Thoughts, Reflections and Stories.

One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star...
Massoud Abbasi

The Ambiguity of Freedom

                Throughout civilized human history, man has for the greater part held freedom and the notion of freedom to be an absolute and fundamental thing imbued in our very being and condition. With the advent of rational and scientific thought mixed with advanced human consciousness, this long held notion has been challenged repeatedly, even to this day.  The concept of freedom has been denied, reformulated and once again been re-opened for questioning. Shall we embark on yet another reformulation of this most important and pertinent matter to the human condition? Today it would seem as though we have indeed done so once again. There is a certain ambiguity in freedom which needs to be reconciled. It is the most inherent of human predicaments. Viewed as rare subjects in a universe of objects and unconscious other subjects and species, man exists in a collective and is thereby by its very nature a dependent being. By virtue of our sovereignty and singular position in the realm of life as a rational and conscious animal, we are the sole ‘thinkers’ of our known sphere and this unique position beckons our freedom and necessitates that we exercise choice, that we actively participate in being free beings. As a collectivity of individuals we represent the thoughts and consciousness of the world and the irony and melancholy of this otherwise beautiful notion lies in the fact that we must as a result bear the burden, responsibility and the anguish of making choices and giving meaning to a free, undefined and largely meaningless world. Freedom and volition are in essence and by definition genuine and authentic. That freedom is fundamentally ambiguous, if this position is accepted, has many ramifications then for an individual living in a world full of other beings, each of which exercises their own freedoms. One of these is that we are prone to conflict and disagreement, often leading to conflict and chaos, examples of which sadly to this day abound. However by the same token it is also this absence of an absolute truth on the question of freedom that a humanistic hue is imparted upon our species. This provides us with a common ground for understanding and alleviating the conventional problems of dealing with ‘others’ who exercise their own freedom in a world in which many freedoms can and do collapse. Every man and woman exists as a single subject amidst a plurality of other subjects and thus there is a level playing field that is required if we are not to each individually treat one another as objects which would strip away our innate and inherent humanity. This is wrong. This is precisely the basis on which many conflicts, whether micro, between 2 people, or macro, between nations and sects arise for instance. We lose sight of the innate quality of freedom we each bear and in forgetting, we usurp the rights of others and place ours above theirs. This is a dangerous fallacy and psychological shortcoming that our species by and large has still yet to properly grapple with. Perhaps it is because civilization, as Norman Doidge once said in his seminal work on neuroplasticity, is always ever only one generation deep. That is a sobering truth, if in fact it is an absolute one.

            No other field has dealt with the question of human freedom and individual liberty as extensively as has moral philosophy, ethics and most recently and poignantly, Existentialism. A development of the 20th century school(s) of thought of European descent, this system requires at large that existence is independent, an ‘in-itself’ as the technocrats would term it, and that it is sufficient and merely is what it seems to be and that there is no inherent meaning or purpose for it in as far as we can derive a universally accepted one. Every culture, philosophy, religion, school of thought can derive its own answer on this most weighty of questions, but in reality, no one has ever been able to conclusively remove the question mark that stands above this very thing we are all immersed in fully. We cannot state with certainty that existence, and by extension human liberty and freedom is this and it exists for this particular reason or purpose. We yearn for this greatly; faith is our best approximation at any truth with respect to it. Existence and consciousness as the primary mode of human existence remains the greatest of all mysteries. From a humanistic perspective, our lives are contingent on many things outside of ourselves and there is no standard of value, no external justification for these things other than those we attribute to them. From an ontological  perspective, that is, with an eye towards answering from the perspective of ‘Being’ itself, we are free, we must be, and thus without any direction or manual for life we lead an otherwise ambiguous reality which is what draws many to reach the conclusion that ours is a tragic condition. The ancient Greeks painted man in the tragic robe more than in any other. There is a reason for this as they grappled, likely for the first time in our history, the conflicts inherent in being conscious, sentient beings in a free world in which liberty can for the most part be exercised individually, with exceptions of course where resources might limit one’s movement, for instance class structure, economic and political conditions, financial status, physical attributes, etc. We realize that life is in the moment but between the past, which no longer is, and the future which is not yet, this moment when we exist is perhaps nothing. Do we in fact realize that life is in the moment when by virtue of the latter the moment is annihilated? Thus mankind confronts ambiguity perpetually. Less savoury characters have construed this as their licence for anarchy and despair disregard the rules and laws we have set in life. This is not a reasonable extension of the latter. It is in fact untenable on many grounds.  Life is indeed difficult to come to terms with and much of our preoccupation has been with the attempt to eliminate, in vain, this ambiguity and the negative repercussions of it that may arise when used incorrectly. Often when this ambiguity is confronted, and it is by everyone at one point or another especially if they are awake and it is something they actively deal with and confront, they become pure inwardness, escape from the sensible world or become engulfed by it enclosing themselves to effectively cope. This also is an erroneous reaction and an unhealthy one that produces a myriad of psychoses in the individual. We never really face the middle ground which is where freedom rests. It rests often in the zone between two ends because it is then that we are able to have a choice, and without choice, there is no freedom. Religion, as a dominant force in human history, has furnished just such a conduit for this predicament of human freedom. As conscious entities, we need to embrace things through which we not only come to realize our existence but also affirm it whether for better or for worse. There is on the whole of it a significant and unsubstantiated assumption in all of this. In the assertion that man is in fact free.  One must first accept that mankind has such freedom. What instincts, drives, habits within the whole species and our evolutionary history might suggest this? This is indeed a moot and equivocal point.

