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Freedom, by Walter Crane, 1885


I’m free to do what I want any old time

Jagger and Richards, 1965

Do Adam and Eve have free will in the garden?  Are Macbeth’s choices entirely manipulated by supernatural forces? Can Nora ever be free from A Doll’s House in a world controlled by men?  Is there such a thing as freedom at all?  Was I always going to type these words or could I have typed different ones?

Much of the Director’s time this week has been taken up with notions of freedom. And so, with your kind indulgence, some thoughts seem appropriate. Buckle up, dear reader, for a whistle-stop tour.

First stop: A bit of context:

Many of our modernish problems with freedom arise from the successes of reductionism (the idea that complexity can be understood simply). Reductionism has been used to pretty much analyse and explain everything. So, the phenomena of chemistry are reduced to principles of physics, those of biology to chemistry and physics, and, for many scientists, those of human behaviour and awareness to biology and biochemistry.  And of course then it becomes inevitable that consciousness itself becomes simply a matter of matter; a secretion of the brain or a function of electrochemical circuitry following biological rules.  La Metrie, Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, and many others argue that because the universe as a whole can be best understood as a machine, well then so can we. In this view human behaviours are reflex activities based on mechanistic principles of stimulus and response, mixed up with genetic factors that were themselves also susceptible to scientific manipulations. And so questions about who we are became as unmysterious as an engineering problem.  Which, as I may have mentioned before, is nonsense.

But as with many working assumptions that prove to be successful, the hypothesis that all the complexities of human experience are ultimately explicable in terms of scientific principles took on the character of a scientific principle itself.  And that dear reader, is where the problems arise.

If we do live in an impersonal universe, and if our existence is entirely grounded in, and subsumed by, that universe, then we too are essentially impersonal, and our private experience of personhood is an illusion or a psychological fiction. In such a light, we are just a genetic strategy for the continuance of our species.

And so the irony of intellectual progress is that rather than freeing us, it’s made it seem that we are determined; be that by Cartesian, Newtonian, Darwinian, Marxist, Freudian, behaviourist, genetic, neurophysiological, sociobiological, or whatever kind of deterministic principles float the boat that was always going to be floated.  Not surprisingly, this has had the effect of reducing belief in our own ability to be free.  In this view we become nothing more than an accident of material evolution.

Now hands up, anybody who really believes that’s what they are?


Where are we to stop off to see how this mechanistic view of who we are might be countered?

Next stop: Kant

Kant believes that we are beings who are capable of reason and that we’re also beings capable of acting and choosing freely.  Kant thinks that it’s our rational capacity that makes us special and sets us apart from mere animal existence. In short, he argues that we are more than just physical creatures following deterministic appetites.

When asked what freedom means, most people would seem to agree with the Rolling Stones, that it means the ability to do what you want (double in-jike for fans of the Stones). This isn’t Kant’s idea of freedom. Kant suggests that when, like animals, we seek after pleasure or the satisfaction of our desires we aren’t really acting freely.  Instead we’re really acting as the slaves of those appetites and impulses. I didn’t choose this particular hunger or that particular appetite, and so when I act to satisfy it I’m just acting according to natural necessity and for Kant, freedom is the opposite of necessity.

Older readers will remember the advertising slogan for Sprite: “Obey your thirst!”

Which is kind of Kant’s point. When you go for Sprite, or Pepsi you might think that you’re making a free choice between Sprite or Pepsi for example, (other fizzy pop is available) but you’re actually obeying something, a thirst, or maybe a desire manufactured or massaged by advertising.  You’re obeying a prompting that you yourself haven’t chosen or created.

Now you might ask, ‘but how can my will be determined by anything if not by the prompting of nature or my hunger or my appetite, or my desires?’

Kant’s answer is to that to act freely is to act autonomously and to act autonomously is to act according to a law that I give myself, not according to the physical laws of nature or to the laws of cause and effect, which include my desire, to eat or to drink or to choose this food in a restaurant over that. Freedom then, is autonomy

Kant’s point is that nature is governed by laws of cause and effect. For example, if you drop a billiard ball, it falls to the ground but we wouldn’t say the billiard ball is acting freely, we’d say that it’s acting according to the laws of cause and effect, the law of gravity and whatever other law governs that sort of stuff.  But for Kant, to act freely is not to choose the best means to a given end, it’s to choose the end itself for its own sake and that’s something that human beings can do and that billiard balls can’t.

I might pop in here to see C S Lewis who once wrote “to say that a stone falls because it is obeying a law makes it a man and even a citizen.”  But we haven’t time to stop off there.

Enough on Kant then.  But before we say Tschüss, bis zum nächsten Mal! let’s agree that Kant’s point is that freedom is in some way down to our own sense of being free.  And hands up who thinks and acts like they have free will?


Granted, free will might be a powerful illusion, so powerful that we can’t help believing we are free.  But we would feel it a tremendous affront to who we think we are if we were treated as if we hadn’t got it.

Next stop: David Hume

If we stop off once more in the 18th Century, we’ll find David Hume writing that yes indeed the world is governed by determinism. Any action that human beings perform comes about as a result of a chain of cause and effect. That’s just the metaphysical reality about the world.  But he also points out that it has no bearing on our actual experience of the world, which is that of freedom. We feel as though we are free, we experience freedom and that’s our lived reality.  In many ways, the entirety of society becomes unintelligible unless we take it for granted that there is such a thing as freedom –  and, of course, the responsibility that goes alongside that.

And who’s to say that this feeling of being free doesn’t arise from some deeper reality beyond the deterministic ‘laws’ of cause and effect? No less a Clever Clogs than Roger Penrose for example, has posited that there might be actual freedom in what happens in the operation of the universe. He finds it quite appealing that there is something to be said of a choice which is not actually determined by other laws of physics and which is more subtle than simply being random.

We’d better pull into the station soon, so some final remarks as you are packing up and ensuring you take all your belongings with you.

Pulling into our destination.

Matter may be governed by laws which are deterministic.  And we may consist of matter.  But it is a well known and experienced principle that not everything that matters is matter.  As I may have asked before, how is anybody to measure love? Where in a laboratory will the meaning of music be found?

If everything, including our consciousness of everything, is just an illusion, I would point out that for it to be an illusion, there must be a consciousness that is illuded.

So today’s lesson is true freedom means looking into and questioning the presuppositions of everything that is given to us by the way we experience our reality. That is, to question everything including the notion of freedom itself. Freedom means the freedom to make mistakes.

Did you know that Walt Whitman always admired animals because they do not lie awake at night and weep over their mistakes.  Now that’s freedom.

Alight here now.

Until next time, Happy reading/being free!

Director’s Tip #4 

Keep Cookbooks Clean

Are you tired of splattering and spilling ingredients all over your cookbooks?  Why not try slipping the book into a clear plastic bag once you’ve turned to the page you want?