On the Loci of Freedom...

1. The issue of human freedom comes up in a number of places, and quite obviously in discussions of radical cultural conditioning or radical constructionism...If one is captured by the culture (or more accurately, "embedded" or "encapsulated" within the culture), then any kind of transcendence or freedom from the causal/cultural forces is by definition an impossibility.

2. Now, the notion of freedom is very problematic, and often is different for theologians than for philosophers. Some theological camps (esp. Reformed) make freedom into something like 'absence of external coercion', in such a way that a person could be a 'slave to his/her nature' but still be 'free' with respect to external forces. Since these camps typically hold to causal models of behavior (my will is deterministically 'moved' by the antecedent causes from my nature--the interface mechanisms are always unspecified!), the will cannot "argue" with its substrate. The will is a slave to its nature.

3. This model is unfortunate for obvious reasons: (1) it cannot apply to God (He is not a slave to His nature in this sense)--His moral propensity and orientations guide His choices, but the image of slavery is somehow quite inappropriate to that; and (2) it presupposes a Newtonian macro-mechanical view of personality and events (which seems to be a category mistake: decisions are 'influenced' not 'deterministically caused'); and (3) the concept of a 'will' or "person" interacting with a 'nature (without a personality)' is difficult in the extreme to articulate or defend.

4. This is all very confusing to the beginning theological student, of course, because it seems to be such a convenient explanation and runs counter to some rather basic intuitions and experiences. The very notion of 'struggling within myself'--a ubiquitous conscious experience of people of all religious persuasions--seems to argue for some internal transcendence of a rather common sort.

5. On the other hand, many philosophers will speak of freedom as the ability to transcend the self--the ability to decide things 'beyond' the predictions and limitations of the self. For the postmodernist this is quite impossible: the self, in all its dimensions of knowledge and value, is entrapped in the social/cultural/power fabric of the time. The self can NEVER transcend long enough to say 'no' to its historical conditioning by the culture. The self cannot recognize a tacit or implicit value in itself and reject it outright. The self cannot even sense its captivity, for even the expression of that would itself be an expression of captivity. And, if the self cannot recognize its captivity, how could it possibly engineer its own change away from those values perceived to be part-and-parcel with the enslaving power conclave?

5. I personally am convinced that self-transcendence (and the possibility of self-transformation, for good or ill) is indeed VERY commonplace, and that it was built into the system by God who holds us all responsible for the majority of our choices. I can identify SEVERAL dimensions or events or situations in which 'freedom' is possible (and often actualized in deliberate self-transformation). I identify these as:

5.1 Conscious imitation.

5.2 Visualization of alternative futures (e.g. daydreams, goal-setting).

5.3 Self-usage of Labeling theory (e.g. reading cards of self-affirmation to oneself in the mirror).

5.4 Logical and conditionalizing operators in the language (e.g. negation, subordination, bounding).

5.5 Pre-built biological forces (e.g. adolescence, mid-life).

5.6 Historically inevitable paradigm/value crisis events (e.g. bereavement, treachery, retirement).

5.7 The inconsistency of the self.

5.8 The inconsistency of ANY culture.


Let me discuss each one in turn.

5.1 Conscious imitation. Imitation is the base mechanism for acculturation. We act like our parents, our teachers, our heroes. We begin imitation at birth! As we get older we begin to pick our heroes and select between competing role-models. Although our selection of someone to emulate is often strongly influenced by prior-learned values, this is not consistently the case, nor are ANY heroes perfect models of those values. I may have been raised to respect scientists, but it only takes a single experience of some poem for me to decide to emulate the sensitivity of a gifted literary figure. Every culture has multiple (often conflicting) models, so this process of imitation can move me beyond my previous 'self-state'. This can create a movement of transcendence, and a distancing of me-today from me-tomorrow.

5.2 Visualization of alternative futures. This is the ability of the mind to visualize, articulate, conceptualize, or even plan an alternative future. Wishful thinking, daydreams, empathetically enjoying advertisements, etc. are all instances of this factor. I can take any situation I am in, "complain" about it, and think about 'how good it would be IF...'. The very act of visualization begins change, as the data of placebos and psychosomatic medicine amply testifies to. This creates distance between where I am today (and the trajectory that the 'cultural' might be trying to force me into) and where I may be tomorrow. [Actually, some change is immediate--at the sub/un-conscious level, the conscious events will 'program' sub-conscious processes.]

