How can freedom be possible? Version 2: How can freedom be possible in a world of lifeless matter, from which we ourselves are formed, matter which can do nothing but fall irrevocably toward utter uniformity (entropy, indifference) in accordance with immutable forces, structures, and laws of nature?

The mission drift from escaping misery to escaping determinism for a profound experience of freedom developed with the gradual success of the project to remove disembodied personalities and intelligences, spirits, from descriptions of nature. The project eventually extended to human nature. The strength of the process became irresistible when combined with the modern reiteration of determinism by Benedict de Spinoza (1632–77). Spinoza attempted a thorough ‘disenchantment’ of nature. In his philosophy the world was completely pre-determined and unitary. All was one “God or Nature” and all features and events were considered logically necessary, like steps of a proof in geometry. There is some irony in the fact that Spinoza’s philosophy generally looks like a re-statement of Stoicism in terms of seventeenth century mathematical reasoning and emerging science, but it muted the Stoic emphasis on an individual spark of freedom.

The answer to scientific determinism was created by philosophers still working with the Stoic tradition of humanist rationalism. Stoic double-aspect theory, emphasizing a discontinuity between outward experience and inward experience, is crucial in their account of how freedom can be possible. The answer to this version of “How can freedom be possible?” is substantially this: Since the evidence for determinism is deliberately cherry-picked from a narrow range of experience, freedom still can be encountered directly as both possible and actual on the basis of an enlarged survey of experience.

For centuries “philosophy” meant something quite close to Stoic philosophy, which identified a separation between those things beyond and those things within an individual’s control. Emotional investment in things beyond control was considered pointless and self-destructive. Outward circumstances were to be conceived and treated as indifferent things, since they were all indifferently necessary manifestations of a providential Logos. By focusing on inward matters, which are within an individual’s control, a person can experience transcendent freedom. A realm within the mental control of each individual became especially illuminated. A link between the ancient and modern streams of that focus on inwardness is The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (c. 480-525 A.D.). Boethius was a Christian Roman of the patrician class who flourished at the highest level of Roman politics after the end of the Roman Empire in the west, when Rome itself was ruled by the Ostrogoth Theodoric. In addition to administrative and political engagement, Boethius conceived and accomplished much of an ambitious project to make Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, accessible to his contemporary Romans. As a Christian philosopher he wrote on the relationship between faith and reason. He became a victim of political enemies, was imprisoned on charges of plotting to overthrow Theodoric, and was brutally executed. Boethius’ Consolation, written during his imprisonment, was read and remained influential for a millennium and more. Subsequently, deliberation on the inner-outer discontinuity was continued in the work of Luther, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, and Schopenhauer. There have been many complaints about Cartesian dualism, but it runs through the history of philosophy, and cannot be especially credited to Descartes. The most important proposal about unification of subjective intelligence with objective nature may be Spinoza’s, but even on Spinoza’s view ‘thought’ and ‘extension’ are distinct attributes of “God or Nature”.

The evidence for determinism is entirely outward, and selectively disregards, without convincing justification, the inward experience of immediate freedom. Spinoza did not demonstrate how inward freedom is reducible to the determinism of objective nature, but only declared his preference for pre-determination, in the spirit of Calvinism which was “going around” at the time.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Revival of Freedom

Kant was responding to Spinoza’s vision of total determinism, which still loomed as the central philosophical challenge a century after Spinoza’s death. Influenced by the rationalist tradition also via Leibniz, as well as by Rousseau and Hume, Kant argued that individuals are nearly trapped within our own psychology and our own creativity, and consequently have no perception of objective things-in-themselves. Leibniz and Hume had presented versions of that same isolation from nature, and in a sense Kant was trying to get the genie back into the bottle, trying to justify philosophical thinking and a life of duty and virtue within an orderly society even when ultimate Truth and Knowledge were not achievable. Kant was responding to Hume by following Hume’s own investigative procedure, which might be called reflexive self-consciousness, an intentional consciousness of the ordinary course of subjective activity and experience, with a special interest in distinguishing subjective contributions from those imposed on experience from outside subjectivity. The mental activity encountered by Kant in that process was far richer than what Hume had reported. For Kant, the apparently outer world of appearances or phenomena is not the be-all and end-all it appears to be, since the structure of phenomena is largely supplied by a perceiving subject, by requirements of any possible consciousness, such as a requirement to identify substances, space and time, cause and effect.

