A Short Piece

The Pillar of Knowledge, High in the Air, on Which We Are Free

Our freedom is limited and sustained by what we know, and what we know can be up to us.

Photo by Sebastian Kurpiel

Philosophers for centuries have struggled with the relationship between freedom and knowledge. If I know there is a million-dollar check in the mailbox, am I really free not to walk up to the mailbox and check? It would seem I am free to deny the option, but am I really? I mean, it’s a million dollars, and I probably need the money. Sure, technically I may have the freedom to turn down the check, but practically speaking, it really doesn’t seem I am free to turn it down. Or am I? Regardless, the thought experiment hopefully makes clear the complicated relationship between freedom and knowledge.

So how do freedom and knowledge not cancel each other out? Well, for one, I can’t be free if I don’t know anything; far from negate freedom, knowledge makes freedom possible. Knowledge extends the horizons in which freedom can operate, which would, at the same time, suggest that freedom is somewhat bound by knowledge (in the same way “rationality” is organized by “truth,” as discussed throughout O.G. Rose). But knowledge doesn’t just bind freedom, it also makes freedom possible by extending the “range” of topics relative to which we can exercise our freedom.

Often, when considering these philosophical paradoxes, we’ve emphasized how knowledge restricts freedom and failed to counter this point with how knowledge also makes freedom possible (except maybe during a conference about the importance of education). Knowledge is like a raised pillar, in the middle of which we stand. The pillar is high off the ground, and it is not possible for us to jump down from it, and so it seems like we are “trapped” on the pillar. But the pillar is also why we aren’t falling, and the pillar makes it possible for us to walk around in the air. Perhaps the pillar is miles wide? Perhaps it’s possible for us to make the pillar wider (by learning)?

Knowledge is a pillar high in the air that we are free to walk around on that we can make wider by learning. Yes, the pillar restricts us in one sense, but it also “supports” us in another. Without it, we wouldn’t be free; we would be falling.

Now, this presents us with a dilemma: since it’s impossible for us to know everything and have “perfect knowledge,” it’s impossible for us to have “perfect freedom.” Worse yet, the pillar on which we walk could be shaped by other people (like a totalitarian government), which means our “free range” (versus freedom) could be in service of others, a corrupt government, etc. without our realizing it. This suggests the value and importance of Foucault and the complex relationship between “givens” and “releases” (discussed throughout “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose), but those are different topics for another time. Here, I only want to help us see how knowledge is like a pillar that we can’t step off, but on which we can freely walk. We’re also free to make the pillar wider by learning, even if we ultimately can’t choose to leave the pillar entirely. This could depress us, but what can help keep us positive is to see the pillar not purely in negative terms. It also supports us.

Because I know there is a million-dollar check in the mailbox, I know I have the freedom to go to the mailbox or to stay home. I am not technically forced to take that walk, but I couldn’t have even made the choice to go if I didn’t know about the check. In this way, the knowledge gives me “the space” in which to use my freedom one way or another. Critically, I am technically free to jump off the pillar on which I stand and fall to my death, even if I am arguably not practically free, seeing as I would die (this brings to mind “The Underground Man” found in Dostoevsky, who attempts to prove freedom by denying basic mathematics). Similarly, I don’t have to walk to the mailbox, even if it feels like I must. The distinction between “technically forced” and “practically forced” is critical for seeing how “knowledge” and “freedom” can work in concert without cancelling one another out.

But come on, it’s a check for a million-dollars — am I really free to choose not to go to the mailbox? Well, I’m free to believe if the check is actually there: where there is uncertainty, there is uncertainty about “the pillar on which I stand” (suggesting that “truth organizes values,” as discussed in The Conflict of Mind). Alright, fine, but what if you knew there was a check like that in the mailbox — would you really be free to deny it? Well, there could be a bomb in the mailbox. Yes, yes, yes, sure, but if you knew there wasn’t?

Ah, well, this shows how the terms “technical,” “practical,” and “meaningfully” all blur, and furthermore this gets into the question on if freedom can resist something that is ultimately good (which is especially difficult, seeing as there is no such thing as a “bad motivation”). Indeed, a radical experience of goodness, beauty, and truth would suggest that freedom can be suspended (for example), and hence that we aren’t free to accept radical goodness, beauty, and truth, only to acknowledge it. This brings us though to the topic of how emotions save freedom and knowledge from each other, often tragically, but that is another topic for another time…

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