Why freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

victor-rodriguez-726159-unsplashPhoto by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sartre

I didn’t ask to be born, and neither did you. Despite this, in what has to be the most selfish act that a pair of adults can undertake, a decision was made for our existence, and as a consequence, life was suddenly and spectacularly thrust upon us.

Given that we didn’t choose to be born, we could be forgiven for assuming that the decision-makers in this messy process would be responsible for everything that happens in our lives. But as it turns out, even though mother and father plotted and conspired to establish our fleshy form, the responsibility of our own lives falls to us. I’m hard-pressed to find a comparable event of such cruel and heartless discrimination. If this were hauled before a respectable judge, she would smash her decisive gavel in our everlasting favour. Those utter, utter bastards.

I jest, of course. I’m thankful for my meagre existence and the responsibility that comes with it, I just wish it wasn’t so bewilderingly complicated. Not only are we faced with a million bamboozling choices throughout our lifetime, we’re also expected to make the right one. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t given any How To Make Great Life Choices classes at school. Socrates didn’t teach at my woeful establishment. I just got yelled at a lot by adults who seemed to have spent their earlier years being broiled in a harsh, bitter liquid. None of them ever cooled down enough to offer me a map of life and some orientation instructions.

The problem that we all have is freedom. If you’re currently incarcerated in some god-awful prison with nightmarish, grime-ridden shower blocks, I apologise. But let me explain – freedom is simultaneously the most wonderful and awful thing that we have. It’s wonderful because it offers us the ability to make our own choices, and it’s awful because those choices can be so painfully difficult to make. As the beady-eyed French philosopher Paul Sartre said: we’re condemned to be free.

“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”Jean-Paul Sartre

Freedom oh-so generously breaks our heavy shackles, while at the same time crushing us with the obligation to choose from an endless catalogue of options. Do I quit my woefully boring day job and study to be a mechanic? Will breaking up with my girlfriend make me happier in the long run? Should I accidentally trip this screaming, satanic child? These important choices, and an uncountable number of other choices that we’re faced with, can cause us a great deal of anguish. Modern society, with its dazzling and seemingly endless plethora of choice, can make freedom even more debilitating. There’s unlimited choice, and no information on how to choose.

Then there’s the accurate nihilistic notion that life is meaningless, making the responsibility of freedom even more miserable. Why decide to do anything if it doesn’t mean anything? It’s ideas like this that have led philosophers to the prospect of suicide as a serious consideration. Is life worth living if it’s just pointless?

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Thankfully, most of us are too cowardly to place our heads in a makeshift noose, or much too attached to our lives, even though it’s often intolerably bewildering. Though we’re relentlessly faced with a freedom that presents us with important, demanding choices, we love too much about our ridiculous lives to even consider throwing it away.

If we must go on, what we need is buckets of courage. The shackles of free choice must be smashed with audacity and determination – storming into the fray of our decisions, polished, hardwood shield raised and glistening sword unsheathed. Battle wounds are inevitable, but the alternative is distanced cowardice, in which we recoil from our lives, too frightened by the perplexity of freedom to tackle it.

The courageous hero takes full responsibility for her decisions, making appalling mistakes, as well as achieving stunning, air-punching victories. Her life isn’t perfect, but who wants perfection anyway? Even if it was attainable, a life of perfect sublimity would fast become boring, because without negativity as a contrast, we cannot understand positivity. They exist as a single, unbreakable scale of experience.

“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” — Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Facing the chewy, sour parts of life without giving into the desire to escape – whether through alcohol, drugs, social media, or anything else – is heroism beyond measure. It’s affirmation, not negation, of our lives. A deafening, resounding yesThough life is unquestionably meaningless, by choosing to participate thoroughly, and by acting decisively, we’re creating our own meaning. Our role is of the sculptor, starting his long artistic process with a huge block of marble, resolutely chipping away until something evident and meaningful appears.

We may be condemned to be free, but we still possess the ability to choose our attitude. Should we play the dismal victim, crippled by the deluge of freedom, and the terrifying responsibility that we all possess? Or should we strap on our armour, accept our immutable freedom, and charge headfirst into the world with a battlecry so hectic that it’ll inspire poets? I know what William Wallace would have done.

 

 

Free will and the paedophile who may not be responsible for his crimes

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If a man molests a child because of a tumour in his brain, can we say that he freely chose to do so? Is he responsible for his actions?

This is a true case from the American state of Virginia back in 2000, in which a tumour in a man’s orbitofrontal cortex – an area that regulates social behaviour – created strong paedophilic urges, causing him to molest his stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed after being discovered by doctors, the desires vanished. Some years later the tumour returned, along with his sexual urges towards children. Its removal once again caused the paedophilia to disappear.

This dark situation is a question of free will – should he be held accountable for his actions, given that they were caused by his brain tumour? Was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

Wikipedia defines free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” Philosophers have been musing about the existence of free will for centuries, with three major standpoints emerging from their perceptive brains. We’ll consider this situation from each unique philosophical stance.

