Freedom From Destiny

“The paradox is that freedom owes its vitality to destiny, and destiny owes its significance to freedom.” -Rollo May

I love titles with two commensurate interpretations. This one captures the compatibilist position on free will, as we can have ‘freedom from destiny’ by wresting ‘freedom from destiny.’ That is, freedom is the measure of how many determinisms are in play, because each determinism describes a new level of the causal nexus that is actively, that is freely, at work in the universe. Accordingly, the more laws of nature one must use to describe an object or action, the freer that object or action. This goes against our intuitive understanding of the laws of nature, in which we presume that laws only constrain and therefore the more laws in play, the more constraint is involved. But subject this intuition to a single observation of the world around you and note that the more complex an object or action, the more laws are in play, and the more apparent freedom is displayed, however you may want to define ‘freedom.’ That is, a cat has a much wider range of actions and behaviors than a palm tree does, while the tree has a much wider range than sand does.

The mind advances into novelty apparently much as stones in an arch, though partly resting on the ones below, yet partly reach out into empty space. John H. Finley, Jr. in “Four Stages of Greek Thought.”

This metaphor of the arch is quite beautiful and I choose here to appropriate it as follows: the mind is like the arch, supported by other stones (perhaps the categories of perception, etc), but nonetheless it is a physical body in its own right, reaching out into space “on its own” to the extent of its own height. Furthermore, the stone arch secures both pillars to each other with the proper distribution of its own intrinsic mass, rendering them more stable “from the top down,” despite being supported by these pillars from the ground up. But leaving aside this interesting matter of “downward causation,” the point I want to make here can be found in the observation that all of the books in any library are relevant and indispensable to understanding the phenomenon called ‘man,’ while the other parts of nature can be understood using far more limited selections therein. This point can be seen even in a simple ladder of determinisms:

Humans: physical determinism + chemical determinism + genetic/biological determinism + environmental/behavioral determinism + psychological determinism + linguistic determinism + logical determinism + cultural/social determinism + technological determinism + economic determinism, etc… (Dare I add “Self-Determinism”?)

Animals: physical determinism + chemical determinism + genetic/biological determinism + environmental/behavioral determinism + (limited) psychological determinism

Plants: physical determinism + chemical determinism + genetic/biological determinism

Molecules: physical determinism + chemical determinism (laws of chemistry)

Atoms: physical determinism

If the free-will-denier is right, then each level higher on this ladder would have to add another constraint without adding any freedom: atoms would have the most freedom, as the fewest kinds of causality apply to them and “govern” them, while humans are the most constrained. Do you think your pet hamster enjoys more freedoms than you do, or that an atom trumps you both? Of course not. The behavior of the atom is easier to understand and predict than that of the hamster, which should imply that the hamster has more freedom, right? How odd that we can take our immense powers of prediction as proof that Destiny has all the power and we have none. What exactly did we predict if not Destiny? Does the power to foresee negative eventualities and avoid them not grant freedom? Foresight allows us to predict Destiny and avoid her, thereby obtaining freedom from Destiny, or to better align with her and literally assemble freedom from Destiny.

Each successful rung on the ladder does not add a constraint, but simply expresses the limit of the newly available freedom. As Rollo May astutely puts it, “every advance in freedom gives birth to a new determinism, and every advance in determinism gives birth to a new freedom.” There was a time on earth before DNA. When DNA emerged a new form of freedom in the universe was born (Life), while a new form of determinism was born (genetic). This new causal system, however, did not “restrain” or “govern” anything, for it acts only on life, which didn’t exist before genes. ‘Genetics’ do not control ‘genes,’ as this statement is pure tautology. Rather, genetic laws simply describe what genes and genomes freely do! How else could genomes do things but freely? If they were constrained from doing them, we would have no behavior to describe or explain.

