The Tyranny of Autonomy

There is a new terror which we must confront: the monster of our own liberty.

First, however, we must ask, how free is God? What precisely can God do, and what can He not do? What sort of abilities and freedoms does God enjoy? I think that, if we think carefully about these things, we will realize that the Modern Man endeavors to become freer than God, and in so doing, finds himself fettered in chains.

We envy God’s power, His capacity, His potency, His ability to do work. We admire the engineer for his efficiency and his conservation of his resources and time. God is wasteful: He stretches the cosmos across billions of lightyears and populates it with as many stars as there are grains of sand, only for it to be appreciated by a small cluster of specks of dust upon this miserable rock—a canvas so wide we cannot even see it all, yet still, He paints.

Then He stopped painting. He rested. Why did He rest? He was not tired; the work was simply done. Now He sits back and enjoys His handiwork. This the engineer has in common with God: delight in a job well done, and this is very appropriate. Yet, the engineer is constrained by his limitations. Does God have these?

Can God create a stone so heavy that not even He could lift it?

This question is a trick of language. The grammar is there, but there is no meaning. This question seems profound, but its contents are empty. Incoherent, irrational, absurd. How heavy would such a rock have to be? Why, heavier than the entire universe, since the whole universe fits in the palm of God’s hand. Oh, but God does not literally have hands, but neither does He have muscles. God is strong, but this has nothing to do with lifting stones. All stones are at the beck and call of His majesty. If He commanded Everest to jump, the old mountain would ask, “How high, O Lord?”

So, is God limited by the laws of logic, then? Well, let’s assume that He is not. If God is not bound by logic, then God can create a stone so heavy that not even He could lift it, and then He would lift it. This was the belief of philosopher René Descartes. Despite my admiration for Descartes, I must propose an alternative answer. It is not that God is “limited” by logic. Logic is simply a description of the way God thinks. It is consistent with His character, a reflection of His nature, a mode of thinking. He “agrees” with it, so to speak.

We humans, on the other hand, find ourselves oppressed by a layered cake of laws: the laws of etiquette, the laws of the state, the laws of physics, the laws of morality, and the laws of logic. These shackles chafe against us daily, and daily we devise ways to rebel against them. There are two popular strategies to this effect. The first is to deny the existence or the objectivity of one or multiple sets of these laws. The second is to deny freedom itself.

Consider the laws of etiquette. Manners exist to make interacting with people easier. Many rules of etiquette exist in order to give a person a behavior template of sorts, a list of expectations that, if they are met, increase one’s social credit. For example, in Germany, it is considered poor manners to get drunk when you are at a bar with your friends. The rebel might say, “This rule is stupid. Manners are all made up, anyway. I will get drunk if I please!” And he is right: he is free to get drunk at the bar with his friends…and then his friends are free to never invite him out for drinks ever again.

Do you see what happened? He was free, and then he used his freedom in such a way that his freedom decreased. He was free to get drunk, but now he is no longer free to drink with his friends. They don’t want him around when they’re at the bar anymore, and who could blame them? Their friend showed no regard for the laws of etiquette, and breaking the law has consequences.

This brings us to the laws of the state. Laws, just like manners, are social constructs. We made them up to suit our needs. When properly written and executed, laws provide societies with order, stability, and justice. There are all sorts of ways one can limit one’s freedom in the attempt to increase it by violating state law. “The speed limit is a ridiculous law. I will go as fast as I wish. I have the right to do what I want with my own vehicle.” Indeed, and the ensuing consequence can either be a fine or a car crash, and possibly the death of one or multiple persons. The freedom is there, and so is its destruction. In fact, the destruction of freedom is brought about by the very attempt to increase it, as before. A thief finds himself in prison. The murderer finds himself executed. The reckless driver finds himself fined, his license revoked, his body crippled, or his body buried.

We come now to the laws of physics, which are so brutal and unbending, that we are hopelessly unable to violate even one precept of physical laws. The best we can do is ignore them, but they still restrain us. It is like the madman in prison who convinces himself that he is free because he ignores his chains, but chained he remains. The closest I have seen anyone come to rebelling against something like gravity is to challenge the way it is understood or the language used to speak about it, but this is little more than word games and moving goalposts around. It does nothing to challenge the reality of death that results from leaping off a tall building.

What about the laws of morality? These are deserving of an entire series of posts on their own, but what I will say here is that we have two options: either God exists or there is no such thing as objective moral values and duties. What that means is that if God exists, then I can say that murder is really wrong for everyone, everywhere, always, no matter what, and that statement is either definitely true or definitely false for everyone, everywhere, always, no matter what. If God does not exist, then I lack any ability to make moral judgments that are objective, binding, or universal. I would only be able to make subjective statements about morality, similar to subjective statements I might make about a movie. Perhaps I enjoyed the movie, or maybe it bored me. My taste is subjective. My taste has nothing to do with whether the movie itself was good or not. The same goes for morality if there is no God: without God, morality is reduced to matters of taste.

