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Are we free?

"Take what you like, and leave the rest" (ACOA [Adult Children of Alcoholics] dictum)
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Are we free?

This is a question with more than one answer. Some of the answers obviously depend on specific empirical issues of interpersonal power relations, and other vicissitudes of life. A person with an incurable illness is not free to be healthy. Neither is a wage worker free to be a principal of the economic order (a "boss", etc.).

[ Is our life an epiphenomenon of chemical processes in our brains? ]Here, however, I want to focus on what might loosely be called "metaphysical" freedom -- all those befuddled and befuddling questions about whether brain physics determines our thoughts and actions, etc. These issues are epitomized in the advice the police give to K. in Kafka's The Trial: "You do not need to accept everything as true but only as necessary." The conclusion I aim to reach is that conversation is the actualization of freedom, and that the cultivation of conversation is a critically defensible basis for a society in which it would be good to live.

My argument is that we are free to the extent that our words (and other expressive acts) are meaningful and that we thematically understand that and how they are meaningful. As Hannah Arendt wrote, in The Human Condition:

"...even if there is no truth, man can be truthful, and even if there is no reliable certainty, man can be reliable.... though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself." (pp. 279,282)

We can bring freedom into being, by building a social space in which we actualize truthfulness and reliability in our dealings with each other. We do this by endeavoring to make these dealings embody mutual truthfulness, reliability, respect, and openness to understand each other's position.... I think this is what Emmanual Levinas meant when he wrote: "To be free is to build a world in which one could be free" (Totality and Infinity, p. 165).

If we construct a conversational space in which I genuinely try to say what I believe and you try to understand it, and you try to express what you genuinely believe and I try to understand that, we already understand that we are engaged in an endeavor of elaborating mutual understanding and respect. How can this understanding be an illusion? What could it mean to claim it was an illusion: That it was all some causal epiphenomenon of neurological processes, etc.? If one of us made such a claim within the conversation, wouldn't the speaker's intention that the listener understand that the speaker believed "we are not free" be a performative self-contradiction, since the speaker's intention would not be to stimulate atoms to react to his assertion as a necessary consequence within physical processes, but to ask a person to appreciate his assertion as a true statement about those processes? Wouldn't the speaker be seeking to urge the listener to have a view of the issue, not to cause certain physico-chemical transformations among a subset of the atoms in the universe? How can we not be free in [i.e., if there is to be] such interaction: free to understand and respond to each other, etc.?

If a person asks another's opinion, or even tries to coerce the latter to believe something, the person will be disappointed if the result is a mechanical (non-free, causally explicable) process -- whether it be an issue of a lover asking: "Do you love me?" or an inquisitor asking: "Did you do it?" --In any such case (in all interpersonal intereactions...), if the person doing the asking finds out that the answer is a process explainable by natural laws, they will be radically disappointed (e.g., if they discover that the response came from a speech synthesizer, and the "person" to "whom" the question was asked is in fact a computer simulation). Not only, as Starbuck said to Captain Ahab, is it blasphemous to seek revenge against a natural process: it is also a "category mistake" (which, perhaps, is a different name for the same thing?).

It is in this sense that I argue we are, or at least can be free: We can construct a space of mutual dialogical communication in which we try to understand (question, etc.) each other, and in which we understand that we are doing this. I contend that such [social self-]knowledge can be known apodictically, i.e., with certainty, by continuing self-reflection on, and self-repairing of the conversation as we participate in it. How could anyone provide evidence to falsify our claiming that, in this activity, we are building a conversation and truly know we are doing this? --Especially if they were to try to convince us of their counter-claim, perforce by entering into the conversation!

Furthermore: This is not a merely methodological accomplishment in an obscure area of communication theory. I see it as a potential foundation for a practical agenda for restructuring all the communicative interactions in which we participate in our social world, e.g., what happens in school classrooms, office and factory workplaces, etc. (I elaborate this point in my doctoral dissertation: Communication: The social matrix of supervision of psychotherapy.) These everyday institutional settings which define the most important aspects of our lives are all patterns of human interaction. Although we may not have created them, we can re-create them, because they are nothing but interpersonal relations, i.e., social reality which we constitute (in contrast with physical nature which is "given", and which, therefore, while we can act into it, we cannot "get under or behind it" to redefine its generative principles).