Hard determinists

“Life calls the tune, we dance.” —John Galsworthy

Hard determinists believe that the tumour, and the man’s crimes, are a result of natural cause and effect for which the man had no control over. The existence of his tumour, and the uncountable number of causal events that happened prior to the point of his misconduct, were not decided by him. In the world of hard determinists, everything is determined – it was his fate to be the host of a disastrous brain tumour, and to subsequently molest his stepdaughter.

Determinists believe that all events are caused by past events, and nothing other than what does occur, can occur. There’s nothing that could have been done to change the man’s path to paedophilia – free will is an illusion and does not exist. We’re nought but puppets of fate.

“There is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe” – Wikipedia on causal determinism

bryan-minear-526115-unsplashPre-determined, with no choice of direction
Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

This position has deeply troubling consequences for personal responsibility – if there’s no free will, are we really responsible for anything? How could a legal system function under such circumstances?

It’s impossible for us to examine every single causal event that occurred up until this moment, and given that we didn’t choose these events, to what degree can we claim to be free? We almost certainly feel free to make decisions, but at the same time, we had no control over the events that led up to the decision.

From this philosophical standpoint, the man who molested his stepdaughter cannot be held accountable for his actions. The tumour doesn’t change anything, because even tumourless paedophiles aren’t in control of their own decisions.

“We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.” —Baron d’Holbach

Libertarianism

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Libertarians believe that while the tumour was clearly not chosen as a growth in the man’s brain, he did have the free will to choose whether to molest the child. In this sense, determinism is false to the libertarians – we have the freedom to choose different courses of action, and not giving in to peadophilic urges is one of them.

vladislav-babienko-703701-unsplashThe freedom to choose – left or right?
Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

Libertarians believe in agent causation – our powerful ability to affect the causal chain of the universe, though it’s unclear where those decisions actually come from. Claiming that they come from our brains is accurate, but the causal nature of the universe, and all of the classical mechanics science that supports it, would state that something must have caused our brains to make the decision. Libertarians seem to believe that it simply comes from the ether, that the decisions-making brains of humans are somehow exterior to the concept of cause and effect, as though in a vacuum.

Quantum mechanics supports the libertarian argument, with evidence to suggest that the tiniest, quantum-level elements of our universe are not necessarily subject to classical cause and effect. They can even be in two places at the same time. According to scientists, the measurable properties of a sub-atomic particles simply cannot be predicted based on what happened previously. If the tiniest elements in our brains sit outside the rigid realm of cause and effect, then free will can be said to exist.

Compatibilism (soft determinism)

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Compatibilists would agree with the libertarians, as they’re also staunch believers in free will. Unlike the libertarians though, they do believe that everything is determined, which seems contradictory – if everything is pre-determined, how can we possibly be free to choose? If the growth of the tumour was determined by forces outside of the man’s control, was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

This contradiction is reconciled by the compatibilists belief that, even though the man’s actions were caused by the tumour, it was still him who made the decision. He wasn’t coerced by an outside force, and acted according to his own motivation; the tumour, though unwanted, was still a part of him. As such, and in spite of his tragic misfortune, he should be accountable and punished for his actions.

Degree of control – a new approach

Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that free will should be considered from a different angle. The existence of free will doesn’t matter in this situation – whether consciously decided or not, the child was still molested. Instead, Churchland thinks that we should consider how much control we have in any given situation. The greater the control, the greater the responsibility.

In the case of our tumour-driven paedophile, we would have to understand the man’s ability to resist the sexual impulses in his brain. There’s probably many paedophiles alive today who choose not to commit crimes, because their sense of morality dictates that it’s the wrong thing to do.

To what degree is the man’s tumour affecting his ability to resist his urges? For Churchland, reframing the question in this way helps us to understand how responsible the man is for his crimes, and while it’s an undoubtedly difficult thing to measure, regarding the situation from a philosophical position is even fuzzier.

Until our scientific knowledge advances to a point where we can answer these questions confidently, the paedophile’s ultimate responsibility will continue to be debated by philosophers. The tumour caused his nefarious actions, and according to the libertarians and compatibilists, he should be held accountable. This seems terribly unfair, and yet, the mercilessness of hard determinism is equally as cruel – the outcome is the same, after all.

The seemingly contradictory nature of compatibilism, the freedom-certainty of the libertarians, or the rigid idea of determinism offers little guidance for personal responsibility. From a practical perspective, Churchland’s reframing of free will from a position of control allows us to measure responsibility, determine accountability, and decide the consequences for an immoral action.

While it doesn’t answer the intriguing question of whether free will exists, it does fulfill an important concern – the ability to measure how responsible we are for our actions.

YES – the ultimate weapon in life

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Why live, if we’re going to die?