Does that sound disagreeable? It should. We are right to say that rape is always evil, every single time, in every instance, regardless of anything else that is going on, but we can only say that if morality is objective, and we can only say that if God exists.

Naturally, a lot of people find that disagreeable.

It is disagreeable because it produces the same paradoxical phenomenon of reduced freedom resulting from a seeming increase in freedom. Think about it: if you deny the objectivity of morality for any reason (perhaps you genuinely believe morality is not objective), then you lose the freedom to say that something is really wrong. Sure, you can say that something is really wrong in subjective morality, but it would never be true. Moral condemnation becomes impossible. Moral outrage becomes unjustifiable. Demanding others to change their behavior becomes no different from demanding others to enjoy different music or foods or people. Murder is not evil, in this view. It is merely someone acting out of fashion. Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable, but it is not evil.

What this means is we cannot reject morality or declare it to be subjective (or worse, declare it relative) in order to get away with doing things with which others might take moral issue. We are not free to increase our freedom in this way because our freedom would be significantly reduced as a result. But then the laws of morality remain intact, and the perceived limitations that come with them.

Can we increase our freedom by breaking the laws of logic? We cannot. Not even God can break the laws of logic, and we are not more powerful than God. The best we could do is deny the reality of the laws of logic, but this would lead to every absurdity imaginable. Without the fundamental laws of logic, everything becomes true, even things that contradict. Thinking grinds to a halt. Critical reasoning becomes impossible. The world ceases to be intelligible. Indeed, our minds are incapable of abdicating logic from our thought processes.

So, to review: one can refuse to obey the laws of etiquette and limit his freedom, he can refuse to obey the laws of the state and limit his freedom, he can refuse to obey the laws of morality and limit his freedom, and he is powerless to disobey the laws of physics and logic.

This has led some people to claim that human beings are not truly free at all. Physics and logic press down on us from all sides. Surely their laws are so brutal and so absolute that they must ultimately determine our actions in some way. This led Sam Harris in his book Free Will to say, “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and action, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” Well, there comes another problem with that:

Not even God has that kind of freedom.

Harris is right: no one is free in the sense that he describes, which Alvin Plantinga calls “maximal autonomy.” No one has maximal autonomy, because we cannot control our past, our genetic makeup, or our character. We cannot control which parents we have, or what country we were born in, or what year. Because all of these things influence our decision-making, none of our decisions can be said to have been made freely. Thus, free will is an illusion.

If you have read one of my other posts discussing modern feminism’s mottes-and-baileys, then you might recognize what is going on here. Harris and other determinists who think like him have pulled a bait-and-switch. They have taken the conventional understanding of free will—the ability to act differently from how one actually acts—and swapped it with their own idea, that of maximal autonomy, and then they say that because we do not have maximal autonomy, we do not have free will at all.

This seems quite absurd on the face of it. I am currently wearing a black shirt, and so the statement “I am wearing a black shirt” is true for me, but I can render the statement false by taking off my shirt. That I am wearing a black shirt is up to me to render true or false. This is sufficient for free will in the normal sense, the kind of freedom we need for moral responsibility. The statement “I am not a murderer” is true for me, and I can render it false by committing murder. Because I could have freely chosen not to murder, even though I did murder, anyone would be morally and rationally justified in saying I should not have murdered, and thus I am morally responsible for my action.

So, what does all of this mean? In one sense, the quest for a fully realized autonomy is riddled with obstacles, barriers, limitations, and restrictions. In truth, maximal autonomy might actually be impossible. There are many things we simply cannot do, either because they are logically incoherent (like drawing a one-ended stick), or because they are physically impossible (like flying without assistance), or because they are immoral (murder), illegal (speeding), or rude (calling me ugly, which is not true; I am very handsome). This is why I do not value autonomy as something worthy of pursuing. Instead, I advocate for liberty.

What is liberty?

“Liberty is a right of doing whatever the laws permit.”
—Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French judge, man of letters, historian, and political philosopher.

Montesquieu is not referring merely to the laws of the state. He is referring to them all: logic, ethics, physics, the state, etiquette—whatever these laws permit you to do, you have the right to do it. True liberty does not require being free from all restraints (it isn’t maximal autonomy). It is, as Montesquieu said, “in the power of doing what we ought to will and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.” If we have the ability to do whatever is right and appropriate, and we are not forced or compelled to what is wrong or inappropriate, we have liberty. Not completely free in the sense of maximal autonomy, but still significantly free.

That is enough for me.

Hello. I am Nok. I like music, philosophy, and books.