Friday, July 12, 2013

Self-realization and freedom.

One of most popular posts I ever wrote was on the subject of determinism and freedom so I decided to expand the theme to cover self-realization and self-determinism (I use the two terms interchangeably).  

Common sense holds freedom to be the free exercise of choice unrestricted by obstacles and that this decision making process is not determined by any outside factors. This freedom to decide our own faith is a principle characteristic which distinguishes us humans from other animals.  Self-realization is the fulfillment of our immanent potential; that hopeful expectation that salvation will someday occur in the prophesied special person or opportunity that will finally allow us to step forward and become the person we were truly meant to be.  The promise of potential is a form of secular salvation, a faith in a better world which might yet exist if we obey the moral code of our capitalists leaders. 

Self-realization claims three main premises. First that things and persons contain natures which are structures 
independent of whether they are known or not.  Character profiling is an example of this claim. Our character is a structure which can, at least in theory, be known and understood. Secondly these structures are governed by universal and unalterable laws. Thirdly, these laws are knowable and this knowledge will guide men towards adapting policies for success.  Book shops are wall-to-wall filled with self-help books promising to reveal the knowledge and steps we must take to realize our potential, all in ten easy steps.  

Freedom in this sense is the exercise of my nature free of obstacles which prevent my self-realization.  These obstacles may be internal and psychological such as negative thoughts,  poor body image, sin, vices or false believes about the nature of the world.  Or they may be external like limited opportunity, lack of financial funds, a repressive social environment etc.  Popular culture has emphasized the power of positive thinking, that our future success lies within our power and only negative thoughts hold us back from becoming who we truly want to be. In certain extreme forms this doctrine can claim all external factors are irrelevant, that power and success lies in everyones' grasp. 

The classical philosophical position of self-determinism is quite different from the understanding held by our popular culture. To repeat myself self-determinism (or self-realization) holds that human character can be known and the universe obeys universal laws. A rational man would seek to uncover and understand these rational laws because under self-determinism we are free if our behavior is driven from conscious motives of which we are aware, if intentions and  purposes are a necessary condition to performing the action.  Without mindful intent, actions are the mechanical result of causal natural laws. The more conscious we are  in determining our own conduct the greater our  freedom. Lack of freedom is therefore being determined by external causes whether physical or psychological. 

It's worth point out that choice is considered a deficiency of knowledge.  The rational man having discovered the correct answer, the Truth, cannot but live in accordance with it.  He who understands everything cannot wish it to be otherwise because the universe is in rational order.  This is the belief of a long and distinguished line of philosophers ranging from Chrysippus and Cicero to Aquinas, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Schopenhauer, Russel and numerous modern psychologists.

Critics of this position point out that this merely pushes the question back one step because are not our choices, our state of mind, not also determined by natural causes?  But supporters of self-determinism are happy to bite this bullet. All that matters, they argue, is human agency is a necessary condition of our own conscious choice; that this is the best we can expect in an universe obeying rational laws. At stake then is not free will, but the entire notion of responsibility.

The Stoics were the first to face this dilemma which did not overly trouble Aristotle or Plato.  Men could not be held responsible as long as men were conceived as helpless and acted upon by outside forces. But if among the facts that determined behavior was a rational evaluation of the possible choices and this was a necessary condition, then men were free. 

This is at best a half solution: if operations of will were a necessary condition, but were themselves determined in a causal character then the notion of responsibility remains inapplicable. 


An alternative argument is that character is not a structure that can be known, but a pattern of choices built up over time. Action is choice, choice is free commitment because it is always possible to know and examine our motive.  This is quite different school of thought is held by romantics and most notably existentialists. 

Our popular, common sense notion of self-realization mangles these two competing schools of thought. It accepts the premise of universal laws and of knowable characters as evidenced by the shelves of self-help books claiming to describe these laws but it treats choice as an intrinsic good rather than a lack of knowledge and freedom as the unrestricted ability to make choices rather than the freedom from obstacles which prevent self-realization. 

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