Condemned to Freedom

Excerpt from “The Limits of the Coded World,” by William Eggington, New York Times (July 25, 2010):

In Immanuel Kant’s view, the main mistake philosophers before him had made when considering how humans could have accurate knowledge of the world was to forget the necessary difference between our knowledge and the actual subject of that knowledge. At first glance, this may not seem like a very easy thing to forget; for example, what our eyes tell us about a rainbow and what that rainbow actually is are quite different things. Kant argued that our failure to grasp this difference was further reaching and had greater consequences than anyone could have thought.

rainbow Taking again the example of the rainbow, Kant would argue that while most people would grant the difference between the range of colors our eyes perceive and the refraction of light that causes this optical phenomenon, they would still maintain that more careful observation could indeed bring one to know the rainbow as it is in itself, apart from its sensible manifestation. This commonplace understanding, he argued, was at the root of our tendency to fall profoundly into error, not only about the nature of the world, but about what we were justified in believing about ourselves, God, and our duty to others.

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism…

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre…gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.

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