Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Notes towards a definition of freedom

May 02nd, 2017 by Vader

A summary of my understanding of freedom and its problems, based in part on things I have long understood and in part on recent insights gained at this blog.

I will start by proposing a brief definition: Freedom is the ability to make meaningful and consequential choices.

I had originally intended to title this post What is liberty? On further research and reflection, I realized that the concept I have just defined comes closer to the dictionary definition of freedom than of liberty. The two concepts are closely related, but the former is more an empirical reality and the latter more a social and legal construct, deserving a separate post.

There are three elements to my definition of freedom. The first is ability to make choices. This presupposes that the humans have a free will, or what in LDS* religious language is called agency** (Moses 7:32). In philosophical terms, it means that the human will is a first cause, capable of initiating new causal chains.

I am aware of two important sources of skepticism of the human will as a first cause. The first is religious and probably occurred to most readers at once: Calvinistic predeterminism and its cousins. The argument is that God cannot be regarded as having the attributes imputed to Him in classical deism — omniscience and omnipotence — if there are any first causes in the Universe other than Himself. C.S. Lewis provided one solution to the problem of omniscience by suggesting that God exists in a timeless state in which He observes all first causes from the beginning, and noted that foreseeing all choices is not the same as predestinating all choices. It is observation versus design. This is closely related to the LDS concept of “all things present before His face” that is a favorite tag at this blog.

C.S. Lewis also suggested a solution to the problem of omnipotence, which is that the causal chains initiated by human persons were confined to a sphere of reality so miniscule that they are trivial compared with the remainder of Reality. This idea was developed in its most vivid form in The Great Divorce, in which Hell is an infinitesimal dust speck on the vestibule of a boundless Heaven. LDS readers may be tempted to see parallels to this in the Mormon doctrine that all intelligence is placed in its own sphere, in which it is free to act (D&C 93:30). However, I do not think the concepts are identical, for reasons I will discuss later, and so I am constrained instead to reject the classical definition of omnipotence. The third key attribute of God in classical deism is perfect benevolence, and I regard this is a more essential quality of God, in a specific sense: God wills to forgo exercising His power over a carefully circumscribed sphere of His Creation, when doing so is benevolent to His children. He carries this even to the point of letting the evil causal chains they initiate find their end in Himself. This is closely tied to the concept of Atonement and I will discuss this further later.

The other source of skepticism regarding free will is radical atheism, which regards consciousness as an illusion and the actions of the human mind as predetermined by its fundamental physics. The problem of quantum mechanics, with its fundamental uncertainty and emphasis on the observer, is got round by suggesting that quantum mechanics merely injects an element of randomness into human choices, predictable in a statistical sense. There are other problems with this view that I will discuss later.

Other objections to the notion that the human mind has actual ability to make choices include the observation that men have been compelled to act against their desires through (for example) torture. I suggest instead that the extreme resistance some persons put up even to excruciating torture is actually an indication of how fundamental the power of choice is. Another objection to free will is the case of mental illness, where the mind is disabled and presumably hindered in its capacity to make choices. I suggest that even most of the mentally ill have real power of choice, albeit within a different sphere (in the LDS theological sense) than the mentally well. For those who are entirely mentally disabled, including those who do not survive infancy, I cheerfully plead ignorance of all of God’s purposes.

The second element of my definition of freedom is that the choices are meaningful. By this I mean that the person making the choice can discern significant differences between his options and rationally weigh the alternatives. By this definition, much of the “freedom” we prize is not actually very important. There is not much difference between Crest and Colgate toothpastes; being allowed to choose one or the other is not actually very meaningful, except perhaps in the aggregate as a market indicator. I am concerned here with individual freedom, not free markets (though I acknowledge significant overlap.)

Likewise, I suggest that the ability to choose from which of the trees of the garden to eat did not represent significant freedom on the part of Adam and Eve. It was the specific ability to choose to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or not, that was a significant freedom. Knowledge of good and evil is itself a prerequisite to meaningful choice; I find it noteworthy that Mormon scripture is ambiguous on whether Adam and Eve had real agency before partaking of the forbidden fruit, and LDS theological thinking is close to consensus that partaking of the fruit was a technical transgression rather than an actual sin.  (The matter of the exercise of agency in premortal life, whether to join Lucifer’s rebellion against Christ or resist it, is a separate issue; LDS scripture is clear that a veil was placed over the minds of Adam and Eve to give them a clean slate, so to speak, in the Garden.)

This brings us to another aspect of meaningfulness, which is that the person must have enough knowledge to discern a difference between his choices. This means that small children or other persons of limited mental capacity also have inherently limited freedom. It is the justification for allowing competent adults to exercise custody over such persons, even though freedom itself is normally regarded as a sacred capacity, not to be infringed.

The third element of my definition of freedom is that choices be consequential. This overlaps considerably with choices being meaningful, but is not quite the same.

The choice here is consequential; being damned is a very big deal. It is not, however, meaningful.

This is the flaw, I think with C.S. Lewis’ Hell-as-dust-speck theory. It tries to make choices inconsequential, from a divine perspective, but does not really succeed. Perhaps an infinitesimal volume of the Universe is tied to evil, but that volume includes a great many children of God.

This further implies that causal chains arising from our choices do not simply die out at some point. This would render the choices inconsequential, and is one of the problems with radical atheism, which I think cannot avoid the problem of nihilism. One must accept instead a Judgement that is eternal in scope. It also means that, while human wills may be confined to act within a particular limited sphere in this world, that sphere cannot be inconsequential. I suggest that evil causal chains end with God Himself, in the person of the Son, who captures those causal chains before they escape from their sphere, through the power of the Atonement. I believe G. has already suggested something like this at this blog.

With this working definition of freedom, and (I anticipate) interesting and insightful comments from readers, I will next post on why freedom is desirable and how it is established and maintained.

Part 2 may be found here.

*For new visitors to this blog: LDS is an abbreviation for Latter-day Saint and refers to the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormonism.

** Agency is a central LDS theological principle. Free agency is a term of art in sports contract law. I offer this clarification for the benefit of LDS readers who may have heard the term free agency misused in Church lessons and discussions.

Comments (4)
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May 02nd, 2017 13:19:13

May 2, 2017


I don’t think the littleness of Hell in the Great Divorce was meant as an apology for Divine Omnipotence. But that is a side issue.

May 2, 2017

Bruce C. wrote on what are the prerequisites of meaning a bit ago:

A meaning for life – what are the pre-requisites?

You and I have been thinking along similar lines, though I have never written anything as systematic as this. Still, for those who like this sort of thing, here are some links that should be just the sort of thing they like:

How Can Anything Be Meaningful?

No Repentance without Punishment

The Lion and the Robin

If you are some kind of glutton for this stuff, there is a whole tag for it:

Responsibility and Meaning

Terry Pratchett
May 3, 2017

“A choice nevertheless, or perhaps an alternative. You see I believe in freedom. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.”

Bruce Charlton
May 3, 2017

TP’s comment shows that the word freedom has become difficult to use coherently nowadays – because many people (in everyday conversation) would insist precisely on freedom *from* consequences as being a completion of the concept of freedom. (Otherwise the freedom is being constrained, or pressured – and not ‘really’ free.) Of course I agree with the intent of the TP quote, but this business is a good example of deliberate confusions having been seeded into public discourse…

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