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Question of the Month

What is Freedom?

Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the entrants not included.

Freedom is the power of a sentient being to exercise its will. Desiring a particular outcome, people bend their thoughts and their efforts toward realizing it – toward a goal. Their capacity to work towards their goal is their freedom. The perfect expression of freedom would be found in someone who, having an unerring idea of what is good, and a similarly unerring idea of how to realize it, then experienced no impediment to pursuing it. This perfect level of freedom might be experienced by a supreme God, or by a Buddha. Personal, internal impairments to freedom manifest mainly as ignorance of what is good, or of the means to attaining it, while external impairments include physical and cultural obstacles to its realization. The bigger and more numerous these impairments are, the lower the level of freedom.

The internal impairments are the most significant. To someone who has a clear understanding of what is good and how to achieve it, the external constraints are comparatively minor. This is illustrated in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom, an old slave who has no political (that is, external) liberty, endures injustice and hardship, while his owners enjoy lives of comparative ease. But, though he does sometimes feel sadness and discouragement at the injustices inflicted on himself and others, as a Christian he remains convinced that the real bondage in life consists in sin. So he would not trade places with his masters if it required renouncing his faith and living as they do. To take another angle, the central teaching of the Buddha is liberation from suffering – a freedom which surely all sentient beings desire. The reason we don’t have it yet, he says, is our ignorance. From the Buddhist point of view, even Uncle Tom is ignorant in this sense, although he is still far ahead of his supposed owners.

To become free, then, we must first seek knowledge of the way things really are, and then put ourselves into the correct relationship with that knowledge.

Paul Vitols, North Vancouver, B.C.

Let’s look at this question through three lenses: ethical, metaphysical, and political.

Ethically, according to Epicurus, freedom is not ‘fulfilling all desires’, but instead, being free from vain, unnecessary, or addictive desires. The addict is enslaved even when he obtains his drug; but the virtuous person is free because she doesn’t even desire the drug. Freedom is when the anger, anxiety, greed, hatred, and unnecessary desires drop away in the presence of what’s beloved or sacred. This means that the greatest freedom is ‘freedom from’ something, not ‘freedom to’ do something. (These two types of freedoms correspond to Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ types of freedom.)

Metaphysically – as concerning free will – the key may be understanding how human choice can be caused but not determined. In the case of free will, freedom emerges from, but is not reducible to, the activity of the brain. In ways we do not yet understand, humans sometimes have the ability to look over and choose between competing paths. When it comes to consciousness and free will, I trust my introspection that both exist more than I trust the supposedly ‘scientific’ worldviews which have no room for either.

As for politics, the most important freedom is freedom of speech. We need this for truth, good thinking, tolerance, open-mindedness, humility, self-confidence, love, and humor. We discover truth only when we are free to explore alternative ideas. We think well only when people are free to give us feedback. We develop the virtues of tolerance and open-mindedness only when we are free to hear disagreeable ideas. We develop humility when our ideas are tested in a free public arena, while self-confidence arises from those ideas that survive these tests. We love only in freedom as we learn to love others in spite of their ideas, not because of them. And we can laugh deeply only where there is freedom to potentially offend. “Give me freedom or give me death!” is not actually a choice, for we are all dead without freedom.

Paul Stearns, Blinn College, Georgia

There are many kinds of freedom – positive, negative, political, social, etc – but I think that most people would say that generally speaking, freedom is the ability to do what one wants. However, what if what one wants is constrained by external factors, such as alcohol, drugs, or torture? We might also add internal impediments, such as extraordinary emotion, and maybe genetic factors. In these cases, we say that one’s will is not completely free. This view is philosophically called ‘soft determinism’, but it is compatible with having a limited free will.

One interpretation of physical science pushes the idea of constrained will to the ultimate, to complete impotence. This view is often called ‘hard determinism’, and is incompatible with free will. In this view, everyone’s choosing is constrained absolutely by causal physical laws. No one is ever free to choose, this position says, because no one could have willed anything other than what she does will. Hard determinism requires that higher levels of organization above atoms do not add new laws of causation to the strictly physical, but that idea is just a conjecture.

A third view, called ‘indeterminism’, depends on the idea that not all events have a cause. Any uncaused event would seem to just happen. But that won’t do it for freedom. If I make a choice, I want to say that is my choice, not that it happened at random: I made it; I caused it. But how could that be possible?

