Freedom Aint Liberating

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” -Aristotle

Samuel Johnson famously states that all experience is for the freedom of the will, all theory against it, but while this captures a great truth about causal reasoning/theorizing, it also obscures the fact that our most autonomous decision-making feels like hard work instead of liberation; a burden instead of a windfall; anxiety instead of boundless opportunity. Accordingly, far too much is made of the so-called “experience of freedom,” as if this were a single, unified phenomenon and the only grounds for positing the existence of FW in the first place. The truth is that there are many experiences of freedom and none of them are direct experiences of Free Will.

In a shallow sense anything you mange to be able to do is done freely and therefore is an experience of freedom. This experience is intensified if an external constraint existed that you were nonetheless able to overcome, filling you with a sense of power. This is still further intensified if that external obstacle excited fear or some other internal obstacle to action that was nonetheless overcome also, adding a further feeling of courage. The most discussed experience of freedom, however, is that feeling or report of “meant to do that” that accompanies an action that conforms with prediction or expectation. Lastly, there is a truly liberating feeling of relief from the burden of choice when the window for choice has closed, either by external constraints or because a choice has already been made. Though each of these are experiences of a freedom, they are not direct experiences of Free Will, per se. As we proceed, however, let us keep each of these feelings in mind. There is the feeling of:

1) action without external constrain, 2) overcoming external constraint, 3) overcoming the internal constraint of fear, 4) “meant to do that” reported after any predictable action, and 5) relief from the burden of choice.

The conventional wisdom has it entirely backwards, for true freedom doesn’t feel liberating in the moment at all, but only perhaps after the fact, at which point it is no longer an experience of Free Will, but instead its opposite: the feeling of relief from the burden of choice (5). Paradoxically, the choices that involve the most autonomy involve enormous internal conflict, not an easy, spontaneous being of one mind. Exercising Free Will involves a conflict between many possibilities as well as a conflict between many desires or values, an experience called “anxiety” that hardly feels like easy liberation or freedom-of-whim. There is only one exception to this, artistic expression, where a sense of freedom is actually preserved, but the catch it that one is so heavily invested in the artistic pursuit that none of the above five experiences of freedom can enter consciousness. The highest expression of Free Will totally eclipses the usual feelings of freedom that we so often mistake for an experience of Free Will.

Many people interpret any unconstrained decision as a free one because of (1). This mistake plays into the hands of the Free Will critic, who might, for instance, point to priming experiments where a person is fooled into thinking they made a free choice when in fact they were secretly primed to do so. These experiments, however, always involve unimportant decisions that didn’t activate the Will much in the first place and more importantly hardly required any deliberation whatsoever. The authentic experience of freedom, by contrast with (1), involves many constraints–internal, external, or both–that force the choice of a single alternative to the exclusion of the others. Authentic freedom feels like conflict, not free license.

Being aware of an overabundance of possibilities is the feeling of anxiety, which can be a heavier burden to carry than those troubles that life forces on us without raising the issue of consent. In deed, this anxiety resulting from choice is one of those troubles that life forces on us without our consent! And this is the crux of the matter: this is why even the most liberated people in the world today might feel that the idea of Free Will is nonsense. However, their unease at being forced to be free presumes the very Free Will that they feel like rejecting as nonsense, for if they really didn’t believe in Free Will, then their “freedom” to choose between staggering numbers of possibilities would cease to be a problem or generate angst.

