The essence of man is freedom

Creation of the self


1. The essence of man is free-will. Not only is the last question a good one, but it is of extreme consequence to us. Insanity and suicide are not happy outcomes. To get a handle on what existentialists suggest is an answer to our situation, let's take another look at what makes our essences so "transparent" or unavailable to us, at least at first inspection.

Existentialists claim that the essence of man is freedom, or free-will. Free-will is the causal power to choose to do something even when all the antecedent causes point towards a fixed or determined behavior. For example, computers make decisions, but the programs within their systems determine their decisions. Given the program and the specific input, the output is determined or fixed; it can't be otherwise. But, with free-will, our minds can have certain predispositions and the input can be specific, yet the outcome indeterminate, given that we may want to choose another alternative. For example, I really like pepperoni pizza. I also know that if I have any, the going is very rough on my stomach. On most occasions, when presented with the option of having or not having pepperoni pizza, my appetite or desire for the taste of pizza gets the better of me and I indulge. Of course, I get what I paid for, and end up with an upset stomach. There are times, however, when I choose not to order pizza, but just have a simple salad. That is the wise choice. So, other than being a person who is dragged about by his appetites, I exercise free-will and choose a wise alternative. When that happens, I am all the better for my acting on a wisely chosen alternative.

When we are born, we are born with the latent power of free-will. We learn through experience in the world, how to use that power to adapt to the vicissitudes of the world. It is not until much later, if at all, that we begin to examine the nature of free-will itself and how it is the key constituent to the formation of the self. Our first glimpses of that power come through philosophical investigation as we did with Descartes. We found that something exists (we exist) and that we are thinking things, but the I of the "I think therefore I am" becomes very illusive when we try to pin it down. The reason for that is that in the primary stages of investigation, the I is this power of free-will.

Free-will considered in itself is "amorphous." It has no defining characteristic, for it is that power which brings things (selves) into definition. Let me give a rough analogy for aid of exposition. Consider two very large blocks of marble. One is a traditional block of quality sculpting marble. The other is the same material, but it is a block of marble with a very unusual property. It has the property or power to choose what it will become and slowly create that vision. Now, the first block of marble is simply that -- a block of marble. If it is to become anything, a sculptor must decide on the end product and must chip away at the block to sculpt the final shape. Suppose the sculptor chooses to do a statue of David. He decides on whether or not a hand will be raised, how the feet will be positioned to bear the weight, whether the head will be uplifted or not and so on. Having made all these decisions, he begins his arduous task of chipping carefully away at the block to reveal the David. In the beginning the block is a "nothing." In the end, it is a masterpiece.

The second block, in the beginning, is just that --a block of marble, a nothing in particular. But, it is more than that, for it has the sculptor within it. It can choose its own end and proceed with the chipping, or in its case flaking, which will end up with the David, or whatever it chooses to be. When it examines itself at the beginning, it finds itself to be nothing; it is a block of marble, nothing in particular, with a power to be something. As it thinks about what it can be and recognizes the power it has to choose one of those options, it recognizes itself only as a plan-to-be something. What it is is a plan-to-be something, which plan can be chosen. The free-choice is critical, for that choice determines what the thing is and will be. As the block is making itself into a particular statue, David, it can define itself as "the future David." When it reaches that goal, it can define itself as the completed David.

2. We are plans-in-action. So, what does this have to do with persons? We are free agents. We can determine what we are and will be through our free-choices. The process of choosing and becoming the chosen ends constitutes what we are. Take me for instance. I choose a long time ago to major in psychology. I went to graduate school in psychology, but ran up against some professors who did not want to ask the same questions I did. In a nutshell, we were interested in different things. So, while I was in misery taking psychology courses, I heard about some discussion groups in the philosophy department that dealt with the topics in which I was interested. I began to attend those groups and before too long, I switched majors and entered the program in philosophy. Looking back, we can see what occurred. I had chosen to be a psychology major, had entered into that training, but found the end not to be compatible with my true interests. I changed the chipping of the stone mid-way; I made a choice to become something else, a philosopher. Which I did, and am very happy that I made the choice.

3. We give value to ourselves and the things of the world. Some interesting things happened during this change. For one, what used to be of significant importance to me (the psychology lab) became of minor concern. I was interested in some of the experiments going on, but not the interpretation of the experiments. The professors were all strict behaviorists and wouldn't even talk about things called ideas or minds. "If it cannot be quantified, it wasn't worth dealing with," was the reply to many of my questions about ideas and minds. What attained new value were the discussion groups held by professors and graduate students about the nature of knowledge and minds. So, the world changed radically for me. What had once been something of considerable value (the psychology lab) now became of no more value than an interesting section of the psychology building. My friends also changed, for their interests were compatible with their professors. In other words, I became a new person with new interests. I was no longer a psychology graduate student, but a philosophy graduate student.

Note the two important concepts in the last paragraph. I became, through my free-choice, a different person. Secondly, the world around me, in virtue of that change, became different. Things, which were previously very important, became unimportant and vice-versa. At all times in our making ourselves, we are choosing or reaffirming the end which we have chosen. I had chosen to be a psychology major, but then chose to be a philosophy major. That choice radically changed the whole direction and outcome of my life, which was and is me. That is to say, for all practical purposes, the overall mixture of my beliefs were radically changed enough to say that if I had not become a different person, then I was at least a very different one. Also, the world around me changed. Things that I had once esteemed and valued now no longer matter that much. The psychology journals that I waited eagerly for, took a back seat to the materials I now found in the philosophical journals. I and the world around me changed. I had given myself a new definition and value, and had done the same to the world.

