What Is Human Freedom?

avatarFeatured Columnist – Meditations
Martin LeFerve

A few friends and I have been asking: Are there choices in life, but is the chooser an illusion? If so, what is the basis of right action? These questions go to the heart of the problem of freedom and determinism.

What is human freedom? Does it even exist? “In order for us to have radical freedom, it looks as if we would have to postulate that inside of each of us was a self that was capable of interfering with the causal order of nature…capable of making molecules swerve from their paths,” says UC philosopher John Searle in his book, “Minds, Brains, and Science.”

Freedom, relative or radical, has no meaning if determinism is the law of the universe. Determinism can account for the element of chance, since quantum physics is largely the function of probability. But determinism is false if there is an element of creativeness in the cosmos.

Philosophers often make the mistake of directly applying the laws of nature to the consciousness of humankind. But obviously there is some kind of relationship between the two.

“Science allows no place for freedom of the will, and indeterminism in physics offers no support for it,” Searle states rather dogmatically in an ostensibly open inquiry into freedom. Linking physics and consciousness in precisely the opposite way that the New Age movement does, he rhetorically asks, “Is it ever true to say of a person that he could have done otherwise, all other conditions remaining the same?”

Obviously not in Searle’s view, since “all behavior is determined in such a way that it couldn’t have occurred otherwise, all other conditions remaining the same.”

This is a huge claim, one that is predicated on a limited and mechanistic view of the universe. That view, first formulated by the 18th century mathematician and astronomer Laplace, is encapsulated by Searle: “If an ideal observer knew the positions of all the particles at a given instant and knew all the laws governing their movements, he could predict and retrodict the entire history of the universe.”

This theory obviously contains a great deal of accuracy, since it is at the heart of the scientific enterprise, without which we would not have knowledge about nature, including the treatments of modern medicine, which humans increasingly possess. But is it the truth?

I propose that it’s only true up to a point, and that there are two errors in this core statement of science and modern philosophy. One is factual, which physicists know but conveniently avoid; the other is a philosophical error of omission, which refutes the theory of complete determinism.

Einstein demonstrated, and nuclear weapons prove, that energy and mass are interchangeable. Therefore, the sub-sub-atomic smashings of the Hadron Collider notwithstanding, it’s a fundamental mistake to see the universe as composed of ‘particles.’

The other mistake is to deny the creative element in nature. Even if “an ideal observer knew the positions of all the particles at a given instant and knew all the laws governing their movements,” s/he could not predict the history of the universe, because there is wild card—the creativity of the cosmos.

Obviously there is significant determinism in nature, and significant determinism in consciousness, as we know usually it. A greedy disposition will ineluctably give rise to greedy actions. There is no sovereign arbiter in us that decides whether to be greedy or not on a given day.

But just as there is a creative element in nature, there is, potentially, a creative element in human consciousness. Not just in science and art, but with respect to the transformation of consciousness. Can it be released to meet the crisis of humankind, which is the crisis of consciousness itself?

When philosophers speak of determinism with regard to human behavior, they’re really talking about conditioning, not the natural order. And the actions of the chooser, which are synonymous with the self, are determined by our conditioning.

So the choices that the chooser makes are determined by conditioning. But is there an action available to the human being that is not determined by conditioning?

Yes, it’s possible, indeed urgently necessary, to act from listening and stillness. Such action is the basis of freedom and right action. Freedom can then be defined as the state of being in which one does not act out of conditioning. But how does that come about?

Ending the tyranny of conditioning in the individual requires the awakening of insight through self-knowing and passive observation of the movement of thought/emotion.

Independence, freedom, and liberation are different things. One can be independent but not free, and relatively free but not liberated. Independence is completely distinct from freedom, but freedom and liberation are essentially the same movement.

Free of conditioning and the self, the human being participates in the ongoing creation of consciousness of the universe, which is happening every moment. Human participation is necessary insofar as human consciousness is an anomaly in the universe, which only human beings can correct.

The quiet mind is free because it is not operating from conditioning. As such, it participates, creatively and imperfectly, in the unfolding of consciousness in the cosmos.