“By introducing possibilities of such action that go beyond what the situation would otherwise allow, God expands our freedom. Violence as we ordinarily understand it restricts the freedom of its object.” –John B. Cobb, Jr., process-relational theologian
Most of us have a decent understanding of what freedom is, or at least we think we do. In the U.S., for example, we value our freedom to choose our leaders, to speak our minds, and to generally make our own economic decisions. But, increasingly, I have become convinced that we have trouble imagining that which we have not experienced, and I am afraid that we have not yet experienced/tasted a broad, mature freedom in any sense of the term; in fact, far from it. Kierkegaard famously remarked that “people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” I think he’s onto something. Take for example the recent 2016 U.S. presidential election: how free could a people possibly be when the choice for leadership they’re presented with is between a hawkish, equivocating, status-quo-enforcing millionaire, and an openly racist, xenophobic, sexist, far-right, authoritarian billionaire? Relatedly, we certainly have the “freedom” to quit our exploitative jobs any time we want, but at the risk of losing the only income and health insurance we may have (two existential necessities), staying chained to our place of employment seems like the only real option available to most of us.
The point here is that it appears to me that we are bound by what we can envision and, for many, there is no way out of this oppressive recursive loop. Interestingly, even our thought experiments seem to bear this out.
The Trolley of Death
Imagine that you’re walking down the street and all of sudden become aware of a trolley which is absolutely barreling down the track. The trolley has no brakes, but there is no one on the trolley to stop it even if it did. Worse yet, looking ahead you are dismayed and completely horrified to see that there are at least 15 people tied up on the track. They would surely all die if the trolley hit them. Thankfully, you’re close enough to a lever that looks like it would switch the trolley to a side track. There’s just one problem: there is one immobilized person on this side track who would die if you pulled the lever to switch the tracks. You are faced with an ethical dilemma: Do you kill one person or kill fifteen?
For those who don’t recognize this thought experiment, it is a version of the relatively famous trolley problem found in most intro to ethics textbooks. I, for one, struggle with simplistic thought experiments like this for at least two reasons: 1) Full disclosure: I am heavily influenced by radical and creative streams of Christian thought that subscribe to non-violent/semi-violent/non-lethal, and/or anti-violent resistance (e.g. peace theologies such as those found in Mennonite, Quaker and some liberal/mystic Catholic traditions) and this logic that purports I must choose between “one bad thing” and “another bad thing” is very unsettling to me (I can’t tell you how many times, being a non-violent activist, I have gotten the preposterous hypothetical question: “you wouldn’t kill someone if they were about to kill your family and steal your dog?!?), and 2) this thought experiment does not take into account what I like to call the MacGyver Possibility.
Unconsciously Cutting Off Possibilities
For the wonderfully creative and intuitive 20th Century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, decision is one of the primary expressions of his ultimate reality: creativity. To quote theologian, Jay McDaniel, “decisions may be wise or unwise, productive or destructive, violent or graceful; whatever their nature, they are the very reason why things unfold as they do. From Whitehead’s perspective the universe is not simply an unfolding of abstract ideas. The world is not the outcome of mathematical formulas. It is the outcome of decisions.” Free creaturely decisions, I would add. For Whitehead, a decision is a subjective activity (which can be conscious or unconscious) in which some possibilities for responding to a given situation are excluded or cut off, while others are then actualized. For Whitehead, decision is the very meaning of actuality.
Continuing to think with Whitehead a bit here about possibility, actuality, and novelty, we might raise the subject of determinism. But, as I already indicated, Whitehead was an incredibly creative and intuitive thinker, and determinism was not something he could abide in his philosophy of organism. For many people, though, determinism is such an easy path to take because it seems obvious to assume that what is to come must come from what is given from the past. If this is the case then sadly, yes, the past exhaustively explains our present and we might indeed be living in a very depressing, mechanised, deterministic Universe. Whitehead thought differently though (thank goodness!). He understood that, yes, we are certainly receiving determinative “data” from the past, his term for this was “physical prehensions” or “causal feelings,” but, that’s not all that’s going on here. Whitehead speculated that we must also take into account “conceptual prehensions” as he called them, or “conceptual feelings.” These conceptual feelings, when mixed with the physical feelings, allow us to respond in alternative and creative ways in every moment and every situation. Whitehead talks about this as a “lure” for feeling, or as creatures having many “propositions” available before them. These “lures” or “propositions” (presented by the Divine in Whitehead’s scheme) are not only what makes novelty possible, but what allows our decisions to be genuinely free and the future to be indeterminate/open and/or not completely predictable.
