Freedom, Determinism and Compassion

I am free, and so are you.  We all have more freedom to act, speak, or think whatever we want than we actually use.  I’m free to drive through a red light, steal, kill, or insult random people. I don’t generally do these things because they’re against my values, and I also don’t want to risk the consequences — freedom to act is not freedom from consequences. I’m also free to be kinder, more generous or more considerate than I usually am. I wish I took more advantage of these positive freedoms, especially since the consequences are usually pleasant.

There are some inflexible hindrances to my freedom. As a man of a certain age and physical endowment, there are many athletic feats I can’t perform, and I never could have given birth to a child.

There are also universal limits on my freedom.  So I can’t fly without mechanical assistance, swim underwater for hours without breathing oxygen, live for months without food or water, travel through time (other than forward at the speed of a clock), or visit the realms of the dead and return to tell the tale. Some would claim that I do have some of those freedoms, but I’ll need to see some evidence before I believe it.

Some of the limits to my freedom are self-imposed — in principle I could overcome them.  For example, I’m free to speak nothing but Chinese for the rest of my life.  It would take a lot of work, though, since I don’t yet know a single word of the language.

Within limits, I’m free to do what I want. If I want to be happy, I’d better want what I can get. So I’d better not stand at the top of a cliff and flap my arms, hoping to fly.  But, more seriously, this admonition to curb the desire for freedom can be an essential survival strategy — as it was for James Stockdale while being tortured as a Vietnamese prisoner of war, or Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz or generations of slaves on American plantations. 

Sometimes a crack appears in the wall, and an attentive and brave leader appears to help people attain the freedom they deserve.  I’m thinking of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi.  The courage to fight for the freedom of a whole society is undoubtedly a virtue.

But what if it’s all just an illusion?

We are rational beings, and our use of observation and reason has enabled the extraordinary growth of our understanding of the world around us.  We see how all things are interrelated, and how every effect has one or more causes. Things and events don’t just spring up without prior causes. The available data from all levels of the universe — microscopic to galactic; organic and inorganic; solids, liquids and gases — confirms this “law” of cause and effect.  We are part of that universe, and so subject to that same law.

Medical science shows that the principle of rational cause and effect applies just as much to humans as to any other complex object.  It applies to our brains, too. So, the responsible rational and scientific conclusion is that the activities of our brains — our thoughts and feelings, and the actions and speech they control — are subject to the operation of cause and effect.  This is determinism — every thought or action we imagine to be free is actually the result of prior causes. Your belief that you freely chose what to have for dinner is a fantasy.  Even my conclusion that freedom isn’t really free is itself determined.  So much for freedom!

Fortunately, the truth of determinism doesn’t really matter when I am trying to decide whether to eat some ice cream.  It’s useless because making decisions is a core part of how we operate — we can’t avoid it.  Even if I decide I don’t believe in free choice, that is itself a choice. A working belief in free choice is unavoidable as a part of daily life. Even if life is like a movie with a script, we can’t get outside the film. So the reality of a rational universe governed by cause and effect places no practical conscious limitation on our pursuit of freedom as we understand it.

Let’s look more closely at what personal freedom means in a deterministic world.

Suppose I decide to eat that ice cream — this is the effect, but what are the causes?  Immediate external circumstances play a role — my favorite flavor is there in the freezer waiting for me.  But most of the causes are inside of me — my hunger, desire to stay healthy, the impact of advertising, the memories and prior experience that brought me to this moment, my particular physiology, lessons I’ve learned, even my genetic heritage. As a person, I embody all these prior causes. In a very real sense, all those accumulated causes are me. When I open that freezer door, it is this composite me that is acting.  So my action is both determined by prior causes, but also my free choice.  I am not just my narrow conscious ego-mind, but a much more complex person who includes all of the causes that made me who and what I am today. With this more scientific understanding of the whole person, we have saved personal freedom! By the same token, each of us is still responsible for his or her own actions and decisions.

But what does it mean to be responsible in a deterministic world?

Responsibility now lies with the whole person, a unique being reflecting the accumulated impact of millions of causes acting through both nature and nurture.  The conscious part of a decision or action is an important part of the decision-making package, but it isn’t all of it — consciousness isn’t the whole person.  The whole person is responsible.  Quite likely, the conscious ego-mind isn’t happy with this situation — when we declare “I make free decisions” we usually intend to retain ownership for the conscious mind alone.  But, in a world ruled by cause and effect, this is a fantasy. In reality, my decisions are only partly under conscious control, even though they are entirely mine, meaning myself in a broader sense.  So, in spite of my most strenuous rational efforts, I will most likely continue to indulge in “guilty pleasures” like ice cream.  

If I stay stuck in the notion that all my actions are the result of my conscious will alone, then I’m setting myself up for either pride or shame, depending upon how I judge each action. But once I realize that my actions are the result of causes I can never fully control, even though they are embodied in who I am, then I am more likely to react with humility.  Whether my action was good or bad, I know that it was more than an act of conscious will. Serenity results from accepting that determinism is always at work. I am less likely to anxiously assign blame or credit to my every action, and am freed from the pendulum swings between shame and vanity.  Overall my attitude towards myself will be more compassionate.

This adjustment of attitude also applies to my relations with others. Knowing that everyone is to a great extent obligated to act out who they truly are, I will be more prone to react with compassion rather than judgment. Instead of handing out blame or credit, I will be more concerned with how I might advise or help the other to behave in a way that is most useful to his or her own well being, and to harmonious relations with others, including me.  The meting out of punishment or rewards, either by me or by our institutions stands revealed as a counter-productive exercise, divorced from the deterministic reality of our lives. 

Determinism is a scientifically unavoidable conclusion. It leads to an expanded understanding of who we are as persons, beyond the fantasy of autonomous, conscious egos.  We understand freedom and responsibility in a new light, opening the door to a more compassionate attitude towards self and others. Acceptance of the role of determinism in our decisions potentially leads to serenity and greater social harmony.

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