5.3 Self-usage of Labeling theory. This is related somewhat to the 'positive thinking' themes and somewhat to "labeling" theory in the social sciences. A familiar example of this is where someone writes statements of affirmation (e.g. "I am a good planner, and can focus well on details" or "I respond to others with empathy, in situations of crisis") and literally speaks these to themselves in the mirror each day. This can be seen as a special case of alternative futures, of course, but it seems slightly different. It plays upon subconscious elements that will 'move us' toward the words, images, and labels that are applied to us. Related to this is what used to be called "labeling theory" from psychology--how labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies (such as 'gifted' or 'slow learner'). The ability of the self to 'move toward' labels that are SELF-IMPOSED is a sample of freedom to step ahead of one's self, to actually change one's self.

5.4 Logical and conditionalizing operators in the language (e.g. negation, subordination, bounding). This is a power of language itself--the power to transform 'culturally obedient' statements into something radically opposite by the simple linguistic movement of adding a negation operator! Many truths taught by the 'culture' can be simply denied, subordinated to personal preferences, trivialized by "a thousand qualifications," or rendered sterile by circumscribing boundary statements. The simple language faculty itself--considered to be the instrument of absolute cultural power in some veins of postmodernism (!)--can generate heresies of infinite variety and seductive power...Language is a vehicle of both subjugation AND emergence, and the "rebellious" use of it (spontaneous or calculated) injects 'transcendence' into the relationship between "me, the linguistic creator" and "me, the social product". I--with a turn of phrase-- can create freedom in my own head, and transcend (temporarily) my inculcated meta-narrative (smile).

5.5 Pre-built biological forces (e.g. adolescence, mid-life). There are at least two (and possibly three) biologically-induced periods of self-criticism and self-negation: "teenage" adolescence, "mid-life crises", and (possibly) "first adolescence" (2-3 year olds). In the case of teenage adolescence, the self literally negates the culturally-inculcated 'self' that is reflective of non-conscious choices. The teenager is able to reject the values of parents, teaching, institutions--all of which are found INSIDE him or her! This biological stage almost appears to be a 'forced transcendence', a way in which temporary freedom from the heredity/environment tyranny is created, and a 'different' self is created in conflict/cooperation with the prior self. In some real sense the prior self may be called socially-constructed (at least to a high-degree), but after the processes of adolescence have worked their magic, the self that emerges has some distinctively new traits. This same time-release 'phase' of freedom can be seen in mid-life, in which all the prior value structures are ruthlessly examined from (typically) an altogether different value grid! And it is possible that the period known in some "early childhood development" writers as "first adolescence" (e.g. Dodson) manifests some aspects of this transcendence. Indeed, it is this author's experience of this phenomena in his own children ("no!") that confirms this element anecdotally for him. I am not surprised at all that this 'rejection' of imposed values occurs PRECISELY at the time the categories are changing from 'natural' (undeniable) to 'technical' (socially/culturally constructed or configured).

5.6 Historically inevitable paradigm/value crisis events (e.g. bereavement, treachery, retirement). It is well known that crises, rites of passage, and major role/function modifications often provoke deep self-analysis, value examination, goal questioning, and self-transformation initiatives. Many (if not most) of these events are experienced by the vast majority of people--bereavement of family, changes in marital status, retirement, betrayal in relationships, victimization by criminal acts, fortune reversals, changes in primary group membership. All of these have the effect of provoking some type of re-calibration of values, goals, and priorities. Each time self-reflection or self-judgment occurs, freedom is temporarily there.

5.7 The inconsistency of the self. One of the major problems (in my opinion) of causal, deterministic, or radical conditioning theories is that the self is assumed to be totally integrated (acting like a unit), totally consistent in the performance of its operations (without conflicting goals and operations going on at the same time), thorough in its execution of its plans (without stopping, without negotiation of compromise goals), and complete in execution of all the implied details (implying full awareness of what the resultant universe is to look like!). I find it impossible to believe that ANY ONE of these assumptions are true--much less ALL of them, in EVERY decision! The self is simply not that monolithic, not that efficient, not that robotic to pull off such a thing...

5.8 The inconsistency of ANY culture. This is the problem with the other end of the alleged 'causal' chain from culture to self. Cultures can be modeled monolithically, of course, but we must be clear that there is no such thing as a 'uniform culture'. The self lives in multiple, poorly integrated, and often conflicting sub-cultures, some of which may only be secondary groups (e.g. a newspaper staff) and some of which may be idealized groups (e.g. some literary elite). To speak of a 'culture' or 'society' absolutely dominating all individuals within its kingdom may be a powerful image or metaphor--but it should be recognized as anthropomorphism and oversimplification to the point of distortion.

One final thought here: The data of our individual experience with personal change (especially large macro-changes such as conversions and de-habituations) simply cannot be predicted by any theory of cultural or linguistic 'captivity'...We seem to be free enough to changes ourselves incrementally or in quantum steps, and free enough to argue with virtually every position under the sun. The flow of subjective choice, to objective structure/conditioning, and then back again argues that pockets of freedom, small slices of freedom, and parentheses of transcendence pervade our experience.



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