Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Divine Puppet Show

"Physical freedom means that there is nothing to hinder me from acting as I choose to act." Augustine: On Free Choice and the Will, translated, edited by Thomas Williams

As a vital current in Western thought, the subject of freedom and will are no small issues. From ancient times, the thoughts of Aristotle, philosopher, influenced theologian Augustine of Hippo to write a slim, but in-depth treatise on this subject. While only 129 pages, one is likely to read parts of it again and again. Thomas Williams makes an English translation of Augustine: On Free Choice of the Will, noting that this one discourse, more than any other by Augustine of Hippo contains all his essential points including freedom, will, human nature, deity, ethics and more.

On freedom, Williams records Augustine's thought as sorting through the many senses of the word. For example, one sort of freedom may be the lack of restraint; another may be construed: since I am not in prison, I may, for example, leave at any time. This is physical freedom. On the other hand, Augustine notes there is also a freedom which he calls metaphysical freedom. It is this freedom which his treatise mostly concerns itself.

Metaphysical freedom is said to be 'deterministic.' Determinism states that for every choice I make, there are multiple and often competing alternatives, including prior states of the universe over which I have no control. While I may be physically free, not tied up or otherwise prevented from movement, I seem to lack freedom in a more urgent, vital regard. For example, I am free to do my own choosing, but the choices themselves are not with liberty (I can for example, choose in an emergency situation to crash my car into the car suddenly in my lane speeding towards me, the lane with cars traveling in the opposite direction, or into a large tree in an effort to save myself). The freedom to choose something that is accomplished in a way so as to be un-determined by anything beyond my personal control is called metaphysical freedom.

Metaphysical freedom is a philosophical position that places human beings in a libertarian position. While this idea of Libertarianism enjoyed its heyday, nowadays many philosophers follow a more existential route, and no more consider human freedom in terms of Libertarianism. Today it is fashionable to enshrine the limits of human freedom within the physical realm. Augustine however is, and remains, a great defender of the Libertarian point of view. It is chiefly this view which he, as a theologian, brings into the Catholic Christian church. According to this view, human beings are endowed with an energy he calls, the will.

As the commander of our self, we may roam wherever; there is free choice. All options may, at times, be considered: the good, the bad, the indifferent. The will is unaffected by external factors. Only the will can itself determine to choose. This freedom allows us responsibility for our actions alone; more often however, it's internal issues which provoke our choices of will. Things such as feeling, desire, fears, and wishes are what the will factors from within. As for causal events, one cannot have control, nor over that which occurred prior to one's birth, so Augustine also and finally rejects Compatabilism and Determinism in favor of  Metaphysical Freedom alone as prime.

Due to our metaphysical freedom, we are therefore able to make real change in the world, real contact with the physical, the rule of nature. To some extent, we write our own scripts, live a life, play our own role in the "divine puppet show." So what does this have to do with Simple Mind or Zen? Everything. If we view the world as actors or as re-actors, there imputes great influence upon our social and spiritual lives; our view directs and influences our senses, responsibility and our mental states. Our fault-finding and base assumptions start here as well. It is the cornerstone of every conscious action undertaken, argues Augustine.

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