I propose that the limits of human freedom are the extent of dialogical social space which we inhabit. Jesus said (I note that I am agnostic...):

"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt. 18:20)
I interpret this (metaphorically...) to mean that (e.g.) two prisoners in a death camp, about to be gassed or shot, can have freedom to the extent that they speak with each other, e.g., about their concerns as they approach the unavoidable horror. In speaking about the horror, they gain distance from it, since the content of their awareness shifts from the horror itself to their shared discourse and its subject ("the horror") as the theme of the discourse. I hypothesize that if the two are able to keep conversing to the end, or their conversation is so rich that, although in reality the two are separated in their last moments, their now forcibly ended conversation's "spirit" (internalized dynamic...) continues to engage each participant's awareness, then their conversation may even enable these persons to go to their ends without succumbing to the horror -- to endure what is being done to them with serenity. It is this kind of context which I would contend most severely tests the power of communication to be bene-dictory, i.e., for conversation to bring about goodness in even a bad world. [The preceding thoughts about martyrdom derive from Heinz Kohut's essay: "On Courage", in Self-Psychology and the Humanities (W.W. Norton, 1985). Also: Might this be helpful in appreciating Socrates's assertion that no harm can befall a good person in this world or the next?]

An example from film is the ending of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal: Close behind the Knight, The Plague finally arrives to the Knight's home, where the Knight's wife, Karin, has stayed to await her husband's return, at last, after long years' absence fighting a Crusade. Unlike most of the other persons present, Karin, is literate: she has acquired the "communication technology" to create, shape and maintain conversational space, whereas the others use language, but only with the naive immediacy of primary, unreflected orality, of which they are mostly unaware and cannot consciously deploy as a resource for shaping their life. Death comes to the door while the assembled persons are eating dinner, with Karin reading to them from the Bible. When Karin sees the new visitor at the door, she calmly looks at him, and says: "You are welcome in my house." By this gesture, I propose that this woman who has just received her husband back from his many years' absence, and told him how she wants to love and play, is not saying she wants to die, but rather she is expressing the fact that, in conversation, there is a place for everything, even for dying [conversation's negation...], when that cannot be avoided -- whereas, apart from conversation, the horrors of life can only overwhelm the disoriented animal confronted by them, as most of the other characters in Bergman's film, one way or another, "lose it" when Death approaches them. [I discuss this ideal of cultivating a social space of universalizing conversation, in my Tower of Babel (etc.) page.]

Freedom is the event of conversation for so long as we dwell in it, creating it, participating in it, continually repairing it, enhancing it, enjoying it, reflecting on it within it.... It is not some thing -- some object of conversation -- which we can "possess" (we can possess only a transcript of some other conversation, or of our own conversation's no longer living past...); it is rather, for so long as we are participating in it, from moment to moment, something we make be -- better: are making be. (Descartes said: If God did not recreate the world at each instant, it would immediately fall out of existence.) Conversation cannot exist any other way than in us conversing. Whenever we bring it into existence, it is always fully actualized ("complete", "unsurpassable"), and yet its actuality can only consist in its being in process of further elaborating itself. It is thus, among other things, a realization of the Hermetic ideal of a world in which everywhere is equally a center and there is no periphery (neither leaders nor followers, neither stars nor fans, but rather each the peer of all...), and the present moment merges with the eternal....

I propose that conversation is both our one viable and critically defensible foundation for building a society in which it will be genuinely good to live, and also the one salvation which is available to us mortals, in this life, here, now, always and everywhere, when to live (or to live well) is not an option. We cannot master all the things that are (nature, etc.), but we can cooperate to produce a social world in which each man, woman and child can freely judge it is good to live -- a society where the only suffering is from nature, and, insofar as the suffering cannot be put an end to by persons' exercise of their skills (aka "technological means"), it is mediated (soothed) by its being brought into caring conversation, wherein a place can be found for even the worst things which can befall us: "...the comfort upon earth" (Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil, p. 104).