This was a key question for Albert Camus, a handsome, Nobel Prize winning French philosopher. Camus believed that death steals the meaning from life – what’s the point of living if all that awaits us is a cold, worm-infested grave? God is dead, and an eternal afterlife is longer a possibility. Without religion to save us, how can we live with the pointlessness of existence, with the absurdity of it all?

Lyrical and Critical Essays is a volume of essays in which Camus explores this fundamental question, shedding further light on the ideas expressed in his novels.

While travelling in Italy in 1937, the following reflection encapsulates the problem that Camus was wrestling with:

“Italy, like other privileged places, offers me the spectacle of a beauty in which, nonetheless, men die.” — The Desert

What is the point in such beauty existing, and for us to experience that beauty, if it’s destined to be forever lost? How can we muster the strength to go on in the face of our inevitable death? Camus experienced undeniable natural beauty, but bristled with anguish at its meaninglessness. Things happen, we experience them, and then we die. Metaphysical significance cannot be found in anything.

“The air grows cool. A foghorn sounds at sea. The beams from the lighthouse begin to turn: one green, one red, and one white. And still the world sighs its long sigh.” — Between Yes and No

We’re on a perpetual merry-go-round, with the same tired tune from the same tired speakers, crushing us into relentless anguish and despair.

“His fever sings. He walks a little faster; tomorrow everything will be different, tomorrow. Suddenly he realizes that tomorrow will be the same, and, after tomorrow, all the other days. And he is crushed by this irreparable discovery. It’s ideas like this that kill one.” – Irony

Camus found his answer to the meaninglessness of life in a tenacious, immutable acceptance of our sorry condition. We’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so rather than wallowing in anguish at our situation, why not just accept it? This acceptance is a form of rebellion against the merciless impotency of existence — I’m going to die, but fuck you, I’ll accept it nonetheless.

“At this extreme point of acute awareness everything came together, and my life seemed a solid block to be accepted or rejected. I needed a grandeur. I found it in the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” – Death In The Soul

The battle between Camus’ despair of the futility of life, and the indifference of the world, amounts to a decision between acceptance or rejection. Between living fully, or throwing your hands up and committing suicide.

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” – The Myth of Sisyphus

Why live, if we’re going to die?

Affirming every aspect of our lives won’t necessarily lessen our despair, but we shouldn’t want to lessen our despair, because this is also a part of life to be accepted. Fantasising of another life is a tragedy – our own can be dazzling with the right perspective.

“For if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have.” – Summer in Algiers

“I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition.” – Nuptials at Tipasa

One cannot remove the negative from life without also removing the positive. The negative can only be identified because of the existence of positive. Take away despair, and you must also remove its natural contrast: joy.

“There is no love of life without despair of life.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“But if we give up a part of what exists, we must ourselves give up being; we must then give up living or loving except by proxy. Thus there is a will to live without refusing anything life offers: the virtue I honor most in this world.” – Return to Tipasa

“In the difficult times we face, what more can I hope for than the power to exclude nothing and to learn to weave from strands of black and white one rope tautened to the breaking point?” – Return to Tipasa

There’s nothing for it but an unbridled acceptance of everything that happens to us, and by existing in this way, we’re rebelling against the absurdity of our human condition. Shunning the world does nothing to alter its uncompromising indifference; only affirmation can provide us with the determination to continue living.

“If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver. Let those who wish to turn their backs upon the world. I have nothing to complain of, since I can see myself being born.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

Camus found unending solace in natural beauty, and the sensual abilities that allow us to receive the world. Awareness of every spectacular triviality was enough for him, despite their lack of meaning. Simply experiencing the world was the point.

“What counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.” – The Desert

“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” – Nuptials at Tipasa

Only by living honestly, by accepting our absurd condition completely and without restraint, can we expel the terror of our impending doom. Our efforts should be placed on the body, in our ability to perceive and appreciate the awesome wonder all around us. Only there can meaning be found. Bitter, often uncomfortable, but meaning nonetheless.

“The immortality of the soul, it is true, engrosses many noble minds. But this is because they reject the body, the only truth that is given them, before using up its strength. For the body presents no problems, or, at least, they know the only solution it proposes: a truth which must perish and which thus acquires a bitterness and nobility they dare not contemplate directly.” – The Desert

“It is not surprising that the sensual riches this country offers so profusely to the sensitive person should coincide with the most extreme deprivation. There is no truth that does not also carry bitterness.” – Summer in Algiers

What we need most of all is the fearlessness to accept everything that comes our way, good or bad. We must positively affirm every experience – open our arms to receive it, and be consequent rebels.

“The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“There are some people who prefer to look their destiny straight in the eye.” – Between Yes and No

Why live, if we’re going to die? Because life can be spectacular with the right attitude. We’ll experience everything that is thrown at us — joy, agony, depression, hope, lust, love, ambivalence — and by accepting all of it, we’re rebelling valiantly against the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. Only through acceptance can we truly be free.