Scientific laws describe the limits of what genes can do (on their own). That is, laws are descriptions of what genes cannot do. Therefore, each law itself only tells what something is not, while the sum of the laws that inhere in an object can describe what it is, much in the same way that a video camera captures the various surfaces or boundaries of an object moving past it, allowing us to infer what the insides consist of. The Hard Determinist is simply stopping his analysis “at the surface,” so to speak. The speed of light is a law, but this law does not state that light must travel at speed (c), but rather, that light cannot go faster than speed (c). Thus we can infer that whatever it is and whatever freedoms it enjoys, light is really fast, but all we really know from this is the limit of its freedom of motion. Electromagnetism is a freely operating force not in the world but of the world and it has no “goals” or “purposes” to be “thwarted” or “governed” by other forces or objects. In some places, like Earth, its freedoms have been harnessed and infused with purpose by intelligent apes who have extended the scope of electromagnetism to include new forms of order. They have added their causal powers (as de-limited by scientific law) to those of electromagnetism, so in a very real sense anything man does like this is “super-natural,” for he adds further order and complexity to an already complex system of forces.

Thus, freedom builds on freedom, but from the human perch looking down from the top of this ladder of freedoms it looks like determinism all the way down. I must assure you that from the perspective of the ground looking up this ladder, it looks like freedom all the way up. The laws that describe a being’s “limits” must be amended when we see evidence that other objects or forces, perhaps in higher rungs on the ladder, extend ranges of activity. Psychological, logical, or cultural forces can directly shape genetics and obliterate whatever limitations existed for the unguided evolution of DNA, for instance. Once you reach the height that humans have struggled to on this ladder you are over-determined. That is, there are so many deterministic levels available to build with that one can be set against another, or aligned with another, so as to produce an action whose freedom is more than the sum of the freedom of these interacting parts.

Setting The Record Straight:

Nature is not governed by law. Nature is lawful, meaning full of law-like phenomenon. Forces are not distinct from matter-in-motion. Forces are matter-in-motion. As such, forces do not act on matter, for they are the same thing. Many of the freedoms of individual material objects are impeded, altered, etc by other objects, but they also oppose with an equal and simultaneous reaction, therefore demonstrating the core of their autonomous powers. Even a small rock gravitates just as it is attracted by other masses, for mass generates gravity, or stated differently, mass is gravitational force. It is not like some mysterious entity “gravity” is governing that rock and those bigger all the more for their size! What a mysterious foe that would be, growing in exact proportion to any opponents size and strength. Gravity is an attractive force, meaning that it is false to say that the earth’s mass attracts your mass more than your mass attracts the earth. Aside from Newtons 3rd law that describes equal and opposite reaction, there is also Newton’s 2nd law of gravitational force: The force that one mass exerts on a second mass is proportional to the product of the two masses. It doesn’t matter whether you multiply 4X8 or 8X4, you get the same product! More importantly, your mass was not “trying” to escape the Earth’s mass, so one cannot be “governing” the other. But, if Gravity still has you down, if you really think that gravity has you, remember that you can even increase something as fundamental to your being as your mass by changing your velocity relative to another object. Such is the freedom of the human within this vibrant gathering or hierarchy of forces-in-tension.

A Limiting View Of Limits

The incompatibalist is making the following poor assumptions: 1) that a determinism or force of nature governs and controls the substance in which it manifests, 2) a force is separate and distinct from these “things,” and 3) a force acts on these things non-reciprocally. Put another way: nature is governed by laws that reign from somewhere outside nature in a one-way fashion.

These assumptions emerge from our tendency to think too far outside the box, by which I mean the positing of a non-existent “space” around any concept–like the concept ‘universe’–in order to get a perspective on that concept; in order to look in on it from the outside. This gives the impression in the minds-eye that this enveloping bubble, or the indiscriminate “space” around it, actually has some control over the contents, contain and constrain them somehow, as if the logic of physical containers applied to conceptual containers (concepts) in more than a metaphorical way. Accordingly, many of us erroneously tend to think of laws as being “all around us,” or really “all around everything,” when in fact this is literally a super-natural explanation of “nature” and therefore none at all. In our attempt to wrap our mind around Nature, we mistake the abstract symmetries of our mind for an envelope of causal forces that are literally wrapped around Nature. This mistake is easy to make for a number of further reasons.

1) Our concept ‘freedom’ comes from the child’s early experience of his own Will squirming, writhing, and reaching out, whereby the material world at first seems only to surround and constrain this expanding Will. We thus grow up understanding freedom to be “what I am impelled to do” and necessity to be “the world resisting this expansion.” Its “us” versus “the world,” a habit of mind that is difficult to jettison and grounds much of Fatalism as soon as that child realizes he is part of that all-constraining world.

