On the Freedom to Be Nothing

Submission from a friend

Abstract:While many today think that true freedom entails an unlimited version of self-creation there is little discussion on the necessity of an enduring identity for an entity to be free. The purpose of this paper is to address that need and demonstrate the logical contradictions that necessarily follow upon such a radical view of freedom. In its place the author seeks to propose an alternative view that is logically consistent and authentically Catholic.

The contemporary understanding of what makes an act moral is significantly different from the views once prevalent in western society. To analyze the differences between the once prevalent views and those which are frequently expressed in the public arena of today it is advantageous to study it in the context of a concrete application such as abortion. Studying the positions of both sides on this issue can elucidate their respective principles and logical connections. There are legions of secular and religious world views regarding abortion but for reasons of brevity it is best to limit the secular view point to that enunciated by the Supreme Court and that of Thomistic moral theology. Once the contemporary view is unfolded in regards to its logical connections and foundational principles then the Thomistic view will be contrasted with it. The conclusion of this paper will analyze of which system is more aligned with reality as it is. 

Attempting to provide a legal justification for abortion the Supreme Court stated: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The first fact to be noticed is the assumption that both the universe and a living individual capable of thought are regarded to exist in some concrete manner. The second presupposition is the individual is a unique type of being that is implicitly assumed to be human. It is assumed each human actively thinks and has the right to self-determination which is not limited by anything except the individual human’s thought and the legitimate self-determination of other humans. It should be noted there is no attempt to define what type of being a human is other one that that is engaged in some nebulous act of thinking. There is no real context which places the human being in specific and necessary relations to the rest of the universe. Rather everything outside the individual is defined in terms of human thought and has no intrinsic value in itself. “One has liberty because they think.” The label “human” is relegated to an entity that is actively thinking and does not include any being that merely has the potency for thinking. An extension of this is that only those who are known to actually think in the present are considered to have rights. Prior to the active mode of thinking and subsequent to its cessation the entity under consideration is not regarded as human and therefore has no claim to human rights. 

Another problem not considered is that the act of thinking cannot be detected through our senses unless it is communicated by an entity to another in physical act or spoken word. The mere presence of electrical activity in the human brain cannot conclusively demonstrate that the subject under analysis is actually thinking. The conclusion one necessarily must arrive at then is that the criteria for the bestowal of human rights under such a system is completely subjective in nature. In other words, rights are essentially granted to human beings by other human beings who have received the ability to grant human rights ad infinitum. Yet according to all scientists it is a scientific fact that humans have not always existed. Therefore the question arises as to how humans ultimately achieved this right of determining whether another human entity possesses the subjective criteria to be declared fully human arises. Merely because the determination is made by multiple humans of the highest authority does not change this concern.  If humans have not always existed then how did the first humans obtain human rights if they are something that must be acknowledged by other humans as meeting their subjective criteria? There is no way to answer this question without an appeal to a “pre-existing entity.” 

The intimate connection of the act of thinking with rights identifies the act of thinking with rights. Thoughts cannot be fully expressed unless acted upon in the exterior manner. Thus to inhibit the thoughts/ desires of another is regarded as potentially impeding their liberty. As humans have the almost unlimited ability to think of “anything” the conclusion is that they have the right to do anything that doesn’t impede what is subjectively determined to be the just extent of another human’s freedom. A corollary to that argument is that since humans have the ability to perceive reality as to be something other than what it is, then any restriction upon that ability is an infringement upon their liberty. There is no mention of any necessity of conforming to reality as it objectively is. Rather the context indicates that the human individual can only experience liberty when they can bring reality into alignment with their subjective conception of it. 

Due to this there is no provision for a common reality to which we all belong. Thus there can be no telos (the end purpose) for anything except that which a human individual deigns to bestow on it. Obviously, such a telos only has a transitory duration due to the transitory nature of human life. In some ways then everything is merely a label which has no permanence or definitive nature. There is no objective truth according to such a mode of thinking as the subjective mind is all that exists. Individuals are thought to have the right to conceive of themselves as they wish and to act according to that self-conception. They are merely a thought thinking of itself. A contradictory feature of this mode of thought is that the individual which thinks has no definitive nature and thus is what they conceive of their self at any given moment. Consequently they have no permanent identity. This conception of humanity provides no limit or content to human identity and has led to the conception of “women trapped in men’s bodies” and so on. They hold there are no absolute limits to human thought in framing of reality and the greatest good is the liberty to mold reality according their own imagination. The only way to obtain this good is to actively make reality align with their imagination of it. In a sense they create reality in their own image calling what aligns most closely with their desires good. Anything which opposes such radical attempts at redefinition of one’s self is considered evil with the degree of evil being positively correlated with the degree of obstruction to the individual’s desires. 

