Free Will?

In my Honors course we’re reading Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, one of my favorite books.  It raises questions about the nature of freedom and life in the modern world, essentially arguing that the enlightenment goal of human liberation is far more difficult to achieve than the enlightenment philosophers believed.

The problem comes from the fact humans are, by nature, not completely discrete separate individuals.   Humans have individual identity, but also rely on “primary bonds” connecting the individual to both nature and community.    How we think, our psychological well being, and our sense of security of self relies on these bonds.   Up until the time of the enlightenment this was not problematic.  Humans lived with, relied on and were connected to both nature and community.

Enlightenment thinkers, however, took as their mission human liberation.  Humans have been tied down by religion, tradition, irrational cultural norms and wealthy leaders for too long, they argued.  Humans should be free to use reason and rational thought to make their own choices, freely acting in the world, responsible for the lives they lead.   In theory this sounds great, but human liberation in these terms also meant destroying the bonds of community and nature that are so important in providing meaning to human life.

Simply, the enlightenment’s quest for liberation over simplified the task by thinking all that was necessary was to break free of constraints on liberty.  They didn’t recognize the psychological impact of that move, and how breaking these bonds actually creates real hardship for individuals.    Yet Fromm and others from the Frankfurt school don’t want to reject the enlightenment project.  Human liberation is still the goal.  But “freedom from constraint” is not enough to achieve it.   Unless we can find a way to replace or compensate for the loss of those bonds (nature and community), the psychological cost of “freedom from constraint” is so high that it often creates negative personal and social consequences.   Fromm’s focus was the rise of Nazism, as the fascists provided an apparent answer to those psychological dilemmas — ultimately a false answer.

I’ve already discussed how identity is not just individual, but also a social construct.   This leads to at least three problems associated with the nature of modern freedom.

First, our actions, driven by subconscious drives spurred by the alienation and anxiety caused by having our bonds with nature and community broken, create a system that in some ways is above us, a new kind of God.   We conform to the system, and what gets defined as normal and acceptable gets taken as natural and true; we lose our critical insight, we think that the world as we experience — our “common sense” — is valid.   Other ideas (or cultures) are thus strange and bizarre.  As with hypnosis society’s suggestions can form the way we think, what our preferences are, and even our core values.   We think we are free rational choosing individuals, but can become (in varying degrees) conforming automatons, programmed by a society created by those who came before us.

Second, we construct our own “magic helpers” as Fromm calls them, to place our faith in and to find meaning from.   This doesn’t have to be a religion, but can be an ideology or principle.   If you use an abstract set of principles or an ideology to make decisions and determine life’s meaning, you’ve counteracted the impact of freedom by creating a new “truth/God” to adhere to.   Unlike the original bonds of nature and community, this truth is abstract and subjective (even if one thinks the principles are universal and objective).   It can lead to extremes, and exert itself as an authoritarian personality.   My principle is right, all others should adhere to it or they are wrong, and thus need to be stopped!   I will follow my party, leader, nation, religion, or whatever authority I now hold high, wherever it leads!  This is the core cause of fascism, as well as religious and ideological extremism.

Finally, we are easily manipulated by those who possess wealth and power to think a certain way.  Just as the system’s “common sense” can program us, marketers, political leaders, media outlets and others can actively construct a world view.   For instance, Fox viewers in a recent poll are twice as likely as others to fear Sharia law.  Now, there is absolutely no threat that sharia law could be imposed in the US for a variety of reasons.  But over 40% of Fox viewers fear it because that media outlet has people on who paint it as a real threat.    That statistic alone shows how powerful the media can be in shaping opinions!   The manipulation is often subtle.  Most marketing is NOT directed at affecting your rational choice — giving information to help you decide what to buy.   Rather, the goal is to tug at your emotions and get you to feel a certain way.  When you drive buy McDonalds with your family the emotions generated by the feel good family commercials for McDonalds, hardly mentioning the food at all, can create a certain “will” to choose to eat there with the family.    They know that, marketers admit that is what they go for, and yet most people believe their choices to be rational and objective.

