Freedom out of Control: Heidegger on Freedom and the Will

The following is a paper I gave at an internal university conference a few weeks ago. Speaking broadly, it is an attempt to convey my Ph.D. Thesis to non-philosophers.

§1 –  Freedom out of Control

We usually see the problem of freedom in one of two ways: either as a problem about the nature of the human (as in the question of whether or not humans have free will); or as a problem of the world (as in the political questions about whether or not we are free in our society). In a lecture course in 1930, however, Heidegger reminded his students that the problem of freedom is not about humans or about the world, but actually brings into question the relation between the two.

The problem of freedom is something that brings us, in our thinking, in opposition to the world. Are we determined by it or do we determine ourselves? Are we trapped by social structures or are we given room to manoeuvre? From this Heideggerian insight, we can see that in both forms of the question of freedom in contemporary thought, the world is seen as an obstacle to humanity that it may or may not be able to overcome.

Leaving aside the political version of the problem of freedom for now, I will make this point through the question of the freedom of the will. Today, we might say that this debate comes out of the apparent incompatibility of the world, as science understands it, and our desire to think of ourselves as free agents. As Heidegger also argues in 1930, this is ultimately a worry about causality. Science shows that every event in nature is mechanically determined:

  • Anything that happens, happens because something caused it to happen.
  • In understanding these causes, we can predict that things will happen before they do.
  • Thus, everything in the universe is determined, predictable and manipulable so long as we understand the causes.

For example, if we determine the mathematical equations that govern the movements of heavy bodies in the solar system through the laws of gravity, we can predict those movements and use them to our advantage, e.g. by using them to plot an efficient course through the solar system for a space probe using slingshots. Or, if we know the laws governing atoms and subatomic particles, we can develop the technology to manipulate those atoms to generate energy, as in the ITER cold fusion project, or to perform calculations, as in quantum processing. In the same way, we can find a way to control climate change, predict natural disasters, and, eventually, tame nature completely. If we have the equation, the technology will follow.

In such a manifestly determined and manipulable universe, how can we possibly think that human beings are any different? Human beings are part of the mechanical universe and, as such, must be mechanical themselves, albeit in a more mysterious way since we do not know how the brain works yet. But, the brain is a physical thing that operates under natural laws, the human is the brain, and therefore anything a human does is done under the rule of those laws. No human action is really down to the will of the human being, it is predetermined and caused by something else, be it the unconscious, the selfish gene’s instinct to survive, or the way that the electrical impulses operate in the brain.

This means that humans are as manipulable and predictable as natural objects. What are PR and Spin but the science of manipulating what humans think in the way that technology manipulates what natural objects do? We cannot do this as perfectly as with natural objects yet, but only because, as I said, we have not unlocked the secrets of the brain. But, when we do, human beings would not just be naturally determined, but also controllable by a will.

So, science demonstrates that the whole natural world is a) determined by mechanical processes and b) controllable if we understand it. This includes humanity. But, if we look at this again, a contradiction starts to appear. On the one hand, science seems to refute freedom, but on the other it seems to be the thing that makes freedom possible. Science, by understanding the principles of the world, gives us the power to control it. And, the power to control is all we mean by freedom. The free will is, traditionally, the idea that only I am the cause of my actions. I alone am responsible for my actions and destiny. I am under my control and not the control of anyone or anything else. So, we look to secure freedom in the world, outside of my will, by increasing the control that the will has over that world. We consider ourselves more free if we have control over our elected representatives, if we have control over our digital privacy, if we have control over nature so that natural disasters can be prevented, and if we have control over the biology of the human so that death can be prevented. Science and technology bring these things under the domain of our will, increasing our freedom.

In the end, it is no accident that the very enterprise that seems to prove that we have no freedom at all (because we must be pre-determined) is the one that gives humanity greater control and vice versa. Giving humanity greater freedom through control necessarily includes making humans controllable as well. Science brings all nature under the control of our will. But, human wills are a part of nature, and so the will of others becomes manipulable also; insofar as technology brings everything under control, it destroys the possibility of freedom. While seeming to be a source of freedom, greater control annihilates it.