The contemporary view of the individual as possessing the unlimited right to conform reality to their whims is highly problematic. The Supreme Court statement has indicated that there are no limits to human rights except laws that protect the rights of other individuals. Thus it must be that they consider the right of the individual to be absolute when the individual is considered in isolation from other human individuals. This stems from a negative conception of liberty as a situation in which nothing can place just limits upon an individual except the rights of other human individuals. Even the Court itself is composed of individuals who presumably possess the same rights they have ruled others have. The first premise is there are no greater entities other than individual human beings. Otherwise it would be the case that humans were created for a particular reason and subject to the design of a greater entity. Since there is no appeal to an authority greater than that of human authority it must be the case that the Court regards humans as either having no cause, as causing themselves in an ultimate manner or being caused by inferior or equal entities. In any of these three cases it would be obvious that humans are free to do as they wish since they are not subject to other entities. 

In addition humans are regarded as essentially formless and therefore implicitly lack a permanent identity. This is the consequence of the Supreme Court effectively stating the individual is free to reconceive themselves if their reconception does not violate the “rights” of other individuals. All obstacles to human individuals transforming themselves into anything they desire are viewed as a violation of their liberty. There is no provision for the concept of human nature in such an ideology since the individual is regarded as essentially as having no permanent identity except an ability unrestricted by reality to reconceive itself and the entire universe. In that sense a human individual can be anything and everything. Yet a thing with no defining limitations, a something that can be anything, is in reality nothing. Only nothing has no defining limitation of its nature. Otherwise one poses a logical contradiction. One cannot speak of anything without limiting it to be one thing or another thing. Once a thing transforms into something else it loses its very identity and existence. If there are no defining limitations of a human individual then to speak of its dignity is meaningless. It is akin to pure potency but in actuality pure potency does not exist as it would cease to be pure potency and would be a concrete thing. Even God cannot become something other than God. In a sense He is limited by being Himself. Changing into something other than God is to cease being God. If one can become something other than they are then that identity didn’t belong to them in the proper sense to begin with. For one to lose their identity is to cease to exist. While humans are not in precisely the same situation as God, to become anything other than that unique human individual is not an exaltation of the human individual but rather an obliteration of the human individual. Essentially the Supreme Court is denying that human individuals have a permanent identity as that would impinge upon their right to liberty. This leads a denial of the reality of one’s own being. It leads to a denial of one’s purpose and declares that their life is ultimately meaningless which is illogical and leads to many psychological problems.

Obviously such a view differs from that of Thomistic philosophy. First Thomistic philosophy states that humans have a definite nature, place in the universe, and purpose. As such humans have a distinct identity that is rooted in objective reality. To share in human nature requires not the presence of actual of rational thought but the possibility of it. Since the human capacity to think entails the senses it is prerequisite to have a human body. To be human is defined not by subjective standards but objective observations that the entity has the possibility of engaging in human activity. Since humans have a definite nature as individuals each human being experiences a unique relationship with reality and therefore a singular telos. In some ways this is an obvious statement for it is rooted in the principle of identity. 

If something can possess the identical relationships with something else it must not merely be a clone but be identical. If there were two points of reality that were in identical relationships with everything else then they are necessarily identical. In other words there are not two things but one. Their relationship with each other would not be of two things but of one thing since to be identical their relationships would have to be identical as well. Rather the fabric of realty is so interwoven that nothing else can truly take the place of something else. This is due to all those unique relationships with not only what is immediate to each thing but what is distant due to those myriads of unique relationships that form the sum total of what we call reality. Yet if each relationship is unique then there must be a unique meaning to each and every entity that forms reality. Each relationship of every thing is not arbitrary as they are not random. Relationships flow from nature and not randomness. The very concept of relationships between things requires a certain degree of order. Order can only be perceived and created by an intellect. The order of all things can only be perceived and created by an intellect that knows all things. Intrinsic to the concept of order is purpose. For nothing can be ordered if it has no purpose. While each thing shares in possessing a unique purpose considered on a whole their purposes are united (though not identical) with that of the thing we call reality. The purpose of each individual rational thing can only be fully attained the fullest union with the Intellect that is the source of all purpose and order. The purpose of our intellects is to perceive order. In contemplating the source and order of all things our intellect reaches their fullest actuality which is our purpose. To become most fully ourselves we need to accept objective reality. To try to be something other than what we are can only lead to a denial of our very identity and purpose. If we miss our purpose in life we will always be unsatisfied as there will always be something missing. Our complete identity is only found in our fullest actuality which is only found when we completely embrace our purpose in life. It is only in that we can be completely ourselves.