          What if in fact freedom was an illusion? We are an incredibly automatic species. I state this in the sense that many of our biological and psychological faculties and capabilities are secondary and managed by an unconscious drive. Stop and think for a minute just how much of yourself, as a human ‘machine’ is actively managed and how much of it is managed by your brain. Much of it is in fact unconscious. We certainly do not actively say to our diaphragm to expand and contract every few second to allow air to be taken in, or to the heart to pump regularly, or even to our leg muscles to move us while we walk. Most of how we operate is so. The secondary drive is in fact profoundly more pronounced than the primary one. Might we be fooling ourselves into thinking that we are free beings? Perhaps we merely and absolutely need to believe this. Imagine if everything you chose to do, have, be was not of your own choosing but of an inner complex of past experiences and inclinations developed over time? We can certainly see how this is offensive to us. We like to believe that we are in control, that we retain and exercise choice over many important decisions and actions. Yet why is it that so many of us continue repeating past mistakes, maintain the same habits and affinities, even when they are negative for us? We are creatures of habit, to an incredibly significant extent.  Has our brief brief period of civilization and rational thought all of a sudden made us self-directed and independent superceding and overriding thousands of years of primitive conditioning? I find it necessary to at least entertain the possibility that what we call freedom could very well be a by-product of our guilt and shame as a civilized species in embracing our fundamental and historical animality that remains within us. In fact deeply so. Simply look around you for examples of this. It abounds. Often in private circles and matters. In this new age of morality and reason, this new and young incarnation of the homo sapiens. We are reeling from the inability to reconcile ourselves between the millions of years of primitive history behind us, the future we so obsessively envision approaching and the few thousand years of civilized thought and behavior in which we have been and are currently embroiled in. Although I would agree with the conflict of freedom as outlined by many great thinkers and philosophers of the Existentialist and Post-Modernist bent, especially Jean-Paul Sartre, I think it is also possible that man fails at ‘becoming’ precisely because the act of becoming in human history is only a nascent psychological evolutionary development. That man does not fail at becoming what he wished to be but that his drive is a false one and that his instincts and habits of millions of years are resisting it.

            Freedom should allow for mankind to collectively embrace itself in such a manner that individuals engage one another in a mutually beneficial way and not one in which the freedom of others is impinged. It is only by prolonging ourselves through the freedom of others that we manage to surpass death and realize our immortality.  Is the encounter of another an encroachment in one’s own freedom? It can be sometimes, though it shouldn’t be idealistically speaking. Naturally, other people can affect our freedom and often do, the question is whether it is worth it. For instance in marriage, in partnerships, in mutual undertakings. We have to give something to get something back. Freedom can seldom be wholly maintained by one person to themselves in a world in which they are dependent and around many others. Such is life, though Monks may be an exception. All freedom, ambiguous as it is, can only be willed to an unknown future, an unknown end, otherwise it would not be freedom but determinism. To this end freedom cannot will itself without willing itself as an indefinite movement. An individual is defined by his or her relationship to the world and to other individuals. They exist only by transcending themselves and their freedom can only be achieved through the freedom of others. This is refreshing. That freedoms clash is a fact of life, especially on the macro level which is arguably what wars of all sorts constitute. We can see large scale development of this conflict now economically, though this is rather more new than those of macro-economics involving supra-national non-state organizations. The transcending effect of freedom must be dualistic. As human beings we are able to exercise a direct effect on other beings through our freedom to act. Within us lies the potential to act out of respect and good will for others, to affect either negatively or positively their life. This is the consequence of freedom. We bear responsibility; often absolutely.