This opposition is not just a matter of academic curiosity, it has practical manifestations. Consider the horror of the pioneers of technology at the Edward Snowden leaks, e.g. PRISM. For example, Steve Wozniak, one of the key technological minds behind the early Apple computers, when asked about the use of technologies he helped developed by governments to spy on citizens said:

I actually feel a little guilty about [it] – but not totally. We created the computers to free the people up, give them instant communication anywhere in the world; any thought you had, you could share freely [We thought] that it was going to overcome a lot of the government restrictions. We didn’t realise that in the digital world there were a lot of ways to use the digital technology to control us, to snoop on us, to make things possible that weren’t. In the old days of mailing letters, you licked it, and when you got an envelope that was still sealed, nobody had seen it; you had private communication. Now they say, because it’s email, it cannot be private; anyone can listen.

In truth, he shouldn’t have been surprised. The fact that these innovations encroached on individual freedom is part of the very essence of technology itself. It increases control and therefore brings humans under control, denying freedom. The real illusion would be to think that control brings freedom, if it is possible for you to control things, it is possible for you to be controlled. The problem of freedom ought not to read “can I be free in a determined world” but “can I be free in a controllable world”.

Now, this paper is called “Freedom out of Control”. The reason for this, is that (in opposition to the picture I have just outlined) I believe that Heidegger offers us a concept of freedom that is not understood in terms of the will, causality, power, or control. And, further, that this concept is visible in his first major work Being and Time (1927). The reason I emphasise Being and Time is that, in the secondary literature, there are those that argue that Heidegger is a voluntarist in that book and only comes to the anti-Technological/anti-Willing concept of freedom later in his career—that is, once he finished licking his wounds after his failed engagement with National Socialism. I find this view to be unjustified, however the themes I have spoken about (will, control) are not prominent in Being and Time. So, what I’ve given you is an introduction to the themes of the later Heidegger to give the proper context to the following discussion of freedom that might seem abstract and esoteric.

§2 –  Being-in-the-World

I started with the claim that our concept of freedom originates with humanity being opposed to the world. Is the world an obstacle? Am I under its control? It’s not surprising, therefore, that Heidegger’s radical rethinking of freedom is accompanied by a radical rethinking of world. Against the traditional notion of world,—that we are a mind that uses the senses to create a sort of copy of objects in the world in the mind, so I do not see a table, I see my perception of the table—Heidegger argues that we are always already in the world, alongside things and other people. This may seem obvious and it brings to mind the stereotypes of philosophers debating whether or not the chair they’re sitting on is really there and the voice of common-sense saying, “Yes, it is! Stop talking rubbish!” But, this claim, far from being obvious, goes against a weight of prejudices that are centuries old and condition how common-sense itself understands the world.

The usual way that we thematise our relationship with the world is, according to Heidegger, through the idea of a dispassionate observer looking at a static world made up of geometric objects, analysing them and identifying their nature. The word that Heidegger uses to describe this interpretation of things is usually translated as presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit). All things are fully present, at hand for the impartial observer. Heidegger argues in Being and Time that, while it is true that we can approach the world and objects in it this way, that this is a) not the way we usually do it and b) this way of looking at the world is actually a derivative mode of how we usually do. What we need to do, if we’re going to understand what the world really is, is to look at how we engage with the world normally and not when we’re doing philosophy. This is what he calls our everyday average understanding.

Heidegger shows that the way that we understand the world “proximally and for the most part” is as a working environment (Umwelt), where things are not encountered as “objects” with a set of properties, but as tools or equipment, or “stuff” (Zeug). The way that the world and the things in it normally give themselves to me is as things that can be used in such and such a way in order to do whatever it is I am working towards doing. Heidegger famously (over)uses the example of a hammer to illustrate this point. When I am using the hammer, it does not appear as an object called “hammer” with certain properties like solidity, heaviness, wooden and metallic. It does not really appear to me at all. In fact, I don’t really think about the hammer. I just use it. What I am thinking about is the thing I am building and the reason I am building it for. The hammer and nail and wood are there inconspicuously as things I need in order to make the table, which is that for the sake of which I am doing work at all. In short, this “for the sake of which” is what conditions my understanding of the hammer and the nail. If I wasn’t building a table, the hammer would have a different meaning. If, for example, I was going through my toolbox looking for a screwdriver, and the hammer was on top of the screwdriver, the hammer wouldn’t be “stuff for hammering”, it would be “stuff in my way”, but what is really on my mind is the IKEA bookcase I’m screwing together, not the hammer or screwdriver.