With all of this in mind then, let’s think about logic for a second; specifically, binary or boolean logic. I must confess that I am not convinced that there are ever only two choices in any situation. What I mean by this is that I really do think there are humongous limitations in Western Aristotelian logic. For example, when we think about either/or situations, whether it is either “kill or be killed” or, in the case of the trolley problem above, “kill one or kill 15,” we naturally have already employed things like the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC: nothing can be both true and false at the same time) or the Principle of the Excluded Middle (PEM: every claim must be either true or false). We don’t even realize what we’re doing when we employ these conceptual blinders. We just habitually do it. And, essentially, what we’re doing is cutting off possibilities that we didn’t even know were there.
Alternatively, Eastern catuskoti rationalism, for instance, insists that there are at least four possibilities regarding any statement: true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false. This sort of logic, that doesn’t seem to be bothered by contradictions or inconsistencies, is closer to what I think-feel is the case, and I believe Whitehead (as well as a growing number of contemporary mathematicians) would agree with me. This synthetic, rather enlarged way to think about reality is interesting, but some may still ask: are there any practical examples of this sort of way to live in the world that we can reference? And is it really possible, in the end, to discover the possibilities we’ve been cutting off without even knowing it? If so, how?
Well, MacGyver shows us how. Yes, MacGyver.
MacGyver, Divergent Thinking, and Functional Fixedness
For those who don’t know, MacGyver was a 1980’s television show that focussed on the secret agent-like character Angus MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson) who worked for a fictional NGO as a “troubleshooter” and who was educated as a scientist of some sort. Each episode MacGyver inevitably found himself in perilous danger. The thing about MacGyver, however, was that he famously did not like guns, and favored non-violent/semi-violent solutions to the complex problems he was faced with each week. In other words, MacGyver was extremely resourceful and was able to use his superior knowledge of the physical sciences (and his trusty Swiss Army Knife) to solve difficult problems by making crazy things out of ordinary objects. Below are some random examples I found on the MacGyver fan wiki page:
- Pilot episode: “MacGyver plugs a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate. He states that chocolate contains sucrose and glucose. The acid reacts with the sugars to form elemental carbon and a thick gummy residue (proved to be correct on Mythbusters).”
- Season 1, ep. 4: “MacGyver pours oil all over the engine of an old Jeep to create a smoke distraction as the engine heats up.”
- Season 2, ep. 4: “MacGyver lights a fuse without a match by concentrating sunlight on the fuse with his watch crystal. He removes the crystal with his Swiss army knife and holds it so a fine point of light is focused at the fuse’s end.”
- Season 3, ep. 14: “MacGyver gets himself out of a wine cellar where his hands are bound to a barrel of wine by first opening the tap of the barrel with his head, soaking his hands with wine working as lubricant, and then using the compressed gas in 4 nitrogen cylinders binding them to a giant wine barrel on wheels running it through the brick wall.”
You get the idea. The guy is awesome.
I would suggest that one of the reasons MacGyver consistently seems to get out of perilous situations is because of his remarkable ability overcome what gestalt psychologists call “functional fixedness.” So, essentially, MacGyver is able to look at objects (or situations) and not get hung up on their typical functional purpose. Rather, he is able to see an object’s potential role in solving a problem. In other words, MacGyver demonstrates a remarkable lack of fixation. The objects in MacGyver’s environment can have many different purposes other than their typical purpose; to extrapolate on the words of theologian and Whitehead scholar, John Cobb (quoted above), MacGyver expands the freedom of objects around him.
