(Wow, this topic sure has been haunting me, as in my post: “Freedom, Haunted by the Idea” in the Freedom and Mother Nature series. I sometimes wake in the night with ideas. Do we have to be separate from our environment to be free? We are making some progress on this, and it is such a fundamental issue — “Can we really do things or does stuff just always happen to us?” I believe we do have Agency and still can remain faithful to scientific principles. The issues are more complex than simply saying ’causes, caused, causes, caused’ all the way through no matter the situation. In this post, a distinction will be attempted (again) between being “informed” and being caused. This kind of difference will give us more to marvel at and to celebrate in our unity with the universe. Freedom is the ability to do more.)
When Jesus rose from the dead, or transformed water into wine with the wave of a hand, that is what I call “being free from the environment”. When the Angel Gabriel grasp Mohammed and held until the opening verses of The Koran poured from his mouth, that is being ‘free from the physical environment’! When The Buddha finally broke through the vast layers of illusion and reached Nirvana, sending the trees and flowers of the world into instantaneous bloom, that is what I call “being free from your environment”! These folks were supposedly SuperNatural beings and part of SuperNatural interventions into our normal earthly and human, physical environment. Freedom, for us mere mortals, does not need to be this extravagant.
Surprising to many, there is a rather wide ranging debate occurring in some circles — though probably not yours — about Free Will. Does it exist and in what form? One of my best readers, rom and his site rom’s corner, has commented that Freedom must mean, free from the/your environment. I certainly see how that can be taken as the definition but it is not what I intend by the term. Nothing is “free” from its environ. Early on, in fact post one — Freedom: Haunted by the Idea — in the Freedom and Mother Nature post series, I thought I made it clear that thinking of freedom as the ability to do anything, as being unconstrained by your environment, was not acceptable. That is not the kind of freedom I want, nor is it real.
Freedom is, instead, the ability to do more. Freedom is not defying the laws of your physical environment, it is working in conjunction with your environment to get the most out of it and you. Greater abilities to act involve new kinds of environments; the two go hand in hand. It is like flying airplanes. That is freedom. It is a gradual progression of the abilities of a creature to function successfully by adapting to their environment and then, in turn, influencing that environment, itself. Flying an airplane utilizes the natural forces that once held humans to the ground. Flying airplanes then also precipitates the design of enhanced wings and engines, the building of airports, the refining of fuels, the gradual history of aviation progress, the creation of traffic controllers, and the manufacturing facilities to construct these craft. Freedom is based in feedback loops. It is two way, not the one way determination of causal forces.
(The evolution of human flight is an example of how persons can come to be able to do more. In conjunction with their environment and reflective thought, humans utilized our environment’s opportunity for powered flight and its successive improvement.)
This concept of freedom is not completely irregular. There is a sense in ordinary usage that freedom is enhanced ability. A bird is free to fly; a horse to gallop. In engineering this sense has been conceptualized as “degrees of freedom”. A door on hinges has a degree of freedom; it can open. A hip with its ball and socket has more degrees of freedom; it can move at multiple angles. This idea of freedom is championed by philosopher Daniel Dennett, among others, and is a tenet of Compatiblism. It contends that freedom does not have to be unlimited to be real — a door has a limited kind of freedom. Being determined or caused is not incompatible with being free as long as you have enhanced abilities.
(Falcons can surely do more, and do it well! Their design gives them Degrees of Freedom with astounding qualities. Images from wildlifeanimalz and Difference Between)
I must admit that to hedge and create a coherent position by contending that freedom is options and constraints in an environment at the same time is a difficult task. ‘Hard determinists’ like Dr. Coyne on his site — Why Evolution is True, propose an austere, straightforward and courageous (in their eyes) position that ‘we are not free but are determined in all that we do.’ Whether it is the physical layout of the sub-atomic particles shortly after the Big Bang, or the socialization we received from birth, we do what we are caused by these to do.
To illustrate the delicate blend that I am proposing, I argued in Haunted by the Idea, that as the person I am, I am not realistically capable of committing some heinous act. Theoretically, I can think very abstractly about what it means to be a Person and Make Choices. I can imagine myself “very large” and see many options within my ‘grasp’; and in that abstract situation I can think that I am capable of many different kinds of acts, including very bad ones, contends Dennett. Or, I can think of my self as “very small” and ‘see’ no options only the constraints imposed by the forces within and around me. In reality, we are all a combination of these two perspectives. Our past can be a powerful force in continuing the present direction, and this especially if we are content with it. In my case, I have very little inclination to do something radically new, especially at this point in my life.
But, that is the kind of concept Personhood is; it is about shifting Perspectives on yourself and your environment, about choices, and the Responsibility we have to our self and other persons when we make them. Personhood is importantly about coordination with others, and flexibility in reflection and adjustment in action. (See Persons, Large and Small in the Freedom series)
We lucky, educated, and basically emotionally healthy individuals of the 21st century live in an Environment of Personhood. No, freedom is not being free from your environment, it is living in an environment that fosters and provides vast options for choices and the acts that follow from them. Freedom is living in an environment that has constantly focused on our responsibly to Reflect on our past behaviors and their circumstances before we act again. Our environment of Persons puts us in a place to think and act, to be significantly Self-Controlled, not simply to be impelled onward into continuous repetitive behaviors.