Monday, April 28, 2014

Will the truth set us free?

"And ye shall know the truth,  and the truth shall make you free." - St John.
 “Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery” - Miles Davis. 

The claim that truth shall set us free has deep roots in Western history. The soil was planted by Aristotle, cultivated by Stoicism, harvested by Christianity and consumed by the rationalists, both historical and modern.  But is this really so? Will the truth truly set us free? And free us from what?

Freedom, in this traditional sense, refers to self-realization through an individuals own actions free from external and internal obstacles, to fulfill our innate nature and realize our potential. Self-realization may be achieved through freedom from harmful sin or through correcting faulty judgments over the true nature of the world or in overcoming obsolete evolutionary instincts or in conquering irrational fears. The solutions are numerous but all point towards a single end: self-realization.

Although I've no wish to wade into the four century long debate on free will whose stormy waters are once again crashing against our intellectual shores, the question is central to this inquiry. The conception of human free will that must be defended is the Stoic doctrine of self-determination.

Under this doctrine we are only free when our actions are rationally and purposely driven by motives intended to fulfill purposes of which we are conscious; we are not free when our actions are driven by irrational and unconscious psychological or physiological conditions over which we have no control. A rational action is one which can be explained through logical rules and principles, motives and reasons. Opponents of this view, and there are many, argue self-determination is at best half-slavery for our decisions, whether rational or irrational, may be causally determined by outside factors; an argument Stoics were happy to accept. All we can reasonably expect, they answered, was that our characters and our rational facilities should be among the factors influencing behavior.

The freedom offered by tradition of Stoicism, Christianity and even rationalism is very limited. It is the freedom from a life of regret as a truly rational man recognizes his life as bound by laws beyond his control; that he can no more regret his decisions than he can blame a floor for hurting him when he fell. It is freedom from a life of endless searching for meaning and the freedom from chasing false pleasures which do not satisfy his innate yearning. It is freedom of a tranquil and contented mind from passionate emotions. It is freedom through the removal of internal obstacles which prevent the fulfillment of our potential as individual human beings.

But this conception of freedom, while highly worthwhile, is hardly emancipatory. For it also beseeches us to accept the world as it actually is, to alter our desires and will towards unalterable truth, to abandon untenable dreams as idle fantasies, to surrender our hope for a better life on earth in exchange for spiritual or psychological peace. It is the slave learning to accept his chains by surrendering his desire for freedom and claiming to be freer than his master for he has reconciled himself to his fate. It is the rational man shaping his life around habits and routines to realize goals that exist as distant points on the horizon. It is the priest struggling to resist his fallen nature and uphold an unlivable code.

Will the truth set us free? In the tradition under discussion, truth reveals our innate purpose whether as creatures of God or of Nature with a vocation and purpose, or as an individual with innate abilities whose realization create meaning and happiness in our lives. Knowledge by uncovering little recognized and therefore uncontrolled forces that affect our conduct, emancipates us from their despotic force because once uncovered we can seek to direct them or resist them or create conditions in which they will be channeled into harmless channels or turned to use for the fulfillment of our purposes.

But the truth may ultimately destroy even the limited freedom of self-determination by revealing a world determined by natural laws which we are helpless to resist and are yet forced to struggle against for the majority of our lives. A growth in knowledge may likewise conclusively reveal human nature as a false construct, that we have no innate nature or self-hood to realize, that our goals are just temporary whims, that life has no inherent purpose or meaning, that humans lack even the limited freedom to accept these truths and are cursed to live a life of discontented absurdity. In this case truth does not set us free; truth leaves everything untouched. Except perhaps our irrational dreams.
"But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams." - William Butler Yeats.
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