“If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted” – The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

In the context Dostoyevsky used the quote above, it meant that in the absence of divine judgment resulting in reward or punishment in the afterlife, there would be no point in adhering to moral doctrines. Or put another way: in the absence of god, bad deeds – done anonymously or in private – have no consequences.

Assuming that adherence to a moral code had no consequences other then reward and punishment by an all knowing, all powerful god in the afterlife, then the above statement would of course be correct. In the case of morality, this assumption does in fact appear reasonable to many. But take the example of having a particular goal – any goal really – and the desire to reach it. As soon as one has a particular goal, one is limited in regards to what one can and can not do in an effort to actually accomplishing it.

These limits are imposed by one’s available resources in the form of money, time, knowledge, skills, cognitive abilities, experience et cetera on the one hand. And on the other hand by the fuzziness of the goal and the risk one is willing to take in actually failing to reach it. If one has $20 and has been asked to buy $10 worth of groceries on the way home by ones partner, then one is certainly free to spend all the money on beer and cigarettes. In so doing, one has however essentially reduced ones chances of in fact returning with $10 worth of groceries to close to 0%. Yet, not exactly 0% – since it is not unimaginable that a chain of events would still lead to one bringing home the requested goods regardless. One’s chances are however significantly reduced.

Any reasonable person wanting to return home with the groceries would of course simply enter a shop and buy $10 worth of groceries. He would then be ‘free’ to spend another $10 on beer and cigarettes before going home. The chances of reaching his goal would be very high – however not 100% since again any chain of unforeseen events could cause a catastrophic failure in reaching this rather simple goal. The chances would be narrowed further if the task happens to be $10 worth of dairy products and veggies, skim milk and carrots, or a certain brand and not another. These examples representing a decrease of fuzziness, ever more precisely specifying the requirements for goal fulfillment.

In short, the more means one has beyond the bare minimum required for goal fulfillment, the more one is willing to risk failure and the fuzzier a goal is, the more freedom one has in ones actions and still reach it within the set parameters. The moral here is of course that one is only free in choosing one’s own actions, one is not free however in choosing the consequences of these actions.

Consequences, or the effect of a cause, vary in the degree of intricacy and depth to which they can be traced back to bringing them about and the magnitude of their impact. Opening ones hand and dropping a pen is obvious and irrelevant. Shooting a cannon ball and hitting a city is complex and significant. Exploding an atom bomb over a particular bridge 2’500 kilometers away is mind blowing and overwhelming.

But what if someone does not fully realize the consequences of his actions? How about the one failing to fully understand the detailed requirements necessary to reach his goal? In what sense, can anyone not fully realizing either be called free?

Think of the path to one’s goal as being flanked on all sides by an abyss of failure and the further one deviates from the optimal path to one’s goal the more one risks slipping into the abyss. Would then not the one having the better understanding of the path with all its meanderings and varying degrees of tread-fastness be more free than the one who does not? The reason being that knowing all the risks and realizing all of one’s options, it would give someone more degrees of freedom to make informed decisions.

Similarly with one’s goal: the one following the perfect path chasing a mirage will nevertheless fail miserably. While the one barely making it to his true destination will still have managed to be successful.

Making the turn now from the abstract to the concrete. Two important points need to be understood before moving on.

  1. Firstly, our existence is a precondition for reaching any goal – including continued existence.
  2. Secondly, our chances of reaching it have been increased significantly yet mostly subconsciously by internalizing a very specific set of spiritual teachings.

Understanding this rather complex set of causes and effects and reevaluating Dostoevsky’s quote above, we can now realize the wisdom in the following quote in this particular context:

There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Morpheus, The Matrix

Dostoevsky failed to realize his existence being conditional to his ancestors failing to leave a very particular path. Their following of which had everything to do with the effect of believing it had on their actions rather then the degree to which this belief could be said to be factually or scientifically accurate. Or put another way:

A man who strays from the path of understanding comes to rest in the company of the dead.Proverbs 21:16

It is crucial to understand in this context, that we have increased our freedoms significantly since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This has been accomplished by the creation of ever more sophisticated technologies that help us in the reshaping of our environment. The fact that we have thereby essentially broadened the path to such a degree, that we have all but forgotten that we are in fact on one, and still largely fail to recognize that there is a goal let alone recognize what it is, is evident in the notions so characteristic of post-modernism that:

  • there is no objective reference for words
  • there are no indubitable laws of logic
  • there are no boundaries for meaning
  • there is no meta-narrative

It comes as little surprise that any scientist, project manager, athlete or entrepreneur – or anyone having any goal at all for that matter – subscribing to these principles would have a very hard time reaching them. For without a working assumption of what words refer to when trying to understand a given text, failing to adopt some form of logic conducive to ones endeavor, not limiting the set of possible interpretations in evaluating a statement to that which is in fact probable, while at the same time constantly doubting the validity of ones goals will surely lead to failure.

From this perspective the western indulgence in postmodernist thinking can be seen as a sign of wasteful luxury made affordable by runaway technological development very similar to the effect Saudi oil wealth has on that country’s extraordinary rigidity to social progress. I think that there is sufficient reason to believe that this is in fact the cause that led former assistant secretary of the treasury Paul Craig Roberts to claim the US having joined the ranks of failed states: a purposefully constructed populous of selfish individuals that after the failure of communism is united only by a largely manufactured external enemy and either incapable of or in fact not interested in telling apart fact from fiction in political discourse.

