Philosophical Conundrums Part 3

This is another letter I sent to Littlejohn, discussing freedom.

Sunday, Nov 9, 2008
Dear Littlejohn,

I know this is a rather delayed reply, but I wanted to take a while to give what you said due consideration.  I appreciate your input.  It gave me some good thinking material for the past month.

To begin with, you spoke of ideals, and gave the example of a frictionless surface.   That made me think for some time.  I appreciate your thoughts.  I think what makes the concept of freedom more difficult to comprehend than an ideal in mechanical physics is that with a ball rolling up and down, you can picture the ball within your mind, and it is not as difficult to comprehend it sustaining a certain pattern of motion.  I’m not talking about fully understanding the physical dynamic completely.  Comprehending the frictional  forces putting torque on the ball, energy loss, etc., are marvels of very intelligent men.  But, our brains seem to have built-in functions which automatically handle a limited comprehension of objects and their movements through space.  When an object moves across a frictionless surface, I can picture the object, and I can imagine a motion where there is no deceleration due to friction (movement near and skimming a surface, yet not slowing down or changing direction).   With freedom, however, the ideal is confusing, if comprehensible at all.

The thought experiment I sent to you, to use a calculus analogy, is somewhat like pushing freedom to some sort of limit.  As we push freedom closer and closer to “perfect freedom”, it seems to vanish altogether.    I understand what you mean when you say it doesn’t get us very far, but what I think it seems to lead to is that thinking of free will as some sort simple property contained within humans (and other life forms), is probably the wrong way of looking at it.

You mentioned that slavery is not a yes or no thing, but a matter of degree. I wondered for a while what that means, and I came to this conclusion. Freedom seems to be inextricably bound up with our physical existence, in some very complex fashion.  Freedom without a physical body makes no sense, as I think the thought experiment I sent shows.  On the opposite side of the spectrum, if we think of nothing but a body patterned by absolute unchanging laws, we run into determinism, and the “self” and freedom are lost – we become complex robots.   If we are to believe in freedom then, we must concede that matter is not always patterned by laws absolutely.  But if we are to make any statement concerning matter, and how it exists and operates, we come into the realm of science.

This reminds me of some statements I read by Richard Feynman within his lectures on Physics.  He seemed to believe that all knowledge ultimately comes from science, and if we are to make any determinations as to how things exist in the world around us, we must do experiments.  I think I agree with him;  I certainly do in a lot of regards.  Take the subject of epistemology.   So many philosophers have written such long books trying to come up with a universal definition of knowledge, and the inner workings of the mind.  I’m not going to say that the books are devoid of any substance at all, as after reading many of them, I seem to have learned ‘something’. But I always noticed that unlike science, the subject doesn’t seem to progress in the same manner, or even at all.  The subject matter certainly isn’t as uncontestable and definite.  Probably each bit of knowledge that exists in the world is its own thing, and we have to go out into the world and search for it, if we want it.  Men have hoped that maybe if we could come up with the building blocks of thought and knowledge, we could piece those fundamental components together and think out all possible knowledge through some thinking process.  Unfortunately, it seems we can’t sit in our armchairs, and understand the world just by thinking in our heads.   In my own experiences trying this, I always overlook various circumstances that I never would have thought of.  For example, when I design software for
businesses, I never just try to think up a person’s job function by what I think they probably do for their job.  The software would never work, and it’d be sure to be a failure.  I have to meet with the companies and their staff, talk with them, and watch them do every aspect of their job and duties before even attempting to design a software system for them.  Before analyzing freedom, and making statements about it, I’m sure a similar process must be done.

Now we come to a crux, where we have to ask what sorts of experiments would be done to reveal a living being’s “freedom”.  I guess we’d have to learn all we could about the physical aspects of the being, and the patterns of its component matter when it is not a part of the being, and see how it behaves differently when it is combines together in the ways we normally call living things.   But can such experiments ever lead to true knowledge of the nature of freedom?

Science as we think of it now is, “we’ve done this in the past X times, and out of the X times we’ve done this, the result was such and such this time, and such and such that time.”  If our experiments are done well enough, we determine these laws which seem to repeat themselves, based on the assumption that what has happened in the past under such and such conditions, will happen again.   We’ll have to find the aspects of matter which allow variability when combined in complex ways.  There’s no doubt that matter follows laws.  The world is ordered, yet there’s always room for skepticism.  It’s possible that what seems variable at this moment, upon closer inspection will be revealed to be ordered.  It’s sort of like natural disasters.  There’s still superstitious individuals who believe that “sin” brings on hurricanes and earthquakes, mainly because of the phenomenon’s complexity.

The search for freedom then, if I’m correct in these assumptions, would be the search for that which inevitably cannot be patterned, no matter how hard we try.  We see living beings move and act in ways, which after examining every aspect of the physical components of their existence, we cannot account for what we’re seeing in front of us.  But, on the negative side of this, we have great room for error in analyzing freedom if we do not first understand physical matter to a very in-depth degree, and the biology and physiology of the living being’s existence.  The lazy and unintelligent will be prone to attribute manifestations of freedom to near everything they see. Charging into a lion’s den, then throwing moral accusation at it when it attacks you, is certainly unwise – at least, it’s unwise after the studies of zoologists, who have studied their behavior patterns and know their instincts.  Yet, people in the past have killed animals which have harmed humans, thinking its aggressive tendencies were due to its evil decisions.

It’s easy to make mistakes, and throw moral accusations around when we’re dealing with issues which are not moral.  Until we’ve studied the physical laws of our bodies and the bodies of other livings things, there will always be room for those like Schopenhauer, who believe that all actions of the individual are either guided by external compulsion, or inner necessity.

So I guess there’s no easy way to talk about freedom, and from what I seem to be thinking, no universal simple concept and definition for it. Unless you have any further comments on the matter, I’m going to have to call this case closed for now, and focus on studying physics and science.

By the way, my studies in physics are coming along well.  I am now about to begin studying electromagnetism.  I had to break though, as there were some mathematical concepts being used beyond my current level, so I’m having to go back to the Calculus books and finish those up.  I am just about done with mechanics, waves and acoustics.   I’m working through two textbooks, and the Feynman lectures.   The textbook I seem to like best is called University Physics with Modern Physics, the 12th edition.   I have a companion book which has answers to all the problems, all worked out.  I work the problems, and use that to check my answers.  Feynman’s lectures provide a lot of insight into things, but I don’t think he shows the concepts as well sometimes.   The thing I like about Feynman though, is when he discusses the “big picture”, and how to think about things.  He has really good insight.  The other textbook is one they use at MST (formerly UMR), that Dad got from his job.  It’s called Physics For Scientists and Engineers, by Fishbane.  It’s not bad either, but the university physics with modern physics seems to be better for me.

Hopefully I’ll be ready to start building some experiments before too long. Unfortunately business and earning money tends to interfere more than I would like, but that’s just how it is.  If I can get this project I’m working on now to fully go through, I can put all this behind me and devote myself fully to science and research.  *crosses fingers*

As always, your insight was very helpful.  I hope to hear from you again
– Jason

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