In short, we encounter the world pragmatically in accord with an aim we are working towards. This has two relevant implications. Firstly, the idea that things in the world can in some way determine my behaviour suddenly seems less credible, because I have already made or avoided some sort of decision about what I am going to do before the things in the world appear in the way they do (this is where Sartre’s philosophy of freedom comes from).

However, it also seems as though what we have is a hugely voluntaristic conception of the world. The world appears in accord with what I want to do with it. The term “for the sake of which” even translates the German word Umwillen, which is a modification on their word for “willing”. It looks like what Heidegger is saying is that the world manifests itself according to a choice that the human will has already willed. This argument is made in the secondary literature and I am working towards refuting it. My intention is to do so by counterbalancing this aspect of what Heidegger says with what he argues about “thrownness”.

§3 –  Thrown Projection

Heidegger describes human being as something that has been through into a situation and that projects itself out of situations. ((Entwurf)(Geworfenheit)). We have actually already seen what Heidegger has in mind by projection in the understanding in the example of the hammer. As Being-in-the-World, my understanding of things within-the-world is conditional on some sort of objective that I am heading towards. This objective is thrown ahead of me in projection and conditions my interpretation of the possibilities around me. A hammer has many possibilities (hammering a nail/breaking someone’s knuckles/being a paperweight) but it is my projection of myself towards building a table that allows the hammer to be encountered as something for hammering a table together.

So, what we have in the Heideggerian picture, is the human surrounded by possibilities that it understands by throwing forward a goal towards which it aims. But, and this is why we can’t call him a complete voluntarist, those possibilities are not created by the human, they are only encountered by it. The human is thrown into possibilities. It does not choose the time and context it finds itself in, it just gets dumped there. As Heidegger puts it, we have always “got roped into a set of definite possibilities” that we have to deal with and among which we can make choices.

This contrasts with the idea of finding freedom in control because, if we were to understand freedom in this way, then we couldn’t agree with Heidegger. We would rather say we cannot choose the possibilities unavailable to us yet. If there are possibilities not open to us, this is just a matter of technical insufficiency. Technology constantly opens up more possibilities until we will one day be able to do anything. But, for Heidegger this is not true because of how freedom works. Taking up one possibility precludes us taking up others. Opening one door closes another. The reason only certain possibilities are available to human is not because of some sort of lack, but is an intrinsic characteristic of the sort of being humans are: they are necessarily finite and necessarily only have access to certain possibilities at certain times.

§4 –  Freedom out of Our Control

For this reason, freedom is out of our control, from the Heideggerian perspective. We do not choose to be free (as Sartre puts it, we are condemned to be free). And, within that freedom, we do get to choose what options are available to us but only those. Further, choosing possibilities always involves denying others, making other things impossible. For example, because my choice of career and lifestyle, I have almost certainly precluded the possibility of being a rock star (if such a thing had ever been achievable for me in the first place). We cannot just be what we want to be, and that is not just because opportunities aren’t equally available to everyone (which is politically true and a bad thing), but because it is necessarily the case that our freedom is finite.

And, as we are ever more forcefully thrown into an age of technology, where most of the possibilities available lend us towards understanding ourselves as something essentially determined and manipulable, where technology besets (gestellt) us and our planet, forcing us to stand in reserve (Bestand) as “resources”, human or natural, where even universities, rather than liberating through education, are transformed into business establishments that must make profit in order to survive, it becomes unclear whether the possibility of a more desirable social system will become available.

In short, if we recognise the Heideggerian concept of freedom and think that there is something wrong with our culture—whether we call it nihilism with Nietzsche, capitalism with Marx, or, with Heidegger, the age of technology and the metaphysics of subjectivity—, we would need to recognise that this destiny is not under our control and that the possibility of change might not be available yet.

Further, if and when that possibility comes it will not be entirely down to human resourcefulness. Freedom, for Heidegger, necessarily involves our fate not being in our hands.

Freedom cannot be got out of control, and any freedom we can have would necessarily be out of our control.

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