2) We take a view from the outside so as to de-limit an object, in order to see where it ends, and accordingly our concepts stress limitation instead of the extent of limited freedoms. But in modern times the word ‘end’ carries connotations of exhaustion, death, deficiency, and dissolution more than it implies purpose or goal. (This is truly bizarre, as something certainly must live before it can die; pursue goals before it can be “deficient” in power to reach them, constrained, etc.)

3) Laws of nature are always expressed as limits. The speed of light (“c,) is not the speed light must travel, but the maximum speed it could possibly travel. Accordingly, laws, and the forces they describe, look like limits or constraints, as people fail to realize that these are the limits of the forces, not the limits that some otherworldly forces mysteriously impose on matter!

4) In order to simplify nature so as to quickly predict its behavior we seek universals, symmetries that seem to apply to everything (every-“thing”). This leads us to believe that they are distinct from everything, or that they are “things” in the material sense; we reify the laws. Given that we can see matter and motion, but cannot see these invisible forces that are universal and act on everything, some people tend to think that they are outside the system causing things in a one-way fashion. These people fail to understand that forces of nature are visible, for they are matter-in-motion.

5) Really, it is motion that is so difficult for us to understand. Motion is visible only as it inheres in matter and only when there is enough distinct matter to grant perspective. We can accept that matter is, but why is it changing and evolving exactly like this? What impetus or force started it all moving? It is the search for an answer that has spawned great discoveries in the previously invisible world of microbes, molecules, and atoms, but also great blunders like thinking that the active agents in the world are not actually in it, but outside it (or in parallel dimensions). Let’s briefly explore the problem of motion.

The Problem Of Motion

Let me begin by including a quote from the beginning and one from the end of an article by Julian Jaynes:

The Aristotelian writings had made motion or activity the distinctive property of living things, an idea that occurs naturally to children and primitive peoples of all centuries. Because they moved, the stars were thought by no less a scientist than Kepler to be animated.

Physics in the seventeenth century is anthropomorphic about matter, applying animate terms like attraction, force (originally muscular strength), inertia (originally referring to an idle and unemployable person), and acceleration (to hasten one’s steps) to get started. The reverse occurred with Descartes when he applied the inanimate statue analogy to animal motion.

The human intellect simply cannot get a handle on motion largely because our concepts are abstractions and the very features that are “abstracted away” in a concept are the properties of inherent motion in that object. This allows us to speak and think nimbly and quickly. For instance, the concept ‘water‘ means “a contiguous quantity of moving H20 molecules,” but the concept ‘river‘ means roughly “a large body of moving water.” Furthermore, a river can itself “move” or change its over-all path as time passes, but so too can the rate of this evolution itself vary or “move.” Telescoping back down we find that even within each H20 molecule electrons are moving about. Accordingly, even when thinking about something as simple as a body of water, our concepts start hiding sources of motion the more general these concepts become and we end up in a situation where a single static word can actually hide layer upon layer of motion or change. Heraclitus was trying to bring our attention to these levels of abstraction when he famously proclaimed that we cannot step into the same river twice.

There are a handful of very special concepts, like ‘Being,’Nature,’ ‘Universe,’ and ‘Freedom,’ that attempt to encompass every last layer of motion-within-motion, and this is why they are so difficult to work with or understand. These concepts hide the maximal amount of ignorance behind the feeling of understanding as we nimbly think or speak, dragging whatever actual understanding of these underlying process “we” have along, incompletely, in the background of thought without actually pulling all of their weight, so to speak. But these concepts furthermore limit true understanding by implying oneness at the core of things, when in fact we might find, with Heraclitus, that not oneness but strife holds the center.

Limits: Constraints or Confrontations?

I will start by ignoring worlds like ‘limit’ or ‘end’ in favor of the word ‘ambit:’ the scope, extent or bounds of something (ie “within the ambit of federal law”). What is curious about “things” is that they contain their own ambit. Federal law is physically instantiated in a bunch of documents, one of which being the Constitution: a document that sets limits on the scope of federal law (and itself). When we point to the Colorado river, for instance, the various bustling H20 molecules both shape the shoreline and are constrained by it, but both together form what we mean by the word ‘river.’ As Heraclitus proclaimed, people “do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of bow and the lyre.” So the ambit of the river, its extent, scope, and its bounds, are physically identical with what we denote by the term ‘river.’ Therefore, the river contains its own ambit; it “holds itself up.” The water molecules and the subatomic particles that make these up do not somehow control the river: they are the river. But these molecules are constantly flooding into the worlds oceans while fresh molecules fall to earth and constitute the river anew, and this change is what grounds Heraclitus’ perplexing statement denying the ability to step into the same river twice.

