Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

Rising in freedom

March 28, 2013

It’s an exam day, so I’m free to think and talk about whatever I please this morning. In fact, my family’s on Spring Break this week (half of them at the beach), so I’ve been free to alter daily routines in all kinds of ways. Coulda slept in an hour this morning. But I and my dawn habit chose otherwise.

FreeThe Existentialists warn us against the “bad faith” of supposing our freedom merely occasional and intermittent. Like Phil Connors, we’re always free to pound the alarm into submission.

(Thanks for the .gif of endless repetition, Quinlan.) We don’t have to get up, go to work or school, give or take that “miserable” exam James said good students should care less about, the night before.

Then again, freedom really does become dreadfully burdensome when it drives us to subvert our own larger goals and aspirations. Sleeping in and skipping out might feel free today, but how will it feel in six weeks when you get that disappointing course grade? Or in six years, when you still don’t have that degree?

No, when my alarm rings I find it far more constructive to side with the pragmatic defenders of habit, routine, repetition, and the illusion of  personal compulsion. I do “have to” get up, because I’ve already made the choice to live well and be at least as happy as Sisyphus. Existence precedes essence, sure. But who wants only to exist? We want to flourish.

And also, of course, because body clocks are harder to pound into submission than digital alarms.

The fertile time

September 15, 2012

Zwischenzeit. That’s another way to say “the nectar’s in the journey,” and more fuel for my growing obsession with the bicycle.

Danish philosopher Steen Nepper Larsen writes, in Cycling-Philosophy for Everyone:

The mobility of the bicycle reminds us much more of the old dream of being as free as a bird in the sky than a trip on the discounted economy expressway that commodifies our experiences. The freedom of the road contains much more than the modern, “creative,” self-managed workplace and is much richer than the freedom to consume… Below the helmet one is happy to enjoy what other people might consider to be empty and dead commuting time to be traveled at the speed of light, while moving from destination A to destination B. The biker knows that the road taken is more important than the goal. It’s no fun getting there if the getting there is deprived of quality and lacks adventures. The Germans have an expression for this fertile time-in-between: Zwischenzeit. [Utne]

Of course it’s easy to enthuse about cycling in this season, at this latitude, when it’s dry and the temperature range is perfectly temperate (60s to 80s Fahrenheit). How fertile and free will 18 wet and windy mph feel in November? That’s probably when I’ll redouble my lifelong commitment to the virtues of pedestrianism. To everything, turn turn turn

But right now, I’m still on a roll.


Grace, courage & wisdom

September 14, 2012

As I was saying: freedom to think what you want to think, when you want to think it – an inner life, in other words – is one of our very most prizable possessions.  Pulling your own strings from the inside, as it were, no matter what else may be going on out there beyond your reach: that’s stoic freedom.

And that’s the Stoics’ fundamental presumption, mirrored in William James’s attentive version of free will. More on that later in CoPhi, when we pick up John Lachs’ Stoic Pragmatism.

Inner freedom so expressed is a variant on a familiar prayer for serenity as something reasonable to pray, work, and strive for.

May we have grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things we can and should, and wisdom to know the difference.

There are different versions of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, but the core of it is a stoically steely resolve to focus one’s energies on what might actually be responsive to them. Instead, we too frequently squander time and tranquility trying to move immovable objects and then go crazy when they resist our wills.

I don’t pray, myself, except in a quasi-Emersonian way.

Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul… But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.

Quasi, I say, because unlike Emerson I don’t toss the term “god” around lightly, and wouldn’t presume to channel His or It’s spirit in my own soliloquies. I think (and feel) those to be my own self-reliant affair. The sort of prayer that takes to bended knee and beseeches god(s) for favor, on the other hand, feels servile and phony to me. I’m not very churchable.

But I do endorse The Sage’s refusal to beg for cheap and selfish ends. All worthy actions are prayerful in a nobler sense, for a truly free and natural earthly spirit. “The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar…”

Or how about the prayer of the cyclist arched over his bike? I “prayed” before class yesterday, all the way from Percy Priest Dam to the Shelby Bottoms Bridge. I felt free, and full of grace.

And then at 3 am I felt cramps below the knees. Too late to hope or pray I die before I get old, though that was never my preference anyway.

So today it’s back on the bike, continuing to pedal-pray for courage and wisdom. And luck. And a foot massage would be nice. I’m not begging, just puttin’ it out there.


Postscript, 8:30 a.m., Percy Warner Park, “Inspiration Point”-

From a seed, fields of dreams


Tlumak on free will

March 16, 2012

What a treat to hear another of my old Vandy profs in vintage form last night, in the 3d Berry Lecture. Jeffrey Tlumak was as smart, systematic, and comprehensive as ever, in tackling the perennially elusive questions “Do we have free will?” And “Why does it matter?” (Watch this space for the video, coming soon.)

