, Heyting, Noam Chomsky, Fodor).
Immanent realism (moderate realism): Universals exist, not in some external reality beyond time and space but within the physical world of particulars. (Aristotle, D.M. Armstrong).
Nihilism: Nothing actually exists. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Stanley Rosen, Martin Heidegger).
Naturalism: mind and non-material values are a product of matter. (John Dewey, Sidney Hook, Roy Wood Sellars, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Paul Kurtz)
Idealism: Mind or spirit constitutes the fundamental reality. (Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Arthur Schopenhauer).
Objective idealism: Material objects do not exist independently of human perception. Spiritual realities are independent from human consciousness. (Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Shelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Plato)
Subjectiveidealism: Mind and mental constructs are all that exist. (Dharmakīrti, George Burkeley).
Solipsism: Knowledge outside of one's one mind is uncertain. Only one's mind is sure to exist. (René Descartes, Gorgias of Leontini, George Berkeley).
Common senserealism (Naïve Realism): Material objects do in fact exist.(J.J. Gibson, William Mace, Claire Michaels, Edward Reed, Robert Show, Michael Turvey, Carol Fowler).
Existentialism: All thinking must begin with the living, existing, feeling human being, and not with some abstract essence. (Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Satre, Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, Eugène Ionesco).
Moral Absolutism: The acceptance of or belief in absolute principles in political, philosophical, ethical or theological matters.
Structuralism: Elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure (wikipedia). Simon Blackburn: Structuralism is "the belief that phenomenon of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture."
Theories concerning the ultimate nature of reality can be broken down furthermore into several other basic categories. These include monism, representing the view that reality is fundamentally one process or being (Parmenides, Hegel); pluralism, which see ultimate reality as flexible, incomplete and unknowable; and dualism, which sees reality as split between the eternal and unchanging realm of ideas or forms (Plato) and the ever-changing, temporal realm of human experience.
We may also view such differences in terms of idealism, realism and pragmatism. Idealists emphasize the role of mind and the relationship between the knower and the things known. Realists treat the mind as secondary and separate the knower from the world he or she inhabits. And pragmatists reject both views and instead embrace the idea that thoughts and things are fundamentally inseparable in a world of pure experience.
Still others have parsed the differences into those of mysticism, emphasizing the oneness of reality; materialism, focusing on matter as the stuff which ultimate reality is made of; and supernaturalism, which presupposes a higher being or beings who transcends the natural realm and who created and sustains all that exists.
It stands to reason that modern, densely populated societies need some measure of order and rules in order to function, especially with creatures who are unpredictable at best and dangerously self-serving, exploitive and violent at worst. But on what foundation should such rules be created, and just how far can we go in treating people as numbers before we cease to treat them as people at all? Should there be some measure of objectivity and concreteness in the process, or must we resign ourselves to generalizations and aggregate-based assumptions for the sake of efficiency and order, for lack of viable options?
I think the answer is most certainly yes, there should be some extraordinary level of concreteness to that which informs our choices; and no, I do not believe that we ought to resign ourselves to thinking in the aggregate merely because it is too time consuming or too difficult to reason otherwise. Individual human beings deserve to be treated as individual human beings, in all their complexity, with all their imperfections, and taking into account all that impacts their choices in the way of culture, genetics and environment. Thinking in the aggregate may be a natural and almost irresistible human impulse, but so might be a deeply-rooted and irrational fear of uncertainty -- a fear that has effectively been codified into almost every institution that surround us.
Given the bigger picture, it behooves us to make peace with uncertainty, make greater exceptions for environmental anomalies and human individuality, aim for general compliance rather than total conformity, and pursue empathy rather than penalty.
British philosopher Alan Watts, in his acclaimed 1951 work, The Wisdom of Insecurity:A Message for an Age of Anxiety, writes: “The 'primary consciousness,' the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g. 'everyone will die') that the future assumes a high degree of reality -- so high that the present loses its value. But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements -- inferences, guesses, deductions -- it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.”
Treating human beings as human beings also demands a certain understanding with respect to choice and free will. Yes, we may feel as though we have choice, but it is a choice stripped of the power to manifest much of what the will desires. People don't choose to be born in an imperfect world. They don't choose to grow old, to have a will and desires that exceed the capability of the physical universe to fulfill. Nor do they choose to have bodies that are susceptible to disease, infection and death. They don't choose the parents who will rear them, nor do they choose the home and environment they will spend their days in as children. It may be easy, simple, and quick to ignore the bigger picture, to see human beings as isolated pockets of infinite knowledge with infinite responsibility for every action they take, but it would not be accurate. Much has been made of a study by German scientists Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke regarding a phenomenon known as “readiness potential,” which suggests that the unconscious mind may actually initiate action prior to one's conscious awareness of it. Subsequent studies by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s and by John-Dylan Haynes in 2008 using MRI technology has led to similar conclusions. While such studies do not conclusively prove that free will is merely an illusion, they do present a challenge to our traditional understanding of it. As Canadian transhumanist and bioethicist George Dvorsky writes in a Jan. 4, 2013 article for the blog io9: “What would really settle the issue would be the ability for neuroscientists to predict the actual outcome of more complex decisions prior to the subject being aware of it themselves. That would, in a very true sense, prove that free will is indeed an illusion.” (See: Scientific Evidence That You Probably Don't Have Free Will).
The concepts of risk and probability, as they relate to individual human action, are two other ideas that are ripe for reassessment. While the human condition may compel us to quickly assess the probability of theoretical future events and matters affecting our safety, the mere desire for certainty ought not lead us to the dehumanization of our fellow human beings. Yes, we can determine the relative likelihood of a group of people behaving in a certain way through aggregate analysis, but what is not so easy to determine is the degree to which a specific individual within that group will behave in a certain way. The concept of bounded rationality is one that may have bearing on our propensity to jump to conclusions and generalize, with respect to assessments of probability and risk. As listed in the Cambridge Dictionary: “Bounded rationality is the theory that people can understand only a limited amount of information within a limited amount of time, and for this reason they do not always make the best decisions, especially in complicated situations.” The concept of of bounded rationality differs from “rationality as optimization,” in that the process of optimization is seen as a constraint rather than an enabler.
Platonism, with a small “p,” asserts that abstract objects are objective, timeless entities, totally separate from the physical world, even from the symbols that people use in describing them. Structuralism is a method of interpretation that focuses on a broader conceptual system that supposedly underlies individual human cognition and behavior. And absolutism presupposes the existence of infinitely fixed principles that are above and behind all individual existential realities. While such ideas may sound nice and feel good to those seeking assurance, they exact a heavy toll – stripping humanity of the innate unpredictability, the non-linear processes that reflect our various states of consciousness, the mystery embodied in our range of desires, and the exceedingly complex and symbiotic mind-body relationship that all but makes us who we are.

