Freedom: Persons, ‘Large’ and ‘Small’

(This is the third in the series on human Freedom and its connection to Nature.  —This post has been Revised, 9/2019–    In the first in the series, Haunted by the Idea, freedom and free choices were implausibly explained by positing “the self” as some metaphysically aloof ‘object.’  In Humans as Machines, the second post, it is proposed that humans are like programmed computers: given the stimuli, the appropriate program is triggered and runs, resulting in behavior that has been sanctioned by Evolution.  This idea rightfully conjures up some questions about how innovative can behaviors be.  To bridge this gap, the current post will start to characterize, not only humans, but humans as Persons.  Persons exist in a culture which is an adaptive mechanism not available to other animals.  First published 11/11/2018)


We humans are complex creatures.  We are especially entangled in our relations to each other.

Human social networks are complex.  Blue nodes are the most “centrally connected” in this network.  (Wikipedia)

Each person has a story to tell about themselves to others and to themselves, contends Daniel Dennett, one of the intellectual guiding light for naturereligionconnection.      We evolved into “an us, a communicating community of organisms that can compare notes,” he says.  These stories are  ongoing narratives, and part of a process that goes as follows.

We tell a story about ourselves.  We tell this story to ourselves and to others.  Others formulate their own story about us; it is somewhat based on the story we tell them, but also on what our various comments and behaviors suggest to them, about us.  They tell their story of us back to us, usually not directly but implied in their behaviors and comments to us.  We find this feedback very, very important.  It can influence our story.  We can ‘see’ ourselves from their point of view and consider changing our behaviors, wittingly or unwittingly.  We tell them: They tell us.  It’s reflective.

Of course, this happens the other way around, also.  Other people have their story and we formulate a story of them too.   They tell us: We tell them.  It’s a circle.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Aesop’s Fable.  While trying to be a prankster, others taught him a bitter lesson: “Liars, even if they tell the truth, no one believes them.”  Illustration by Francis Barlow, 1687.

So, we are not totally in control of this story, even though it is ours.  As we grow up and especially in the early years, ‘our’ story is the story those around us— parents, siblings, television, peers — tell us about us.  It is another instance of “socialization before individualization,” to quote the noted humanist, Richard Rorty.  As we get older, we can — and should— take more control and responsibility for our story, and that’s what this post is about: it hopes to be a clarification of this process.

When I first met my wife, she soon started to suggest to me that I was unduly negative.  Eventually she just said it, straight up.  She helped me work on my story.  She helped me see more of the opportunities in life, less its limitations and misfortunes.  She helped me ‘see’ myself “larger”, not “smaller.”

Making yourself Large

You are at a baseball game once again, this time as the batter.  Your reflexes are primed; your

You know your role. Your swing is ready to explode.

swing is ready to explode.  You are a well oiled baseball-playing machine.  You are ready to step into the pitch or step away, even to ‘bail out’ if it is thrown in too close.  Your team is rallying and they need you to get a hit.  Suddenly, your coach calls timeout.  It’s time to reflect!

Change of strategy; the coach has considered the situation from the point of view of the opposing team and expects an inside pitch, in fact a ‘brush-back’ pitch, in an effort to slow the comeback.  He asks you to allow it to hit you and thus gain first base.

As the batter, you now have a new perspective — a broader, larger story than previously.  It is added foresight and insight, and now you prepare to override your designed reflexes to swing, or in this case, avoid being hit by the inside pitch, and allow it to graze you. Interestingly, if the pitch is thrown in too high and toward your head, all your new precognitions will vanish and you will automatically duck to save your noggin.

The batter and the coach have made themselves “larger”, as persons.*  They have redefined the situation from a ‘higher’— more expansive — vantage pointThey hold themselves responsible for additional contingencies and use this ‘view’ to allow a modicum of adjustment in their behavior to take better advantage of nature’s (the pitcher’s) offering.  Persons have this ability that Dennett calls “making yourself large”, and is based in the circular and reflective network of stories and feedback outlined above.  It allows persons some room to consider themselves and others (and various ‘situations’ in general) from different vantage points and thus to alter their story (their program) and to consider different input, react with different output.  It provides some “elbow room,” to be free. **

*What is a “person”?  This important concept will be further clarified in the following post.

**Elbow Room, the title of Dennett’s initial book (1984) on human freedom.

Making yourself Small

We can also “make ourselves small.”  A drug addict has become “very small” as a person She is extremely reactant to her physical and psychological need.  Her ability and desire to see and consider real options is severely diminished.  She is addicted, and thus we may question her responsibility for her condition and see any recovery as a dramatic rupture in her story, heretofore.

Image result for pictures of crash tests
Scientists understand the world as objects in motion; yet, they themselves are a special kind of object, a Person.

A person in the midst of an auto crash is “very small.” They are almost no person at all; their connection to the story-exchanging network of persons does them little good.  They are simply a physical object buffeted by overwhelming forces.  Defense attorneys may use this as a tactic, they may attempt to portray (or accurately describe) their client as very “small.”  They use the client’s deprived or abusive upbringing to win sympathy (or insight) from the jury that the client really had little chance to turn out other than the miscreant they did, little ability to take control of their story and change it for the good.  

In each case, making a person “small” places them in a context in which they—as persons— are ineffective.  They are little more than an object.  They have little self-control or responsibility because either they are unable to shift their point of view and effectively reflect upon their condition (the drug addict), or their condition is simply beyond reflective intervention (the auto crash, and also the addiction — until redemption).  Their connection to the story-exchanging network of persons does them little good.

The Objectivity of Persons

In this post, I hope we have gained some insight into our situation and into our ability to be free.  When we “make ourselves large,” we are using our position from within the matrix of stories to objectify ourselves, and examine ourselves and our situations from an outside position.  We are “objective” in several senses.  In ‘looking at ourselves’ and in ‘looking at a scenario’ from outside it, we are being a new kind of object, a person.  We are “above” and free from (to a significant degree) the situation being looked at, though not in any metaphysical sense as the Existentialists proposed.  This ability of persons to shift their point of view is the basis for Scientific Objectivity, Scientific Knowledge, and the tremendous technological advances we now enjoy; but also, the bit of freedom that we do seem to enjoy.     

Though nothing has been solved in this post to make us more free, the dilemma of our freedom has been clarified.   Satisfying (especially for my wife), the theme of many an 

Image result for images law and order
Jack McCoy digging for the truth.  The accused committed the crime, but are they responsible for it?  How responsible are you for who you are?  (picture from Vanity Fair)

episode of Law and Order has been justified.  Should we hold that person responsible?  What was their capacity to control their own life and make their own story?  What is our capacity to do the same?  Dennett suggests that these tensions are well founded and lie in the give and take of persons.  We have also discovered that our ability to be scientists and engineers — including our ability to ‘engineer’ our own lives and selves — is based in this Person-hood: our participation in the social network of story creation and exchange!

In the next post, the biological and scientific basis for personhood will be explored, and we will find that this foundation descends deep into Nature and that our freedom is a product of far more than just us, humans.


Paintings: “We evolved into ‘an us’.”

Detail of Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic (1930).  He was inspired to paint the house, and “the kind of people (he) fancied should live there”, said Wood.


Christina’s World (1948) painting by American artist Andrew Wyeth.  “We tell a story about ourselves.  We tell this story to ourselves and others” NatieRel.


In America, this is a story we have often heard and have often told about an adventurous American general and his small army.  Americans sometimes think, “We did this!”  Detail of Emanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851).








(Header Image: thanks to Scope)

Drawing by Marty





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