June 29, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the issue of free will. There is often considered to be a problem of free will because of a view that our world contains deterministic laws and causes that trap us in their web. That’s never been my main worry, however. I’ve been far more concerned about social determinism: the idea that we are entirely shaped by our experiences and context. The situation into which we are thrown determines what language we speak, our values, our moral and political attitudes, and our whole sphere of interest.
What options did a boy have born into a mining community in the 1960s? What if there seemed only two options: working in the coal mine or in the rhubarb fields? How could he ever aspire to a life beyond that? How could he even think of things that were outside his experience? It seems that his experiences were bound to be narrow.
Indeed they were. It looks very hard to see how one could overcome one’s situation. The only hope I can see is in education, especially in areas of the arts such as film and literature. Education can empower us by opening up new possibilities. It can expose us to new ideas of what is over our own immediate horizon.
In my case, a school teacher by the name of Mr Griffiths (I don’t know his first name) taught me my A-level Politics, and told me that there was such a thing as philosophy. I had never even heard of it but because of the sorts of questions I was asking he thought I might like it. A good teacher can change your life. Without that, how could I have thought beyond the mine and the rhubarb field? And I also started watching thoughtful films that showed me the world outside Yorkshire and exposed me to new concepts and choices. Philosopher did not seem a career option given my context and yet that is what I now am. I wish I could meet my old teacher again and tell him what I made of the ideas he gave me.
These were chance events from which I benefited. Not everyone will have the advantage of a liberal education and might therefore remain within their narrow scope of interest. But ideas are hard to quarantine. They can reach even to isolated and protected communities. And people will always greet them with interest and curiosity. For the most part, we want our horizons to be broadened rather than narrowed.
Sometimes, in debate, people accuse me of a kind of fallacy (although the nature of the fallacy is never spelled out) – geographical determinism. However, I stand by my tendency, there is much wisdom in such considerations.
Incidentally, thank you for this insight into your childhood, Stephen. Hobsbawm describes the period 1949 – 1972 as the great age of social mobility, i.e. as a time when people were far more likely to adopt an occupation that is socio-economically ‘better’ (insert given value here) than that of their parents, as opposed to, e.g., the period 1989-2013.
I think that if we characterise these kinds of sociological musings as ‘geographical determinism’ then of course they sound fallacious – whereof such ‘determinism’? Perhaps a better way of characterising such musings is as ‘geographical dispositionalism’ – i.e. the evolution of certain characteristic traits with well-known stimulus-manifestation conditions. Perhaps free will can be partially characterised by some virtue theory / theory of powers?