Re-imagining the Self and Freedom from Distraction

Last Thursday, I visited the Ryerson and Burnham Library of the Art Institute of Chicago where I meandered the solitude granted by the bookshelves of cultural theory. Away from the hustle and bustle of crowded exhibits, I sat against a wall with a book on American History sitting in my lap. I savored the academic freedom of choosing what to study from a myriad of books and the personal freedom granted being far from the nature of the city and research lab. But, in the most fundamental sense, what is freedom? I personally greatly enjoy the freedom given to me by virtue of working in a dry lab. Since I perform my entire scientific research on a computer, I am not burdened by the physical limitations of experimental science, and there exist swaths of knowledge only a few keystrokes away. Does having more options and opportunities give us more freedom? Is freedom something that we should strive to achieve at all costs?

I would love to read some of Matthew Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head, if I didn’t have six other tabs open at the current moment (RescueTime only works to save my sanity so much). Crawford, a fierce critic of distraction culture, draws from philosophical rhetoric of Locke and Descartes to describe the way we, human beings, approach the idea of freedom. I am comforted by Crawford’s argument that technology only has a small responsibility of the reason why we are so enthralled by distraction. As I struggle to find a solace in the bombardment and conformity of information and ideas that prevail through today’s culture, Crawford’s wisdom helps me understand what we, human beings, truly find important from a humanistic point-of-view. Though his arguments are too complicated to be completely explained in the medium of a blog post, one might be interested in learning how the anxiety and worry that our individual autonomy needs to be saved from the clutches of authoritarian tyranny fails to appreciate the individual. Inspired by the advertisements that clutter our urban setting, Crawford chooses to explain social phenomena with heavy, fundamental philosophy.

When he’s not spending his spare time building motorcycles, Crawford explores from gamblers to chefs as he deconstructs the human self from our modern tendencies. Even though it the tendencies and currents of contemporary culture are often too complex and strife with external influences to be analyzed philosophically, Crawford’s reasoning backs up the description of our current society very appropriately. With a BS in physics and a PhD in philosophy, Crawford is one of the few researchers so strong-willed to put a question mark at the end of the most basic assumptions about freedom and opportunity that have been firmly ingrained into the Western mind. We can blame the Enlightenment for our notion that “more opportunities” implies “more freedom.” But should we throw away any idea of Kantian thought in our current work environment? Not so. According to Crawford, even the most elemental workers (such as welders and construction workers) can find a true sense of individuality under the authorities of society. Similarly, my desire to be free, that could possibly be granted by the isolation of a library in an Art Institute, might only be caused by my perceived regulations and limitations by higher-ups.

The modern discourse of the intersection of philosophy and science is strife with controversy and strong opinions, but one famous physicist had some interesting thoughts on individual freedom or, rather, free will. In Einstein’s interpretation of Schopenhauer, he writes:

My Credo[Part I]I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”

(Schopenhauer’s clearer, actual words were: “You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing.” [Du kannst tun was du willst: aber du kannst in jedem gegebenen Augenblick deines Lebens nur ein Bestimmtes wollen und schlechterdings nichts anderes als dieses eine.])

And, in light of this, Einstein formulated his famous discoveries on, well, light. Despite the enticing appeal of a physicist speaking about philosophical ideas that would create the setting for his greatest discovery, we must not be quick to jump to conclusions that questions about free will and human nature can ever be explained by science. However, those people who truly examine the way we approach science and philosophy have an important word on the rest of society. In tune with the philosophical undercurrents of society, Einstein’s reflections on the political events of the mid-20th century would later guide the movements for peace and humanism that, too, result from a relentless desire to be free. Under Einstein’s strong influences on social justice and disdain for the extravagance, we entered an age of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. And, as I lean back in my chair and sip coffee while running genetic analysis software in the comfort of my dry lab, maybe I should be grateful for not being able to do a thing.

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