My Friend Jonathan Livingston SeagullStephen Farah
Hell I must say I loved the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a kid. My standard 4 teacher (grade 6), Miss Fair-Weather, would read it to us every day just before the end of school. I was no fan of school but I looked forward to this story time with an enthusiasm that is the sole dominion of childhood.
There was something special about Jonathan Livingston Seagull which I felt then and I still feel now, and that was the image of freedom. When Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared through the air, perfecting the art of flight, dedicating his soul to a higher purpose, soaring above the pettiness and small minded proletarian concerns of the rest of the seagull world, he gave us an indelible image of freedom. Of transcendence too, but for the purposes of this blog it is the image of freedom that I want to talk about.
Which leads me to my question what is freedom? What does it mean, practically, to say that you or I are free? Is such a thing possible, and if so what would it look like, what would it feel like? This is something, in common with all philosophers, which I have often though about. And at various times I leaned more towards one answer or another. Let’s consider some of these perspectives.
As the Merovingian says, there is only one truth and that is the truth of causality – cause and effect.
In fact in Matrix 2 he goes on to say a bit more, that it is not the what but the why which gives us power, but that is a story for another blog, in any case I’m sure you’ve seen the movie. If not you should be ashamed of yourself for you have missed one of the great cultural contributions to modern cinematic culture.
And this law of causality if we accept it as an absolute in effect means that the concept of freedom, as we traditionally understand the word, is inherently flawed. You or I become, by logical deduction, the effects of a long causal chain.
We can make no philosophically valid claim to choice and apropos to freedom. We become epiphenomenon, or at least our consciousness does, much like the wetness of a wave or the coolness of a breeze. We are not agents of change, we are if anything its witnesses. So to return to our original metaphor, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, in this model, was simply following the dictates of his DNA. This theory is known by the name determinism.
Another version of determinism, sometimes known as soft determinism which states causality and free will are compatible. It’s not a concept I am very familiar with so I’ll keep my comments brief and concede that I am open to correction. Nevertheless in my understanding it means something like this: phenomenally we experience ourselves as free agents but fundamentally we are not. Our actions are logically compatible with our physiological and psychological structures which are the product of our evolutionary inheritance.
Yes if you get the sense that this is a bit of a cop out, don’t feel lonely so do I, nevertheless there you have it and I would guess it’s the best candidate for objective (read collective), truth right now.
Benjamin Libet and delayed choice
In support of consciousness as a non-free agent we have the experiments of the late Benjamin Libet, which suggest that the conscious perception of choice is an illusion. These are not considered conclusive, but are certainly food for thought.
Sartre and Free Will
I really like Sartre’s (the French existentialist) argument for free choice. He argues that free choice is not merely man’s prerogative but his inalienable nature. And his argument goes something like this:
Consciousness, which he terms the for-itself is never synonymous with its object, i.e. that which it perceives, and which he terms, in contradistinction, the thing-in-itself. So for Sartre the very nature of consciousness is that of a negating force, by necessity, otherwise it wouldn’t be consciousness it would be something else. It would be its object instead of that which perceives the object and knows itself not to be that object- make sense?
Sartre is famously quoted as expressing this as follows: the for-itself (consciousness, possibly ego consciousness or even the I) is not that which it is and is that which it is not.
Anyway this is really his philosophical basis of personal freedom, from which he infers free choice or free will. In fact Sartre with his model of existence precedes essence condemns us to free will. We are free and responsible and have no creator to blame for what we are.
Now whether or not you agree with his hypothesis, on reflection I am certainly struck by the negative force of consciousness and its non identification with the thing-in-itself. And because of this truth, I present Sartre as one possible argument against the determinists.
Pop psychology and Quantum Physics
Over the last few years in pop psychology we have seen the laws of quantum physics touted as showing the flaw in the determinist’s position. You are all no doubt familiar with the infamous quantum conundrum. Observer and observed are not separate but entangled in some weird mysterious way (hear The X Files soundtrack playing in the background), and the observer in her act of observation collapses the quantum wave and forces reality to assume a measurable position.
So what? Well so reality is not objective that’s what; not if objective means it exists without you. But that’s not really the point here; the point is that these new-age-tree-huggers (apologies if that offended anyone) suggest that this implies free will. Regrettably it does not. Because for it to imply free will, in the sense that this term is understood philosophically and rationally, it would mean that the observer chooses how the wave would collapse. And she doesn’t; it collapses in an uncontrollable fashion, with no influence from consciousness ‘except that the act of making the observation is the catalyst to the collapse.
Immanuel Kant offers a compromise
The best definition of free will that I have heard comes from Immanuel Kant. He says that we are phenomenally (meaning in the phenomenal world) determined as the determinists suggest. However we are free in the pre-phenomenal or noumenal space. Where does this exist you might ask and is it experiential? Well those questions are beyond my scope of knowledge so take from it what you want, but for me, intuitively, this rings true and as a good Jungian it is wonderfully paradoxical.
Okay but is there real, practical, freedom?
Anyway to leave the realm of philosophy and return to the real world for a moment, I repeat the question what does it mean practically to be free, or to have free choice? And by practically don’t mean almost smart ass, I mean in practice, in our day to day life.