For further reading

The Common Good
By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Promise of Infinity

Why does life go on for any, when one, just one, must go away?
When the smile, the touch, the words of another,
are snatched from the world of the living against all will
-- because this fragile, flesh-bound vessel we use,
has the permanence of sand.

Here but for a spot in time we are, then gone.
Friends, lovers, strangers and families.
Overlapping lives beyond all space and time.
Minds and hearts in infinite juxtaposition.
A baby's smile. A mother's tear.
A sea of dreams in a cosmos that defies understanding.

Seven billion lives and climbing
Yet not one, left as human, will avoid the inevitable.
Victimized, collectively, by that which gives them life.
One hundred billion perhaps, from all time.
Walking, talking, striving to manifest the impossible
Laughed at by the universe.

But what is time if not infinite,
and what is matter if not eternal?
Is it possible, given time, that the cycle can be reversed?
That the future might hold the impossible in the palm of its hand?
That the lives we've lost, our own flesh and blood,
will some day live again?

Imagine a world a million years hence.
Where the past and present can be bridged.
A quantum world. A multiverse of infinite possibility.
Where the human will finds its rightful place.
Where infinity equals immortality.
Where death is but a thought.

Imagine still
that we are already there.
But for the eyes
with which we see

Friday, January 17, 2014

Existential Anesthesia

What is life,
but a game
of competing illusions?

Its true meaning
slips our grasp.
So we make a dream.

Like sand castles in the sun,
we build and define.
To make permanent a lie.

To ease the pain.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Free Will: In Search of a Foundation

