The chains of freedom

We speak glibly about free will, about the four human freedoms of speech, of religion, from want and from fear. For any entity, living or otherwise, we can define “freedom” as being the “unconstrained power to do”. With that definition, there are no freedoms anywhere because nothing is unconstrained. Nothing, in this universe, has freedom. An electron is not free to be wherever it wishes to be. Even a “free” electron,  untethered to any atom, can only move in compliance with the gravitational and magnetic fields it is subject to, and never faster than the speed of light. The universe itself is inextricably chained to the arrow of time.

At the most fundamental level, the chains of the “natural laws” thus imprison all matter and energy. All living things are then held by the further chains of their genes. Their physical form and attributes and behaviour must lie within the envelopes of possibility fixed by their genes. These chains ensure that a birch tree can never be an oak or a zebra a lion. From the time a seed is planted, it merely reacts to its environment and the changes to that environment. It chooses nothing. In fact, there are no choices to be made.

But humans have free will, it is said. Humans have choices available, it is said. They can choose how they will behave. But I am no longer sure if this is true. Certainly each one of the seven+ billion humans can imagine violating what we understand to be the “natural laws” but not a single one can actually do so. I can imagine myself running faster than Usain Bolt, but it never does, and never will, come to pass. All the chains connecting me to my past are unbreakable. All my possible future states of being are anchored to my current state by another unbreakable chain. All human actions are constrained by

  1. the starting conditions,
  2. what a mind can envisage,
  3. what is physically possible, and
  4. the forces driving the action

Free will, if it exists, is involved in imagining the action and in providing the driving forces for action. Causal Determinism of course allows of no free will. All future events are determined by past events and so on ad infinitum. Some forms of philosophical determinism allow some freedom of choice within a narrow envelope of possible behaviours, though others suggest that the choice of actual behaviour made is, in fact, also predetermined.

I think we need to distinguish between thought and action even if thinking itself is an action. The exercise of free will requires an action. But thinking itself is constrained. Thinking about violating the laws of nature is clearly an act which does not, itself, violate the laws of nature. Thinking about travelling backwards in time itself moves forward in time. Moreover, thinking has its own unbreakable chains. I cannot think, for example, in a language I do not know. What I cannot imagine I cannot even think about. What I cannot imagine is what, to my mind, is unknowable. What is knowable for any mind is a consequence of its capacity, its speed of learning and its knowledge base (experience). Even our possible thoughts then are limited and thus a constraint on our subsequent actions (if any).

image STAR

Every single human is in fact condemned to a life sentence on a prison planet called Earth from which there is no escape. We are in fact prisoners of

  1. what we understand to be the natural laws,
  2. our genes,
  3. the surrounding environment,
  4. our experience, and
  5. our current state

These chains are not susceptible to being broken. Each one of us is so enmeshed in constraining chains that we have few, if any, real freedoms of action.

I am about to make myself a cup of coffee. That was probably determined long before I was born. But I have the illusion that it is a choice I am making freely.


 

 

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2 Responses to “The chains of freedom”

  1. vikrant singh Says:

    interesting thoughts here, i have had similar thoughts in the past, what we assume as freedom isn’t really freedom, it is just more free relative to being in prison, for eg. relativity comes into picture everywhere. I think we can define freedom as the amount of choices one can make , from the total available choices. so i have option to walk and run, but not to fly. if i am not handicapped i can walk and run, so i have complete freedom to do anything “that is possible”. but you can argue that even the decision i will take weather to walk or run is already decided, because neurons in the brain follow laws of nature, and that is where the “magic” happens. the real question is , can neurons disobey the laws of nature?

  2. excarcerated Says:

    interesting thoughts here, i have had similar thoughts in the past, what we assume as freedom isn’t really freedom, it is just more free relative to being in prison, for eg. relativity comes into picture everywhere. I think we can define freedom as the amount of choices one can make , from the total available choices. so i have option to walk and run, but not to fly. if i am not handicapped i can walk and run, so i have complete freedom to do anything “that is possible”. but you can argue that even the decision i will take weather to walk or run is already decided, because neurons in the brain follow laws of nature, and that is where the “magic” happens. the real question is , can neurons disobey the laws of nature?

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