He was as smartly self-distracted as ever, too. I lost count of the always-fascinating “by the way” detours that peppered his semi-scripted talk, and forced him to abandon the bulk of it in favor of hurried synopsis at the end. But everyone in the house was gifted with the voluminous printed text he would have  voiced, were there world enough and time, and three lengthy appendices.

One of those appendices became important during Q-&-A, when Jeffrey’s colleague David Wood wondered if the whole show wasn’t “performatively self-contradictory.”  Doesn’t the very attempt at public persuasion and argumentative analysis presuppose the free will of its audience, presumably malleable enough to choose his view when dazzled by the irresistible force of his logic and language?

Well, Jeffrey replied, if you look at my 3d appendix (that brought an audience chuckle or two, for its characteristically Tlumakian attention to systematic detail) you’ll note that I don’t claim free will to be impossible.

And in fact he’d acknowledged Wood’s worry at the very beginning, in his second paragraph. Both are so elegantly clear and concise, and so cognizant of their context, they’re worth reproducing here:

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the angels debate how some of them could have sinned of their own free wills given that God had made them intelligent and happy. Why would they have done it? And why were they responsible for their sins rather than God, since God had made them the way they were and had complete foreknowledge of what they would do? Milton describes them as “in Endless Mazes lost.” If this is the plight of angels, with what confidence can we approach such questions?

Three weeks ago John Lachs tried to persuade you that good enough is good enough. Then a week later, Rob Talisse tried to persuade you that no life is good enough, that life is tragic. I will now wonder out loud whether you or I have a free choice as to which alternative, if either, to embrace — more generally, whether you have free will in anything you have ever done or will do, or whether you even have a stable conception of what you are affirming or denying. I say “wonder out loud” rather than “try to persuade,” since to be consistent, I equally doubt whether you have a free choice whether to embrace what I say.

What then follows is a clear but complex and “spine-stiffening” disquisition on the varieties of pivotal philosophical issues implicated in the free will debate. In sum, and especially for a rationalist like Jeffrey, they basically all are. He cites Spinoza’s example of a conscious plummeting rock: it might contemplate its trajectory and philosophize about its freedom, but would be incapable of altering it, or softening its termination. Just like Douglas Adams’ whale.

Tlumak praised the new book Power of Habit, which is suggestive: if indeed we do have the power of habit, we must also have something akin to what some will insist on calling free will and others will relabel. But if it directs intelligent choice and action they can call it what they will. That’s Julian Baggini’s line in his review of Sam Harris’s and Michael Gazzaniga’s new books on the topic.

…as a “biological puppet” aware of your lack of free will you can, paradoxically, “grab hold of one of your strings” and “steer a more intelligent course through our lives”. That’s what matters, and if you don’t want to call it free will, feel free to call it what you will.

There was much about Hobbesian mechanism here, and the “thin notion of ‘could have done otherwise,'” and Locke’s distinction between the voluntary and the free,  and Spinoza’s between free will and freedom. Jeffrey’s ultimately a Kantian, on this and most issues. Freedom’s a postulate of reason, but nothing you can prove. “It is practically rational for us to believe that we are transcendentally free and practically irrational not to.” Well, that’s just about good enough for pragmatists like me, too.

But what I liked most, last night, was Jeffrey’s curtain-closing scripted statement, in which he thanked his chair

for scheduling my public doubts about free will on the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate by a group of conspirators, as foreseen (according to Plutarch) by a soothsayer. Perhaps now I can escape intellectual blame by invoking fate.

Perhaps we all can. Then again, perhaps not.

Madison Avenue to USA: igbok, y’all

August 6, 2011

Don Draper was wrong about this, but it’s a message ever-popular in America. Never more than now.

You know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.

That’s the native wisdom that came to me when I saw the hour+ line waiting to get into the Apple Store on day #1 of the big “back to school” tax-free weekend spending holiday. Just empty your wallets, everybody, it’s gonna be ok.

And if you don’t like the line you can get your iPad at Target.

I’m proud of Older Daughter, she spent the afternoon at the mall with friends and didn’t spend a dime. For my part I spent only at Frugal MacD‘s yesterday, where taxes were duly collected. But the line was short and my purchase was momentarily reassuring.


September 1, 2010

Downloaded my free kindle sample of Jonathan Franzen‘s eagerly-awaited, critically-acclaimed new novel Freedom last night. (excerpt) (reviews) Couldn’t wait any longer for my Amazon pre-order to arrive. Dove right in, ’til I got to the part where a character is “complaining about the length of his attention span” and realized my own was drifting towards sleep. But so far, so great. (Not everyone thinks so, btw: a few female writers have been heard to grumble that Franzen’s being unduly lionized, there must be an interesting and possibly Oprah-centered back-story there. But never mind.)