  Why do humans do the things they do?
   On the surface it would seem an easy enough question to answer.
   "Because they choose to do it," people will say. "Because they see some benefit in it for themselves and make a conscious decision to act on it."
   But does this not beg the question? What exactly is it, in a causative sense, that drives the choices we make? Are the things we choose not framed by the circumstances that surround us, by our genetic and biological attributes? When we say that a person chooses one thing over another, what exactly--on a cognitive or causative level--is truly transpiring? 
   Whether we can see beyond the puzzle of our own existence even far enough to formulate a sufficient answer is a question that philosophers from Thales to Dewey have been trying to determine, and one that continues to cry out for clarity. Like many things, the presumed basis upon which this strange and paradoxical thing we call free will, or free choice, proves all the foggier the closer we look. Is it truly what drives our behavior, as a cause produces an effect, or is something deeper at work here?
   Plato presented us with his theory of forms, in effect elevating abstract ideas to a position of supremacy in the quest to define true reality consists of. German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote widely of the noumenal realm vs the phenomenal realm, the former of which he considered to be the "real" world of reason and innate ideas compared to the subjectively-experienced phenomenal world. Empiricists such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill side with the view that sensory experience and physical evidence are fundamentally more trustworthy and real than the "tentative" world of abstract ideas. Naturalists, in embracing the world of natural causes, have stood in long opposition to theists and supernaturalists, who have welcomed the world of the immaterial and innate with arms extended.
   If only this persistent concept of free will--as a type of unaffected, infinitely untarnished and personal decision-making device--weren't so often used as a convenient battering ram, to place blame and to castigate. Do we seek to hold people responsible because they are responsible in an absolutist sort of way, because it reflects the type of human being they truly are, or because on some subconscious level we are driven to do so because it is quantitatively easier than acknowledging and dealing with the deep complexities of the human condition?
   Let me propose that the list of those factors in our lives which compel us to act and which demand either immediate or future resolution is far longer, far more influential, and holds a far greater share of responsibility for human action than does the list of those things which can rightfully be considered within the realm of free choice.
   Consider a fictional gentleman by the name of Mr. Jonathan Jones.
   Let us presume that Mr. Jones grew up in an average size town, that he was brought up a Protestant, and that he was well schooled to the point of obtaining a bachelor of science degree in business. He has a job, a wife, two small children, plenty of friends, and an adequate supply of cash thanks to a combined household income and some early savings. When he is not working, Mr. Jones likes to head for the hills to camp, hike, boat or simply to explore the countryside with his family or friends.
   But let us ask ourselves, is Mr. Jones free to choose whether to breathe or not?
   Is he free to choose whether to sleep, to eat or to hydrate himself?
   Can he choose to stop time in its tracks, or to reverse it?
   As he relaxes under a tree on one of his many favorite wilderness adventures, he imagines that he can fly above the mountain tops like a bird. Is this a choice that he is free to manifest without consequences?
   Can our friend choose to live under water, extend his life by 500 years, grow 10 feet tall or move objects with the power of his mind alone?
   He can decide to try, but to call such an exercise of the will a choice would seem rather meaningless.
   We can presuppose a dimension to the human intellect and conscious mind that rises well above the purely physical, a place that we may surely presume to be the seat of choice, but here again we come perilously close to pure conjecture.
   There is a sense in which the human will, as the locus of imagination and desire, is infinitely disconnected from external reality altogether in that it adheres neither to its limitations nor to the basic laws of cause and effect that govern it. Only within a very thin slice of what we can ultimately envision are the choices we make free to be manifest. French philosopher Rene Descartes makes little distinction between the concepts of will and choice, with choice thus perceived as being effectively unlimited in scope. More common, however, is the view that willings are substantively distinct from the idea of a truly free will, given the vast number of barriers to its full realization (Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