We cannot deal with so many levels of change (motion) and our concepts only obscure the matter. Yet, the fact remains that there is a somewhat persistent shape or form that we conventionally refer to as the Colorado river: it is real, physical, and can reliably get you wet. If an asteroid pulverized the earth into dust, that form or shape would cease to exist, but its constituent parts would not: you cannot annihilate matter or energy. You can temporarily annihilate a certain organization of matter and energy, but in a very real sense you cannot destroy the river, but only disperse it more and more widely so that it doesn’t as closely resemble the conventional mental image associated with the term ‘river.’ But this word ‘river’ means “a large quantity of a flowing substance,” so couldn’t the dispersed water molecules that were flung from the earth and now follow the direction of the planet-killing asteroid be said to “flow” in “large quantity”? Could we not look at the “solar wind” instead as a “river of ions”?

But what of my claim that a thing contains its own ambit? Does the asteroid obliterate the river, or not? Well, actually it can’t, for the river will oppose the motion of the asteroid just as much as the asteroid will oppose the inertia of the river. The asteroid does not come away unscathed! Similarly, you cannot say that the Earth’s gravity is what pulls me down, for my feet are on the earth and contribute to its overall mass and therefore its overall gravity too. Therefore, a thing contains its own ambit, but another thing can alter this arrangement, sometimes adding to its scope, while more often reducing its scope (to a point). Stated differently, “things” are not omnipotent, but they are at least potent. The crucial point is simply that every “thing” has some freedoms in its own right and so long as it is that thing, it “holds itself up.” Its “limits” are simply the net result of all the containing and enabling of its constituent parts as they “con-front” each other in their own right. That is, each constituent part is also a “thing,” with an ambit, scope, or end (boundary). This boundary is the “front” that confronts, the “face” that faces the boundaries of the other constituents of the aggregate form we are here discussing. But now that we know what makes up this aggregate, we have “de-limited” it, named it, and we promptly forget that its limits are imposed from within via free powers.

This point should be obvious when you think about it: certainly atoms and other things “hold themselves up” instead of being infused with properties via forces from without. This was the view of the ancient Greeks, according to Heidegger, who explains their view thus: “Whatever places itself into and thereby enacts (or completes) its limit, and thus stands, has form, morphē.” Notice here that the limit is self-imposed; it is the extent of the freedom the object embodies. Imagine, for instance, a house, which stands because of the ordered tension of its apposing and reinforcing beams. The “unity” of the house results from tension and opposition! It means many different fronts of many different pieces “con-fronting” each other, but with an overarching cooperation among these antagonisms, such that they all could be recognized as one form. When Heraclitus says that war is the father of all and the king of all, he doesn’t mean human war, but polemos: confrontation, strife, struggle. Heidegger tells us that “in con-frontation, world comes to be. [Confrontation does not divide unity, much less destroy it. It builds unity; it is the gathering (logos)Polemos and logos are the same.]” He continues in a later chapter: “Con-frontation–that is, not mere quarreling and feuding but the strife of the striving–sets the essential and the inessential, the high and the low, into their limits and makes them manifest.”

One might object that the house also uses gravity to pin some of its parts together and to pit it to the earth, so the house is not just “internal” forces buttressing each other, but requires an all-pervading gravitational force from without. But we have already shown how forces are within what we conventionally call ‘objects,’ buttressing their structure as well as spilling outwards as a “field.” Accordingly, the house is being pinned not by “gravity,” but by the gravitational force that its own mass contributes to!  The earth pushes back on the house via the weak nuclear force of its atoms, which stop the house falling into the earth. The above objection does not stand, however, because “the house” includes the floor, which is technically a square of the earth’s surface pressing “up” against the house, while the house and earth’s gravity together pull all “down” towards the center, that is, while the gravitational force of both objections “gathers” itself.