Postscript: You, my reader may ask: How is this transformation of every social situation into dialog to be accomplished? Might it be the case that the best way the world can function, even if in functioning that way it is headed for individual disappointment and collective self-destruction, is the way it runs now, as largely a kind of social Darwinean process in which decisions are made -- to the extent they are made at all --, by those who have power to make and enforce them, by whatever means they can deploy, and where conversation is mostly an implicit medium for, but rarely an explicit focus of action? (Certainly a conversation of 5+ billions persons is not possible.) I have no global "answer", although it is at least worth spelling out what the laissez-faire position implies: It says that application of coordinated social intelligence to try to address social problems is counterproductive, and that "letting things happen willy-nilly" will likely lead to better results for all humanity than trying intelligently to steer the course of events. If this is the case, then what is universally held to be useful at the local level paradoxically proves to be counterproductive when applied more generally. No mariner would propose that the best way to navigate is by making certain the tiller is both unmanned and untethered. At what level of generality does application of intelligence to steering the course of life become counterproductive?

The presumed bogeyman is "state planning", which is supposed to lack the responsiveness to reality of the "free market". Obviously, rigid top-down planning from afar can lead to highly irrational allocation of social energy. (But "competition" produces its forms of waste, too! Check out Barry Brooks' essay: Economics for Conservation, which shows the great benefits that could come from production aimed at maximizing durability, so that we could have high material standards of living while people worked less, used fewer natural resources, generated less pollution, etc.)

At a minimum, it seems it would be advisable in a relatively "free market" environment [i.e., a world of competition regulated in the public interest, as opposed to paradoxically legislated lack-of social oversight and accountability], to subject nominally "private" plans and decisions to prior as well as retrospective social scrutiny in proportion as the scope of their social impact expands (i.e., to the extent that they are not genuinely "private", but have effects beyond the parties directly producing them). This would dampen the destabilizing and wasteful potentials of opportunistic "entrepreneurial" activity, simply by making those making the plans disclose them before acting on them (so that others could respond...), and by vigorously ferreting out instances where persons had endeavored to profit by denying information to others, thereby thwarting the possibility of cooperative (or even merely distributed) social intelligence proving its value. It would also slow down the present frenetic pace of business enterprise (which, as I see it, has not yet proven that haste does not make waste...).

Our best hope -- in part because it is something we each can do something about without first obtaining large-scale institutional committments --, seems to me for each of us, iteratively (always again and ever anew!), in each social [micro-]interaction in which we find themselves, to endeavor to restructure that interaction into self-accountable, self-reshaping conversation, to try see what happens, to reflect, and to try again (obviously, a measure of good-will shared by all concerned is a prerequisite).... At a minimum there will be the rewards of participating in the process, even if it fails (for conversation is a pleasure in itself, and we all die anyway, so that whatever we do ultimately fails, and the current scheme does not seem to be succeeding very well...). Successes and failures can be shared (including being published...), to help each other do better than his or her isolated experience alone would make expectable.

I propose the bottom line is that if persons (we) want to live in a radically human(e) world, i.e., a social surround which everywhere and always unambivalently responds transparently with good reasons and genuine caring to all our interactions with it (rather than a so-called society which reacts to us according to ethnographically describable dynamics of force-fields of merely received "social custom" -- e.g., "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!" / "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!" / "Keep America beautiful: Get a haircut!"...), then they (we) need to try to make it happen here-and-now. We need to demand rational, reasonable accountability (what the classical Greeks called: "phronesis"), in and from every aspect of daily social life. We need to make everything (everyone) testify to us how whatever it (she or he) is doing enhances the (our) shared life situation as well as -- not "selflessly" instead of, but synergistically both-and in a non-zero sum "game" where everyone "wins! -- furthering personal interests.

Lest anyone think we must await some "crazy" (St. Francis of Assisi...) kind of utopian universal selflessness to get started on this: Political and economic power can be constituted as trusteeship, private property can be constituted as stewardship, accountants can audit and lawyers can sue, and each of us can start "Just saying 'No'" when the risks to our personal well-being are not great ("If not us, who? If not now, when?"). To repeat Hannah Arendt's words from The Human Condition:

"...even if there is no truth, man can be truthful, and even if there is no reliable certainty, man can be reliable.... though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself." (pp. 279,282)

The first thing we need to work on is constructing (i.e., re-structuring) our community: wherever two or three are gathered together.... And, should external agencies defeat our best efforts, we always knew that, while our capacity for right is infinite, the might we can muster (even with atomic energy...) is ultimately weak, e.g., in the face of the will of an omnipotent paranoiac Deity, or even just a large earth-orbit intersecting asteroid or an ultra-virulent microscopic pathogen....

Conduct a thought experiment to try to verify that we are causally determined![ Try to prove that we are causally determined (*not* metaphysically free)! ]

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