While kids who grew up in the fifties may have fled the claustrophobia of their limited choices, kids of this era felt the agoraphobia of seemingly unlimited opportunity. -Bennis, Thomas, “Geeks & Geezers”

The amazing thing is that these old “geezers” felt more autonomy than the modern “geeks,” despite the latter having far fewer obstacles to face down and far more opportunities before them. How do we explain this paradox? Firstly, the more limited your choices, the less burden of choice you are strapped with, which can be experienced as a freedom or relief (5). Obstacles can make certain choices impossible, therefore narrowing down your choices to a manageable number, adding to feelings 1, 3, & 5. This is not all “illusory” freedom, either, for limits can also free up mental resources that would otherwise be overwhelmed, providing you more freedom of thought and thus choice. A poet, for instance, might become far more creative by limiting himself to a certain style or meter than if he burdened his mind with the amorphous instructions to come up with any old brilliant poetry whatever. Secondly, obstacles provide resistance to one’s free powers and therefore highlight them in sharp relief, especially when one’s free powers are up to the challenge, which results in the intoxicating feeling of autonomy and power (2).

The “geezers” weren’t strapped with much of a burden of choice, but were forced to face obstacles that not only challenged their freedom, but often threatened their very survival as well. Those who survived such ordeals were far stronger for having been tested and found able, but more importantly, their own precious freedom had been narrowed down so far as to be threatened with annihilation, giving them an incredibly sensitive eye for the freedoms and opportunities they had left. The “geeks,” by contrast, never had obstacles like World War II to winnow-down their horizon of possibilities, never experienced trials and tests that if overcome would become the stuff of Spielberg movies, and never found compelling obstacles upon which to test their strengths. The “geeks” big obstacle was there freedom and burden of choice. This largely explains the above paradox, but needs the addition of our basic thesis: that true freedom does not feel liberating in the first place, so we shouldn’t see this situation as “paradoxical” at all!

The feeling of Free Will involves the turmoil of knowing that alternatives exclude and that one’s choice will change his identity permanently; a feeling perhaps akin to the nausea and preemptive regret that accompanies sitting down to get a tattoo. After making the choice, excluding the alternatives, and successfully conquering an obstacle, one might receive that feeling of power and autonomy noted above, but this is only an aftereffect of Free Will, not its indelible signature. This signature is felt in that tortured moment of uncertainty before choice and during deliberation. However, when the identity has been thus altered by a decision, similar decisions will be made more reflexively, on a whim, and therefore get confused with the experience of Free Will that made such whimsy possible. They are free choices, to be sure, for they resulted from a moment of tortured deliberation that altered the Will, but they are not themselves experiences of Free Will unless freshly considered, doubted, and so forth all over again. That we could subject our whimsy to deliberation at any time further reinforces the tendency to confuse such whimsy with Free Will.

But how do we square this with the experience of artistic expression, which at the same time feels like the apogee of liberation while being maximally subject to the spontaneous and unpredictable movements of the Will? If whimsy is not Free Will, then what about artistic creation and “authoring” something spontaneously? Complicated as this at first seems, the answer is simple enough.

Artistic Creation, Inspiration, & Creative Flow

The flow or whim of artistic creation is built upon thousands of moments of painful deliberation and disciplined practice which alters, realigns, and teaches the Will, thereby freeing it not only from external and technical obstacles to self-expression, but also those obstacles that the Will places in its own way, like competing desires, caprice, boredom, fear, etc. It is not the ego therefore that learns discipline, but the Will, for the ego already knows how to submit. Creativity is a great example with which to demonstrate Free Will because it is an instance of a freed or educated Will. The creativity of children often appears random, haphazard, or arbitrary for precisely this reason: their Will has not had its aesthetic preferences refined nor has it developed enough discipline and patience to allow these preferences to emerge clearly in the work. However, the flow or “whim” of true creativity is not the same feeling as (1), though it builds on this, for it is also the feeling of being so completely absorbed in the act that there simply isn’t enough conscious bandwidth for reports of “meant to do that” (4) or any of the other after-action-reports we usually mistake for experiences of Free Will. In fact, many artists describe inspiration from the perspective of an external locus of control; that they are beholden to their muse. This is just our basic thesis again: as liberating as artistic expression can be, the experience of Free Will more closely resembles its opposite than some sense of unlimited free license.