Whatever takes such a stand becomes constant in itself and thereby freely and on its own runs up against the necessity of its limit, peras. This peras is not something that first accrues to a being from outside. Much less is it some deficiency in the sense of a detrimental restriction. Instead, the self-restraining hold that comes from a limit, the having-of-itself wherein the constant holds itself, is the Being of beings; it is what first makes a being be a being as opposed to a nonbeing. For something to take such a stand therefor means for it to attain its limit, to de-limit itself. Thus a basic characteristic of a being is its telos, which does not mean goal or purpose, but end. Here “end” does not have any negative sense, as if “end” meant that something can go no further, that it breaks down and gives out. Instead, “end” means completion in the sense of coming to fulfillment. -Heidegger “Introduction To Metaphysics”

Note that the atoms that compose the Earth are what provides the weak nuclear force pushing back on the house; this is not imposed from anything but the Earth itself as it “runs up against the necessity of its limit.” Why do humans assume that they must be all-powerful or unlimited to be free? In a sense we are all-powerful, in that we can access all of the powers of the universe, but these each have limits themselves, besides being of limited number to begin with. Though there are a “limited” number of freedoms that comprise us and that we can utilize to assist us, this limit is no limitation, in the same way that having 27 letters in an alphabet is a “limit” of available letters, but no “limitation” for the creation of infinitely diverse words in a language. You can either think of yourself as 27 letters rich, or 27 letters poor; equipped with 27 letters, or restricted to 27 letters. It doesn’t matter because you could still create an infinite number of words with just 20 letters! Still, I’d prefer more letters to fewer. If restricted down to just two letters, there are hardly infinite numbers of meaningful words you could create, so there is a critical threshold. In the case of forces impinging on (or co-substantive with) the human being, I’d similarly prefer more to less, but essentially it doesn’t matter after a certain threshold is passed. In a trillion dollar economy where you have billions it doesn’t really matter whether you say “I have billions of economic freedom” or “I have a financial limitation of 10 billion dollars.” Furthermore, unlike the economy example, nothing else in Nature has “trillions” to our “billions,” so we are the wealthiest beings in existence when it comes to available causal powers and hardly need all of them in order to be the most autonomous beings around.

Philosophical Musical Chairs

So why is this all so hard to demonstrate? Why is it so hard to persuade people that Freedom and Determinism are allies (or even synonyms)? The problem comes from there being a plethora of laws but no paradigm that puts them all together coherently. Therefore, debating against a “Determinist” is a fools errand, for he doesn’t even have a coherent picture called “Determinism” that he advocates, but instead, he merely asserts that there are lots of forces forcing everything. This leads to a game of musical chairs because anytime I pin my opponent to his seat and force him to discuss a single force or determinism, demonstrating my freedom relative to it, my opponent can start singing again and shift to another seat. “Yes, in a certain sense the Earth and its gravity affect me, but that doesn’t stop me from using other forces to, for instance, jump four feet in the air, or built a rocket capable of leaving the atmosphere!” However, every time the proverbial music stops in this game and I point out how humans can gain freedom from an apparent limitation, my antagonist begins to sing again because my explanation involved the use of a different force to oppose the first. If logic allows us to gain control over our passions, my antagonist will start singing about logical determinism. If I then show that we can imagine illogical propositions or use our passions to override logic, then he will start singing about psychological determinism. As soon as the music and movement in this game stop, my opponent forgets that there was music and motion, choosing to remember only the hard fact of his groundedness in an individual seat. He never takes a view of the game as a whole, which might require him to acknowledge motion and change instead of simply explaining them away with the word ‘causality.’

“Causality” is not something apart from “causes” or “forces;” its just a name we use to sum them all up. You cannot explain forces in nature by appeal to Causality, for this would be to ask what causes Causality itself, a question that assumes both that an answer exists and that the answer is some form of cause or force, leading to regress. However, this reductionist intuition is not baseless, for higher-level forces are most often constituted by lower-level forces, and therefore when trying to understand the higher-level force, you need to mention the forces that make it up. The mistake occurs where you conclude that the lower level forces control the higher ones, when in fact they are intimately fused as soon as the higher-level force emerges and often the higher supervenes back down on the lower, changing both in a feedback loop (see downward causation). Do the stones in the two pillars control the height of the adorning arch at the top? No. The arch has some height of its own, but furthermore, the arch and pillars are not competing and therefore the language of control is inappropriate to begin with, while Newtonian relativity assures us that nothing in existence has total control of anything.

