Finitude and Freedom: scattered thoughts

Kantian ethics can be understood as an attempt to answer the following question: how can our knowledge of ourselves as material beings determined by physical laws be reconciled with the experience of ourselves as free agents determined by an autonomous will?

In simpler words, we can say that Kant is trying to resolve an apparent contradiction. A prudent concern should reveal itself immediately: why is Kant forced into the strange vocation of contradiction resolution? Typically, where there is a contradiction there is a disjunction; p v ~p where one side is affirmed at the cost of the denial of the other. If an object x is either F or G but not both then knowledge that it is G should commit us to assert that it is not F and vice versa. Why is the problem of free will not dissolvable in this same undramatic fashion? For instance, upon learning that our movements and thoughts are predictable and manipulable under the laws of nature why shouldn’t we henceforth conclude that we are unfree? A number of possible answers present themselves: because we are unwilling to cognize ourselves as unfree; because we are unable to cognize ourselves as unfree; or because we are in fact free and simply have failed to see how.
The Illusionism of Saul Smilansky like the naturalism of P. F. Strawson defends something like the the first option. Smilansky believes that the concept of a free will is in itself incoherent and therefore impossible regardless of whether or not the world is deterministic. Smilansky argues that the belief in free will is demonstrably false but yet it is nevertheless in place and should not be foresaken lest we lapse into nihilism and lose our sense of self respect our sense of moral responsibility and our sense of depth of the human being. Illusionism sees freedom as a benevolent lie that, luckily, nature has rendered us gullible enough to believe by default.

Suffice to say that Kant is not complicit in this cover-up. “Subordinate everything to freedom” is not an injunction to pretense.

The Korsgaardian and Bokian solution (we can paste over the differences between these two very distinct thinkers for our current purposes) is to see freedom from the perspective of a different standpoint than the one we take when we view ourselves as natural phenomena. This ‘two standpoints’ view is closely related to adopting the belief that we feel free because we are unable to cognize ourselves as unfree. In third-person scientific discourse we determine what is the case; in first-person reasoning we determine what should be the case, that is, what one must do, not what one knows. This latter standpoint belongs to practical reason, the former, to theoretical. And since each standpoint applies concepts towards a different purpose, there is thought to be nothing in tension about the respective claims of either. Does this plausibly solve the problem? Unlike illusionism, this stance does not deny that freedom as a concept is perfectly intelligible. Instead, it views freedom as an ineluctable postulate of a practical and finite being capable of determining itself by choosing between alternatives represented in the imagination. We cannot ever fully extinguish the perspective of practical reason no matter how deeply we meditate or sink into a catatonic daydream. The question, it is argued, always lingers: is this good? Is this as it should be? Practical reason, that is to say, freedom, is thus the default position of the rational subject and cannot be usurped by its theoretical sibling. This means that freedom becomes redefined as the capacity to determine one’s actions by practical reasoning. Could this be what Kant was after?

I think it is getting closer. At the very least the two standpoints view clarifies the concept of freedom. It is not a mere psychological feeling nor a mere belief or description of an attribute of a human being. We cannot use ‘free’ as a predicate like ‘tall’ or ‘blonde’. Freedom, like existence, is not a property. If it were it would be a question for theoretical reason but theoretical reason has in principle nothing to say about practical reason except perhaps that it exists.
Along similar lines we should remember that Kant is not interested in the feeling of freedom but in the experience of it. These are not the same thing. In fact, in the paradigm Kant is exploring, that of moral action, they are opposed in an interesting way. The feeling we most associate with being free is the feeling of being unfettered, or “free as a bird”. To be sure, this feeling has an important place in the psychology and phenomenology of human being but this sensation is not what Kant means by the ‘experience’ of freedom per se. On the contrary, the experience of freedom is properly accompanied by a feeling of being bound by the moral law and of being powerless to resist its grip on us. The experience of freedom can feel very much like constraint. This is not to equate freedom with this feeling either but only to illustrate that a theory of freedom which reduces it to one or two or twenty emotional correlates is already on a wild goose chase.
So what’s wrong with the two standpoints view?

Simply put, I think the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough with Kant’s insight. This is understandable because I don’t think Kant did either. He still allows theoretical reason its own independent domain over which freedom has no jurisdiction. I think this is false. I think theoretical reason is practical reason: it asks not what should I do but what should I believe? It determines the will no less than practical reason. This means that reason itself is fundamentally practical. We must not only act but also think under the Idea of freedom. And this is a function of our finitude, of our incompleteness. What we take in from the senses is never more than a meagre collection of fragments whose content is always underdetermined. Even core ‘objects’ of science like centres of gravity, magnetic forces and so on are only invulnerable to human manipulation for practical reasons. In theory, we could divise some means of recalibrating the universe to change its laws. Experience breaks the world into pieces. Cognition is destructive and thus demands of itself reconstruction of the cognized. But into what? Not into what was. For that is forever lost. The duty of reason is to rebuild the world into what it ought to be. And for Kant what it ought to be is what it ought to be for beings who can ask the question ‘what ought it to be?’ Is this the only answer? If to be free is to be responsible for the dismemberment of reality then freedom is its own punishment. For the burden of freedom is creativity. Why do we carry the burden? Why should we carry it? Why are we condemned to ask why?


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