The Choke-Hold Of Law: Freedom In A Physical World

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The dizziness of freedom.

There seems to be a peculiar kind of compulsion among the philosophically minded to return, time and again, to the issue of free will. It’s like a sore on the gums of philosophy—one that might heal if only we could stop worrying it with our collective tongues. Such a wide-spread affliction surely deserves a fitting name: I propose Morsicatio Libertatum (ML), the uncontrollable urge to chew on freedom.

With the implicit irony duly appreciated, I am no exception to this rule: bouts of ML seize me, on occasion, while taking a shower, while walking through the woods, while pondering what to have for dinner. If I differ in any way from the typical afflicted, then it’s because deep down, I am not at all convinced that the issue really matters all that much. In most discussions of the problem of freedom, each camp seems so invested in their position that they consider a contravening argument not just erroneous, but nearly a point of moral offense. But ultimately, wherever the chips may fall, we can do nothing but live our lives as we do: whether by fate’s preordainment or by our own choices.

After all, it’s not like we consider things only worthwhile if their completion is, in some sense, up to us: the last chapter of the novel you’re reading, the last scene of the film you’re watching was completed long before you ever turned the first page or switched on the TV. Yet, there may be considerable enjoyment in witnessing its unfolding. Even more obviously, the tracks the rollercoaster rides are right there, for you to see—but that doesn’t take away the thrill.

But still, my aim here is not to examine the psychology of arguing over free will (as rewarding a topic as that might prove). Rather, I am writing due to a particularly fierce recent bout of ML, brought on by finding myself suspended 100m above the ground, climbing through the steel trusses of Germany’s highest railway bridge, and wondering whether I’d gotten myself into this, of if I could blame the boundary conditions of the universe. Thus, perhaps this essay should best be considered therapeutic (then again, perhaps that’s true of all philosophy). Read more »