   Authors Xingxu Wang and Guenther Ruhe, in a 1997 article published in the International Journal of Cognitive Informatics and Natural Intelligence, present a fundamental cognitive decision-making process which they describe as "a sequence of Cartesian-based selections," with real-world decisions seen as but "a repetitive application of the fundamental cognitive process."
   Wang and Ruhe cite a layered reference model of the brain (LRMB), which they say "has revealed that there are 37 interacting cognitive processes in the brain," part of which parallels the processes which the mind goes through in problem-solving. Other elements include a combination of processes involving such things as qualification, quantification, comprehension, representation, memorization and search.
   "Contrary to the traditional 'container' metaphor, the human memory mechanism can be described by a 'relational' metaphor, which perceives that memory and knowledge are represented by the connections between neurons in the brain, rather than the neurons themselves as information containers," Wang and Ruhe write.
   In respect to the dissection of free will, let me plead for clarity on a list of several other ontologically relevant concepts, such as intention, determination, belief, desire, wanting, wishing, longing, thought, and meaning itself. Is it a case of the mind owning such concepts or reflecting them? Do they exist apart from the human mind? The supernaturalist will, generally speaking, be inclined to say "yes." Not only are we fundamentally connected on some otherworldly, quantum-like level with at least one particular entity far more powerful than ourselves, the argument goes, but the communication is ongoing, hyper-intimate and in need of no other evidence to justify the reality of it than the mere testimony of those who believe it. Evidence, thus defined, does not come from the outside in but from the inside out -- and our free will is deemed to be truly free because we are, theoretically, connected to the very source of all knowledge itself. Intuitively and innately, writers such as C.S. Lewis have argued, we are made aware of what is moral and what is immoral, what is right and what is wrong, what is the creator's will and what is not the creator's will. By such logic were are thus made 100 percent responsible for 100 percent of the choices that we make, the circumstances that preceded or shaped such choices notwithstanding.
   It is quite understandable the comfort that comes from believing in some deeper reality, in the guiding hand of some transcendent being who is always there to give life order, purpose and meaning. But are we being intellectually honest with ourselves? Should not the evidence we choose as justification for such all-encompassing belief rest on more than subjective personal experiences or mere human testimony? Even more so when such testimony suggests that which contravenes all known laws of physics.
   Professor and author Douglas Hofstadter made the case, beginning with Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, for the role of analogy in the formation of human consciousness, and for the brain's use of self-referencing or feed-back loops in developing a sense of "I" and in the creation of meaning. In his book, I Am A Strange Loop, Hofstadter posits that this "I" which is created in effect can exist across multiple minds.
   "In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference," Hofstadter writes. (I Am A Strange Loop).
   Studies by Benjamin Libet in 2002 regarding decision making and brain activity revealed some interesting findings, among them evidence that appears to show that one's actions actually are sometimes set in motion even before the conscious mind wills it. Where does that leave free will?
   Consider once again our friend Jonathan Jones.
   When he gets up in the morning and decides to make a pot of coffee, what actually is it that causes the coffee to be made? We can say that Mr. Jones' decision, or freely chosen will, is responsible, but does it not take one thing coming into contact with another, or at minimum some kind of force acting upon another, for a cause to produce an effect? How is a motivation or something as abstract as a desire connected to something as material and physical as the human body?
   If Mr. Jones decides to do something dastardly, such that we feel compelled morally and ethically to hold him accountable, should we hold him 100 percent responsible or should we view his culpability as but pieces of some metaphysical pie, split among an unpredictable array of genetic, biological, educational, socioeconomic and psychological factors in his life? Surely, our friend has more control over some of these than others. And where does intent fall into the picture, if the consequences by change turn out to be different than expected? Imagine, for instance, that Mr. Jones witnesses what he thinks is an altercation on a neighboring street, decides to intervene, but when he steps between the two suspects one of them suddenly and unexpectedly steps backwards over a curb, then tragically dies after his head smashes against the pavement. The degree to which Mr. Jones is responsible would certainly seem to be less than 100 percent, but where do we draw the line?