Human freedom, in my view, is the harmony that can be arranged by the opposing tensions of all forces available in Nature, just as Heraclitus’ bow and lyre oppose cooperatively. The hard determinist seems happy to look at each force of nature in isolation but never puts this big picture together. It is true that humans are subject of the “forces” of physics, genetics, culture, psychology, and of all existent forces of nature, but so to is each force of nature subject to all the others built on top of it. Genetics can be altered by psychology, and psychology by genetics. The human simply has access to every form of force known in the universe, where the cobble stone has access only to physical ones, and this allows the human to manipulate these forces, to rearrange them so that they cooperate or antagonize each other. It is true that material things (conglomerations of forces) can alter each other. In this sense things mutually define each others boundaries sometimes, fail to interact in other instances, and sometimes reinforce each other, but crucially, neither is ever totally annihilated, but at worst, one is disseminated or absorbed. At best, downward causation occurs. Humans are simply in a privileged position to align, realign, and build with these freedoms.

There is only one sure way of defeating this elusive antagonist: one must ask him what Determinism or “Causality” categorically inhibit a human from doing. Determinism really only states one thing definitively: that there is only one physically possible future. So just ask what a human being categorically cannot do in that inevitable future. He might respond that a human cannot travel faster than the speed of light. While the warp-drive has recently achieved growing attention at NASA, we might be willing to grant this point and agree that humans cannot travel faster than the fastest phenomenon known in Nature, but so what? Nothing can travel faster than ‘c,’ so its not like humans are deficient where something else in Nature has true freedom and power, and besides, 299,792,458 meters per second is a fantastically huge range of possible speeds! Its like if we can’t be the best, we are nothing at all; if humans can’t have unlimited speed, then they are ultimately constrained. (a law of human self-esteem perhaps? lol)

Another strategy you might employ is to answer the question “are human beings free” with something like the following: Well, free compared to what? Compared to animals, “yes.” Compared to plants, emphatically “yes!” Compared to chemicals or atoms, an overwhelmingly emphatic “yes!!”, and so forth. Are humans free compared to the known laws of nature (which include psychology, logic, economics, etc)? Duh! Of course humans are free compared to these laws, for they are the only set of objects in the universe in which the latter half of those laws operate or inhere! “Nature” didn’t even have physical examples or instances of these laws operating until humans showed up. But humans are precisely the most free of objects because they contain the most forms of determinism and accordingly the greatest number of scientifically discernible “laws” are required to understand/describe their behavior. Are humans determined? Well, not exactly; they are overdetermined. Humans are not determined in the sense of having “fates,” but they are determined in the sense that they can only work with the forces of nature that comprise them and act through them. However, that is to admit that they have access to all existent forces of nature, to every freedom in the universe. As an anecdotal proof of this, note that Van der Walls forces don’t usually show up in our macroscopic world, but then geckos evolved and started taking advantage of them, and later humans evolved and found even more uses for these forces. Therefore, one could accurately state that Geckos and humans expanded the ambit of Van der Walls forces to macroscopic objects by manipulating them. Without Geckos or humans, Van der Walls forces would be far more boring and restricted.

The Incompatibalist is completely done in by two facts: 1) we desire or value freedom, and 2) we have a concept ‘freedom,’ though this concept is hostile to the very thing that concepts are used to compute (i.e. causal relations). The Incompatibalist wants to say that our “concept ‘freedom'” is irrational, illogical, and has no sense or meaning for all things are governed by causality, but he fails to realize that this undermines his logical determinism simply by virtue of the fact that we can in deed entertain illogical concepts (and rather persistently in the Western Philosophical tradition)! He will then shift to the fact that “irrational desires” are controlling us in such a case, but he fails to realize that this undermines his psychological determinism by virtue of the fact that we desire freedom; we are determined to be determined by our own determination! We can be stubbornly logical, stubbornly illogical, stubbornly anti-logical, or we can just stubbornly make no decisions whatsoever. We have the freedom to-Will or not-to-Will. “Free-Will” emerges from a dialectic between the conscious ego with its feeble veto, and the Will with its weighty imperatives, whereby the conscious ego, following the Will’s imperative to obtain freedom, votes to-Will or not-to-Will and thereby alters the Will, instructing it in the art of expanding the freedom that it ambiguously demanded in the first place. The very fact that this desire for freedom is amorphous and indistinct grants the ego freedom to pursue an infinite number of interpretations and plans for obtaining that amorphous end. This internal ambiguity grants further possibilities as the ego can cater to the Will with options the Will did not anticipate, thus honing and refining the options the Will is subsequently likely to send up the chain for the ego’s vote or guidance.

