Question for the day: Are we really free?

We take individual freedom for granted, yet there are at least four levels of description at which freedom can be questioned:

Cosmic:  How can we be free if everything is caused?

Biological:  To what extent is the human body a clockwork, making decisions about which we aren’t even aware?

Cultural:  Don’t the powers-that-be teach us how to think, what to want, even who we are?

Political:  Even if we disregard tyranny, how does casting a vote for someone to rule in our stead constitute freedom?

Let’s take these one at a time.

Cosmic:  Belief in individual freedom entails a rejection of the laws of causation.  Whether I turn left or right, in that case, is a choice I make, not just one of a series of effects going back to the Big Bang.  But science, technology, and the entire world view of the West are irrevocably committed to a belief in causation.  If we can’t imagine billiard balls suddenly moving on their own, why should human bodies be any different?

The best discussion I know on this subject is by John Searle (here and here).  He has inclined toward the idea that a universe based on quantum indeterminacy may well allow freedom of action.  Hume observed that causation lacks any necessity, and is probably an artifact of human perception — a useful habit of mind.  If Searle and Hume are correct, causation and freedom can coexist within the mind-boggling complexity of the universe.

This is not a very satisfactory explanation, but it’s the best we have.  Fortunately, metaphysics rarely touches everyday life.  As Searle jokes, no one ever tells the waiter at a restaurant, “I’m a determinist — I’ll just wait here and see what I order.”

Biological:  Biology is limitation.  I may wish to fly with the eagle and swim with the shark, but I can’t:  my biological structure won’t stretch that far.  The same applies to behavior.  In weak moments, I may think of myself as a lion in the tennis court, or (more realistically) as a donkey in office politics.  But these are metaphors.  I am entirely human in my behavioral limitations.

To what extent does biology — pure machinery — constrain human behavior?  We aren’t robots or termites.  Humanity’s circle of possible choices is wider.  The strategic  question is how those choices are made.  In the common-sense view, each human body contains a conscious “me” that acts as the body’s pilot, deciding whether to turn right or left, study or go to the ballpark.  On this account, we are as we seem to be:  masters of our fate, largely free of biological constraint.

A very different account can be pieced together from evidence hinting at the enormous power of nonconscious processing in human decision-making.  According to Tor Norretranders, for example, the bandwidth of human consciousness is extremely narrow:  10-20 data bits per second, compared to the total 11.2 million data bits per second processed by the brain.  Mechanical, automatic, nonconcious data overwhelms the facts we access consciously.  Since nature frowns on waste, this trove of nonconsciously stored information must have a profound influence on decisions made by the conscious “me.”

Experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet add weight to this supposition.  Libet found that the brain is activated nonconsciously 0.5 seconds before perceptions become accessible to consciousness and — more interestingly — before an action is considered by the conscious mind.  Before I stand up to get a glass of water, something “not-me” in my brain apparently decides that I should stand up to get a glass of water.

If Libet’s data is true, serious questions need to be asked about the causal power of the conscious mind.  Norretranders calls the belief in a pilot-like conscious me “the user illusion,” akin to the computer user’s belief that the icons on the screen portray the internal reality of the computer.  For Norretranders, the functionality of consciousness is real, but the reality communicated by the conscious me is false, or at least vastly incomplete.  Others come close to denying the causality of consciousness, and explain the subjective feeling of “me” as some sort of evolutionary trick.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the subject.  Libet’s data is inconclusive — one should not launch revolutionary theories of behavior from such a slender base.  That said, I think the following can be asserted with some confidence.

One, we are not Protean creatures, infinite in behavioral possibilities.  We are limited by biology to a bounded circle of action, and many behaviors that appear theoretically possible are in fact impossible.  This fact has important moral and political implications.

Two, nonconscious data influences behavior more than we realize.  Everything we do well, from driving a car to computing higher mathematics, gets processed primarily in the Night side of the brain.  The idea of a pilot-like me is therefore almost certainly false.

Three, the center stage of human action is illuminated by consciousness.  The beam is narrow, but all human knowledge is touched by it, before fading into the darkness of the more powerful nonconscious processing.  We learn by applying consciousness to a task.  We know that task when it becomes automatic.  This is true of the human race as a whole.  The changes in human behavior since the creative explosion of 40,000 years ago indicate that — in certain situations — we live in a vast realm of unpredictability.  We can multiply  our choices, expand the circle of freedom.

This is true of individuals also.  The conscious me isn’t an all-powerful pilot, but neither is it a mere bundle of perceptions.  Rather, the me is a symbolic ideal of myself, a theme and a story about my life, which I impose on the buzz and noise of contradictory desires.  However imperfectly, that ideal guides my behavior.  I can inch toward perfection.

