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Science and Art on Human Freedom

2013/06/21 9 comments

The general tenor of the “free will” debate, both today and in days past, revolves around issues of determinism and causality: if our actions are entirely the result of physical, insensate matter, then it seems we cannot be said to make free choices. Since moral responsibility is further said to depend on just this ability to make free choices, quite a bit is at stake. To save freedom, we apparently need to posit some mysterious causal influence that is not physical, but instead stems from our will, conceived as a thing. Or we can renounce freedom. (Or we can find some tepid compatibilist position, as most philosophers do.) These seem to exhaust our options. Physics and neuroscience have, as it were, taken human freedom hostage.

Philosophically, there is much to quibble with in this picture. For instance, one could argue (and I would argue) that it is only a quite mistaken analysis of phrases like “I did X, but I could have acted differently” that can make moral responsibility depend upon the results of various scientific disciplines. (I say the analysis is mistaken in that it is untrue to our actual use of such phrases, which are not sensitive to the results of science in the relevant ways.) One might also wonder what it means to say the universe is deterministic. I think I know what it means for a scientific theory to be deterministic, but I am quite sure I have no idea what it means for the universe itself to be deterministic. And, in any case, I think it’s clear determinism isn’t the real issue. Fundamental physical theory is no longer deterministic, but that’s no great relief for anybody. Indeterministic theories may still account for behavior (of particles or people). What really drives the debate is the contention on one side (taken as threatening by the other) that scientific theories, deterministic or not, are sufficient to fully account for our behavior. (We might ask what it means to “fully account for” something, which seems suspiciously related to the suspicious notion of a “complete” theory, but carrying out this line of inquiry would distract me from my real goals.)

This seems to be the heart of the issue. Saving human freedom seems to require positing a special region of the universe not open to empirical study, and that is surely a losing battle. But even if it weren’t a losing battle, I think the battle is still lost. If there is supposed to be this special region is that there is some non-physical causal force, then we should start asking of this force: well, is it deterministic, or indeterministic, or random? None of the options seem friendly to freedom. If this battleground is where human freedom is to be saved, the battleground of the will as a causal force, then the battle seems lost from the outset.

Since I think the notion of human freedom is a rich notion worth saving, I face the question of where it should actually be located. In my previous post, on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, I spoke of Mabel Longhetti’s “freedom”, the flip side of which was her instability. I want to use that discussion as a jumping off point for exploring why I think art is especially apt to address questions of human freedom and to work out what this means about how we ought to relate to works of art.

In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel’s freedom lies in her relation to social conventions and clichés. Against them, she violates personal reaction bubbles, invites strangers to dance with her, and lets her daughter run naked around male children (I estimate the various kids’ ages as falling in the 8-12 range). Her violation of these norms—through a purity of ethical vision made possible only by her ignorance of the content of said norms—makes her seem crazy to others: Margaret, Dr. Zepp, etc. What is really going on, however, is that her freedom has an unhealthy side to it: she does not know how to live in a world where such norms are a driving force, and she is rendered unstable by it. That is why she breaks down when Dr. Zepp arrives to take her to the asylum: she is terrified and cannot handle herself.

Because this freedom has its unhealthy side, the natural question to ask is whether this same freedom is attainable in a healthful manner. Mabel’s freedom unsuits her for the actual world—must this sort of freedom always have this effect? And if it does, could we want freedom? (For what it’s worth, I think we could: Mabel’s position seems to me infinitely more desirable than Margaret’s.) What causes her instability is her inability to understand and respect (which does not mean obey) these norms. Her freedom makes no use of them, and they end up confronting her only as a mysterious and terrifying other.

The question whether healthy freedom is attainable thus becomes: can such norms be respected and understood without sacrificing freedom altogether? In the film, we see Nick (Mabel’s wife) struggling with just this. He respects these norms too much, is too concerned about his image and about how other people will misunderstand Mabel’s actions (which he claims, believably, to understand). This limits his freedom and poisons (non-lethally, though the threat is there) his relationship with Mabel. But Nick does have his moments of healthful freedom, namely when he is alone with Mabel. But they are only moments, and come, I wager, from his interactions with Mabel and not from himself. In the world of A Woman Under the Influence, then, such healthful freedom seems to be always under threat.

Looking outside of the film, I think we find in Nietzsche (a scathing critic of the notion of freedom of the will) and Emerson a model for such healthful freedom. In Emerson we find the person who can trope such conventions, twisting them to her own ends. Each such act of troping involves creative freedom that threatens to regress into cliché, and must itself be troped if it isn’t to become repressive. In Nietzsche, we are given the camel-lion-child progression: first one bears the heavy burden of established values, then one throws them off, and finally the child creates new values. Crucial to this is the first phase, in which such values are not only understood and respected, but obeyed. The lion phase undoes the obedience, but the understanding and respect remain, no longer yielding laws to be obeyed, but instead furnishing resources for the child’s re-valuation of all values. Read in an Emersonian light, these three metamorphoses no longer become distinct phases through which one passes, each stage superseding the last, but rather a cycle. Each revaluation threatens to become a load or burden of its own, which needs to be thrown off in its own right. Childhood passes right back into camelhood.

(Aside: I will not attempt here to argue that this is Nietzsche’s understanding of the three metamorphoses. I will note only that they are presented in part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Since the dramatic movement of that book significantly involves Zarathustra coming to reinterpret or revalue his early speeches and behavior, my interpretation is not ruled out by the presentation of the three metamorphoses as successive stages. Of course, close reading would be needed to establish that my interpretation is a viable one. I will also say, defensively I admit, that the value of such a cyclic conception of the three metamorphoses does not depend on it being found in Nietzsche.)

In Cassavetes, Nietzsche, and Emerson, we see an exploration of freedom as standing opposed, not to determinism, but to repression. Cassavetes is involved in the creation of scenarios that reveal the relevant differences between freedom and repression. Nietzsche and Emerson, for their part, create the concepts (circles, Over-soul, Genius, Übermensch, gay science, eternal recurrence, camel-lion-child, etc.) that allow us to recognize freedom and repression of this sort as they confront us. These are not scientific experiments and concepts, helpful in prediction and control of human behavior, but aesthetic experiments and philosophical concepts that allow us to go on in healthier ways.

I certainly do not mean to claim that, between them, Nietzsche, Emerson, and Cassavetes have exhausted the question of human freedom. I use them as examples because they show that there is an interesting notion of human freedom that has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of the will, where the opposition is not between freedom and causation but between freedom and repression. I also think they reveal a sense of freedom whose fate is not beholden to the results of science. Scientific questions are, by and large, irrelevant to the question of Mabel’s freedom and its pitfalls. Of course, scientific inquiry may here play a subservient role as handmaiden to the arts and the philosophies, but it too provides resources to be used much more than answers to the core questions.

I think this allows us to see art as, in one of its functions, as a form of serious inquiry. Of course, this is not its only function, but it is an important one, and one that should be taken seriously. David Foster Wallace once said that art is about locating and resuscitating the possibilities for being alive and human in dark times (if times are dark). This was a crucial task before the rise of modern science, and remains a crucial task after its rise. Of course, the rise of modern science changes the possibilities in all sorts of ways, and a responsible art will explore these ways and locate the new possibilities that have arisen and the old possibilities that have been closed off. Because the landscape of such possibilities is perpetually changing, the task itself is perpetual. If art, unlike science, does not progress, we may perhaps diagnose this difference as resulting not from the ineliminable subjectivity of art, but from the fact that, in the domain of art, unlike science, the truth changes over time.

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