“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it” Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791

Prior to any attempt to answer this essay’s question, one must keep in mind that this notion entitled as freedom is one with many connotations which I will certainly be unable to cover. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that even a library full of the vast amount of literature dedicated solely to defining the concept of freedom would probably fail to wholly explain it. 

According to the highly reputable oxford dictionary, freedom is “1) the power or right to act, speak, or think freely. 2) The state of being free. 3) Exemption or immunity from an obligation. 4) Unrestricted use of something: the dog had the freedom of the house. 5) A special privilege or right of access.” According to this, I cannot in anyway claim to be free at present. I do not have the power or right to think freely since I am confined to the realms of this topic under study, I am not experiencing any “state” of spiritual or physical freedom since my involuntary exhaustion is currently very restrictive. I am obliged to complete this work regardless to my dislike of deep contemplation this late at night. I have restricted use of even this computer due to both my limited knowledge of PC’s, the deadlines I am coerced to meet and even my little brother who demands usage of the computer in order to play his game. Moreover, I am in no way particularly privileged with any distinctive honours, although I am undoubtedly much deserving of several! Where is my free will to begin with?

Paradigmatic acts of free will are the l�b�ra arbitria volunt�tis, the “free judgments/decisions of will”. We get the word “arbitrary” from arbitrium because of the sense that a free will can make a decision between indistinguishable alternatives, for which no preference, or no reason for preference, can be discerned. This is illustrated with the story of the mule that starved to death because it was standing between identical stacks of hay and could not decide which one to choose. With free will, we can just make a choice.

A major problem with theories of free will is that arbitrary choices are simply random. If the will is fundamentally a randomizer, it is not clear how will is different from some kind of mathematical function. We might as well be using the successive digits of pi, whose sequence cannot be predicted. And if it is not different, then there would seem to be no reason not to assimilate “will” to naturalistic theories about indeterminacy and randomness in physical systems. Free will, consequently, would provide no basis for denying a materialistic and naturalistic interpretation of the self.

When we realize that most choices are not between indistinguishable alternatives, and that there are usually reasons for preferences, we might come to understand that (1) arbitrary decisions are actually irrational, and (2) that rational decisions depend on, and are limited by, our beliefs and knowledge. Because of the latter, Leibniz believed that acts of will are actually completely predetermined by God, but that they are “free” just because the determination is through consciousness and purpose, rather than through hidden causes. If that is free will, it is a disappointment.

On the other hand, Existentialism, perhaps taking this seriously, holds the former take on free will, as irrational decisions, to be paradigmatic: to be free, it is necessary to be irrational. We are “condemned to be free,” according to Sartre, and this means that we cannot rely on crutches like tradition, religion, authority, or reason. We just have to decide. This makes us authentic. We cannot blame our parents, our teachers or our governments for our predicaments. Sartre leaves us standing utterly alone and naked in a hostile world.

Fundamental to Sartre’s whole philosophy is his insistence that “existence precedes essence” in the human being. He uses the analogy of an artisan creating a utilitarian object such as a paper-knife to show that non conscious objects are made (or exist, such as a rock) with an inbuilt essence. This essence or nature determines their life and consequently they are not free to act otherwise.

Sartre sees “anguish” as an experience rather than an emotional state caused by the realization of total freedom and responsibility, and when I choose, I choose for myself and others. Most people would rather not carry this burden so they experience “anguish”

“Abandonment” is that which is experienced after a person realises they are totally responsible and can find no, “guide in their nature” (it does not exist), nor in God’s revelations (they do not exist) as to how they should act. People are not only responsible for what they do; they also have to ‘invent’ their own moral code so as to know what they should do (ibid.).

“Despair” occurs together with “abandonment” and “anguish” when one realises no matter what choice one makes the world is at very least ‘passively hostile’ to our intentions (and survival).

Regardless of the burden of freedom, Sartre insists we must embrace our freedom. He defines the act of not facing up to freedom and responsibility as “bad-faith” or self-deception. “Bad-faith” is not just a tendency to ‘fall’ back into the routines of everyday life. There is no excuse for evading one’s freedom. To act in bad faith is to try to behave like an ‘object’ or ‘thing’. In doing this a person pretends they have a fixed or determined nature and in so doing avoid acting responsibly and “authentically”.

Even though we are essentially alone, Sartre recognizes we are inescapably connected with other people. Theoretically “authentic” relationships are possible, however because most people will not accept their own freedom they consequently cannot allow others their freedom. We try to control or possess others as we possess a thing or object. This dichotomy results in relationships degenerating into sadistic-masochistic manipulations. Both these types of “self-deception” show how humans are loath to embrace the freedom to which they are condemned.

Much has been written about the pessimistic, nihilistic implications of the existentialists generally, Sartre and Nietzsche particularly. For Sartre, as for practical Zen philosophy, life has no purpose other than for living. The world of objects (being-in-itself) exists, “for-it-self by-it-self human beings are incidental to it. The freedom that comes with being human is not something that we choose, it is our humanness.

The invisible strings that the theistic religions would have us believe connect us to an omnipotent puppeteer in the heavens need to be removed. Nothing could be a more optimistic, practical philosophy of existence than showing people they are free at all times. That they no longer have ‘unseen’, ‘unknown’ forces controlling their lives; forces which no matter how much the person tries, they have no control over. Surely “It is more salutary to carry out your own Law poorly than another’s Law well; it is better to die in your own Law than to prosper in another’s” (van Buitenen 1981,p.85).

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