Well lets’ start off by suggesting a few of the more common answers we might expect to this question:
Freedom can be defined as freedom from political oppression, freedom of movement, religious freedom, freedom of expression and so on. These are the big universal freedoms libert’, ‘galit’, fraternit’.
On a more personal level we may talk of economic freedom, in fact that is probably the best candidate for perceived freedom in the world today- it is the mighty dollar after all that will free us is it not?
I don’t have any arguments with these definitions of freedom or what the practical freedom is we seek. However returning to the issue of freedom of choice, I ask how it is we, you or I make choices. What forces, what impulses lie beneath our apparent conscious choices?
With this question we enter the territory of depth psychology and its model which suggests that many, if not all, our choices are underpinned by unconscious motivations, complexes or even archetypes if you’re a Jungian. And although more modern psychology or neuroscience would state it slightly differently, in essence they would concur – what appears to be conscious choices have a critical un-conscious component whether this is psychological or physiological.
What do you think? Do you feel, do you believe you have real free choice? Can we aspire to the lofty heights reached by Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Did he choose his destiny?
Assuming you answer one or more of these questions in the affirmative. What would this look like?
Give us freedom or give us death!
Well I think it may have something to do with being able to make conscious, rational choices and then be able to actualise them. I don’t like this definition for two reasons, firstly the term rational is loaded seeming to imply a dismissal of the other functions of our psychology, feeling, sensation, intuition and so on. But I don’t mean it to; I mean that the choice is thought out, that we enter into an internal dialectical process whereby we make a certain choice.
Then the second reason I don’t like my definition is because it suggest a kind of cult of the will, and our conscious will is a flawed and often very fragile force. In analytical psychology the approach which is more holistic, a synergy between conscious and unconscious is the way to psychic health and individuation, not a supreme act of will.
Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, on the other hand, compares our will to the extension of our souls in the world, and I must say this is an appealing definition.
A personal experience
What I experienced recently was something a bit more basic, not so grand, but nevertheless very liberating. It was simply this: I had an insight into my inner psychic workings. For many years I have had a somewhat strange and sometimes unnerving ability to see someone I know intimately, to see them for a moment, as if I were seeing them for the first time.
As you may know the way we generally see those close to us is coloured by our previous impressions and memories of this person. Yet what I experience is a moment of clarity if you will, where I see this person with the filter of intimacy removed. You may have experienced something similar if you have ever come upon someone you know well, unexpectedly and for a moment not recognised them.
Anyway I had occasion to see myself this way. Not my physical self but rather my psychic self. Before you think this leading to some kind of ghost story, let me assure you its not. I simply had the chance to reflect on my relationship with a good friend of mine and for a moment it wasn’t me reflecting, but a part of me that was not emotionally and astraly connected to the relationship and my actions. This sounds a bit weird I know, but I don’t have any other words to express it.
What I saw made me realise just how reactive I was in the relationship. How this person was able to manipulate me and how easy I made it because of my overt narcissism. This was a disturbing, but liberating insight. Shortly after this I had a dream where this overwhelming narcissism, this will to power was clearly personified in the dream. And in the dream I was able to resist its impulse.
With the aid of these two insights, well the same insight really just experienced in two different ways, I was able to face this narcissistic impulse head on. I came to realise just how old, how powerful and how pervasive this unconscious complex was in my life. Ironically I always knew it was there and would often speak of it fondly, for truly I was very fond of it and identified myself by it.
Yet I knew it without knowing it, as we often do, it was conscious but only subliminally so. I never saw it for the monster it truly was.
Is the Ultimate Master dead?
I would be dishonest if I, like the homosexual who after a faith healing in Nigeria, to cure him of his homosexuality, said, on public television, that he is cured and now finds woman attractive, were to say I am no longer a narcissist. But something has changed I have seen the devil that I am, and truly as a result of this insight his power is greatly diminished.
Simultaneously with this I decided, admittedly at the behest of my wife, to go on a three day fruit fast, which, I am pleased to say, had now been completed for a second time successfully. This simple act of not eating for three days -I don’t consider fruit as real food had a profound effect on my psyche. It helped me realise that I am not synonymous with my appetite.
These two relatively simple experiences have given me an insight into free choice and what it feels like to stand outside my own impulses and make a decision which has a basis other than the impulse of unconscious desire.
Does that mean I’m free? Not quite, but it’s a start. And the reason I have shared it with you is because I think this is the essence of freedom, it is freedom within ourselves; the recognition of our own psychologies, and then the non identification with those psychologies.
I am not talking about the destruction of the ego as advocated by eastern mysticism. Rather the idea that you do not identify too closely with that ego. The ego is a set of learned, inherited and often unconscious behaviour/response patterns. You are not this ego identity, what you are I cannot say, but I can say with relative certainty that you are not your ego identity.
You and I have the capacity to evolve, for our consciousness, our intellect and our identities to grow beyond where they currently are. In fact, like many much greater men before me, I would argue that is our very essence, the very purpose of this life. And the fact that we are able to do this, consciously, leads me to conclude that we do have free choice. I don’t pretend that this is an argument to stand up philosophically, but it is, in my experience, true none the less.
What are your thoughts on this? Have you had any comparable experience you can share with us? Or do you believe that you are an automaton and live your life in a preconceived, mechanistic fashion?