Sunday, October 25, 2009

Freedom (Chapter 1.2)

Robert Kane says people throughout the world seek greater freedom and that there's a general tendency in many nations for their people to gain more of it. What kind of freedom are we talking about? The ability "to satisfy more of our desires." That is, we are free if we can vote the way we want, travel where we want, read the books we want, and so on without being prevented from doing it. In broader terms, it's "freedom from coercion, punishment, restraint, oppression, and the like" when we pursue our desires.

But Kane says that although this is an important freedom, it's only a "surface freedom" and not what philosophers mean by "free will." (At this point, I'd like to interject that it seems to me that most people think of "free will" as little or nothing more than the "surface freedom" to do what one wishes.) For philosophers like Kane, there is a deeper kind of freedom consisting of "ultimate power" over what it is that we will. We have free will when we are free to do what we will AND to will what we do or something else instead.

But Kane asks to what extent we have this "ultimate power" over our will. After all, aren't our wills manipulated in countless ways by the media, our culture, our peers and families, and by many other influences? We don't want to think so; hence, our reflexive discomfort with the fictional societies depicted in such novels as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. In the former, the working masses are forced to take drugs that manipulate their wills so that they will only what the powers-that-be want them to, and these neurochemically manipulated masses feel content to do as they artificially please. In "Walden Two," there is a rural commune where the inhabitants' wills are conditioned from birth by highly sophisticated and powerful behavioral engineering that makes everybody free to do what they will because they can will only what their society conditions them to.

In "Walden Two," a representative of the commune named Frazier has a discussion with a skeptical visitor named Castle about the quality of freedom enjoyed by the commune's inhabitants. Castle argues that they enjoy a specious and undesirable kind of freedom because although they are happily free to do what they will, they are not free to will what they do because their wills are rigidly controlled by outside influences. Frazier responds that Walden Two is "the freest place on earth" since everybody can do what they want without any coercion, punishment, or harassment, whereas in the world outside, people's wills are just as thoroughly conditioned by their environments, but in such a haphazard way that a lot of people end up willing things that conflict with their own and society's best interests so that they're often not even free to do what they will.

Says Kane:

Thus the gauntlet is thrown down by Frazier--echoing Skinner and many other modern thinkers: the so-called deeper freedom of the will is an illusion dreamt up by philosophers and theologians before we understood more about the hidden causes of behavior. It is an outdated idea that has no place in modern scientific picture of the world or of human beings...Why sacrifice the everyday freedoms that really matter to us...for an illusory freedom of the will that we cannot have anyway?

In my next entry, we'll consider what Kane has to say about another key aspect of the free will issue--the notion of "responsibility."


  1. Hi Nagarjuna. I am still interested in your project. I haven't commented because I don't have a lot to say. But I'm here, and I'm interested. As I've said before, I like the idea of inevitabilism; I like thinking about the world through this lens. There is something very pretty about it to me.
    Take care. --g

  2. Thank you, Goblinbee. I hope I can continue to hold your interest and elicit you participation in my project. I guess it would help if I posted more often. I'll try to do that so that it doesn't take me till this time next year to finish one book. :-)