I bring it up in part just because it’s a huge literary event, when a writer of Franzen’s stature weighs in with much-needed perspective on the strange form of life we’ve been living lately. (His Corrections nine years ago was brilliant in that regard.)

But I also find the theme pertinent to what we’re doing today in the Future of Life class: further discussing William James’s claim that what life eventually makes of itself, in the long run, is a “vital question for us all.” Do we live as though we really felt that? Or have we shrunk our “freedom” to a mere series of consumer product-and-lifestyle choices that have no real regard for the ultimate disposition of our species?

One early review contends that

In America what passes for freedom, or so Jonathan Franzen implies, is a refusal to accept limits, to shoulder the burdens of an inheritance… more

“The burden of an inheritance” is also the opportunity of a legacy, and that’s what Dan Dennett was getting at when he talked about what makes us a unique species, with regard to our forebears’ solicitude for our destiny… and ours for that of our progeny.

We’re free to care about the future, or not. If we care, the present expands and deepens. If we don’t, it shrinks and shallows. That’s my claim, anyway. The fundamental message here is anti-deterministic and melioristic: The future is an open country, in an open and pluralistic universe. It’s ours for the filling. The way things are is not the way they have to be. We can make it better.*

What would Edward Bellamy say? What would you?


*Some other pertinent James quotes from Pragmatism, lecture #3:

To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter COULD have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the PRINCIPLE of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the PAST of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.

Thus if no future detail of experience or conduct is to be deduced from our hypothesis, the debate between materialism and theism becomes quite idle and insignificant. Matter and God in that event mean exactly the same thing—the power, namely, neither more nor less, that could make just this completed world—and the wise man is he who in such a case would turn his back on such a supererogatory discussion. Accordingly, most men instinctively, and positivists and scientists deliberately, do turn their backs on philosophical disputes from which nothing in the line of definite future consequences can be seen to follow. The verbal and empty character of philosophy is surely a reproach with which we are, but too familiar. If pragmatism be true, it is a perfectly sound reproach…

But philosophy is prospective also, and, after finding what the world has been and done and yielded, still asks the further question ‘what does the world PROMISE?’

Theism and materialism, so indifferent when taken retrospectively, point, when we take them prospectively, to wholly different outlooks of experience.

Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth ‘fit’ results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness.

Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past.

‘Freedom’ in a world already perfect could only mean freedom to BE WORSE, and who could be so insane as to wish that? To be necessarily what it is, to be impossibly aught else, would put the last touch of perfection upon optimism’s universe. Surely the only POSSIBILITY that one can rationally claim is the possibility that things may be BETTER.

Go 4th!

July 4, 2010

A year ago in this space I declared independence from various vexations of matter and spirit. Today I can do no better than to reaffirm those resolutions. May we all be free of fear, falsehood, prevarication, and procrastination.

Happy Independence Day. Go out there and have yourself a holiday. Let freedom ring!

James bio – 7

October 23, 2009

jameswithsonIt’s 1883, James is 41 and a success in his chosen vocation (about to be promoted to full professor). Like many who marry relatively late, it’s taken him awhile to settle comfortably into the group dynamic of family life and the checks it inevitably places on a bachelor’s accustomed unconditioned freedom. But settle he has, and the stability and safe haven of  home are reflected in the growing confidence of his philosophic voice.

Death has not taken a holiday. His mother and father are recently departed. Younger brother Wilky will soon join them. Then, William and Alice will lose a child (18-month old Herman). We forget how precarious  life was, day to day, not so long ago.

The shocking death of his little son coalesced with the lingering grief James continued to feel for his parents. Years later he would attest: “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after… That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

James had no insuperable problem with metaphysical materialism. Determinism, however, was another matter.BLoggers Dilemma graphicThe Dilemma of Determinism” began as a Harvard lecture in 1884, and it would remain one of James’s clearest statements of objection to the denial of free will. Like I.B. Singer’s, his position was unequivocal (if also a bit ironic and self-deprecating). Did he believe in free will? “Do I have a choice?”

Citing the example of a brutal spousal murder, James again challenges the reader to feel the preposterous implausibility of hard determinism. “For the deterministic philosophy, the murder [was] necessary from eternity.” Can we believe it? No, “something else would really have been better in its place.”