I would answer that if what I will is the product of my reasoning, then I am the cause, and moreover, that my reasoning is distinct from the causal physical laws of nature. At this point, I have left indeterminism and returned to soft determinism, but with a new perspective. Reasoning raises us above hard determinism because hard determinism means events obeying one set of laws – the physical ones – while reasoning means obeying another set: the laws of logic. This process is subject to human error, and the inputs to it may sometimes be garbage; but amazingly, we often get it right! Our freedom is limited in various further ways; but our ability to choose through reasoning is enough to raise us above being the ludicrous, pathetic, epiphenomenal puppets of hard determinism.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

Freedom can be considered metaphysically and morally. To be free metaphysically means to have some control over one’s thoughts and decisions. One is not reduced to reacting to outside causes. To be free morally means to have the ability to live according to moral standards – to produce some good, and to attain some virtue. Moral freedom means that we can aspire to what is morally good, or resist what is good. As such, the moral life needs an objective standard by which to measure which actions are good and which are bad.

If hard determinism is true then we have no control over our thought and decisions. Rather, everything is explicable in terms of matter, energy, time, and natural laws, and we are but a small part of the cosmic system, which does not have us in mind, and which cannot give freedom. Some determinists, such as Sam Harris, admit as much. Others try to ignore this idea and its amoral implications, since they are so counterintuitive. They call themselves ‘compatibilists’. But if determinism is true, moral freedom disappears for at least two reasons. Firstly, morality requires the metaphysical freedom that determinism rules out. If a child throws a rock through a window, we scold the child, not the rock, because the former had a choice while the latter did not. Ascribing real moral guilt in criminal cases also requires metaphysical freedom, for the same reason. Secondly, if determinism, or even naturalism, is true, there is no objective good that we should pursue. Naturalism is the idea that there is nothing beyond the natural world – no realm of objective values, virtues, and duties, for instance. But if this is true, then there’s no objective good to freely choose. All is reduced to natural properties, which have no moral value. Morality dissolves away into chemistry and conditioning.

Since metaphysical freedom exists (we know this because we experience choosing) and moral freedom is possible (since some moral goals are objectively good), we need a worldview which allows both kinds of freedom. It must accept that human beings are able to transcend the causal confines of the material cosmos. It must also grant humans the ability to act with respect to objective moral values. Judeo-Christian theism is one worldview which fulfils these needs, given its claim that humans are free moral agents who answer to (God’s) objective moral standards.

Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

According to Hannah Arendt, thinking about freedom is a hopeless enterprise, since one cannot conceive of freedom without immediately being caught in a contradiction. This is that we are free and hence responsible, but inner freedom (free will) cannot fully develop from the natural principles of causality. In the physical world, everything happens according to necessity governed by causality. So, assuming that we are entirely material beings governed by the laws of physics, it is impossible to even consider the idea of human freedom. To say that we are free beings, by contrast, automatically assumes that we are a free cause – that is, we’re able to cause something with our will that is itself without cause in the physical world! This idea of ‘transcendental will’, first introduced by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), says that free will must be non-physical in order to operate – in other words, not part of the causal system of the physical world. Yet even this doesn’t fully address the issue of freedom. In order for freedom to have any meaning, one has to also act through something in the external world, thereby interrupting a necessary, physical, chain of causes. However, to act is to use a fundamentally different faculty than the one we use to think with. Thought cannot extend itself to the realm of action. This gap between action and thought – a gap through which freedom cannot pass – reveals that it is impossible to have a theoretical grasp of freedom! So all in all, the traditional understanding of free will is an incoherent conception.

Actually, politics and law both assume freedom to be a self-evident truth, especially in a modern liberal democracy. Indeed, the very evidence of human freedom, the tangible transformation that happens in the material world due to our ideas, flows best from our collective action in this public realm.

Shinyoung Choi, Centreville, Virginia

“I will slay the children I have borne!” are the words of Medea in Euripides’ play of that name. Medea takes vengeance on her husband Jason for betraying her for another woman, by murdering her own children and Jason’s new wife. The tragedy of this drama relates well to the question of human freedom. Medea showed by her actions that she was free to do things which by their nature would normally be assumed to be outside the realm of possibility. Having the ability to choose one thing over another on the basis of desire is what Immanuel Kant dismissively called ‘the Idea of Freedom’. Kant, though, asserts a different definition of freedom. He formulated a positive conception of freedom as the free capacity for choice that characterizes the essence of being human. However, the radical nature of this freedom implies that we are free even to choose the option of being free or unfree.

Kant argued of freedom that “insofar as it is not restrained under certain rules, it is the most terrible thing there could be.” Instead, to realize its true potential value, freedom must be ‘consistent with itself’. That is to say, my use of freedom must be consistent with everyone else’s use of their freedom. This law of consistency is established by reason, since reason requires consistency in its ideas. Indeed, Kant argues that an action is truly free only if it is motivated by reason alone. This ability to be motivated by reason alone Kant called ‘the autonomy of the will’. If, on the other hand, we choose to subjugate our reason to our desires and passions, we become slaves to our animalistic instincts and are not acting freely. So, by this argument, freedom is the ability to be governed by reason to act in accordance with and for the sake of the law of freedom. Thus, freedom is not what we want to do, but what we ought to do. Should we ignore the laws of nature, we would cease to exist as natural beings; but should we ignore our reason and disobey the law of freedom, we would cease to be human beings.