Cultural:  Tools and mental models are devised by consciousness within a specific view of the world and of right behavior in it:  a culture.  Many thinkers, with Marx in the lead, have considered culture to be an instrument of oppression.  Tools and technologies, these thinkers maintain, are by and for the elites.  Religion and art are sedatives to stupefy the people into accepting their lot.  Culture, for Marx, was one more bar in the iron cage assembled for the people by those who owned the means of production.

Historically, there’s some truth to this.  In the old civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, medieval Europe, and the Americas, the bulk of the people teetered on the edge of violence and starvation.  They were held in thrall by what Marx termed “the kingdom of necessity,” and traded their freedom and their labor for protection.

Yet even the most exploitive culture stores and processes vast amounts of information, and organizes this information to make it meaningful to lord and peasant alike.  To the degree that a culture’s database becomes accessible, the potential for freedom is enhanced.  Since no one can invent his own language or social code, and most skills are handed down from genius to lesser talents, every culture offers to its humblest members a multiplication of life choices.  To the degree that a culture makes a life meaningful, it provides a far horizon toward which life’s choices will strive.

Most importantly, all cultures are not created equal.  There are cultures of association and cultures of obedience, and the range of choices in the one will be far greater than the other.  The habits fostered in a culture also matter.  The thrifty and industrious will win the future from the quarrelsome and impulsive.  Courage will sustain choices that cowardice will surrender.  Thus some cultures thrive, while others fail.

Americans have pushed the culture of the West, with its open markets and flexible social structures, to an extreme.  Individual freedom is important to us.  Choices are important.  In our march to greater freedom, we have overthrown the kingdom of necessity:  obesity is our present worry, not starvation.

We coexist within a single culture, but this is no more oppressive than a single language:  without each, we would sink into confusion and social chaos.  Being dependent on a computer isn’t oppression.  In a real sense, our culture — like all cultures — is a fantastically powerful computational device, which we have programmed to maximize human choice.

Political:  We don’t rule ourselves.  We elect our rulers.  A couple of thousand men and women, assisted by a large, unelected bureaucracy, cull $1 trillion off our income, spend it, and decide on the rules of economic competition.  Special interests, domestic and foreign, spend millions to befriend and influence this small group.  They often succeed.  The rest of us can write letters, but have no formal part in the business of government.

A citizen of ancient Athens would scoff at the notion that Americans are free.  Voting, he would say, is an abdication of responsibility, and in any case politics in this country aren’t controlled by the voter but by money.  Postmodernists, latter-day Marxists, and many liberals would agree.

While corruption by moneyed interest is a constant threat to freedom, I think there’s less to this matter than meets the eye.  The problem is one of perspective.  The United States was conceived under two sets of ideals:  republican and liberal democratic.  The republican ideal makes everyone and everything subordinate to the nation.

Government is powerful.  Politics is the noblest calling.  The citizen’s personal engagement is thus his primary duty, and sacrifice is the highest virtue.  The Romans were full of horrible stories about fathers who executed sons for disobedience in war.  Machiavelli claimed that he would rather go to hell and save Florence than live like a good Christian and fail his city.  John Adams among the Founding Fathers most faithfully adhered to this tradition.

Liberal democracy rejects politics as a mean and shoddy business.  Important affairs aren’t national but local, where the costs and benefits are immediately apparent.  Economic enterprises are owned by private persons, not the nation, and are largely free of government control.  Individuals create a lively and powerful civil society by their voluntary actions, organizing a variegated set of activities — religious, sporting, artistic, charitable, educational, ecological.  Government is clumsy and designed to checkmate itself.  While pure liberal democracy was articulated in the nineteenth century, Jefferson embodied and anticipated many of its ideals.

The political struggle between Federalists and Democrats — between Adams and Jefferson — can be seen as the clash of republican and liberal democratic ideals.  Jefferson and the Democrats won decisively.  For 200 years Americans have grown up Jeffersonian to the core:  distrustful of government, assertive of individuality, believers in the self-evident nature of political freedom.

And we are, to a degree unprecedented in history, free of state interference in our life choices.  I don’t believe the federal government is in bondage to special interests.  But if it were, it would matter very little, and it could not last long.

It would matter little because my life — like most American lives — rolls on serenely untouched by Washington.  It could not last long because power in a Jeffersonian liberal democracy resides in the neighborhoods, counties, and states, not the sluggish, checked-and-balanced federal establishment.  Political freedom, American-style, has to a considerable extent broken free of politics.

. . . So are we really free?  If we discount the cosmic puzzle, my answer would be:  sometimes, under some circumstances, some of us are free.  This deserves further explanation, but not here, and not now.


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