Freedom?

Freedom?

Rollo May asks this question: what is freedom? Freedom and Destiny is the answer at length, more like a dozen answers. It boils down to two things: what do you mean by freedom? And that which both opposes and enables destiny, its synonym and opposite.

Lately, I have given up atheism as an identifier. It is not that I have turned towards belief, found a faith; it is not that I have turned away from unbelief. Rather, I have discovered within my self and my environment that there is no god to not believe in. Maybe that seems puerile to you, or like gibberish, or like puerile gibberish. Fair enough. It’s where I am today. Tomorrow, who can say?

The trouble with freedom, I suspect, is that May did not ask the correct question.

Existentialism is at some level about returning to the source, to the very beginning of all questions. Other philosophers ask how we are, why we are, what is the meaning of being. We, at least in our earliest and most boiled down version, posit that we are and suggest that is good enough. Speculation that we might just be a big brain in a jar somewhere, well, existentialism as a practice tends to find such speculation unsatisfying. Perhaps this is an illusion but it is our experience and must be our starting point.

May seems to me to have made a small error. My favorite teacher referred to this error as reification, and defined reification as treating abstract things as though they are real.

May’s book is a gripping read, pretty essential for the budding existentialist. It also, to me, illustrates the problem with reification. If it takes you a whole book to adequately describe and define your concept, it is possible you are making this error. This leads me to the question: is freedom?

To return to the beginning, is there such a thing as freedom to not believe in? Or have behaviorists and humanists been arguing for decades about whether the boiled egg should be eaten from the thin end or the wide? We ask how is freedom and sometimes why is freedom and how do we get to be free, but is there even a free to get to be?

Freedom is probably an abstraction. It might exist somehow in a Platonic realm of forms. For people, though, it is as abstract as personality or intelligence or mental illness, the three big things mainstream psychology tends to reify. Is there such a thing as depression? Depressed people say yes, certainly; the old DSM said no, but we can classify some observable behaviors and come up with these categories; the new one agrees with the patients. Is there a borderline personality? Now we have strayed across reifications to talk a special kind of nonsense. A personality that does not exist has a disorder that does not exist and now we must try to cure it with a therapy that does not exist but is just a classification for a group of procedures, approaches, and attitudes.

Do we yearn to be free the way we yearn to be well, not knowing there is no illness but reification, no wellness therefore? Do we sometimes use this ideal of freedom to oppress believers in freedom the way some flavors of religion are used to oppress people who show at certain churches, the way mental illness is used to repress and profit from certain classes of people?

You are free to choose, we say. You work this job because you chose to work this job. You live in this neighborhood because you have not chosen to leave. You have these feelings because you choose them. In other words, your oppression is your own doing, and you are free to undo it. But there is no freedom in the grand Platonic sense, only the choices we make under duress of one kind of another.

If I could escape the ideal of freedom, I wonder, could I turn towards the choices that plague me every day rather than away from them?

— Jason Dias

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