Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Reflection on freedom from last year...

"The Truth shall set you free," says Christ. Free from what? Free from sin, is the "correct" answer. That is all well and good, but are there not more unpleasant things than sin we would like to be freed from? At the start, I would much rather be freed from pain, from lonliness, from the viscious complexities of everyday life, from the burdens of work, and from my own psychological torments. I would rather be freed from these, than I would like to be freed from breaking the ten commandments so that I can have some "pie in the sky when I die." Oh, if only I could spend the days enjoying myself, burning my textbooks and papers, smashing my computer (at least the one not powerful enough for video games), taking walks in the forest and maybe even getting drunk or masturbating now and again without anxiety, guilt, fear, and so on. In the end, isn't the Christian project one of manufacturing fear of an arbitrary list of sins, and then proceeding to offer us "salvation" from them? That sounds like a racket, to me. I would much rather not be exhorted--or extorted, as the case may be--to pay the high price of my pleasant profligation for the nebulous good of freedom from a list of evils that can't be proved objectively true or even the least bit relevant. Indeed, I would like to be freed from religion itself, and all its nagging moralistic choirs of responsibility and drudgery.

To go even deeper--isn't this Christian "freedom" a terrible, disgusting joke? At every turn, the Church is disapproving this or that or the other thing. Liberalities and choices seem crushed with an authoritarian fist at every turn. And what of the Christian? The poor fool, at every moment life presents him with two options, the "heaven" option and the "hell" option, and only ever ONE of those two options is permissable should he not want to burn alive forever and ever. What kind of freedom is that? What a crushing burden, rather, to always have everything but the most morally erect choice turned into a doorway to being raped by demons until the end of time.

When Jesus says, "My yoke is easy and my burden light," is not his divine nature laughing at us in mockery behind that human face? Is not the whole Church caught in a cycle of dupery and disappointment, shame and empty "redemption", a billions of little downward spirals of sin-confession-sin-confession-sin-confession-sin, etc., without any forseeable sainthood except for those handful of individuals who just happened to be in the right place (with the right psychological makeup) at the right time?

Lest anyone accuse me ever of not understanding the minds of postmodern non-Christians, I present the above paragraphs in my defense.

This is why, when priests and religious educators speak of "true freeom," it tends to fall flat. The brilliantly constructed 20th century tale--that the Church is, in fact, merely a pretty coral reef of colliding, self-perpetuating psycho-dramas forming an institutional hierarchy that looses its lively but immaterial shackles on all corners of the earth--shows its full persuasive glory. But I've strewn too far from the point.

Freedom is an idea that cannot be gotten rid of, even by those philosophers who cannot admit that it has any actual reality. Even determinists such as Schopenhauer felt that "freedom," as an errant spontaneous belief, has value for the human life even if it has no substance. As Jonathan Edwards said, "we can do as we please, but we cannot please as we please." But on some level, nobody is able to banish the idea that we do MORE than simply "do as we please"; that our very "pleasures" themselves are subject to some freedom, (1) in a way of which animals, which also only "do as they please", are incapable, and (2) in a way that is not reducible to a merely 'higher form' of "doing as we please" (although this notion deserves more attention).

This is a different order of freedom (whether it is real or not) than the freedom my anti-Christian self complained was threatened by Christianity. That freedom was a freedom of fearlessly "doing as I please". But this freedom is a more basic freedom than that--more basic, even than "pleasing as I please" (though it includes this). This is the freedom at stake in every debate on determinism, uniqueness of the human species, quantum physics and chaos theory, divine foreknowledge, and so on. At root, it asks: "Am I a fundamentally spontaneous center of action, of growth and change? Am I, on some level, unpredictable by science or logic, and, on some level, undeterminable by law or manipulation?"

Notice that I used the term "fundamentally", not "absolutely." No rational person who believes in this basic mode of human freedom is under any illusions that this freedom is "absolute." Nobody who has ever woken up in a different place than they went to sleep believes that this freedom is absolute--if they believe in it at all. To call it "fundamental" makes it an integral part of our deepest selves--not the totality of our selves. That would be ridiculous. The terrible irony is that those who have tried to rage against deterministic ideas by diving into the absolutes of spontaneity, unpredictability, and undeterminability, have diven into a pool of cliches characteristic of figures like Marylin Manson and all of those long-haired rock stars of the 70's who became poster-boys of sexual and drug addiction, depression, and suicide. The most unpredictable thing any of them ever did was to recover.

But the scenario that arises from this question is that, whatever our own opinions, we discover our own lives as being interior struggles between this deeper freedom, and the creeping unfreedom. That is why we cannot get rid of the idea that we have this freedom--if there were no such freedom, there would be no struggle. The very fact that we have a will and an imagination which is so frequently frustrated by determinedness and uncontrol, is the strongest testament to the existence of this basic freedom. Our unfreedom is at war with something inimical to its determinations and machinations. This nemesis of unfreedom--this "freedom"--is it an illusion? Illusions can sometimes fight wars, as we know, and be even more powerful than the real thing, as any lucid schizophrenic can tell you. But if this illusory "freedom" is a powerful enemy of unfreedom, that sometimes even wins victories, we must ask the question of whatever the determinist means when he calls it an "illusion" in the first place.


[Added later, intervening hypotheticals omitted...]

In summary of all the points made up until now:

Before we begin to speak of God, one may say that we are all determined. We can do as we please, but we cannot please as we please. However, within the deterministic framework, one perceives a difference between human beings and other animals.

Speaking of this difference in the barest terms (for wide acceptability), one notices that the first moment of a sensation of freedom is that of a dilemma and a choice. Particularly in difficult dilemmas, the sensation of freedom is keenly and acutely felt.

Yet a materialist determinist can soundly argue that this sensation--this tension between two choices that seems to be the space that calls for freedom--is itself, as such, an illusion. The actor, the determinist says, was passive to the reception of these competing psychological impulses, and passive to their integration and mutation within his subconscious. As such he is, no matter how hard he tries, still passive to their competition within his consciousness, and to the domination of one over the other. So the determinist thought experiment goes, two people with the same exact histories should make the same exact choices. (On a side note, attempts to use chaos theory or quantum theory to create a space for freedom within this framework will universally fail to do so--it would ruin the determinist thought experiment, but not determinism. The two individuals with identical histories would act differently, but this difference would still stand within a deeper conceptual bedrock of Necessity. As already established, absolute unpredictability and determinism are logically compatible.)

Yet even if this picture is accepted, it can be complicated by a discussion of the differences between the kinds of choices that constitute our dilemmas. For an animal without dilemmas (although I don't set out to argue that animals do not experience dilemmas of any kind), each immediate desire is absolutely compelling on the animal's consciousness. Although a person experiences the same immediate desires that an animal has, they are not compelled by those desires in the same way. The immediate desires are relativized to other desires which are perceived as different in some way.

These differences are experienced, on the level of consciousness, as being ultimately differences of value.

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