Medea, just like all human beings, had freedom of choice. She chose to make her reason the slave of her passion for revenge, and thus lost her true freedom. I believe that the real tragedy is not in that we as human beings have the freedom of choice, but that we freely choose to be unfree. Without true freedom, we lose our humanity and bring suffering on ourselves – as illustrated in this and all the other tragedies of drama and of history.

Nella Leontieva, Sydney

In an article I read just after Christmas, but which was first published in 1974, the science fiction author Ursula Le Guin says “To be free, after all, is not to be undisciplined.” Two weeks later, by chance I came across a quotation, apparently from Aristotle: “Through discipline comes freedom.” Both statements struck me as intuitively obvious, to the extent that to the question ‘What is Freedom?’ I would answer ‘Freedom is discipline’. However, I cannot ground this approach further except in the existentialist sense, in which sense I would say it is fundamental.

How can this inversion of freedom be justified? Broadly, freedom is the ability to choose. But no-one, or nothing, can choose in isolation – there are always constraints. How much freedom somebody actually has boils down to the nature of these constraints and how the individual deals with them. Constraints impose to varying degrees the requirement for an individual to discipline their choices. For example, a person might be constrained by a political system, and discipline themselves to act circumspectly within the confines of that system. They might consider that they physically have the freedom to act otherwise, such as to take part in a demonstration, but are constrained by other priorities. For example, they need to keep their job in order to feed their children, so that they choose not to use that freedom. Such an individual may still regard themselves as having freedom in other contexts, and ultimately may always regard their mind as free. Nothing external can constrain what one thinks: freedom concerns what we do with those thoughts.

Lindsay Dannatt, Amesbury, Wiltshire

Freedom is being able to attempt to do what we desire to do, with reasonable knowledge, which no-one can or will obstruct us from achieving through an arbitrary exercise of their will.

To clarify this, let me distinguish between usual and unusual desires. The usual ones are desires that anyone can reasonably expect to be satisfied as part of everyday life, while the unusual are desires no-one can expect to be satisfied. Examples of a usual desire include wanting to buy groceries from a shop, or wanting to earn enough money to pay your bills, while an example of an unusual desire is wanting to headline the Glastonbury Festival. Although it’s certainly the case that people might prevent me from achieving that goal through an arbitrary exercise of their will, it is not at all guaranteed that a lack of this impediment will result in my achieving the goal. We cannot claim a lack of freedom on the basis that our unusual desires go unsatisfied. Meanwhile, it is almost certainly guaranteed that I can shop for groceries if no-one else attempts to stop me through arbitrary actions.

An arbitrary act is an act carried out according to no concrete or explicit set of rules applicable to all. A person might invent their own rules and act according to them, but this is still arbitrary because their act is not mediated by a set of rules applicable to all. On these same lines, a person in a dictatorship is not free, because although there may be a set of rules ostensibly applicable to all, the application of these rules is at the discretion of the political leader or government. Contrariwise, a person can experience a just law as unfair and feel that their freedom is decreased when in fact the full freedom of all depends on that law. For example, a law against vandalism may be experienced by some political activists as unfair, or even unjust, but it applies equally to everyone. If this latter condition is not met, people are not free.

Let me add that we cannot define freedom as ‘the absence of constraint or interference’, since we cannot know that interference isn’t taking place. We can conceive of hard-to-see manipulative systems which evade even our most careful investigation. And their non-existence is equally imperceptible to us.

Alastair Gray, Brighton

Freedom is an amalgam of dreams, strivings, and controlled premeditated actions which yield repeatable demonstrable successes in the world. There is collective freedom and individual freedom. I’ll only consider individual freedom here, but with minimal tweaking this concept could apply to collective freedom, too.

Every baby is born with at least one freedom – the ability to find, suckle at, and leave the breast. Other actions are doable, but are ragged and out of control. Over time more freedom is achieved. How does that happen? First, through crying, cooing, smiling, the newborn learns to communicate. First word, first step, first bike ride – all are major freedom breakthroughs. All are building blocks to future successes.