James sees the dispute between determinism and freedom as decisive, as requiring definite decision. One must choose between these incompatible visions:

“Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one becomes impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact. It says there is a certain ultimate pluralism in it… To that view, actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen… Determinism, on the contrary, says they exist nowhere, and that necessity on the one hand and impossibility on the other are the sole categories of the real. Possibilities that fail to get realized are, for determinism, pure illusions: they never were possibilities at all. There is nothing inchoate, it says, about this universe of ours, all that was or is or shall be actual in it having been from eternity virtually there… The issue, it will be seen, is a perfectly sharp one, which no eulogistic terminology can smear over or wipe out. The truth must lie with one side or the other, and its lying with one side makes the other false.”

James has also now begun serious work on what will eventually be published as Principles of Psychology, and he’s named the “wonderful stream of consciousness” for which he is still largely remembered. His delightfully pictorial imagination likens consciousness to avian flights and perchings (the transitive and substantive forms of experience), flights and perchingsand he refuses to accept the notion that whatever is real is always conceptually and nominally precise. Language is limited. It dulls our powers of discernment and discrimination. Non-verbal experience is rich, but difficult to contain and identify. It acquaints us, for instance, with vague feelings of relation (like the feeling of “if,” “and,” or “but”) that are no less real  than more substantive things. It is evanescent, impressionistic, fluid, streamy.

One of my favorite James quotes come from this middle period. “What an awful trade that of professor is– paid to talk, talk, talk. What an awful universe it would be if everything could be converted to words, words, words.”

Being open and hospitable to the non-verbal dimensions of life, and being conscientious in his devotion to building the fledgling field of psychology into an inclusive science, James at this time got seriously into the world of the paranormal. He attended countless psychic seances  conducted by “spirit mediums,” alert to possibilities no longer taken seriously by scientists in our time but still wildly popular with the devotees of contemporary media stars like James van Praagh and John Edward.

It  bothered  James that there was “a mass of (alleged) testimony about such things, at which the only men capable of a critical judgment– men of scientific education– will not even look.”

Is such testimony fraudulent? You won’t know if you don’t check it out. If you don’t, you’re as guilty of self-deception as the worst “spiritualist” showman. “There is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.”

peaches or onions?

October 14, 2009

Common onion - Allium cepaMan is an onion made up of a hundred layers… Herman Hesse

Man is a peach, with a solid, single pit in the center (the soul). BQpeach

Leaving the Produce dept:

No man is an island… John Donne

Man is by nature a social animal… Aristotle

Man is a network of relationships… Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… the paragon of animals.  Shakespeare

In other words, we’re a complicated species of critter. This big brain we all haul around can be a huge asset, or a huge liability. On a given day it’s apt to be both. It’s the organ of our freedom, and of self-imposed constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about freedom is that if we’re ever free to choose then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. Darn! This is about commitment, not about results, as Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion learn. Double-darn!!

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I’m a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom.

But if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But let’s cut him some slack; his country was being over-run by Nazis when he came up with this stuff.

Head back across the Channel, though, and consult Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of fatcathis “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– a close pal of David Hume– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich and rewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, “Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.” Passion for Wisdom

And what about love? It may not be all you need, or the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it seems to have a lot to do with self-possession, self-discovery, self-overcoming… let’s just say real self-hood. If there is a wider self capable of surmounting narrow egoism and saving us from self-absorption, it’s surely predicated on love directed outward. (William James explores this “wider self” in Varieties of Religious Experience.)

“The presumption of a shared identity” based on relatedness and connection instead of insularity and isolation, the exchange of me for we, means we’re not all alone in the vast cosmic dark. Solipsism is wrong. The egocentric predicament is defeated. “We are not isolated individuals searching desperately for other people; we already have networks or relationships,” to lovers and friends and colleagues and the companionship of nature.

aristophanesAnother fable from Plato: once we were “double-creatures,” with two heads, four arms, four legs, and hubris to burn. The capricious Zeus decided to take us down a notch, lopping us in half, dooming us to wander the earth in search of our other “better” half. When, if you succeed in finding your soul-mate, the search is over. If you don’t, you’re incomplete and unfulfilled.

I don’t much like that story, I’ve seen versions of it make too many people– romantic types especially– too unhappy in solitude, and too expectant in relationships. Some people are as whole as they can be alone. Others are miserable in tandem harness. Our authors read the Symposium more broadly and positively: “the complete self is people together and, sometimes, in love.

John Prine is one of the wisest and wittiest song-writers ever, and his song about peaches is one itself.

But onions, without a hard and ineliminable core but with lots of interesting overlap and complexity, win this contest.


Pitch the pit, and with it the inviolable, unrelated, essential soul in the center of everything.

Still, you probably should go ahead and blow up your TV, and try to find Jesus on your own. Maybe you don’t have to go to the country, or across the pond, to do that.