It is all too obvious by now that the end of history was called prematurely in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama and was in fact merely a transition towards post-modernity. In the wake of the worst financial crisis in history the question poses itself if people are bound to hang themselves eventually despite it being against their self interest provided the circumstances of cause and effect are opaque enough and they are given enough rope to actually do it:

Those of us who have looked to the selfinterest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief.” — Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, congressional testimony in October 2008

In support of this view I would like to cite the ideas of 14th century Tunesian scholar and statesman Ibn Khaldun, who formulated in his theory of Asabiyyah the idea that a society creating enough affluence to afford luxuries will degenerate and in the process loose focus on what affords them these luxuries in the first place – ‘the path’ if you will – and thus eventually stray and loose them.

Anyone not yet convinced that the luxury to make our own mistakes and live with them afforded to us in the very much laissez fair democratic marketeconomies need look no further than to the extraordinarily successful authoritarian market economies all over the world – especially the very focused and ambitious China. How long can we keep these freedoms up while facing such – from our vantage point ‘unfair’ competition – before disappearing or finding ourselves on the long slope to political irrelevance? At least the west can look at Russia for some best practice sharing before finally accepting ideological defeat.

Unless of course we anticipate the inevitable, realize all the conditions for our existence and align ourselves with the evolutionary process before it will inevitably and vastly more painfully align us with it or let us be erased from the memory of the world:

“At present humanity is lost. We don’t know what we are doing here. We are without a worldview that can point to our place and purpose in the universe and that can also withstand rational scrutiny.

But this difficult period is coming to an end. The emergence of the new evolutionary worldview is beginning to lift us out of the abyss. The new worldview has a unique capacity to reveal who we are and what we should be doing with our lives. It relies solely on scientific knowledge and reason to identify our critical role in future evolution. The evolutionary worldview can unite us in a great common enterprise, and provide meaning and purpose for human existence.” — Evolutionary Manifesto

You are most certainly free, in the words of Camus, to open your heart to the benign indifference of the universe, while marching right over the precipice, chanting slogans of freedom and thumping your chest. But how truly nonsensical would that be, knowing that only those that don’t will actually be around to pursue so much more challenging and rewarding goals? And remember: your realization of the evolved illusions in regards to food, love and fun for being what they are, in no way dampens their impact.

This being said, the key point here is not that authoritarian market economies are necessarily better than their liberal counterparts, but that we are in the process of risking our liberties by ignoring what makes them affordable to us in the first place: a properly informed and educated population, united by an overarching sense of purpose and a shared morality that is consciously aligned with evolutionary dynamics.

5 comments on “Freedom in the evolving universe

  1. Pingback: Rational Morality » The future of human evolution revisited

  2. Pingback: Rational Morality » The unfortunate etymology of ’selfishness’ in objectivist ethics

  3. Seren Seraph on said:

    Read The Normative Morality of Ayn Rand and get back to me. You, and those who made comment about Rand’s morality, are missing quite a bit.

  4. Seren Seraph on said:

    Self interest is very broad. There is nothing to be gained in a fully rational pursuit of self-interest in taking shortcuts inimical to one’s long term well-being. Nor is there anything to gain by taking advantage of others that is not far offset by treating others justly. That one is mistaken or short-sighted in understanding is an individual failure that will be corrected by interaction with reality. Rational selfishness based morality does not require some impossible omniscience. Since omniscience is impossible how will one fair better if authorities outside oneself make enforced decisions? These authorities are after all every bit as fallible. As they attempt to make decisions with of necessity limited individual and local situation specifics they are likely to be wrong many more times than localized (individual) decision makers. The effects of their errors are also magnified by the scope of their powers over many lives instead of one. Freedom and rational governance of one’s own life in no wise requires omniscience.

    At one time intellectuals talked of the extraordinary productive success of Soviet Russia. We saw how that turned out. Actual economies are of course exceedingly complex and are not pure examples of anyone approach. However it is pretty obvious from a micro-economics perspective that a market economy is much more resilient than a command and control centralized one.

    The above piece mostly ignores the actual nature of the type of beings the ethics is supposedly for maximizing the life of.

    I fail to see what the introjection of postmodern errors in thinking has to do with the subject at hand.

  5. The above piece mostly ignores the actual nature of the type of beings the ethics is supposedly for maximizing the life of. I fail to see what the introjection of postmodern errors in thinking has to do with the subject at hand.

    I don’t see that. What you described in the first paragraph is pretty much my perspective as well though. What I tried to highlight in this piece is that human beings have lost sight of what their goals are. Here – not in this context explicitly but generally – I praise Rand in advocating a life affirming perspective. In addition I am mocking post modern philosophy (see e.g. the Sokal affair) for denying the validity of reason etc and trace the capacity for doing so to our extraordinary freedoms awarded us by the use of modern technology allowing them to ‘get away with’ this kind of error, at least for a while i.e. until as you point out they will “be corrected by interaction with reality”. This correction mechanism is fundamentally evolutionary and it is evolutionary dynamics that need to be anticipated and incorporated in one’s behavior in order to anticipate natural selection by the proper use of reason. My critique of Nietzsche/Rand is made from an evolutionary vantage point. Both could not possibly (Nietzsche more so) anticipate the full breadths of evolutionary theory as it is presently understood. (Reciprocal altruism as formulated in the Hamilton-Price equations and multilevel selection theory)

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