Over the course of the past few months I have been greatly interested in the question of freedom. As I began pondering the question of human freedom, I was particularly struck by the way that people in our society view this identifying human reality. As an American, I live in a country full of many freedoms. After all, we are the “land of the free.” But how many Americans take this freedom seriously? And furthermore, what is meant by freedom? It seems to me that we just throw this word around loosely and don’t actually know what we’re saying when we say we live in a free country. I guess at the heart of the matter, this question encompasses what we’re talking about: what does it mean to say that human beings are creatures of free will?
If we take an honest look around at the world we live in, we can say that perhaps there are two brands of freedom. On the one hand, there is a brand of freedom that lives by the so called “YOLO” mentality; a freedom that gives an individual the option to do whatever you want, simply because you want to do so. On the other hand, there is a freedom that liberates the individual by way of attending to a higher ideal or moral, such as truth or justice.
I asked a friend of mine, who is not of a religious background at all, what freedom meant to him, and if he thought that he had free will. He maintained that we are beings with the illusion of free will; we do the things we think we want to do, but ultimately things play out the way that they’re supposed to and our choices have little to do with the “bigger picture.” I was not startled by his response, nor was I surprised, but I was definitely having a mixture of feelings about the phrase “illusion of free will.” Our discussion led to different topics about human freedom, and decision making but in the end, neither of us was satisfied with the result. So I took the time to consider his views, and decided to sit down and do a bit of thinking.
If we are beings that have the illusion of free will, then we must step back and define what is meant by free will. What separates us from animals and other beings is that we have the ability to reason, in Aristotelian terms: we have a rational soul. For my friend, it was not good enough for him to decide between one thing or another because he said that all of his decisions are informed by whatever ideas happen to be influencing him at a given time. For instance, he could not truly make a “free decision” because he has been corrupted by different systems of thought. For him, Christians make decisions because their religion tells them to do so. By the same token, others make decisions based on their upbringing, others because of political ideologies or philosophical schools of thought. Ultimately all of our choices are enslaved to some system of thought, so free will has become an illusion.
I was troubled by this last line. But I was not overcome. If we truly are free beings, then we have the ability to freely make a decision. Our decisions must be informed by our experience, that’s the whole point! If they are not, then our experiences have no meaning or value to us and we will blindly stumble through life without ever confronting reality. Here we must take the initiative to evaluate and verify our experiences; we must put in the work ourselves, this is not something that we can simply learn from someone else. Freedom is lived only out of the conviction of reality that surrounds us.
If my free will is informed by my experience, wouldn’t that still qualify as an “illusion of freedom?” No. You see, freedom traditionally has an aim at a higher good. For the Greeks, freedom was aimed toward “the Good.” For the Christian freedom is found in Christ. But it does not have to be that broad to grasp the concept. Let me use the example of music. As a musician I am fascinated by the many possibilities that exist to create something beautiful. With that aside, music comes with a structure of rules. One must follow a tempo, maintain a certain volume, and most importantly, play the correct notes of the given key. One of my favorite musical endeavors is improvisation—this is where freedom reaches its musical height, and yet the possibilities are endless. Yet, when I do not follow the rules, and I play a note that does not follow the given blues scale or chord progression, I will sound off (and it is very noticeable (especially to the trained ear)). I am given a choice: I can follow the rules of improvisation and create wonderful music, or I can choose not to and sound terrible.
This same analogy can be applied to the freedom of human beings, in our decision making and more pertinently, in our free will. We have the freedom to act in accordance to a higher moral, which liberates one beyond the pressures of society, and focuses more on our destination instead of the fleeting present moment. I have done the work in my own life, and I am convicted that our freedom must be guided by, and aimed at, something greater than us. I notice in my own life that when I lose this inner sense of morality, justice, truth, beauty, love, and so on, I begin to sound “off” as if I am not playing the appropriate notes of the key that I am living. Free will, then, is not merely choosing something instead of another, rather it involves making some sort of informed decision.
Again, no one can do this work for you, it takes an effort of self evaluation to truly discover freedom. But I assure you that it is definitely worth it. If free will is an illusion, then life itself is at risk of losing all meaning.