Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Control and Freedom

Philosophers suggest that freedom is the underpinning of all philosophical thought.  Indeed, the desire for freedom is written into the constitution of American society and many others.  But what is the biological mediator of freedom, what is its inverse, are we truly free, and can we use this understanding to predict the outcomes of social situations?
One of the most notable biological description of freedom and human behavior was written by the the behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  He suggests that freedom is rooted in our biological inclination to remove noxious or aversive stimuli. 
The opposite therefore, of freedom, is to endure suffering.  Viktor Frankl in his book Mans Search for Meaning suggests that if suffering is avoidable, "the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political."  His point however is that suffering is not always avoidable. 
Skinner describes our attempts to avoid suffering, i.e. aversive controls, and obtain freedom.  "Over the centuries, in erratic ways, men have constructed a world in which they are relatively free of many kinds of threatening or harmful stimuli- extremes of temperature, sources of infection, hard labor, danger, and even those minor aversive stimuli called discomfort.". But he contends, as Frankl would surely agree; having survived the holocaust, that the struggle for freedom is much more important when the aversive conditions are "generated by other people."
However, this is where Frankl and Skinner would part philosophical ways with regard to freedom and suffering.  Frankl, who was a trained psychiatrist would contend that while we are not free from all conditions, we are inherently free to make our own choices.  Skinner, by contrast, suggests that all individual freedom is illusory and that our actions are dictated by our environment; he suggests that our autonomy erodes with knowledge.  To be more blunt, Skinner is suggesting that environmental experience, as well as genetics, dictate all future actions and Frankl, in contrast, is suggesting that despite experience we have a spiritual freedom of choice, not dictated by our conditions.  Let us parse out the differences in these two philosophies and bring a few more philosophers into the fray. 
Suffering, is the addition of adverse stimuli, and is unavoidable in many cases.  Be it caused by nature or by other humans.  For example, we must eat to survive, our bodies have developed systems to detect starvation that lead us to feel pain, such a feeling is an aversive stimulus prompting us to forage for and ingest food.   This aversive stimuli is avoidable by regularly ingesting food.  We therefore, free ourselves from suffering by the ingestion of food.  But we are not free of food's control.  Similar scenarios can be conducted for our need for shelter and water, therefore, we predict these needs in order to reduce or prevent our suffering (see my post on survival in space for one such prediction).  Needless to say, these necessities suggest that freedom from pain, does not equate to freedom from all needs.  Such necessities predict that human's will make decisions within a finite set of boundaries, the constraints of existence, and these necessities discount certain philosophical arguments such as Existentialism (see my post Essential not Existential for more). Frankl's arguments border on existential, in that our mind dominates over our environment. It is from this definition of freedom and suffering that I have a problem with many a philosopher's world view.  Noam Chomsky contends, for example, in his book On Anarchy, that a salary given to an individual is a form of 'wage-slavery', which of course it is, but avoiding this slavery may be very hard to do, and is at least superior to the slavery that is prodded with a whip.  Indeed, Chomsky has fallen victim to a simple fallacy described by Skinner from the literature of freedom.  Specifically, Chomsky believes that control is the opposite of freedom.  Chomsky seems to think, to paraphrase Skinner's words, that those who manipulate human behavior are considered evil.  However, food, which the 'wage-salary' replaces, is a necessity of existence.  And since food is necessary for existence, we are by necessity controlled by it.  Whether we toil for it in the field or in a factory is not consequential, unless we believe one choice to be more painful than another.  Therefore, 'salary' is by definition a less aversive stimulus than physical whipping or starvation and so we accept it over the alternatives.  I.e., one method developed for avoiding the adverse stimuli of starvation, or whipping, is Chomsky's so called 'wage-slavery' and unless philosophers devise another method of gaining from the limited supply of sustenance that keeps us alive, it is unavoidable. While we have created devices to overcome adversity from the environment, we are still controlled by it.  The same must be considered for the social environment.  
If one can not change the situation that "causes his suffering," Frankl argues in his book, "he can still choose his attitude."  I would say this is akin to accepting our work for food model or fight against it; as Chomsky seems to have done.  Skinner in contrast would argue that any decision one may make is based entirely on previous experience.  Even that which we would consider our internal voice, 'our conscience' and our 'Freudian superego', Skinner suggests in his book, "are the vicars of society, and theologians and psychoanalysts alike recognize their external origins."  He goes on to state that, "the conscience or superego speaks for what is good for others."  So, wherein, Frankl would suggest that we are at least in control of our own inner attitudes, Skinner would argue that our inner attitudes are the product of our experiences and conditioning as well. I.e. they are the product and the voice of the society in which we live.  So, to provide an example, when our conscience tells us to, "eat with out mouths closed," it is not typically without precedence that there was a mother or dictatorial schoolmarm in our past informing us of the rules by which we should live, even if we are unaware of them.  
Where then lies freedom?  From either perspective, freedom lies in projecting our goals and achieving them.  Even in Skinner's deterministic world, there are positive and negative stimuli, and understanding the rules that govern these stimuli, should allow an individual to navigate toward a solution to any problem.  The major issue that remains is, how then can someone feasible overcome Frankl's suffering, Chomsky's wage- slavery, or Skinner's aversive stimuli.  Answers are not easy to find, and are probably hard to maintain.  They lie in the careful crafting of our environment to bestow upon us the most fruit from our labor and the least harm from it with the firm understanding that we live within boundaries.  Our jobs, as humans, are therefore to document, devise, innovate, manipulate, and predict; in order to understand and expand our boundaries.  This is what we do, without actually being told to do it. Indeed, it may be ingrained in our upbringing, our fight against fate, or in our genes. 

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