The solution — re-establish bonds with nature and with community (others) — seems simple enough.  Indeed the rise of social media seems to come from that desire to have community.   But the bonds need to be positive (they help us have security and a sense of wholeness) rather than negative (driven by anxiety and insecurity).   That’s what is difficult.   The modern world can be cold and isolating, our consumer culture defines value in material terms, and success by the money you make and the products you own.    With unnatural and even manipulative bonds being offered (such as ‘branding’ – identifying with a brand name) it’s easy to get lost in a culture in which the freedom to define yourself is a herculean task.

In my next post, I want to address possibilities along those lines.   We can’t go back to pre-modern communal structures and cultural authority.  Indeed, I would not want to go back there.   I am an individualist, I want to be liberated, not manipulated or forced to follow traditional cultural norms.  Yet I am a human, and as John Donne noted, “no man is an island.”   I am not fully human if disconnected form nature or others around me.   The key both for individual peace of mind as well as for having a stable society is to find a way to have healthy “natural” bonds replace those destroyed by modernism.

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  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on February 21, 2011 - 02:33

    Well, while people like Fromm and you and me discuss such things philosophically, real people just go on living their lives as always. They are partly connected to society and nature and partly (I say mostly) seperate and distinct from it. Most of them go on believing in God, in one way or another. Most of them form their values from their religious teachings, their family heritage, and the views of the community in which they live. However, most of them are willing to accept certain things that they hav been taught and to reject other things that they have been taught, as their own minds lead them.

    Meanwhile, they go to work, take care of their families, socialize with their neighbors, and just live plain, ordinary lives without thinking about free will or identity or self-actualization. In fact, most people would think it silly to write books and go to lectures on such things. My point is that the things in such books as Escape from Freedom actually only apply to the small percentage of peope who read such books and understand them. To the rest of the world, they are irrelevant and a waste of time.

    I have many critiques of what Fromm an you have written. The strongest onei is that it is impossible to live without an ideology or “magic helpers.” You want people to believe that hoding ideological views is something that only certain people do, but even being anti-ideology is a kind of ideology. Isn’t it?

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on February 21, 2011 - 03:07

    By that logic, any book about modern physics, cellular biology or anything complicated is irrelevant because only a handful of people will read it. People will go through their lives living daily routines without thinking of quantum physics, the biological processes in their cells, etc. The same is true about psychology and how societies function. Yet, to call such books irrelevant and a waste of time doesn’t really fit. The real lives of people are affected by books that they do not read, science and culture is affected. So it sounds less like a real argument about Fromm than just an insult because you don’t like the argument. It sounds like it struck a nerve.

    An ideology is a simplified model of how political and social reality works. There is no problem with having an ideology. The problem comes when people forget that the ideology itself is by necessity a vast simplification of reality, and thus not a reliable guide to how to interpret all that happens. If you make ideology a God — believe in it, fight for it, see it as truth, as the right way to look at the world — then you’ve in Christian, Jewish and Muslim terms, violated the first commandment. In Fromm’s terms you’ve submitted to something greater than yourself out of insecurity about the freedom that modernism entails.

    People can live without ideology, obviously, unless you expand the definition far beyond political philosophy to include any model of how the world works. Then yes, we all have that. I’d say that a psychologically healthy person realizes the model is a ‘best guess’ and must constantly be tweaked or maybe at some point radically modified as we gain experience and learn more about the world.

    Fromm’s argument is straight forward: enlightenment thinkers thought they liberated humans from authority (culture, tradition, aristocracy), but they didn’t understand the psychological need for people to have security and a sense of meaning. They didn’t understand that humans are driven as much if not more by subconscious drives than rational calculations. Thus the enlightenment did not liberate, it created new obstacles to security, contentment, happiness and a sense of joy and wonder about the world. He’s looking at how people cope — with the very real world question of how a country like Germany could embrace fascism. That is an important question!

