Everyone knows what freedom is; everyone knows what it is to be free. That is until it is realized that distinctions such as freedom to and freedom from make it a bit more difficult to know what precisely the term freedom by itself might actually indicate.
Can there even be a definitive and all-encompassing characterization of freedom?
After all, freedom is not a thing in the way that a circle is a thing. A circle can be relatively easily defined formulaically, largely because it is a rather simple thing in itself – even if it were nothing but a concept.
Freedom, of course, is a concept, but, rather than a thing in itself, freedom at first blush seems to pertain to relationships within contexts and, therefore, not things by themselves and, so, not things in themselves.
Then again, there is one thing which some people regard as free in itself. And that thing is what is commonly referred to as God.
For the purposes of this brief investigation into freedom, it does not at all matter whether God actually is. It does not matter, because what is being considered here are the ways in which terms such as freedom and free are often used. That is to say that if free were appropriately applied to even one thing in or by itself while at all other times it were only appropriately used with regards to relationships, then it would be prudent to consider how and whether free-in-itself might be informative about or pertinent to freedom-in-relations.
The freedom of a thing in itself and by itself can be conceived of and described in terms of the possibilities said to be available to that thing. For instance, with regards to God, if there never are any restrictions whatsoever pertaining to what God could do (not even restrictions which God set), then there would be no limits whatsoever to God’s freedom.
Of course, the concept referred to as freedom does not always or only mean to indicate an utter absence of restrictions. Humans act within contexts, and contexts are – or provide – restrictions. Despite these restrictions, the term freedom is still supposed to be applicable to some conditions.
This means that the utter absence of restrictions can be regarded as an extreme form of freedom without there being a need for any insistence that anything less than this extreme form is non-freedom. The extreme form can be referred to as radical freedom in order to distinguish it from the freedom that might occur within more restrictive contexts.
There can, of course, be an opposite extreme at which restrictions are such that freedom is altogether precluded.
The conditions which would restrict freedom are described very often (maybe even most often) in terms of compulsion or control. For example, it is common to regard as not-free something (a person, for instance) which is completely controlled by things or factors other than its own self. A condition of less than complete control could be a condition in which influences are present or operative, and there can even be degrees of influence less than complete control, but, to the extent that the influence is not complete control, there can still be freedom.
There is, however, a significant figurative aspect to the term control which tends to effect a lessening of distinction between the terms control and compel, particularly as the degree of influence approaches complete control. This indicates that, with regards to freedom other than the radical variety, the relationships which pertain to whether or to what extent there is freedom are not to be considered only in terms of the context at issue (as if the relationships which constitute the context are a static cross-section of some sort). Rather, those relationships and their context are also to be considered in terms of how such a context relates to other contexts – those of the past upon which it is dependent as well as those others of the future which are or would be dependent upon the context under consideration.
For instance, it is commonly presumed that there is no freedom with regards to past contexts. Even if those contexts had been such that there was freedom associated with them, there is no such freedom now. Presumably.
On the other hand, it is not so commonly presumed that the future is like the past with regards to freedom. Even if there is no more freedom with regards to the future than there is with regards to the past, the future at least seems – on the face of it – to be somehow more endowed with freedom than does the past. It is because of just this very “seeming” that the future gets spoken about as if there is a contextual freedom which is absent from contexts which are past.
This is just to say that, while the past seems to be a settled matter, a wholly determinate condition, the future does not seem to be settled. The future seems to be indeterminate. The past might have been unsettled prior to its being past, but its condition as past is a condition now devoid of unsettledness – which is to say that the past is utterly devoid of indeterminateness whereas indeterminateness seems to be rightly assigned to – if it is not in some manner genuinely constituent of – the future.
Based upon the above noted distinction between past and future, it seems that indeterminateness may well be necessary for there to be freedom (which would be to say that conditions in which there is no indeterminateness are conditions in which there is no freedom).
However, there are some metaphysical systems which, in essence, deny that the future is unlike the past. Such positions essentially deny that the future is any less determinate than is the past.
Eternalism, for instance, asserts that the past and the future are ontologically on par. For the purposes of this discussion, that is simply to say that the future is no less settled, no less determinate than is the past, which is to say that everywhere and everywhen are utterly settled, wholly determinate conditions. The non-eternalistic, strict physicalist sort of determinism is another position which holds that the future is essentially or effectively every bit as utterly determinate as is the past.
While some versions of both eternalism and determinism would be quite at ease in denying that there is either any more freedom to be associated with the future than with the past, other versions insist that the utter determinateness of all reality – including the future – does not eliminate freedom.
Those versions which deny that there is freedom can be described as being consistent with the assertion that indeterminateness is necessary for freedom; there is no indeterminateness; therefore, there is no freedom. On the other hand, those versions which assert that utter determinateness does not preclude freedom are clearly in the position of claiming that indeterminateness is not necessary for freedom.
Most often the claim that there is freedom without there ever being any indeterminateness is based on the notion of contingency, and this contingency is most often expressed in terms of things, usually events (and, in particular, human acts), which – logically speaking – could have been otherwise. Of course, it is every bit as much of a logical matter to note that, for some event or thing to be (or to have been) otherwise, there would have to be contextual indeterminateness (in which case the claims for utter determinateness would fail to hold).
This is to say that contingency is effected by indeterminateness.
This leaves the argument for freedom within an utterly determinate reality (including a wholly determinate future) to resort, as it frequently does, to discussing human acts in terms of whether they are coerced or controlled by anything other than the person who does the act.
However, even if it is assumed that in an utterly determinate reality (including a wholly determinate future) there is nothing external to a person which controls or coerces at least some of that person’s actions (where control and coercion are distinct from mere influence), it is anything except apparent that the person is free to act or do as the person does.
It is certainly true that if a person’s desires or will coincides with what the person does then the person’s desires or will are not frustrated; the person will be free from frustration as a result of the coincidence, but freedom is not the lack of frustration.
Someone who is not subject to external control or coercion could be described as being free from external control or coercion, but such a freedom-from is distinctly different from (and is not itself sufficient for there to be) a freedom-to (act).
The lack of external control, the freedom-from external control, might be necessary for there to be a freedom-to, but such a freedom-from does nothing to negate or replace indeterminateness (regarding what a person is to do) as a necessary condition for the person to have the freedom-to.
In fact, indeterminateness regarding a person’s future actions actually provides for the freedom-from external control, and, since indeterminateness can be necessary for freedom-to in a way that freedom-from is not necessary, it is very clearly the case that indeterminateness is necessary for freedom(-to).
This being the case, where there is no indeterminateness, there is no freedom (to act).