philosophy


I am on staff at Not Back to School Camp for my 13th year, this year, from mid-August to early October. These are the roles I’m filling:

Advisor: Each session I meet daily with a group of about 10 campers each morning for an emotional and physical well-being check-in. We practice listening to each other and get to know each other quite well during the session, so that by the end we feel close, like a little family unit at camp.

Project leader: At the second Oregon session this year I led two projects. In the Music Project, we had camper musicians of all skill levels, playing violin, banjo, melodica, harp, ukulele, electric and several acoustic guitars. In six hours over the course of three days, we learned to play together as a band, wrote a song, and then performed it for the camp. In a project called On Becoming a Man, I led a group of six young men in a two-day discussion of the difference between being a boy and being a man, how each of us related to those roles, and what we thought would be the ideal elements of a ritual induction into manhood for each of us.

Workshop leader: I am leading five workshops at each session of camp. They are hour-long presentations open to anyone who is interested. In “On Trauma and Healing” I present the modern understanding of psychological trauma and what it takes to heal. In “A Theory of Everything,” I present an overview of Ken Wilber’s integral philosophy. In “Family Maps” I teach campers how to make what family therapists call a genogram, showing their entire family and the relationships between each member. In “Partner Dancing,” I teach the basics of how to dance with another person, regardless of the music being played. In “The Human Bowel Movement,” I teach the physiology of bowel movements, complete with a tour of the digestive tract, using a full-length, stretched-out drawing of one, and diagrams of each stage of the bowel movement.

Staff therapist: I am available as a therapist to any of the campers who are looking for that kind of support. I use a humanistic, strengths-based, systemic approach, emphasizing relationships, self-care, and the power of honest communication.

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In the field of family therapy, most theorists these days are postmodern and take care to spell out their epistemological lens–how and why they think they know what they know. They know that their theories are colored by their beliefs, so they want their readers to know what biases were involved in creating their theory.

I’m on page 33 of a very promising family-therapy-theory book called Metaframeworks: Transcending the Models of Family Therapy. The authors describe four views of reality, how they relate to each other, and which one they choose. The four are:

Objectivism: The often unconscious belief that there is an objective reality and that we have direct access to it. This view is also called “naive realism.”

Constructivism: This camp generally believe that a reality exists out there independent of us, but that we can’t know what it is like because our access to it is completely mediated and limited by our senses and cognitive processes. This is also called “pessimistic realism.”

Perspectivism: There is a reality out there and we have only mediated, distorted access to it, but it is possible to map it to greater and greater degrees of accuracy. That is, some maps are better than others. This is the authors’ camp.

Radical Constructivism: As far as we know, “reality” exists only in the mind. We are not qualified to make any statements about what actually exists or goes on “out there.”

My Couples and Family Therapy program has a lot to say about epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. We don’t get so much into the history of it–what various philosophers have decided gets to count as knowledge–but we do get a decent overview of what they call modernist, systemic, and post-modern epistemologies.

The basic question for someone thinking about epistemology is, “At what point can I say I know something to be true?” Here’s a super-oversimplified version of a few “epistemologies”:

Pre-modern: I can say I know something if a book or person that I believe has sufficient authority says it is true. Forever. Also, if I feel very certain about something I might consider it true.

Modern: If I observe something with my own senses, I can say that it is true, at least for that instance. If others who look at the same thing make the same observations, that gives more weight to my belief. I ideally keep the possibility open in my mind, however, that new evidence may come along and change my belief.

Post-modern: I can never really say that something is true, as I am forever limited by the perspective given me by my sense organs, my mind, and my acculturation. I will never have direct apprehension of reality. The closest I can come to real knowledge is a guess that produces useful results.

My program conflates post-modern epistemology with what they call “systemic” epistemology. “Systemic” refers to cybernetics, or systems theory, and in my view is actually an extension of modernism. Traditionally, modernism looks for linear causality and uses reductionism to learn about things. Systems theory looks at causality in terms of networks of interacting, mutually affecting/effected influences, all of which you must see, in action, to understand. It’s holistic, not reductionistic. It doesn’t rely, however on the post-modern insight about the limitation of each person’s perspective.

