Ask the Philosopher
This question has a long, tangled, and complex philosophical history. We can’t cover all of it. So, to begin the dialogue let’s assume we are free.
William James, an American philosopher in the late 19th, early 20th century formulated what he called “The pragmatic question.” This asks, “Given that a particular claim is true, what concrete difference does its being true make?”
What difference does it make if we are free or not? How will the day-to-day world we live in play out differently if we have freedom as opposed to its absence?
Most people think freedom means that we have choices that we can make, that we are not blindly moved by a variety of causal factors completely beyond our control. However, there is a deeper meaning. Freedom ultimately means that possibilities are real in the world because possibilities are the link between options and action.
A possibility is based on the potential implications inherent in a situation. When we are part of that situation, those implications help us foresee and select what we decide to do. We get to have an impact about which possibility we elect to transform into a reality.
An egg is a possible omelet under the right conditions. A football is a possible forward pass. A bicycle is a possible means of transportation. The “possibilities” inherent in any given “object” or “situation” or “set of circumstances” are a function of how whatever is present to us can be directed, rerouted, moved, sent, projected, or changed somehow by us.
Natural forces in the world move and change things according to the dictates of the laws that govern the phenomena in question. A cyclonic low-pressure area over the ocean whips up wind and rain to become a tropical storm, a typhoon, or if strong enough, a hurricane. There is no conscious intent in this. The laws of meteorology determine the results.
With humans, more is involved than just those natural forces. We are governed to some extent by circumstances, but there is some loose play as well. That looseness offers us possibilities. A simple example is the egg: It can be a chicken or a fried, poached, scrambled, soft boiled egg depending on our intent, our egg preferences, and our knowledge about cooking and/or hatching eggs.
The egg in its context is the given situation, and inherent in that situation are all the possible things that can be done with the egg. What is actually done to the egg begins with all those possibilities, and pinned down to something specific by what we select and focus on to make happen.
That is what most people call freedom. But if there were no possibilities, there would be no freedom. There would be no loose play in any circumstances we encounter. That loose play is not unlimited. I can make eggnog with the egg, but I can’t make it into a baked potato.
The range of possibilities is limited by the situation, but it is also limited by our own imaginations and ingenuity. Years ago in Spain, many people walked by a junk heap where old bicycle handlebars and a bicycle seat perched on the top. But it was Pablo Picasso who took the handlebars and bicycle seat home to his studio because he saw them as a possible sculpture of a bull’s head.
All too often, we let the ordinariness and routines of our day-to-day living blind us to just how rich the ongoing world is in terms of where we can go from where we are. Whitman tells us, “I touch the earth, and a hundred affections spring forth. They scorn the best I can do to relate them.” There is more afoot than we normally notice. We live, for the most part, in an attenuated, geared down, truncated version of the incredible richness and diversity of our world.
When John F. Kennedy committed the US space program to putting a man on the moon, the technology to do that didn’t exist. It had to be created and invented. The goal, the dream, the financial resources of the government, and the creativity of human beings came together in an extraordinary effort, which in less than a decade made the dream a reality. I mention this example because it is dramatic and because it is well known. It also illustrates that what “options” we have, given any specific “situation and its possibilities”, are usually far more extensive than we think.
The difference, then, that “freedom” makes is that the world is malleable to our touch. It changes all the time. But we are in the unique position of being able to have something to say about how it changes. We have the power to make the world what we want it to be even though that power, the range of possibilities, is not unlimited, and working to create the changes we want is fraught with risk and uncertainty.
Freedom from this perspective means that what we do and what we don’t do, matter. Freedom means that the world will be different because we have been part of it. The further question is how will it be different because you and I came along when we did?
If we choose to live, we have no choice but to forward that living through our interactions with a complicated world. There is a great deal of gratuitous violence, exploitation, unwarranted privilege, and very real evil in our world. There is also kindness and love and peacefulness and genuine caring for others.
A total resolution of evil may be beyond us, but we can elect to make things better. Amelioration is a genuine possibility for us. Taking our freedom seriously means accepting that every step down the path of our life leads us to new possibilities. We may ignore some of them, not care about some of them, be afraid of some of them, not like some of them, wish that some of them were not there, and so on.
The possibilities may be many or few, good or not so good, easy or hard, simple or complex through a whole range of differences. But, there are always possibilities. For it’s the very nature of our world to show us that it is almost always saturated with more possibilities than we can ever actualize. Every end becomes a new beginning.