Comprehensivism

August 29, 2000 (edited January 3, 2004)

(I wrote this for the synergeo mailing list after seeing the play R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe. I had left the play with renewed inspiration as well as a Tensegritoy and a copy of J. Baldwin's book BuckyWorks from the GENI booth in the lobby.)

A recurring emphasis in BuckyWorks is the notion of Bucky as "comprehensivist" rather than "generalist". Both are seen in distinction to "specialist": A specialist focuses on a restricted field (knows a lot about a little). A generalist, on the other hand, has broad interests but has limited comprehension in any particular area (knows a little about a lot). Escaping from those two options, each limited in its own way, the comprehensivist is concerned with whole systems. A generalist does not question the specialist's definitions, but only aims to study several specialties. The comprehensivist seeks understanding of the synergetic metaphysical whole which the specialties miss altogether.

Anyhow, having the notion of comprehensivity in my mind brought new clarity to ideas that I've tried to argue with philosophy professors without much progress. In particular I started thinking about the debate over "determinism".

The issue is whether humans have "free will" or whether Universe is deterministic. In a deterministic system the configuration at a given time is determined by earlier configurations; variation in one configuration is due to variation already present in earlier configurations. This is supposed by some to be a condemnation of human will, since if one's future is determined one has no choice in the matter; one cannot "change the future" or make meaningful plans or decisions or even take responsibility for one's actions—if every event in Universe has essentially already happened, I might as well not care about anything because it will happen the same either way.

(By the way, I find "Universe"—one of Fuller's carefully-chosen idiosyncrasies of speech—to be grammatically awkward compared to "the universe" and don't really use it consistently, but I thought I'd give it a try to see how it feels.)

Now, I've always objected to this criticism with a couple of points. For one, it is incorrect to say that in a deterministic Universe future events have "already happened" (one often hears variations on that idea). It's tempting to think in that way; once we allow time as a dimension of Universe then one is inclined to conceive of "space-time" as having an all-right-now existence, like one big equation that I can write down on a piece of paper.

But to say that it all "already" exists is to make a temporal statement, which only makes sense within the system in question. If you write down that big general equation, then that equation-written-down exists right now, but it doesn't make sense to say that the events-in-time which make up that system have "already" happened, or "will" happen, or "are" happening, unless the speaker adopts a viewpoint in the system. But as soon as one does adopt a me-here-now viewpoint in the system, all of those events-in-time take on their relative they-there-then positions and it becomes simply false to say that future events have already happened.

So, getting back to the argument, a "deterministic" Universe is not a depressing static already-done-why-bother, but an exciting dynamic yet-to-come-let's-participate!

The second point I've tried to argue regards the notion that a "merely" physical system eliminates will and responsibility. If your behavior is determined by physical laws, then, it is often said, you have no choice in what you do! You're just being pushed around by environmental conditions that you have no control over. But my reaction to this is always to point out that in such a scenario you are physical processes—you are a system-in-the-system, a part of Universe. You determine your own behavior, in conjunction with your environment, because you are part of that current configuration which determines all future configurations of Universe. You are responsible for your behavior (in conjunction with your environment).

Together these notions, describing me-here-now as part-of-Universe, have helped me deal with the issues of determinism and will. But at the same time nondeterministic physical theories make me reluctant to actually embrace determinism completely. It seems that most of my big arguments with philosophy professors, on topics such as determinism, behaviorism, and related issues, have been mostly a matter of trying to confront misunderstandings. Most arguments given against determinism and related issues in philosophy are based on mistaken views of the ideas, like the "category error" described by the behaviorist Ryle. If you assume that mind-is-not-physical, then a physical-deterministic Universe must have nothing to do with mind, but taking a whole-system, Universe-comprises-all view incorporating mind-is-physical then determinism is no enemy of human will.

Taking that into account, then, it occurred to me that I was not in fact so concerned about defending determinism or arguing against free will but instead I was concerned with promoting a comprehensive view of whatever is under discussion. Regardless of determinism, I am part of the whole system that is Universe. However today leads to tomorrow, I have a part in it.

(Actually, as a side note, taking a totally-comprehensive view of "nondeterministic" quantum processes does show them to be fundamentally deterministic: while quantum events measured by me-here-now are random, they follow probabilities which are manifested as waves, and the equations which describe the evolution of those probability waves are perfectly deterministic. A comprehensive all-possibilities view encompassing all that is possible, and not just what I-here-now have observed, can maintain determinism.) §


Sampson Synergetics

Copyright 2000 & 2004 by Justin T. Sampson