The artist is driven to create beauty or truth and hardy has such absolute prerogative. In fact, their sense of freedom almost resembles the abandon of (5), especially if they in fact view inspiration as coming from “out of the blue.” The reality is that the ego has carefully instructed the Will, edited its prior revelations and musings, and significantly shaped what happens to come “out of the blue,” but the illusory sense of (5) seems to allay the existential burden to “the muses” at least until the work can be completed and claimed as the artist’s freely authored creation.

A human being can invest the totality of their consciousness into an activity so thoroughly that there remains no bandwidth left to report a feeling of prior-intention or deliberate-choice (4), though the activity is the very apogee of human powers & freedoms. Despite this, the Free Will critic takes (4) to be the “experience of freedom” upon which FW is fabricated. These critics are clearly in error because (4) is predicated on predictability and accurate expectation, where creative work is only interesting and “creative” if it cannot be forecast accurately. Creative flow involves investing ones whole mind so intensely that the mind is filled with a sense of awe, self-overcoming, and authentic expression precisely on account of the unpredictability or capriciousness of the resulting work. An artist’s claim of “meant to do that” should never be taken at face value, for at best that artist had only a vague conscious notion of what he intended to produce. A musical performer, by contrast, might know what they intend to produce, but their total conscious investment in this task eclipses the feeling of freely choosing, with a sense for one’s contribution coming only after the performance has come off. The freedom to play well with a symphony requires submission to the group and to the piece, further reinforcing a feeling of un-freedom or constraint while nonetheless performing a remarkable demonstration of Free Will.

The Will-To-Freedom

The most fundamental desire of the Will is for freedom, for more Life, but the Will has a limited “knowledge” of what that could mean and requires the ego to investigate the greater meaning, significance, and possibilities inherent in this drive. This is where the ego makes some elbow room that the Will can later capitalize on. Though ‘Free Will,’ as Voltaire noted, can be quite a misleading moniker, it is nonetheless far more accurate than “Free Ego” would be, despite the fact that the ego was instrumental in freeing the Will from itself. Acquired discipline can look superficially like the ego has been freed from the imperious demands of lust, greed, etc, a mistake which resulted in thousands of years of “mind-body” dualism muddling the issue terribly and associating freedom only with restraint of the Will. In fact, the ego’s ability to say “No!” to the Will can be quite misleading, for the ego can only remind the Will that its demands on the ego conflict with its prior demands, therefore persuading it or seducing it more than ordering it or mastering it. Being the “captain of your soul” is more like being a good navigator, observer, and manager than it is like having the boat on “remote control.” Nevertheless, the Will still needs the ego to perform certain functions, with the result that the ego does have Sartre’s radical power of “No!” along with Libet’s “veto” or “Free Won’t” simply by failing to perform or act when prompted by the Will’s immediate wishes. The ego does not have unlimited power to do this, as the Will will press the issue, but it can bide time like this via justifications that have been acquired through an intimate knowledge of the Will. The ego might say something like “No! I won’t! When I followed this imperative before, I noticed you (the Will) were not assuaged but instead became more perturbed still.” Having brought the prior and disturbing episode “to mind,” the Will must cleave to its own orders. The matter is much like negotiating with a child: if you force something down their throats you risk engaging their natural rebelliousness, while the use of reverse psychology, mirroring their own words back to them, or other forms of persuasion usually bring them around. The big blank check in this balance sheet that grounds any radical freedom comes from the fact that the Will’s basic desire is for freedom and therefore a clever ego can always call the Will’s bluff by explaining to the Will that it is violating this very desire with its rigid imperatives. Thus does the ego educate and free the Will from itself. Free Will, then, is a freedom-from-will stumbled upon first by the ego while carrying out its duties to the Will, and learned subsequently by the Will itself. Not everyone is the “captain of his soul” or has developed a robust Free Will, as we all start out as deck-hands and few ever even reach the status of first-mate. However, nearly all of us are capable of such a promotion if we could be bothered to learn the ropes.

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