   The concept of freedom would seem at best to be profoundly ambiguous, and nature of choice equally ripe with speculation, both requiring in effect that we take a conceptual leap from one unknown (the world of ideas) into another unknown (the world of physical cause and effect). No one fully understands what the nature, source and mechanisms are which form the fabric of human consciousness. Likewise, no one fully understands the mechanisms and forces that govern the physical world, whether we're talking about quantum physics or neurology. Yet somehow we feel confident in attaching a very individualistic form of responsibility to human actions -- as though the act of choosing were somehow akin to turning a light switch on or off and every decision came with a crystal clear set of consequences that always produced the same result.
   In the classic work, Tertium Organum, Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky writes about our experience of the world as a place existing in time and space and the near impossibly of conceiving of it in any other way, as unsatisfactory as that may be. Ouspensky writes:
   "In general, we say that the objective world consists of things and phenomena, i.e., things and changes in states of things. The PHENOMENA exist for us in time; the THINGS, in space . . . But such a division of the subjective and the objective world does not satisfy us. By means of reasoning we can establish the fact that in reality we know only our own sensations, perceptions and conceptions, and we cognize he objective world by projecting outside of ourselves the causes of our sensations, presuming them to contain these causes."
   The causes of our sensations have been one of the perennial philosophical questions since the "remotest antiquity," Ouspensky states.
   I would concur, but argue as well that we should include within that same conceptual framework the human faculties of motivation and will. Ouspensky implies as much himself in parsing the subjective (conceptual) world and the object-based world, or as he puts it, the world of "things."
   Ouspensky cites Kant in casting doubt even further, this time on the possibility of ever knowing exactly how the human mind is swayed by the outside world and declaring that the very concepts of space and time, apart from the human intellect, would not even exist. As stated by Ouspensky:
   "Kant established the fact that everything that is known through the senses is known in terms of time and space, and that out of time and space we cannot know anything by way of the senses; that time and space are necessary conditions of sensuous receptivity (i.e., receptivity by means of the five organs of sense). Moreover, what is most important, he established the fact that extension in space and existence in time are not properties appertaining to things, but just the properties of our sensuous receptivity; that in reality, apart from our sensuous knowledge of them, things exist independently of time and space; but we can never perceive them out of time and space, and perceiving things and phenomena thus sensuously, by virtue of it we impose upon them the conditions of time and space, as belonging to our form of perception."
Upon what foundation should we lay this ubiquitous concept of free will?
   Let me posit and answer that is both an appeal and a proposition.
   As I see it, human motivation and the human decision-making process in general would seem at best to be a complex, little-understood phenomenon that begs us to take into account the overall human condition before jumping to conclusions about the precise reason for any particular human behavior. Not only have we yet to find a definitive answer to the paradoxical relationship between mind and body, but a similar conundrum presents itself in dealing with the abstract vs the concrete, the emotional vs the empirical, the subjective vs the objective, the internal vs the external, the supernatural vs the natural, the absolute vs the relative, the teleological vs the accidental or nihilistic, the predestined vs the existential, and the intuitive vs the scientific.
   Holding people responsible for their actions is fine, I would say, if we understand that the term "responsible" is a relative one. How can we truly hold someone responsible for their actions when it is uncertain, in a metaphysical sense, exactly what this thing called free will really is, much less the precise mechanism by which non-spacial, abstract phenomenon cause motion within the human body? Yes, we can hold them responsible, but only as partially free agents in a grossly misunderstood, infinitely complex universe -- agents who often make choices for reasons that neither they nor we fully understand.

For further reading: