Sunday, April 22, 2018

Do We Really Want to be Free?

What is freewill, socially and historically speaking? As I explain in The Irrelevance of Scientific Determinism, many of the perennial philosophical questions about freewill are beside the point, much as the abstract, idealistic legal questions and economic models and principles are meant to be counterfactual. Lawyers-in-training and economists ponder unrealistic scenarios, devoid of real-world context, to test their understanding of certain principles. The danger is that these professionals might begin to mistake their maps for the territory, the rigor of their learning process with some scientific status of their discipline. This mistake can happen in either case when these professionals forget the normative dimension of society, and pretend to be technocratically neutral about how people should live.

Likewise, the philosophical question of whether we’re free persons or puppets of prior causes asks too much and abstracts from what would have to be the preconditions of producing a real creature with freedom. To dismiss the independent identity of something, by reducing its contribution to some prior influence is to commit the genetic fallacy and to render all distinctions erroneous. The only legitimate subject matter for this severe reductionist would be something like the Big Bang singularity or whatever else amounts to the First Cause, all subsequent objects and events being nothing but byproducts. Needless to say, the kind of independence or freedom that could violate all possible natural ancestries, that is, that could ignore its birthright, as it were, in so far as this free being is part of the natural order, would be supernatural, absolute, and thus unreal as far as anyone could tell.

So the freedom at issue must be limited to have arisen in the natural order. Instead of being sufficiently independent of nature to be capable of resisting all possible influences, to have always been able to do otherwise than would be predicted from an understanding of the total set of circumstances, a free creature must be only partially able to resist some features of its environment. This is to say the creature would be natural and real, not a ghost, an angel, or a god. The free creature would approximate those absolutes, and its autonomy would play out as a coordination of anti-natural intentions and capacities. This freedom would thus require what we call a mind and a body, a self that sees things its way as often defined against the broader flow of natural events, and an organic interior or sub-world, separated from the broader world not just by a barrier or membrane but by the anomalousness of all its internal processes, which both contribute to the creature’s limited freedom.   

Taking all this as read, this still addresses only some of freedom’s preconditions. A remaining question is how the degrees of freedom affect our anti-natural agenda, thus shaping the history of freewill. Another question is whether freedom ends up being a worthy ideal. All species have some degree of freedom, but there’s a meaningful distinction between animals and people, albeit one that explains without justifying the mass extinctions we’re perpetrating. Animals are slaves to their biological life cycle, because their minds aren’t liberated by language or by higher-order thinking. Their behaviour is almost entirely evolutionary, which means their genes keep their host’s neural control center on a short leash, as the psychologist Keith Stanovich puts it in The Robot’s Rebellion. The word “animal” thus has similar connotations to “robot”: both entail subservience in the sense of forced labour. The first robots or “robota” were peasants in the European feudal systems, and the writer Karel ńĆapek speculated in 1920 that mindless humanoid bodies could be produced, so that “robot” came to be applied to at least the idea of artificial labourers. The idea was to replace sentient with mechanical slaves, out of respect for moral principles. The Cartesian contention that animals are machines with no rationality or consciousness has exactly the same implications. The humanist wants to say that animals or robots should perform our labour to free the lower class of people from having to degrade themselves and to behave as though they were mere animals or robots themselves.

Again, the truth here is mixed. Many animal species do have some degree of rationality, consciousness, and freedom, and these attributes fall into a continuum. Nevertheless, our species is far removed from all the others on this planet with respect not just to our liberated mentality but to the flexibility of our phenotype which enables us to apply the virtual miracle of our godlike perspective. Perceiving the ugly truth that the natural order enslaves us all in so far as we’re animals (forced labourers serving the duopoly of genes and the environment) isn’t the same as being able to do anything about it. It’s obviously possible to be imprisoned without having the power to break out of the prison cell. Most likely, animals either don’t comprehend the absurdity of their situation or don’t care about it. Even intelligent animals such as apes, octopi, or dolphins are likely interested only in narrow applications of their mental maps. Thus, they don’t waste their life as though they were locked in a prison cell, knowing that the world treats them as robots and yet lacking the equivalent of an opposable thumb to begin to externalize their anti-natural will with technological transformations of their pristine habitat.

Indeed, a creature with the neural capacity for an enlightened mentality, for self-awareness, high-level, linguistic abstraction and reasoning, but without the phenotypic wherewithal to make use of that depth of understanding would be an evolutionary dead end. Such a creature would likely renounce nature in the spirit of asceticism instead of idealizing its environment, which is to say making the wilderness ideal by injecting meaning and purpose into it via artificial expressions of the creature’s liberated mind. This mutant ascetic animal wouldn’t be inclined to reproduce or form a species in the first place. Full personhood, then, would seem to go hand-in-hand with a body-type that permits mastery of the environment; more precisely, an awakened species will likely develop a sophisticated use of its evolved traits, given that necessity is the mother of invention. Thus, the absence of much tool use indicates the lack of a personal inner life. Of course, humans had minimal tool use for hundreds of thousands of years in the Stone Age before the explosion of behavioural modernity in the Upper Paleolithic, and so the animal species with rudimentary tool use, such as the chimpanzee or octopus, could conceivably acquire personhood in the same way, as in the distant future the creature’s autonomous inner world comes to match the anomaly of the outer world the creature builds.

Superficial and Profound Freedoms

Protohumans in the Paleolithic period were likely encouraged to press their neural advantage by illusions of supernatural freedom in their dreams and in shamanic psychedelic experiences. But a more tangible model of freedom would have to wait until the agricultural revolution, since freedom as we think of it isn’t prized by nomadic hunter-gatherers. Their egalitarian social structure expresses their conviction that everything is united by natural cycles. Far from viewing themselves as being in an antagonistic relation to nature, hunter-gatherers respect the animal kingdom, considering themselves honour-bound, for example, to thank their prey for giving up their flesh for the tribe’s sake. This is partly why we should speak of those prehistoric nomads as protohumans or as not being behaviourally modern. The point isn’t just that there’s little evidence of sophisticated culture prior to fifty thousand years ago. The significance of artifacts such as cave paintings or decorative adornments isn’t the technical knowledge required to produce them, but the anti-natural attitude these artworks indicate. Creatures that are obsessed with improving their environment don’t merely understand how to put their plans in motion or how to select feasible goals; in addition, they see themselves as being in conflict with a world that’s inferior to the one they imagine, which is largely what motivates their diligence. These creatures are people rather than animals, and they’re liberated not just by reason or self-awareness, but by what we might call their humanistic restlessness. As they grow more confident in their rational powers and opt for “civilized,” more hierarchical and parasitic social structures, they become disenchanted with nature’s given state, whereas hitherto, in their hunter-gatherer phase they had lived more harmoniously with the other species. Protohumans are partly animalistic, not just biologically but psychologically, and this is largely because they don’t value existential freedom.

If a saber-toothed tiger had an early Stone Age protohuman pinned beneath its paws, that biological human would struggle to free herself, and in that sense all animals value freedom, meaning that they defend themselves against coercion. This is the freedom to pursue their goals with as few impediments as possible. But this isn’t existential freedom, the freedom to decide what to be in the first place, to remake themselves and their environment. Animals strive to satisfy their desires or at least to achieve that to which they’re unconsciously or instinctively directed, such as finding shelter or food or a mate. Persons have meta-awareness of their desires and so they take ownership of themselves, not just of what they possess when they achieve their goals in the outer world. In other words, persons have inner- and outer-directed goals: they seek to modify themselves as well as the world around them. And the primordial inner task is to transform from a protohuman into a fully-liberated person. “Personhood” thus becomes almost synonymous with “autonomy” in so far as this self-control represents a victory over animal servitude or robothood. Suppose the pinned protohuman frees herself from the tiger. She’s free, then, only to resume the biological life cycle that’s imposed on her by natural forces. Only when she identifies with a cultural role that stands out as an anomaly even on a planet filled with the anomalies of organic processes, only when she develops a personal identity on the basis of artistic inspiration and a leap of faith might she be doubly free. The doubly-free individual is able not just to do what she prefers (to live rather than to be killed by the predator, for example), but to choose what she prefers, to create much of herself by siding with an artificial subworld that protests against the wilderness that enslaves all animals.

What’s key to this existential rebellion isn’t merely the destruction of nature, since if that were so, viruses and other parasites that replicate at the expense of their host cells and that are thus eminently anti-natural might be reckoned liberated persons, which would be absurd. We people do share with viruses the insane lust for infinite growth, economically speaking, but viruses only simulate the deeper kind of freedom, the will to be supernatural (anti-natural or artificial). Presumably, viruses don’t understand why they do what they do, since they have no metacognition or indeed any mentality at all. This means they can have no self-created inner world walled off against the pitiless universe. Viruses do include the biological split between genotype and phenotype, between the genes and the protein coat that contains them, but they don’t learn about themselves or apply principles to which they individually adhere, even against the status quo, to modify their behaviour. Viruses obviously have no self, and so although they happen to be implacably opposed to multicellular life, they haven’t selected parasitism due to anything like a satanic will to reconfigure the world. Indeed, by targeting only living things rather than the mindless wilderness itself, a viral outbreak is closer to a natural scourge like a tornado, earthquake, or ice age than like a revolt against the ultimate source of suffering. Viruses are only semi-alive, after all, since they lack cell-structure or their own means of reproducing and are inert until they come into contact with a living cell. Still, we collectively share the virus’s indifference to others’ welfare, and this is likely because reason is objectivity, which means that when we reason we think impersonally as we attempt to map mindless nature. This is why the most monstrous acts, such as the Nazi holocaust or indeed our “humanistic,” consumerist genocides and destruction of the biosphere can be rationally, that is, amorally and inhumanly supported with logic and evidence. For instance, we reason anthropocentrically and thus justify the expansion of cities into the home territories of other species.

The Horrific Model of Personal Freedom

The most influential model of freedom in society must have been the alpha male dominator whose power and exploits inspired also the personification of natural forces that we find in ancient religious myths of gods. The spirits of natural processes in shamanic, animistic, or polytheistic cultures were bound to their limited duties, were often considered helpless against magic spells (the forerunners of prayers), and could only negotiate with the shaman or priest as opposed to dictating terms in our relations with them. But the gods of larger societies were caricatures of human kings or emperors, and so their authority and will were deemed as dictatorial as the human ruler’s control over his society. The human alphas or power elites came first, but they ruled partly by adding a political dimension to what was typically popular, local folklore. Thus, in numerous ancient societies, polytheism syncretized into henotheism or even monotheism as the powers of one of many gods were magnified to reflect the emerging prominence of a human leader who united the tribes to become a king. This happened, for example, at several stages in ancient Egyptian history and in the rise of Judaism and Islam from Canaanite and Arabic polytheism. 

The gods were free from nature because they were supernatural; they were eternal, disembodied spirits that weren’t bound by time or space. They may even have created the natural universe and thus had superhuman if not absolute power over the events that unfold in this domain. Monotheistic religions take this sovereignty to the limit and so are paradoxically committed to the most radical humanistic conception of personal freedom, as John Gray and some Christian authors imply when they argue that early-modern humanists weren’t so secular, since they borrowed Judeo-Christian conceptions of human rights. Their polemical arguments are dubious, since monotheistic morality is grounded on our biological preference for socializing. Moreover, religious myths don’t justify anything, since the fictions can only effectuate certain outcomes (as in social engineering projects) or indicate natural human realities, much as science fiction rarely if ever predicts the future, but deals more with present tendencies, albeit with much camouflage for dramatic purposes. However, Western monotheism did magnify human pride under the cover of the fiction that we’re created as children of a supernatural deity and that we need only exercise trust in that invisible parent to inherit our birthright in the afterlife. (Originally, this mass fiction was Zoroastrian, since that religion conflated cosmological development with moral progress and encouraged people likewise to choose wisely in the cosmic struggle between good and evil.) Early-modern skeptics obliterated the religious fictions and undermined the power of religious institutions, but their withering denunciations left intact the conceit of humanism which is primarily the notion that we can be existentially free.

The gods, then, were symbols of ultimate freedom and personhood, but in that capacity they were so many distractions from the real story. The greatest freedoms were enjoyed, of course, by those with the most power, namely the human rulers of civilization and their entourages. The nobles had the wealth and prestige to dictate the laws and to plan the construction of the major cities, often adding monuments to testify to their perceived greatness. The classic example is the pharaoh who conscripted thousands of labourers to build pyramids and other wonders as symbols of his power. But other examples are legion. Even modern oligarchs are often philanthropic in their construction of stadiums, libraries, or colleges, but because they’re interested in their legacy, they tend to name the buildings after themselves. It’s safe to assume that ancient kings were as cynical and corrupt as today’s dictators or plutocrats. Power does corrupt, and there’s no escape from that effect if the power happens to be absolute. But this power is equal to freedom in the fullest sense. Again, the peasants of ancient Egypt might have benefited from the pharaoh’s rule in that they no longer had to fear being so easily abused by the wilderness. Civilization ensured that the masses had some degree of protection and self-control, since human predators would have had to fear the social law of the land and the despot’s wrath. But their autonomy was limited compared to that of the upper-class members. The nobles had the wealth and clout not just to head the effort to tame the wilderness with civilization, but to dominate the lower classes and thus to avoid having to be defined by the latters’ petty fears and biases. The upper class was and still is condemned to decide upon their values, as Nietzsche’s point about the normative consequences of the will to power implies. Where that limitless freedom of self-definition takes the nobles is typically to villainy and madness, although these ironic downfalls are masked by the power elites’ normalization of their condition in so far as they effectively have veto power over the society’s ideological superstructure.

In The Golden Bough, James Frazer argued at great length that kings weren’t initially dictators, since they depended on myths of dying and rising godmen that took kings to be symbols of the seasonal powers that nourished the crops. At one time, kings ruled only for a season before they were ritually sacrificed by the masses, according to the many folklores Frazer unearthed or interpreted. A trace of this dynamic is found in the Christian story of Christ’s death and resurrection: the king must be sacrificed to make room for next season’s harvest which will need a fresh royal representative. The king flourishes only as does the land, because the two are symbolically one. Assuming there’s at least some truth in Frazer’s research, this cult of the dying and rising godman would seem a hangover from hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. In any case, being sociopaths rather than true-believers, kings and emperors protected themselves and learned to appease the bloodthirsty crowd by turning to other scapegoats, such as virgins, slaves or gladiators, and eventually redacted the call for human sacrifice altogether. They thus ostensibly rendered their society more humane, but perhaps they did so mainly to enable them to exploit the lower classes on a longer-term basis, without the sword of Damocles hanging over their head.

In any case, the peasants or middle class betas, that is, the followers of social norms, are condemned, instead, to define themselves according to received wisdom. In feudal societies, these followers are seldom even literate, so they have little capacity for metareflection. Even in the freest of free societies, in the individualistic United States whose president is hailed as Leader of the Free World, the middle class folks don’t take full responsibility for their identity, but flatter themselves and scapegoat foreigners to protect their self-image that derives from demagoguery and Enlightenment mythsIn existentialist terms, these followers typically lack personal authenticity, meaning they don’t know themselves well enough to despise their complacency or their subservience, and so they don’t take responsibility for their failure to fulfill their godlike potential. Again, there’s a double loss of freedom, since the followers of traditions lack the power to avoid being coerced on a daily basis, such as by being demeaned by their submission to inhuman bureaucracies for the middle class, but they lack also the self-awareness to realize their potential for inner freedom, to take ownership of themselves by autonomous acts of introversion wherewith we decide to reconcile ourselves with what we are. (As for the omega outsiders and losers in life, they typically have the inner but not the outer freedom; they take ownership of their inner world but lack the resources to free themselves from elementary obstacles.)  

This is why aristocrats and other power elites tend to think of the masses as cattle. For thousands of years, the nobles actually exploited the bulk of society more or less as such, lying to them with sociopathic abandon, herding them into this or that absurd project for the monarch’s aggrandizement, justifying their abasement with the fiction of the divine right of kings. If freedom is essential to personhood, in the sense of an animal’s transcendence into godlikeness or of the slave’s turning into a master, and the greatest freedom is demonstrated by the most loathsome human specimens (the power elites), our species is confronted by a most unflattering self-image. We’re all more or less equally human, biologically speaking, but existentially, most of us are less personal—that is, less free—than a small minority of rulers, because most of us lack the autonomy or the cynicism to see through the sham of social conventions. Instead, we flock to demagogues and sign onto one cultural fraud or another instead of creating ourselves in the same spirit in which our species as a whole has created our artificial subworlds. Self-knowledge requires philosophical insight, and philosophical perspective is itself corrupting since it overturns each and every comforting metanarrative, leaving the authentic philosopher with the dreariest, most cynical worldview. The conviction and creative vision required to shape and to be an autonomous self, a source of values and ideals rather than a cog in a pre-existing machine, are likewise subversive since they, too, terrify the huddling masses.

And yet those paragons of deeper freedom, the emperors, dictators, and aristocrats, the celebrities, plutocrats, and psychopathic predators are evidently abominable as individuals. In our storytelling, from movies to novels to rumours, we demonize the monsters that violate social norms. The fictional villains are deformed mongrels, bereft of compassion and operating outside respectable parameters. But those villains are the real-world heroes. The satanic ideal of humanity is to graduate from animalism to personhood, and a person’s defining trait is her radical freedom from both outer and inner impositions. The person as such has at least some meta-perspective permitting her to understand the mechanisms of natural and social control, as well as the will power to deliberately shape herself with artistic leaps of faith and inspiration so that she can be herself instead of a puppet. As John Stuart Mill realized, the free individual will be “eccentric.” Being British, Mill drastically understated the matter, but his insight was that free individuals won’t be expected to go with the social flow. They’ll stand out as their own men or women. And who stands out the most? Who is virtually above the law? Who derides lower-class norms, avoiding even the entire middle class world by occupying the rarified upper-class life of luxury? Who routinely commits white-collar crimes with impunity, by having captured the government and the legal system via the exploits of courtiers or lobbyists? What sort of person was once commonly worshipped as a god and is now celebrated as the big winner in our capitalistic economy even while this system thrives on the very cold-blooded selfishness that motivates all our fictional villains? Not any mere effete eccentric, but a monster of a human being, that is a tyrant, someone who has the greatest opportunities for self-creation due to wealth or status and who has thus been corrupted by the power entailed by those opportunities.

Be Careful what you Ask for

We say we want to be free, because we don’t want to be slaves. The most apparent slaves are slaves to natural luck and to their genetic compulsions; these are the animal species which we’ve been busy exterminating for millennia. We want the dignity of heroes who rise above the animal condition—but who rise up to where? That’s the troubling existential question. The horror is that the limit case of freedom would be freedom from everything, like a quantum blip or a leprechaun that pops up anywhere for no reason, acts strangely and disappears. More relevantly, the free person must be free at least from society, which includes the extensions of society that live in the person herself in the form of encultured habits and dogmas. She must, therefore, be free from everything she might hang on to to reassure her that she’s not essentially alone. This is the terrible, Sartrean aspect of freedom. Real freedom, which is possible but rare even given determinism, is the creation of an inner self that’s necessarily alienated from everything else, that’s therefore constantly in free fall, the quintessential case being the amoral and otherwise monstrous oligarch.

So do we know what we mean when we say we want freedom? We want the wealth and fame of the power elites, but we don’t want their sociopathy and cynicism. Alas, power obviously corrupts character. And we mock the Muslim world, for example, which resists modernization and which “hates us for our freedoms” indeed—not because the millions of conservative Muslims are jealous, but because their religion gives them something to believe in and to live for. Can we say the same about our freedom-loving culture? What will happen when our freedom to progress in the capitalistic, technoscientific domains, unhindered by morality or humility, creates the kind of automation that will put almost all of us out of work? Short of a global socialist revolution, the beta masses would then become omegas and it would truly be the one percent of haves versus the multitude of have-nots, and we’d all be “free” to end our social experiment in fire and ruin. In practice, though, the middle-class betas don’t want real freedom; they want only a semblance of the external kind, and much like conservative Muslims, they rely on myths and delusions to avoid toxic self-knowledge and enlightenment. Just as the emergence of reason may indicate that something has gone wrong with nature, the power of personal freedom may be cursed: we’re potentially free to become corrupt and misanthropic in a perfectly indifferent universe, and to rue the irony of being overtaken by machines which comprise a new order of slaves.

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