Further possibilities are similarly granted by the fact that we can hold concepts or propositions that are illogical, amorphous, or downright absurd. There is no such thing as “Fate,” or “the inevitable,” but telling a young child that there is such a thing reinforces his us-versus-the world paradigm and inflames his disdain of fortune and necessity. Samuel Johnson famously stated that all experience is for the freedom of the will, while all theory is against it. This is roughly true because the will-to-freedom forms the basic Gestalt of our concept ‘freedom,’ but this remains a concept like no other for you can’t get to the bottom of it, you can’t discover its essence or controlling dynamics, and therefore can’t give a positive definition of what it is. This concept bristles when used to understand physical necessity, or at the very least, appears to be superfluous to such an understanding, for if we know that the Earth orbits the Sun, it goes without saying that it “freely” does so, given that nothing is stopping this from happening. But there again, you see that the concept ‘freedom’ is defined as “not-constrained,” where that initial impetus or force itself is left perfectly inscrutable and mysterious. We unconsciously think of the necessity of causal forces “out there” in terms of the experience of necessity “in here,” (i.e. from the Will) but on some level we realize that this whole show “out there” would go on even in our absence, and so we go on looking “out there” for something like Will or freedom: the essence of Nature that infuses it with energy, motion, change, and expansion. Most people tend to settle on “energy” or “Gravity” for this ground of being, the great puppet-master, but few ever question whether this whole search was doomed by confusion from the start. There is no “ground of being” just as there is no God, while the search for either fabricates an invisible power-source that governs all mysteriously and invisibly. Oscar Wilde has the best response to this when he states that the great mystery is the visible world, not the invisible!

Union Of Opposites

I have argued that the way we conceptualize and talk about the world tends to foster a confused Deterministic worldview, so is this not an example of Linguistic Determinism limiting human thought? Nope, for we have been able to think outside this naive picture and formulate some idea of freedom as necessity, proving that this was a mental speed-bump, not a towering cliff face. How can concepts that are exact opposites ultimately refer to the same thing? Its simple, really: for the sake of convenience and ease of reference we typically coin terms that stand for the limits or extremes of something, meaning that terms exist for each end of a continuum, but few terms exist for anything in between. Furthermore, these opposites define each other and accordingly either one is never completely absent in any given case out there in nature. Even our prototype case of freedom, the experience of our own Will, is both the experience of our free powers and the necessity of being burdened with them. Accordingly, one should view ‘freedom’ and ‘necessity’ as convenient terms for either end of the the spectrum of Nature, where Nature is never fully one or the other, but is both simultaneously. The concept “Nature,” or “Universe,” then, should be broken into two sub-concepts of “Freedom” and “Necessity,’ with the understanding that Nature cannot be explained or described without recourse to both terms, whose tension produces a harmony that is the phenomenal world. The essence of the universe, then, is twofold and conflicting, as Schopenhauer realized. To demonstrate the truth of this strange union of opposites, let me reignite a debate that had raged for millenia until it was supposedly “solved:” Does air resist the motion of a projectile or assist it?

Aristotle apparently thought that air assisted motion, while Galileo et all discovered “the truth” of air resistance. However, this begs the question of “assist or resist motion compared to what? Ballistic flight through a vacuum?” An example should clear this whole matter up. Take a gun in your hand, bury things hand twenty inches underground, and fire the bullet. The ground will resist the bullets motion. Do the same thing in water and notice that this medium slows the bullet less. Do the same thing above ground and you will find that the air resists the bullets motion still less, which we typically express by the word “assist” or even “liberate.” Do the same thing in space and you will find that the vacuum resists the bullets motion still less. Each of the above cases involve less and less resistance and more and more assistance, but both ‘resistance and ‘assistance’ are involved. Does air resist motion then? Well, far less than the mediums of earth and water, but more than a vacuum and far more than a properly aligned EM field, which could actually accelerate the bullet faster than what is possible in a vacuum via the bullet’s internal propellent charge. Even in the EM field example, though, this field could be aligned tangentially or opposed to the path of the bullet and end up “resisting” its motion more than earth or water did! So there is no definitive answer to the question because the terms we use are “ideal,” they are the outer limit, while few things in Nature ever even approach this limit and therefore are some admixture of both extremes. Asking whether air assists motion or not is like asking if visible light is Gamma radiation or radio: you can only answer by either saying “neither” or “oddly both.”

