(This is the Introduction to a series of posts on Freedom. They are not light reading. Please give them a try, if only skimmed to collect what is of interest to you. They are published for the sake of the clarification of basic philosophical and scientific positions. Later posts will contain many of these ideas in a more accessible form. The series is about Freedom but I do not mean political freedom, for that would have less to do with Nature and Biology. I mean “metaphysical” freedom! How, in a universe of causes discovered by Newton and Einstein in physics, Mendeleev and Linus Pauling in chemistry, Darwin and Mendel in biology, Can People, or any other animal, Freely Choose? There is a way, that it ‘kind of’ happens!)
What could you do? I mean, what might you choose to do? Are you free enough to just up and tell your boss, “I quit”, no preliminaries, just “see ya!” Or your husband or wife, “I’m done, I want a change; I’m moving out today!” Or maybe you decide to become a monk or a mountain-top sage; you pack a bag, buy a ticket to Nepal and off you go.
Seems possible. You just turn off your practical consideration of consequences and any moral concerns, and just choose to do it. Of course, you’re not going to do any of these things, especially in the whimsical, abbreviated fashion portrayed above; but theoretically, abstractly, is it possible? You choose, and then do! You choose to make some drastic change.
I used to think the answer was “yes;” I used to think we were that ‘free’, and I was actually somewhat spooked by it. “I could do that,” I ruminated, “fully responsible humans are capable of such radical choice.” By “radical choice,” I mean a choice not caused by outside forces, not even the context of the rest of a person’s life and times–physically, emotionally and in terms of character. Not caused, simply chosen!
The famous French Existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, coined this phrase, “radical choice”, and he suggested we should think of many of our choices in theses terms: They are totally up to us; each in reality is a true ‘pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.’ Each choice is your pure and unfettered act of making you who you are and you’re totally responsible! Wow, no wonder I was freaked by it; it’s really severe!
What’s the basis for this radical ability? Sartre thought it was ‘the self’, the ‘you’ in “you choose.” In reality, this “self” is disconnected from worldly causes, necessities and influences, he believed, even though it often seems highly connected. Where you come from, your momentary mood, your upbringing and even peer pressure is not the true basis of any of your choices. If you think they are, that’s “bad faith,” says Sartre; it’s a denial of “your existential condition.” The real “self” is above these: It is not an object that is formed in your upbringing, or held by worldly needs, or gravity, or pushed by the wind. It is not a part of nature, in fact it is characterized by Sartre in contrast to nature! It is like an other-worldly ‘thing’, it transcends regular objects. What it can do—choose to do, we often underestimate.*
Maybe the situation is similar to recovering addicts in twelve step programs, they call upon some “higher power” to stay sober. And, this is freedom: it is not caused but must be made by a “Self” (or some ‘thing’) that transcends causes — a ‘thing’ kinda like God.
Freedom, for these existentialists, is like ‘reasonableness’ which also takes place ‘above the fray’ of causal forces and mundane worldly necessities. The “self” that is reasonable and free is an unusual ‘object’; it must avoid many worldly distractions.
Often the commission of a “radical choice” is portrayed as a criminal act. One of the great novels of all time is based on this theme. Raskolnikov, the main character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, convinces himself that the murder and robbery of a despicable pawnbroker and loan shark would be permissible, and that he will do it. He is not inclined by his nature or experience to do it, in fact he is a university student. What he does believe is his freedom to commit the act, and in the logic of it— the reasoning of the Utilitarian Theory of right and wrong. To kill the scoundrel will rid the world of an evil person whose fortune could then be used for the betterment of all, he calculates. What is right, is what is good for the majority.
He is also bolstered by the idea, popular then and now, that great people rise above their personal and historical context and act in great and unconventional ways. Raskolnikov thinks of himself in Napoleonic terms; today we tend to think of some of our great entrepreneurs in this way and shower them with massive wealth.
A more recent example of “radical choice” was the popular television series, Breaking
Bad. Here, a high school chemistry teacher makes the startling decision to become a crack cocaine “cook” and eventually “kingpin.” Implausible to the highest degree, the brilliance of the series’ writing and acting is the convincing portrayal of the mild-mannered man and his choices, including homicide. He makes his decisions, no doubt, and they are radically out of character.
I no longer believe in “radical choice,” or in it in quite the same way. It has made my life more tranquil. “I am who I am”, I more often think,and I make decisions along those lines. I am more embedded in myself than I was as a young man, more connected to an established life. It’s a good thing. I’m not the kind of person who becomes a monk much less commits a vile crime; in any realistic sense, I just couldn’t do it!
But, where does that leave the idea of choice and even freedom? If we think of ourselves as more embedded in our environment and more tied to our past and the world around us, how do we think of the opportunity to do something significantly different, whether good or bad?
I believe that the Existentialists were not totally wrong. We can make significant changes. The Self, as it ‘rises above’, as it gains ‘a vantage point to look back’ and consider itself and its actions, is not a metaphysical ‘thing’, but a biological and human social construction. The “Self” has this ability because of the way we are raised to be Persons, and take responsibility and hold others to their roles too. The Self does transcend, but not in the way the Existentialists thought. More on this in the coming posts in this series!
In the next post, though, I will swing 180 degrees from Sartre’s “radical choice”, to the idea of humans as machines designed to act appropriately in their environment. This new view brings humans into line with our universe of causes and effects. We fit in, like clock-work!
*Upon further consideration, I am not sure this is an accurate portrayal of Sartre’s position. It is more of a strawman, an exaggerated portrayal made to make a point and be easily knocked down.