According to the Thomistic philosophy the greatest happiness is found in conforming to reality as “embodied” in other things as well as the reality “embodied” in our nature. There are material and non-material aspects of humans that uniquely pertain to human nature. This entails that our bodies are an essential part of what it means to be human. If that is so then our bodies are an intrinsic component of our very identity as a human being. To reject our biological bodies is to reject our very humanity. Happiness is only found in fulfilling our purpose by living completely in accord with our nature. In a certain sense everything is dependent upon its nature. One aspect of human nature is potency for the act of reasoning- not only the act of thinking. In addition, an authentic presentation of the Thomistic view holds that human individuals cannot be adequately understood in isolation from their unique relations with other aspects of reality. As humans are mutable in their relations they are subject to change and ultimately have a First Cause that is causeless- namely God. Due to this unique relationship humans have with their Creator, human individuals have no purpose outside that of which is of Divine origin. Humanity is composed of concrete individual human beings that all have different relationships to each other and the universe. Thus each human individual has a unique purpose in the larger purpose of the total sum of reality. A corollary of this is that human individuals cannot be truly free without properly understanding their unique relationship with God. Human freedom can be obtained only through understanding the Divine purpose for humanity while simultaneously cooperating with it according to one’s particular concrete situation and unique relationship with God. 

The Thomistic view emphasizes that there is a defining limit and purpose to what it means to be a human individual. Such a limitation gives meaning and purpose to human life since it presumes a subject that has a permanent identity. This is in contrast to the view espoused by the Supreme Court which by defining liberty in a negative manner conceives the human individual as completely isolated from the restraints of nature. Such a mode of thinking obliterates the identity and consequently the freedom and dignity of the human individual. Furthermore, when a human individual is considered in isolation from its First Cause it has no purpose for its existence. Where there is no purpose there is no possibility of hope since hope requires an attainable goal. The Supreme Court’s definition of liberty as the ability to limitlessly reconceive everything also prohibits the possibility of attaining a permanent goal. Such liberty is merely the license for unending activity that has no lasting meaning or purpose. Under the guise of liberty the Court promulgated a doctrine that essentially denies any real meaning or purpose to the existence of the human individual. Is it any wonder it deems the murder of children as inconsequential? After all during the early stages of a baby in the womb it is difficult to impossible to determine whether they are capable of rational thought. Obviously babies have the possibility of rational thought but the Supreme Court requires more than that so their lives are forfeit. According to this mode of thought such children are not regarded as worthy of being permitted to live. Such callousness is the only logical outcome of such an ideology that denies purpose and an enduring identity. 

The same is true of the modern exaltation of sodomy and attempts to change the gender of human individuals. According to that mode of thought there is no consideration that bodies have unique and complementary purposes and therefore are not meant to be used interchangeably. When archaeologists find a primitive tool they try to determine its function by considering its design. That the purpose of something is inherent in how it was designed is common knowledge. To use something contrary to its design is to act contrary to its design. For example a cell phone makes a poor hammer but an effective means of communication. If someone were to use a cellphone interchangeably with a hammer they would lead a very frustrated life. If we regard something as basic as a hammer to have a unique purpose then why is the human body which is much more complex considered as not having a unique and more consequential purpose? After all, the human body is even more fragile in many ways than a cell phone. It too can be damaged or broken if not used in a manner consonant with its design/ purpose. To constantly use one’s body contrary to its design would bring much more dissatisfaction to a person than using a cell phone as a hammer. An individual’s body is much more an intrinsic aspect of their very identity than any cell phone could ever be. Therefore damage to one’s body would cause much more damage to their very identity than any injury to a mere material possession. Since the body is an intrinsic part of the identity any use not in accord with its design would also injure the non-material part of a human’s identity. Injuring one’s self never takes the pain away but only magnifies it. To frustrate one’s purpose is to destroy one’s identity. Destroying one’s identity doesn’t lead to a metamorphosis but rather to more pain and degradation. Such tenets lead to a debasement of the value of the human individual and encourage an unrealistic vision of happiness that can never be obtained in any permanent sense. If the grass can always be greener on the other side of the fence then there is no way one can ultimately attain the fullness of happiness. Sadly, such modes of thinking teach people to hate what opposes their futile pursuit of happiness. In doing so they reject the only means by which they can find lasting happiness.

In closing it seems paramount to acknowledge that true freedom can only be found by living a life in accord with a definite purpose rooted in the totality of reality- particularly the reality of one’s nature. If we fight reality or human nature, we destroy ourselves. True freedom is found not in being “anything” but in living out our unique purpose and reaching the fullness of our identity. It is only in accepting the truth presented by reality and becoming all that we are meant to be that we can find true happiness and liberty. The Thomistic view in its defense of human nature and the necessary limitations objective reality places upon us through natural law makes it clear that an authentic definition of human freedom needs to be based on a correct ontological understanding of what a human individual is. Ultimately our purpose is only found in a unique communal relation with God.

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