Are humans free? Well, we don’t have as much inertial freedom as an object with the mass of the sun, but we have at our disposal far more freedoms to arrange or draft behind, with many being unique to our species. We can at least claim to have some inertia of our own, whereas the sun cannot claim to have any psychological or logical forces to tap into. Therefore, I conclude that a human being is more free than a planet or star. Stars don’t even have a monopoly on thermonuclear reactions anymore! I can scarcely think of a clearer demonstration of the human concept ‘freedom.’

Its not as though Free Will grants us immunity from Causality. Again, “Causality” is not a “thing” distinct from the plethora of existing forces. If we look at all of these forces and call that Causality, then human beings are the apogee of Nature’s forces. If we look at each force in turn, one can make a case for how Free Will grants immunity from a form of causation (ie a force of Nature). but we don’t even need Free Will for this, for entropy is a law of physics, but yet Life is negentropic–its vary definition is the thwarting of a law of Nature lower on the ladder.

More importantly, the Hard Determinist denies that there are purposes in a world infused only with blind causation; that even human “purposes” or “ends” are only illusory manifestations of physical law. What they fail to grasp is that this bars them from using words like ‘limit,’ ‘govern,’ ‘constrain,’ and so forth, as these only make sense in a world with ends, in the sense of “purposes” or “goals.” You can’t limit or govern atoms because they are not “trying” to do anything; they pursue no goal. The same atom is just as happy being part of the sun as being part of my left hand. If you do introduce the language of agency and goals, then you must admit that these atoms strive towards something freely, at which point some force limits or governs them, stopping them from reaching that something. That is, you have to admit some freedom exists if you are going to claim that it is governed or constrained. For ‘inevitability’ to be coherent, something must be ‘evitable,’ as Dennett argues. But if ‘evitability’ explodes, as it it has done in the evolution of life on this planet, then the word ‘inevitable’ becomes incoherent and we begin wondering anew what ‘evitability’ or ‘freedom’ might be, as well as what it might be becoming or end up being.

Could Have Done Otherwise

This claim is the most controversial part of compatibalism. All it means is that two options under considered are not barred by the laws of physics, though one can only do one of these actions at a time. But think of two things we can do at the same time: think of jumping and singing, for instance. These choices are not mutually exclusive, yet we can choose to do only one or the other, or neither. If I choose only to jump, then would anyone really claim that it wasn’t possible for me also to let out a cry while I jumped? This is somehow barred by the laws of physics? A simple experiment proves I can, always, do so (in the future). I can’t go “back in time” to do it, but I can go “forward in time” to do it! Why, then, is the case any different with mutually exclusive actions? I can’t jump and sit at the same time, but to suggest that the one I end up doing first was “inevitable” and that it was physically impossible for me to have chosen the alternative instead is a case of special pleading. Determinism is what assures us beforehand that either sitting or jumping are physically available options, so how does one twist this into the idea that one was not physically possible at a certain time? (A: Because we can’t physically alter the past, that great source of legitimate fatalism, and so we erroneously project the same fatalism onto the future as if it were as set as the past, when in fact the only necessity is that there will be a future.) Hard Determinism as a thesis is unfalsifiable and does not count as a scientific theory. It is just the claim that whatever happens had to happen, no matter what! Think about that: nothing at all interesting could take place in the future, or a pink, pan-dimensional unicorn could fly down and magically stir the Sahara into a forest overnight and all that the our antagonist could say is “it must be so.” Lastly, Determinism alone makes no predictions whatsoever. It says that there can only be one physically possible future, but it doesn’t predict anything in that future specifically. So I’ll leave you with an open question: what exactly am I barred from being able to do in that single possible future?

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1 Response to Freedom From Destiny

  1. Pingback: Materialism Is Magical | Think On These Things

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