The Question of Freedom

The Question Of Freedom by Tom Last

The Philosophy of Freedom begins with the question:

(1-0“Is a human being in their thinking and acting, a spiritually free being, or are they compelled by the necessity of natural lawfulness?”

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the wisest figures of history have sought deeper truth into the mystery of the human being. The question of free will has been one of the great debates concerning the human being for over two millennia with just about every major philosopher having something to say about it. Earlier in history it was generally assumed that everything about someone was ultimately determined by unchangeable fate which could be foretold by astrology or other forms of divination. This was opposed by the foundational idea of Christianity and other religions that we possess some level of free will in order to make a choice between doing good or not.

In the mid-1600s philosophers asserted that our minds operate according to definite mechanisms and therefore cannot express free will. Then it was claimed at least parts of our minds are free. With the increasing success of science in the 1800s it came to be widely believed that there must be definite natural laws for all human actions - providing a foundation for the development of psychology and the social sciences. Notions of free will are considered naïve.

Scientists have found it increasingly difficult to locate a place within a human being from which freedom could originate. In the first half of the 20th century cognitive science, the study of mind, began to avoid the study of abstract mental things like “thoughts” and “ideas” and focus on measurable stimuli and responses. Brain imaging has come into use linking behavior with brain function. Today’s discoveries in human genetics indicate behavioral tendencies and personality traits are inherited.

Being Free Seems Like Our Natural State
While scientific evidence continues to build a strong case against free will even the scientists themselves go about every day life with an assumption of some kind of freedom. In our normal existence it seems quite natural to say we are completely free to think out what we want to do and then free, at least some of the time, to do it. We don’t normally question this traditional belief but take it for granted. It is implied in many of the things we say, many of the attitudes we take, and many of the things we do. For example, this evening you may have a choice of activity. Catch up with some house work, plan an upcoming birthday party, or just have some fun by going out with a friend to see a movie. You decide to go to a movie. You assume this to be a choice freely made. You could have chosen differently, right? If your friend assures you a 7PM pickup and they arrive at 8PM you may become upset and hold them responsible for being late. This is based on your belief that your friend has free will and control of their actions. They could be on time if they wanted to.

The common view is “yes, human beings have free will”. My pinky wiggles as a consequence of my intention to wiggle it. I will myself to do something and I do it. This theory is very simple and seems perfectly reasonable. It assumes we have control over our thoughts, actions, and destiny.

No one doubts that we use our will to do this or that. The question is whether the will is free or not. Most of us can point to moments when our willing was not free. Perhaps we reacted with some harsh words which we later regretted or find life dictated by duty rather than the creative expression of love. Opponents of free will point to factors that hinder the possibility of freedom or remove it all together such as physical/causal, biological, psychological, or theological influences. These factors may lie hidden and deny our freedom without us even being aware of it.

The superficial thought of today avoids the complexities inherent in those two short words, “free will”. Others are convinced that if we probe far enough into the heart of our being there dwells something noble, something worthy of development. For them the importance of this question is something that can be deeply felt.

”And one may well feel that if the soul has not at some time found itself faced in utmost seriousness by the problem of free will or necessity it will not have reached its full stature.” Rudolf Steiner, in the Preface to The Philosophy of Freedom

Scientific Determinism Views Human Action As Compelled
Freedom requires an inner conquest of those things outside ourself that would determine us. Chapter one of The Philosophy of Freedom describes many common meanings of being free and asks us to question these concepts of freedom through introspective observation. Is it freedom or does a hidden element compel our action? Can we become conscious of these hidden factors that may be determining our activity? By gaining knowledge of them do they loose their hold over us?

In the study of the human being this hidden element may be called a determinant. A determinant is something that restricts freedom by being the cause that determines the outcome. Heat is a significant determinant in forcing water to boil. One who views all things, including human actions, as resulting solely and exclusively from outside factors or determinants is known as a "Determinist." A Determinist views human activity as compelled by unique and complex determinants such as genes, upbringing, culture, current situation, unconscious activity, past experience etc. Their understanding of the human being is that each of our thoughts, feelings, and decisions are compelled by the necessity of determinants. Any feeling of freedom is an illusion; the result of being unconscious of the myriad of determinants.

At a younger age determinants play a significant role in our development. The nature versus nurture debate is over which determinants have more influence in our upbringing. The automatic behavior (following natural urges and instincts) and learned obedient behavior (conforming to established standards) are necessary stages of growth, but at some point they must be overcome by the free spirit. We are the only ones who can add the finishing touches toward our development as a free human being.

Spiritual Activity Arises From The Individual Spirit
The position taken on the question of freedom may depend on what one means by the word “free”. More than 200 meanings of the word have been distinguished by those who have worked with the question of freedom. Rudolf Steiner preferred the term “spiritual activity”. He wrote The Philosophy of Freedom in German and entitled it Die Philosophie der Freiheit. Steiner was not satisfied with the English word freedom as an adequate translation of the meaning conveyed by the German word Freiheit. He views freedom as the creative expression of spiritual activity that arises from the individual spirit. In a lecture he gave at Oxford in 1922, he said,

“Therefore today we need above all a view of the world based on Freiheit — one can use this word in German, but here in England one must put it differently because the word ‘freedom’ has a different meaning — one must say a view of the world based on spiritual activity, on action, on thinking and feeling that arise from the individual human spirit.” Rudolf Steiner, Wilson introduction to POF

Steiner recommended the term “spiritual activity” be used rather than freedom in English translations as he thought it more closely pointed to what he meant. This is why the book can also be found under the title The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. English translators Hermann Poppelbaum, William Lindeman, and Rita Stebbing used this title. The popular Michael Wilson translation is entitled The Philosophy of Freedom as he thought the meaning of spiritual activity would be wrongly understood by the prospective reader.

The modern translator Michael Lipson recognized that the book represents a unique focus from among all the other spiritual movements of our time. That focus is the further development of today’s ordinary thinking to a more conscious level of pure spiritual activity –intuitive thinking-. The thinking is freed from physical and environmental influence through the practice of the more active thinking required for the reading of the book. This inspired the contemporary sounding Lipson translation is be entitled Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path.

The intensification of thinking produced by the study of The Philosophy of Freedomand the somewhat mysterious sequential order of thoughts in the book leads the reader to a place where our intuitions school us anew each time we read a section of the text. Being immersed within the thoughts, struggling to clearly comprehend what is written, our thinking is activated to where our own intuition becomes our tutor. A power flows through the activity of thinking itself. In this sense our intuitive thinking becomes our individual spiritual path. The saying “Each one of us must choose his hero in whose footsteps he toils up to Olympus” no longer holds for us.

Shocked Out of Complacency
The issue of what to title the book came about because of a concern that many people have a misunderstanding as to what freedom is. If freedom just means being able to decide and do, our first impression is that we already have that capability. But without a deeper introspective look we cannot be sure if the “decider” is really us or one of the many determinants. If it is you then your activity is spiritual activity, action, thinking and feeling that arise from your individual human spirit. You act creatively, out of love for the deed. This is not an inherited natural state but one that can be developed. In the Wilson translation of The philosophy of Freedom it says that Steiner,

“expressed the view that English people believed that they already possessed freedom, and that they needed to be shocked out of their complacency and made to realize that the freedom he meant had to be attained by hard work.”

Is it possible to attain to spiritual activity if we do not know what it is? Is it possible to possess a view of the world based upon spiritual activity if we do not know whether we participate in it or not? Yet the greatest threat, especially in America, could be a satisfaction with ourselves, a sense that we already have a good life in the land of the free. Goethe wisely warns us:

“None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.”