What I like about my program’s emphasis on epistemology, though, is that they encourage us to examine our “personal epistemology,” so that we know as much as possible how the lens that we view reality through shapes our perspective. A very post-modern idea. We are to think about how we think about reality and own our epistemology. We wrote a series of essays in this vein.

Gregory Bateson, one of the founders of the field of family therapy, said that anyone who doesn’t think they have an epistemology just has a bad epistemology. How would you describe your epistemology? What is your bar for labeling an idea “truth”? What things do you believe are certainly true? Why? Do you think your experiences tell you something directly about reality? Can you take anyone’s word about reality confidently?

If you believe in the unconscious mind, or one of its many permutations, subconscious, non-conscious, pre-conscious, extra-conscious, (and maybe even cognitive schemas or implicit memory), if you believe that any of your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors are caused by or motivated by factors of which you are not aware (and if you don’t, let me know and I’ll send you a week’s worth of reading, research showing you are almost certainly wrong), then you cannot rationally believe that you have free will, because even if you did have free will, you could never know it. There will always be that possibility that each action you take is guided by something that is not your will. You can still believe that you might have free will, and you might,* but not that you do have free will.

*In fact, you may be better off pretending that you do.

“I know of no evidence of a force or power that may be called a will.” -Harry Stack Sullivan

Back in the days that I had time for extracurricular thinking, I spent about a year reading, talking, and thinking about the arguments for and against free will. One of my tentative conclusion was (and remains) that the arguments for the existence of free will are very weak. Most flow, knowingly or not, from Christian dogma, “How can God righteously judge us if we do not really make choices?” or that other great religion of the western world, Individualism: “Why should anyone doubt that the all-mighty Individual makes choices that shape the world?” There is the moralistic “argument” that comes from our desire to exact righteous revenge: “How can we feel good about punishing criminals (or even just judging/disliking people) if they do not really make choices?” That comes with the corollary, “How can we feel proud about our accomplishments if we really had no choice in the matter?” There are the emotional arguments, along the lines of, “It would just be too depressing to imagine I didn’t have choice,” or, “The idea that I have free will is inspiring to me so I choose to believe it.” (That one a close parallel of Bender the robot’s defiant but casual, “I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe.”) There’s the classic argument from lack of imagination, “I just can’t believe that I don’t have free will.” There is the “argument” from self-evidence, “We have free will because we have free will.” (Who was it who defined “self-evident” as “evident without any evidence”?) There is the argument from randomness, which I find utterly baffling. It goes something like, “Quantum mechanics says that there is some randomness in the subatomic level of my brain, which undermines determinism. Therefore, I have free will.” While ridiculous, at least the argument from randomness is an attempt at an argument and not just dogma, like the rest.

Those who don’t believe in a distinct self, like mystics and post-modernists, say something like “Of course there’s no free will. There is no distinct entity (ego, self) to have free will. We’ve looked for it and it ain’t there.” And though I’m not a mystic or a real post-modernist, that’s my problem too. I can have vivid experiences of running, a collection of sensations that convince me that there is such a thing as running. I can have vivid experiences of loving, too, which many people consider very abstract for some reason. But nothing I’ve tried has given me any vivid experience of choosing. I can notice thinking about options, and I can notice feeling uncomfortable or excited about them or the prospect of choosing, I can notice my thinking, “Maybe it would be better do such-and-such,” and I can notice doing one of the options at some point, but I have failed to be able to notice choosing. When I look close, it just doesn’t seem to be there. And because I don’t have access to anyone else’s experience, I have to assume that people who do think they are experiencing choosing are either fooling themselves or not looking close enough.

Why do I keep thinking about this? I think it’s because I’m romantic and I feel like I’m coming to this very unromantic conclusion. (Is that true? Is being able to choose more romantic than not? It seems like it.) But now I have a blog and I can ask a bunch of people for help in one fell swoop: Please, tell me about your vivid experience of choosing. How can I have that experience? What am I missing? What should I do and what should I pay attention to while doing it?