The Threat Of Freedom And The Forgotten Value Of Being Powerless

“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” — Martin Luther

Newsflash: sometimes, I can’t get what I want.

Let’s envision getting what I want as a two-step process:

1) Discover what the cause-effect relationships that govern reality are.

2) Figure out how set the right cause-effect relationships in motion.

At step one, I can’t attain my objectives due to a lack of knowledge. If I don’t understand how reality works, I can’t identify what it is that I need to do to reach my goals. If I set out to build a house, then I need to comprehend something about gravity to make an adequate design.

At step two, I can’t reach my goals because I’m incapable of executing the tasks that need to be done. I might know what is required, but lack the skills to successfully perform the necessary actions. Although I understand gravity, I am not able to build a spaceship (or a house, for that matter).

The solution?


All hail science

At step one, science fills knowledge gaps: it finds out how reality functions so that I can recognize how to manipulate it to get what I want. Thanks to such knowledge, for example, we now know that praying for health is not super effective and that vaccinating is a better way to avoid sickness.

At step two, science frees us from technological obstacles: it designs appliances that allow me to manipulate reality in the way that fulfilling my intention requires. These days, if I would like to cross the ocean by boat, I am no longer at the mercy of weather gods but can always turn on the engine.

Science brings the world under our control: we can do more than ever.

Science, therefore, liberates us.

Empowerment = freedom..?

The inference that science increases freedom builds on a specific idea about human freedom. On this view, human beings are free when they can get what they want.

Thanks to science, both our capability to discern the cause-effect relationships that underlie reality and our capability to influence these relationships is increasing. Our environment no longer consists of inscrutable developments — Getting sick? The Gods must be angry — but of processes that we can understand. Consequentially, we have more power than ever to ensure that reality unfolds as we want it to.

Sciences frees us, because it improves our ability to get what we want.

Our bodies are just objects

“We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you’.” –Leon Trotsky, Sochineniia (1925)

For science, the human body is just like other objects that the universe houses: simply something we can influence to get what we want — something that we can manipulate to reach our goals.

In that spirit, science seeks to unravel how our machines work. Once that project is complete, we will be able to change our physical bodies in accordance with our heart’s desire.

We will no longer be forced to take our corporal characteristics for granted: nose size, voice sound, skin color — all those personal aspects will be something we can choose for.

Once we know how our bodies work, we can treat them like we treat our cars: keep the parts we’re pleased with, and replace or repair the components that we would like to be different.

Thanks to science, our physique will be completely malleable. This is liberating, because it increases our ability to get what we want. There will be nothing about the human body which must be taken as a given.

Next step: our brains.

Disenchanting the human mind

Science treats human beings as a part of the natural world; it tells us how we work.

Once we know how we work, we can develop technologies of self-transformation: ways of making our bodies and our minds more pleasing to ourselves.

After all, our brains determine how our minds work. Therefore, if we control our brains, we control our minds.

Once we understand the neurological basis of desire, we can manipulate its causes in the brain: a science of the mind yields a technology of the mind.

That would allow us to change what we want in the first place. If we cannot get what we want, we can simply change some chemical stuff — change the secretion of these or those neurotransmitters or whatever — thereby changing our desires and freeing ourselves from this unattainable need that we were so silly to harbor.

This is not some far-fetched, futuristic fantasy.

To give one present-day example: anti-depressants such as Prozac influence the level of serotonin in our brain. This affects all sorts of emotions, reactions and attitudes. By taking it, people can deal with, for example, their low self-esteem or their desire to remain with abusive partners not by satisfying it, but by destroying it.

Such desires need no longer be taken as a given: we can simply decide not to have them.

What a wonderful illustration of the liberating power of science! Surely psychiatric drugs can free us from unwanted mental states just as the discovery of penicillin once liberated us from the terror of tuberculosis?

Choice overload

“I believe that much of the distinctive value of the natural world and of things related to it, depends on their relative imperviousness to rational control.” — Stephen Darwall

There’s one small problem.

Instead of contributing to a better life, this newly won freedom might remove the meaning from it.

The philosopher David Owens writes:

“Science invites us to exercise control over our lives by finding out what we want, working out how to get it and then acting accordingly. But now we are being told that we shouldn’t take our desires as given, that we can act to change them as well. But if we change what we want, what basis is left for choice or decision?

Think about this question for a minute.

When the technology of the mind is complete and we can alter our desires as we like, how shall we judge what to value in life?

After all, when the science of our brains is complete, we could control which desires, needs and wants we have to begin with it.

What seemed like an expansion of self-control, threatens to rob us from any grounds for making a choice. Without unchosen desires, when we don’t need to take any value judgment as given, what is left as a basis for deciding how to live and what to do?

Here’s Owens again:

“If man is just a bag of chemicals, once we know what these chemicals are, we can re-mix them at will. And by re-mixing them at will we can give ourselves whatever character we like. But if we can choose a character at random, our current needs and interests lose their authority as grounds for taking any decision. And what other grounds for taking decisions are there?”

My choice

That I — deep inside — harbor a bundle of personality traits, needs, desires and values which we cannot willingly alter makes my decisions meaningful as my decisions.

Too much control that personal aspect from our decisions.

It seems that the ability to make a meaningful choice — a choice that is distinctively mine — requires that this choice is subject to some constraints which I cannot influence. This unchosen core is me, and without such an unchosen base there could be no decision being made by me at all.

The very possibility of personal choice requires that there are unchosen restrictions on this choice.

These unchosen aspects of me make me uniquely me.

And, perhaps contrary to the narrative of science as the big liberator, there is nothing regrettable about finding oneself, in the ultimate analysis, left with a fundamental core against which one is powerless.

Without such a constitutive essence, the rationale for categorizing life’s most important choices as my personal choices evaporates.

We’ll all be every-one — we’ll all be no-one.