Freedom, and the Genie of Lower Human Nature

Kant’s work focused on freedom, very much following issues raised by Lutheran Protestantism. Kant’s identification of freedom used the subjective experience of moral choice as its occasion. There are moments when a person can be aware of the freedom to act either according to a principle that could be willed as a universal rule or entirely from immediate self-interest. In those moments a person can be aware of freedom to take the leap one way or the other. That moment of moral decision is direct acquaintance with freedom. On Kant’s view, exactly that freedom is the thing-in-itself as experienced inwardly. The ultimate principle is one thing-in-itself, freedom, as experienced directly by individuals in the subjectivity of their moral decisions. It is in stark contrast to the world of outward phenomena, the world of objects present in perception. In that outward world of measurement and science all is found to be determined by the principle of cause and effect. For Kant, phenomena (outward appearances) display a complete scientific determinism, but the moment of moral choice, the choice between acting from a universal principle of justice instead of from a self-gratifying impulse, can be experienced undeniably as freedom. The main duality in this vision seems to be between ‘inward’ experience of freedom and ‘outward’ experience of determinism, but the higher vs lower conflict is still present within inward experience. It is present in the alternatives the free chooser must consider: the moral rule or simple self-gratification. Of course in Kant a choice of the moral rule manifests the higher human nature, and self-interest a lower humanity. Since the exercise of moral freedom is transcendent for Kant, it is a vision of transcendence on the level of the individual.

Kant’s idealism, with freedom as thing-in-itself or metaphysical nature, reduced “body” or “substance” to a misunderstanding or a mistaken impression. Fundamental reality became spiritual or subjective, what it is that can exercise freedom. In Kant, the direct personal experience of freedom is immediate awareness of identity with the ultimate thing-in-itself. For a person facing a moral choice to be truly free, the leap one way and not another must be created in the instant of decision. The assertion of rationality was not dependent on cultural norms but on individual creativity. The free agency of subjectivity is identified with strategic rationality creating a balancing force against animal impulse. Acting on the principle was always the actuality of freedom, the higher power, in Kant, but it is especially discernible when noticed against a contrasting self-interested impulse. Acting on the principle would never happen on impulse, because a mental process of inventing a rule had to be accomplished first. So acting on the principle is always deliberate. Freedom requires creativity. The individual is the author of moral choices and actions. Creativity for Kant was not very colourful but it was fundamental and crucial, and his idealism rests on it.

Even though the impression human perceivers have of the objective world is pervaded with psychological contributions on Kant’s view, he remained convinced that the impression still bears some unidentifiable relation to a thing-in-itself which exists externally prior to being experienced. Consequently, even though there is inward experience of freedom in intelligence and outward determinism in nature, it is not legitimate to impose the system or principles of one side on the other to declare a tidy monism. You can’t justify an exclusive preference for inner experience or outer experience as the grounding of everything, since there is such a stark discontinuity between them. Embracing that irreducible discontinuity for the broader understanding it enables is exemplified also by the Stoic treatment of Logos, Luther and the inward leap of faith, and Schopenhaur’s explicit double-aspect reality.

Kant’s response to Spinoza and Hume, both of the latter ‘philosophizing’ aspects of Calvinism, inspired a great pulse of philosophical creativity, especially in Germany. Kant’s identification of a subjective experience of freedom inspired subsequent German idealism, Romanticism, and Existentialism all the way to Sartre at the middle of the twentieth century. In answering scientific determinism, romantic philosophers, originating with Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) tried imposing the inner subjective side of experience onto everything, in a mirror-image of Spinoza’s declaration of his preference for outward determinism. Fichte declared preference for the subjective aspect of experience as a revelation of fundamental cosmic nature. The claim is that it is less denying of important dimensions of experience, more inclusive of the richness of experience, to give preference to the inward side, subjective intelligence, than to declare an objectivist monism. In romanticism, whimsy and creative spontaneity were the portal to the individual’s freedom over stark scientific determinism. On the question of the relative merits of rationality as compared to bestial lusts and impulses, romantics departed from the mainstream of humanist rationalism by expressing a certain contempt for strict rationality and an admiration for nature, unrestrained energy, and boldly quirky individualism.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.