What is striking about this concept is that previously the only creature who could create something out of nothing was God. I am not saying that I am God, by any stretch of the imagination. But, the concept of creatio ex nihilo applies. In the beginning of my change to a philosophy major, there was only the idea of what it would be to be a philosophy major and the free-will power to choose that end. In the beginning, to borrow a will know phrase, there was nothing, along with the power to choose and create. What I did was to make myself and my world.

This concept of man's making himself and the world around him though free-choices is the heart of existentialism. It places the ultimate of agency in man himself. He is the source of power by which he will create himself and the world. Think of the world as a place in which a free-will agent appears. He has the power to create what he/she will be. The plan is entirely up to that person. That makes wisdom an important part of being a person, for it is through wisdom that a person makes himself. Of course, we are not born wise --there's the catch. We have to struggle with the world and the contemplation of what we are (our free-will and the ranges of choices available to us). It is that ongoing struggle and series of wise choices that produce beings of value in the world.

4. The crushing responsibility of being the author of oneself and the values of the world is enormous. The weight of being the creator of oneself is staggering. There is no other person or thing to blame for what we are or become. Simply put, we make ourselves and the world we live in. The value, which we and the things in the world have, comes from our efforts. We are responsible for the good, the bad and the ugly.

Let's take a look at responsibility. Do most of us really take responsibility for who we are and what we do? If you're like me, it's somewhere in between. Consider the following scenario, which probably has happened to you and certainly did to me. An assignment is given by a professor to read an article over the weekend. The article is to be discussed in class the following week. Well, Friday night is a given vacation, right? No one expects anyone to work on Friday night. And daytime Saturday is meant to have fun doing things outdoors with friends. Who would expect anyone to work on daytime Saturday? The same is true for Saturday night. That's the time to get out and Boogie. Saturday night is the last choice for doing any work. Sunday morning is made to sleep-off Saturday night. Sunday afternoon is the time put aside to do laundry and other odds and ends tasks. So, the only time to study is Sunday night. But, this particular Sunday night is Superbowl night, or the premier of the new movie everyone wants to see, or the first date with that special someone you've been trying to go out with, or one of your friends needs a partner to bowl, or --and the list goes on and on. You don't read the article. Class day comes around and you are not prepared. The professor --of all the rotten luck-- calls on you to give an analysis of the article. You try to fake an answer, but the old geezer has been through that too many times before and passes you on to find someone who has read the article. You feel like a dummy. BUT, you say to yourself, "It's not my fault. I had to go to the movies Sunday night, otherwise I would have missed the show I wanted to see. I am a victim of circumstance, not a slouch."

Yeah, right. Come on. You chose to go to the movies. No one made you go. That you end up looking bad in the class is not the fault of the professor for calling on you, it's not a case of bad luck, it's simply that you chose to go to the movies instead of studying. That you are worse off for your omission is your fault. You are the product of your own choices. To deny such responsibility is to present a facade self. Almost everyone has a facade self, though for most persons, that facade is trivial. The crunch comes when persons create facade selves and actually believe that these facades are the real or true selves. Once created, these facades are hard to remove. In fact, in many cases, the persons don't even recognize the facades for what they are. Sometimes it takes psychotherapy to enable the person to see the real self behind the facade. Here's an example.

A woman leads an organization against pornography. She is the first to show others how crude and terrible the pictures and videos are. She is the first to lead the TV crews into the pornshops and movie theaters. Everyone, including herself, thinks that she is a wonderful, moral person. However, she has one problem. She can't stop her crusades; she is always at war with anything that smacks of pornography. She cannot figure out why she is so angry and seeks help from a psychologist. After much therapy and when the psychologist thinks that she is ready, the psychologist gets her to begin to realize that rather than hating pornography, she really likes it. Her crusades were the only socially acceptable way that she could come into contact with the materials that she liked. Realizing this, she with the help of the psychologist goes on to decide what she will do about her likes; she confronts her real self and decides to be responsible for the actions of that self.

Imagine what it would be like to be that woman and not have the ability to change. That would be hell, to say the least. For a good rendition of that horror, take a look at a play by Jean Paul Sartre entitled No Exit. I won't tell you to much about it, save that what makes it a real horror story is when the persons in the play realize that they have no free-will and have to live with their facade selves for eternity. In fact, most of the material in this chapter comes from Albert Camus and Sartre. I highly urge you to read their works. For example, Camus', The Stranger, and Sartre's Existentialism and Human Emotions.

Existentialism insists on freedom and responsibility. In a world that is otherwise destitute of value, there is but one creature, man, who can create himself and give value to an otherwise valueless expanse of activity. Existentialism points the finger right at us and demands that we live up to what we can be. To do otherwise is not to live at all, but to be "just another brick in the wall." Creating oneself doesn't mean that we can escape completely from the vicissitudes of the world or death. But, it does mean that we can appreciate the value which we give to ourselves and the world, if just for the fleeting moment we have in it. We can look death in the eye and say that our lives have value no matter that death takes that world from us.

Let me close the chapter with an example of such a moment. The story involves a moral tragedy; that is a situation in which the alternative choices include tragedy for some or all of the participants. It is a story which has the time pressures of current life even though it occurs in the future. The moral of the story is that even though a person may do the right thing, the world may still not let him/her off the hook --out of the human predicament. However, the story exhibits the nobility of human action through free-will in the face of the world of antagonistic events which grind people under. It is a story of heroism and courage.

INSERT: "The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin. Story appears in Book #3 of The Road to Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn (New York: Mentor Books, 1979). Library of Congress Card Number 78-070642

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