To be completely free, we could simply say, is to be able to act however we wish,without any constraints blocking our ability to act and think in accordance with our volition.
Taking this as ultimate, pure freedom, we must ask what exactly stops ultimate freedom from being ours.
The first thing which we must accept is that ideas about the world are not truths about the world. Ideas can be true, but they are not natural. We create ideas ourselves. We create them out of the previously nebulous sense data which the world gives us. We then compose them into complex bodies which we call ideas. But there is nothing which we can physically call an idea, it is something which exists in our minds, and in which we share.
In Sartre’s Nausea, he says
“I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved. These are reasonable hypotheses which take facts into account: but I am only too aware that they come from me, that they are simply a way of unifying my own knowledge”.
What he does here is demonstrate that our ideas are contingent on what we pick up in the world. Any meaning we have in life is contingent on our ideas, which are in turn arbitrary and meaningless, in so far as they are only relevant to us at this present time.
We live through ideas. We have ideas of what is right. We have ideas of how much sugar we should have in our diets. We have ideas of what times shops open and close. But these ideas are not aspects of the world, they are beliefs about aspects of the world, we simply choose to live through through them.
We are limited by what there is in the world. We can only pick up things which exist, push things which are in front of us, taste things we can put in our mouths.
By believing in ideas, we ‘naturalize’ them. I mean by this that we make our ideas into solid truths about the world, whether they are true or not. We may believe that ‘killing is wrong’, and in doing so, our belief limits us from ever acting out a murder. Many ideas are desirable to be believed in, such as this. It doesn’t mean it is true or false, but I think we would all rather ‘murder is wrong’ was regarded as true.
We go to school, and later we send our children to school. We are all taught ideas when we are at school. Now, I have no sympathy for the idea that schools conspire to teach our children untruths. I believe that schools teach our children shared ideas. Even if our ideas are in fact arbitrary, it makes sense that on a functional level, we all share in the same arbitrary ideas, or else life would be messy, and nothing would be achieved.
However, as we get older, we may realise that these ideas are in fact arbitrary ideas which we conform to. And these ideas, whenever we live through them, which is whenever we believe them, limit us to the extent of their presence in the world. Therefore our freedom is limited to the extent of the freedom our shared ideas permit us.
Another way life is made meaningful is in how we attach ourselves to the world. We fall in love, and attach ourselves to loved ones, to friends, to family. If we have no attachments to the world, we have nothing to couple us to the world we inhabit.
Some of us choose to enact projects, such as writing a book, or watching a film. at the end of writing a book, our anchorage to the world has evaporated. Similarly, when the film ends, we are detached from it, just as we are detached from a train when we reach our destination.
The Hindus foresaw this problem a long time ago, giving us the concept of Maya. They believe, for example, that
The manifold of experience is incomplete, and we are unable to unify it
That which is real must be exempt from change, and nothing empirical seems to be exempt from change. (full article here)
Maya is the belief that the real world, as we believe it to be, is an illusion. It is an illusion because when we comprehend, or try to make sense of the world, or even merely live in it, we are living through concepts and ideology, not pure reality.
[Maya is understood as] the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that the phenomenal world is real… Maya is reflected on the individual level by human ignorance. (Encyclopedia Britannica, link here).
How is it, exactly, that we assume such contingent, arbitrary ideas as part of our worldview, despite them being meaningless? Or to put it another way-
How do ideas subsume us?
Quite simply, when we regard an idea as a concrete fact about the world, like an object, we regard it as real, and hence assume it as true in nature in the same way as objects are true in and of themselves.
We do not immediately understand objects to the degree that they become part of our working knowledge. In the same way, we do not learn a new world once and then find ourselves able to use it comfortable. It takes repeated exposure to an object, word, or idea. Once we have been exposed to it sufficiently, in a suitable number of conditions, it moves from the conscious mind into our unconscious mind. It is much like learning to drive a car, to begin with, driving takes up all of our concentration, but once we have driven enough, we drive with so little effort that we can find ourselves arriving at a destination without even remembering getting there!
Colin Wilson famously discussed this, referencing the ideas of G I Gurdjieff. He says that we live as if we have a robot part and a human part. The robot part of us carries on our mechanical every day tasks. These are the things we have learned to do and believe so well that we do these things without being conscious of them. In much the same way, the robot part of us has also assumed the ideas we live through. (from a discussion found here)
When we are conscious of things, we take over from the robot, and when we make decisions, and live truly freely, we take over from the robot. However, the longer we live, the more the robot assumes, and the more we must fight it.
If we take Camus’ book The Stranger/The Outsider, we see the protagonist (Merseault) living life rather robotically, sparing little thought into life. At the end, however, he looks back and declares, in the face of his death, that he realises he had been happy all this time, whilst accepting the arbitrary nature of our world of ideas.-
I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realised that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy.
This was his conscious mind taking over from the robot.
Colin Wilson certainly believed that many people felt most alive when they are in the face of danger. Why? Because this is when we most strongly take over from the robot. (Click here for a short video of Wilson discussing Camus).
In light of this, we must realise that freedom must partly be found in refusing to accept the ideas of the world as true. If our arbitrary ideas of the world limit our freedom, we must learn to break free from them. Camus is famous for saying that
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
Knowing the true nature of the world, we can rebel and be free, like Albert Camus tells us. We can form our own ideas, we can choose what we want to anchor us to the world.
It is true, however, that we are limited by what there is in the world, and by what is missing from the world.
It is also true that whilst we can choose to be free and rebel, we still want to fit in. I can see no reason why many people wish to rebel against most social norms- ideas of decency, for example. These produce and maintain a social harmony. If we transgress the mores of society, we find ourselves excluded, or even incarcerated.
Freedom, in realistic terms, and on this model, is founded on two premises-
- How much you are free to act within the world of objects and shared ideas
- How far you are willing to break away from what is accepted as true, and how far you are willing to accept the consequences of your actions
We see, then, that our freedom in the world is bound by what we believe the world to be, how much we choose be accept it, and how far we choose to move outside of it. However, there is a second world of freedom within our mind. When life constrains you, and you cannot rebel, you can be reassured in the fact that life is absurd. sometimes simply knowing is the greatest freedom.