          Ambiguity in any manifestation by its very nature reveals a lack of consistency and standard in the subject/object which it afflicts. This is especially true in the human realm since as a species we exhibit a wide variety of differences and inhabit a large range of situations and circumstances, thus resulting in a large variety of outcomes. In law, language the sciences and the humanities, ambiguity leads to much confrontation, deliberation and uncertainty. In morality and ethics it is particularly important to draw clear and definite lines as the integrity of each, as well as their acceptance and practice, depends to a large extent on how clearly and well defined the respective tenets are.  Some would argue that in a world devoid of teleology or a divine morality, each individual can give up his personal responsibility and do as they please. Dostoevsky once said that “If god did not exist, everything would be permitted”. I’m not sure I would agree with this. Ethics is no longer derived from a fountainhead of Providence. In fact it never really was, though one can certainly appreciate where he is coming from with the statement and it does bear some truth, or has at least in past history

          Using our ambiguous freedom, we construct the foundation on which a human ethics of our species is built. Mankind is thrust into existence without any ascertainable inherent meaning and acts as the arbiter of its own affairs, the placeholder of its values and a guiding light for itself, of its own accord. In fact there are no universal truths. Such Agnosticism must mean that we are free to create meaning as we see fit. From this it is then imperative that we move forth and build a foundation for an ethics that is quasi universal so as to be able to construct the basics of an ethical system in line with the circumstances, requirements and freedoms of our species and our society. Freedom is the well spring from which all values emanate. It is the original condition of being human. It is an inalienable and inviolable right. At least it should be. It is also a quandary, and it should be this as well.

         The 20th century has seen man reach the edge of the abyss and near its own destruction frighteningly close. This danger exists perpetually today sadly and if philosophy is reactionary in any way, the development of Existentialism can be viewed as the reaction to this century. The holocaust, the two World Wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among many other examples, laid bare for every man and woman to see the absolute ends to which man’s freedom may lead. As a result of these extraordinary events, this extraordinary century, philosophy had to revisit the concept of freedom and find whether we could derive its nature and create a manual for how to use it. We have to do so within set parameters already present. Man exists in a world in which he did not ask for, nor has been given direction on how to live in. Thus, our apparent freedom in choosing how to proceed to exist is an exercise in an indefinite and ambiguous freedom. We have the memory of the past, the vision of the future, and the instincts in which we are perpetually annihilated and born anew. What then? How should we use our freedom to live and within what moral system or to what ends? Perhaps the answer will come from the Buddhist notion of surrender and acceptance. Once we stop grappling with this fact and accept it, we must realize it and live it. Yes, we are indeed free, and freedom is ambiguous but we are destined to have to embrace this freedom and use it both for the better of oneself and also for the better of others. Sartre rightly once said that "Man is nothing other than that which he makes of himself”. We must make ourselves through freedom. It is our greatest gift, perhaps also our biggest curse. Nowadays we in the more modern, developed and liberal parts of the world take freedom for granted, as a given, as a right, forgetting for how long it has been denied many of our kind all over the world, and in fact continues to be. One should not feel guilty for being blessed with this freedom, but it should be incumbent upon those of us who have this privilege to not exploit it, abuse it or neglect it. It is a sacrosanct. Every decision we make has consequences, and we are absolutely culpable for them, whatever they may be, and no one else. Sartre was indeed right: “Man is condemned to be free.”

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08.12 | 10:21

Good reflexions and philosophy
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25.01 | 13:17

Profound with a lot of philosophical insights. I love the admonition of never abdicating the future. Thanks for sharing.

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06.07 | 17:41

Wow, this is so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. Love & Peace.

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19.03 | 03:49

Amazing to read and thank you for some beautiful insights.

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