    If he’s on to something, it’s important to investigate — by your account all philosophy and knowledge is irrelevant and a waste of time to most people. Yet it is very important to what we as a society has become, it informs the way we think, our culture, our politics, and our ideologies. Fromm is part of that great conversation, as are many other thinkers, each contributing something. Moreover, Fromm is more widely read than many (he has had a real impact – and the impact butterflies through society) because he is more accessible than those who are more complex (like, say, Horkheimer and Adorno). As an educator my hope is that more people decide that knowledge and reflection or self-actualization become democratized, and that the profound and powerful impact they can have on a life — thinking about Plato’s allegory of the cave — make them something that an ever greater percentage of the world experiences. I also like to think that the hundreds of students I interact with each year ultimately take something from that and impact others, who then impact others, who then impact others… I think that’s true of all of us, in all we do. That’s why I also think kindness is so important – it spreads.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on February 21, 2011 - 03:28

    Oh, one more bit about ideology: I’m not saying they are not useful. But I in a couple of my classes have students analyze different issues or problems through the guise of different ideologies. They often find that one ideology works best in some issues, another seems better in others. Often they find that by looking at an issue with different ideological perspectives they can take bits and pieces of all and come up with what seems a better overall explanation/idea. The point: ideologies being imperfect, it can be useful to compare how diverse ones will interpret a situation or prescribe a remedy, thus learning the limits and strengths of different ideological perspectives.

  4. #4 by renaissanceguy on February 22, 2011 - 02:37

    Talk about touching a nerve!

    Most of my friends have probably never heard of Fromm or have forgotten whatever they might have heard in school. Most of them have not read Escape From Freedom, and to tell you the truth, neither have I. I do understand the Enlightenment and the changes it brought about. I also can understand the concepts that you outline here and that I looked up on the Internet. I find it mildly interesting, but I can tell you that almost everyone I know would be bored to tears if I tried to talk about it, and if they did spend any time learning about it would say something like, “Okay. Whatever.”

    I think that social science is great for people who like it. Have at it! Please don’t feel insulted by the fact that I and many others out there have no interest in it and no patience for it. Enjoy yourself as you talk about things like subconscious drives and rootedness and socialization..

    My limited exposure to social science tells me that most of it involves things that anyone could figure out if they use their senses and their reason a little bit. (For example, I remember learning as a teacher that students respond better to rewards than to punishment. As if I needed a person with an Ed D or needed a textbook to tell me that!) It also often involves people in arguments that are not either-or. (Nurture or nature? It’s both, as anybody with a modicum of intelligence can figure out.) Finally, it involves heady matters that simply do not affect the average person on a day-to-day basis. (For example, the eight basic needs of human beings. Most people know what their needs are, and are busy meeting them. They do not need to read volumes on the subject.)

    • #5 by Scott Erb on February 22, 2011 - 02:54

      You’re touching on really big broad questions. But social science actually studies a lot of things related to specific policy issues, economics, questions of war, the impact of war on societies, globalization and the world political economy, how groups operate, etc. There are often results that are counter-intuitive, but the point is that social science studies how humans interact in groups or (especially psychology and economics) as individuals. To dismiss it the way you seem to reflects a sort of knee jerk anti-intellectualism. But common sense is itself a cultural by product, and in fact uncritically accepting common sense is usually seen as one of the most common and often dangerous errors people make. Common sense constantly changes as culture changes, and varies between cultures, after all.

      Most people know how to get things done, and don’t need to read physics and science books, either. Your argument almost seems like you’re covering your ears and going “nah nah that’s all unimportant no one cares.” That’s not logical.

      My own interest in Fromm is because I’m fascinated by the changes taking place globally, and the problems in the West — severe problems related to culture and society. I could point to many symptoms. I’m trying to figure out why things are happening as they are, and I think part of it is that people think they understand the world and they are responsible for all their own choices, but quite often they really aren’t. That leads to errors, and if we could work against that problem, things would get better.

  5. #6 by henitsirk on February 27, 2011 - 03:13

    Sounds like a pendulum…. pre-Enlightenment subjugation to authority, post-Enlightenment individualism. We need the happy medium where we are “free” to be as “unfree” as we like, embracing the ideology or helpers that work for us as individual yet connected human beings.

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