Let a dot on a page represent a specific individual and a closed line immediately about the dot represent a fence, limiting freedom. Freedom is a push upon this fence. A newly gained freedom forces the fence to back even further away from the dot, expanding the area enclosed about the individual. This area depicts the accumulated freedoms gained in life. The shape is random, not circular, since it is governed by the diversity and complexity of the individual’s successes. If Spanish is not learned, freedom to use Spanish was not gained. But if freedom with the violin is gained, that freedom would force the fence to retreat, adding a ‘violin-shaped’ bulge of freedom. The broader the skill, the wider the bulge. The greater the complexity, the deeper the bulge.

The fence limiting each individual’s freedom is unique. Its struts consist of the individual’s DNA, location, historical time frame, the community morays, the laws of the land, and any barrier which inhibits the individual’s goals. At an individual’s maximum sustained effort to be free from their constraints, the fence becomes razor wire. Continued sustained effort at the edge, without breaking through or expanding one’s territory, leaves the individual shattered, bleeding, and possibly broken.

Years fly, in time the hair greys or is lost, along with the greying of memory and other mental and physical abilities. Freedom weakens. Strength to hold back the fence’s elasticity weakens as well. So begins freedom’s loss in a step-by-step retreat.

Bob Preston, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Freedom is an illusion. “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. But man is not so much condemned to be free as condemned to bear the consequences of his choices and to take responsibility for his actions. This is not freedom. Freedom differs from free will. We do have choice, no matter what; but it is very questionable whether choosing between several unattractive options corresponds with actual freedom. Freedom would be the situation in which our choices, made through our free will, have no substantial consequences, which, say, limit our choices. This is impossible.

Man has a free will, but that does not make him ultimately free. On the contrary, our choices are mainly driven by survival in a competitive environment. Moreover, as long as people live with others, their freedom is limited by morals, laws, obligations and responsibilities – and that’s in countries where human rights are being respected. So all the freedoms we experience or aspire to are relative: freedom of opinion, freedom of action, freedom to choose a career, residence, or partner. Every choice necessarily leads to a commitment, and thus to obligations and responsibilities. These in turn lead to limitations; but also to meaning. The relative freedom to make a positive contribution to the world gives life meaning, and that is what man ultimately seeks.

Caroline Deforche, Lichtervelde, Belgium

Freedom? Bah, humbug! When humanity goes extinct, there will be no such thing as freedom. In the meantime, it is never more than a minimized concession from a grudging status quo. When it comes to dealing with each other, we are wrenching, scraping, clutching, covetous creatures, hard as a flint from which no generous fire glows. The problem with discerning this general truth is, not everyone is paid enough to be as true to human nature as merchant bankers, and society bludgeons the rest of us with rules that determine who does the squeezing in any given social structure – be it a family, a club, a company, or the state.

If this perspective seems to be a pessimistic denial of the ‘human spirit’, consider slavery and serfdom: both are means of squeezing others that their given society’s status quo condones. And, moreover, both states still exist, on the fringes – proving how little stands between humanity and savagery. The moral alternatives demand faith in the dubious artifice of absolute references: God(s), Ancestors, Equality, the Greater Good… However, if your preferred moral reference is at odds with the status quo’s, then you will feel you’re being denied your ‘freedom’.

So, freedom depends on the status quo, which, in turn, depends on whichever monoliths justify it. Absolute monarchies have often derived their power from the supposed will of God. Here there can be no freedom – just loyalty. Communism bases its moral claim on monolithic Equality, where the equal individuals cannot themselves be trusted with something as lethal as freedom, so it is held back by the Party. Capitalism says the squeezing should be done by those who succeed at accumulating economic spoils, and their attendant cast of amoral deal-brokers. Which is all fine. No system is perfect; and freedom is whatever exception you can wrench back from an unfavourable status quo. To win freedom, you must either negotiate or revolt. In turn, a successful status quo adapts to the ever-changing dynamics of who holds the power, and the will, to squeeze others. So freedom is a spectral illusion. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of it; but then it’s gone, wrenched back out of your feeble grasp.

Andrew Wrigley, York

As sky, so too water
As air, so swims the silver cloud
As body, so too the human mind is free
To act to love to live to dream to be
As circumstance reflects serendipity
‘I am the architect of my own destiny’
So say Sartre, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty.
This strange friend and foe: freedom
Is mine, is me
A mind to mirror to will to learn to choose
For as living erodes all roads and thee
‘You are the architect of your own history’
So say the existentialists in a Paris café,
For freedom, like sky, cloud, rain, and air
Is what it means to be.
Yes, thinkers, dreamers, disbelievers
This is freedom:
At any moment we can change our course
Outrun contingency, outwit facticity
Petition our thrownness to let us be
For we are the architects of our own lives.
This is the meaning of being free.

Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: What’s the Most Fundamental Value? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 22nd June 2021. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.

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