Saturday, May 28, 2005

Why Be Free?

By 'freedom' many things are meant. Some freedoms are political. Others pertain only to the individual, or perhaps to the will of the individual. I will speak of the latter sort.

Why should we want to be free? What would freedom gain us?

Surely it would gain us freedom from the interference of others. It would gain us the ability to do what we wish. This is a prima facie good.

But genuine freedom is more than this. Genuine freedom requires that we be little gods. Let me explain. If an act (and by 'act' I mean all that we do) is free, its cause cannot lie outside of us. For if its cause were to lie outside of us, we could not be responsible for it; and if we were not responsible for it, it was not freely done. So, then, a free act is one whose cause lies within us. It is for this reason a kind of little miracle. In that place where the free act arises (whether this be the will or simply the self), the laws of nature do not hold sway. For if they did and thus determined that our act would occur as it did, the cause of that act would lie outside us. But as said if the act is free, its cause must be within us. Thus in a free act more is accomplished that can be attributed to the operation of natural law, i.e. a free act is a little miracle. But little miracles can only come from little gods, from beings who are not bound wholly by natural law.

But perhaps there is a law other than the natural, a law that governs our acts alone. But this cannot be. We are natural beings, inhabitants of the world of objects and events that we call 'nature'. Thus if there is a law that governs our acts, it is by definition natural.

So, then, our question becomes this: Why should we want to be little gods? What would this gain us?

It gains us worry and condemnation surely. Only she who is free can be rightly condemned for what she does. Only she who is free has any reason to worry that she will fall short and sin.

But does it gain us anything that we might wish to have? Here I do not see my way clearly. I have heard said that only that love which is freely given is a love we should cherish. This is too strong a claim. A young child loves its mother not because it freely chooses to do so but because that is the child's nature. But the young child's love is righly cherised by the mother. But is the child's love, though good, deficient in some way? Is there a better love, an adult love that does not arise through nature but instead is freely given? There is of course the love that an adult gives and it does differ in character from the love given by a child. But is it a better love? It is often a love that is accompanied by a greater knowledge of the object of its love. It is often a love that has endured strife and loss. It is for this reason often a deeper love (although not likely a more intense or a stronger love than that of the child). But the depth of the adult love thus does not arise out of some free choice; its depth has another origin.

But what of God? Is not God's love for His creation the best sort, and it is not freely bestowed? If God exists, His love could not fail to be of the best sort. But it is not freely bestowed. God of course acts under no external compulsion; but neither are His acts free. He of course is not bound by natural law. But He is bound by the law of His own nature to do what is best, for by definition any being that does less than what is best is not God.

Freedom then is not necessary for the best sort of love. But love is the Good Itself. It is that after which we all strive, that for which we would give up all else. Love led to the creation of the world, and its redemption in Christ (or so says the Christian).

Freedom, then, is not worth having. We can possess the Good and yet not have it. Indeed I think that we should not want it. The best, most blessed state is to so remake our nature that we cannot but love perfectly, and one who cannot but act in a certain way is not free. Freedom is a curse, and an illusion.


Tom Gilson said...


"Why Be Free?" is an ironic question to start with in an article like this. It implies that we have a choice whether to be free or not, which is the kind of choice we could make only if we are free. But we can't choose not to be free (that would be self-contradictory), therefore we cannot choose to be free. We have to play the hand we're dealt.

That's why I have to say your conclusion doesn't satisfy. You settle on "freedom is a curse, an illusion," based on whether you see advantages in being free. That's not a sufficient reason; it deals with the hand we might wish we were dealt, but not with the actual cards in front of us.

I agree with you, though, there still is a psychological side to the question, which you address under the matter of whether there is any real love without real freedom. The question is, does anybody really believe there is no such thing as freedom of will? They may stand for it intellectually, but they speak against it as soon as they choose between cereal and eggs for breakfast.

They may argue freedom is just illusion, but why do they bother? Do they think I am free to accept their arguments? And (now here's the real nub of it) do they think it matters whether I believe them? If they're consistent, the answer to both question is "no." But if my thoughts are not free, then what I think can never matter, any more than what a rock thinks (whatever that might be!). You correctly stated this in your article.

If there is no freedom, then one person arguing against it and another arguing for it make no more difference to anything, anywhere, than the turning of the tides.

The same point is true on larger levels than this: withough freedom nothing anyone does anywhere--good or evil, great or small--makes any difference.

This, I believe, shows that while some people deny the actuality of freedom in words, they cannot live consistently with that belief. It is a strong hint that they're on the entirely wrong track.

I like your point about "miracles." Have you read C.S. Lewis's book by that name?

Franklin Mason said...

Thank you for your comments. They are insightful.

From the very moment I started this little piece, I felt that the kind of reply you've given was very much to the point.

Perhaps this will help to redeem what I say just a bit.

We are created to desire what is best for us to have.
What is best for us to have is what God has bestowed upon us.
Of course desire can be corrupted and thus that I desire a thing does not imply that it is best for me to have.
But that original fund of desire that existed before the corruption of the Fall still exists within is, and sometimes we have glimpses of it.
It seems to me that what I most want, what that part of myself that exists independence of the rough and tumble of everyday life, is a perfected love that cannot cease to love. I want to be perfected and I don't want to be able to fall again.
Thus it seems to me that God has given us the ability to achieve this perfected state.

This idea exercises a great influence on my mind.

I read Lewis' book some years ago but have forgotten most of it. I should take a look again sometime soon.

Thanks again.

Tom Gilson said...

I'm amazed at the kinds of things you're processing here, Franklin. It's deep stuff.

If you've read my blog you know I'm a big C.S. Lewis fan. Your most recent comment reminds me an awful lot of what he wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

It might be an even better read for you than Miracles. Have you seen it?

He talks a great deal about Desire, which he calls Joy. I think it might be the same thing you're speaking of when you speak of Desire, because of the unique spin he puts on "Joy."

I recommend it highly.

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