What is also important to highlight at this point is MacGyver’s prior (and continuous) decision to not use guns and/or kill people; In my opinion, this is a critical prerequisite for the type of imaginative thinking MacGyver displays. In other words, because of MacGyver’s virtuous commitment to not use guns and kill humans, he’s forced to be more creative than most and, therefore, he has a completely new world, with different possibilities (conceptual feelings), open to him precisely because of the difficult decision he made in the past which he continues to honor. As a result of this, then, MacGyver might be classified by some psychologists as a strong divergent thinker. MacGyver is able to view objects as not merely objects but as valuable pieces of a larger puzzle that fit together to form larger tools. Objects don’t just have one or two purposes for MacGyver, and he doesn’t seem to be bound in the least to the restrictive boolean/binary logic we discussed above. This type of thinking, or restructuring, which again is the result of a prior creative decision, is what makes it possible for MacGyver to use creative nonviolent (or at the very least, semi-violent) methods to move from initial states to goal states (unlike Rambo, for instance, another fictional 80’s hero, who is the epitome of a functionally fixed thinker; Rambo solves problems by killing people with guns. Period. There are no other possibilities or options on the table for Rambo).
Creative Ways Forward (Not Backward)
Returning to current events, the recent U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump, a far right demagogue who promised to re-establish some pristine American greatness, demonstrates to us now more than ever why we cannot be blinded by nostalgia. Looking to the past for solutions to problems of today will be ineffectual at best and deadly at worst. However, I must say, whatever else it may be, the impulse to want to conserve, safeguard, and/or retreat back to a perceived safe, nostalgic and/or familial past isn’t insane; it’s instinctual common sense and completely understandable. But what should also be common sense to all of us by now is what Heraclitus observed so very, very long ago: that no person ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and they’re not the same person.
If we can accept this notion that reality is an ever changing, flowing river and concur with Whitehead that a pure conservative position may ultimately be “fighting against the essence of the Universe,” then we might also accept that the decisions we made “way back when,” in that pristine past, most likely won’t open up the same possibilities for us today that they did back then. This is not to say that we shouldn’t honor, learn from, and respect the past (the good things that happened, anyway), but it is a call to simply acknowledge that everything has changed since we first dipped our toes into that swirling water. For a concrete example of this we can look to economics. One way of describing Trump’s economic plan is to sum it up as “protectionist” or “isolationist” in nature. For instance, Trump believes that by tearing up or re-negotiating global trade deals, and slapping high tariffs on other countries that export goods to the U.S., he can somehow return manufacturing in the U.S. to its once proud status. Now, whatever value one puts on protectionist economic doctrines is beside the point. My concern (and what any slightly informed historian or economist might point out) is that that “great era” of manufacturing and economic growth in the U.S., that Trump is referring to, was largely the result of unique historical and cultural conditions that will most likely never again be duplicated. Manufacturing jobs are never coming back to the U.S. in the same way, I’m afraid. In other words, going backward is not an option. For better or worse, creative advancement into novelty seems to be the situation we’re in.
So, in thinking about our habitual tendencies to want to retreat into safe versions of a nostalgic past in the face of scary unpredictable newness, and how we constrict ourselves with binaries, cutting off possibilities without even knowing it, I believe that MacGyver and the philosopher of aesthetic feeling, Alfred North Whitehead, can be fantastic guides in helping us to think creatively about these varied, continuous and unique problems we will inevitably have to face. Further, perhaps by training ourselves to not just think creatively but live creatively, new worlds of possibility can be opened. To me it is obvious that artists and creative thinkers from across the ages have understood this for some time, and maybe they too can be our guides to living creatively. Rod Judkins puts it quite nicely in his book, The Art of Creative Thinking, when he writes that “Creativity isn’t a switch that’s flicked on or off; it’s a way of seeing, engaging and responding to the world around you.”
Remember the trolley problem? Well, my theory is that by adding MacGyver as a factor in the trolley problem, the outcome could indeed be novel because there is a significant chance that the 1980’s fictional TV hero could figure out a way to stop the trolley completely (or at least derail it somehow) using only a toothpick and a swiss army knife, thereby saving all 16 people. Imagine that! No imaginary humans have to die in thought experiments ever again. Hooray! Now sure, admittedly, we don’t all have comprehensive understandings of physics and chemistry like MacGyver, but living imaginatively begins very simply with the willingness to re-think what we think we know and constantly re-imagining our worlds.
Leaving room for the MacGyver Possibility makes complete sense coming from a process-relational perspective because, let’s be honest, we are always responding to, and being created out of, the process of endless becoming which is the world around us; this world arising from Creativity of which we are an integral part. We can’t rely on old “tried and true” solutions to fix the intense and complicated problems we face today, but if we can listen deeply, allow ourselves to be open to new, exciting, intense and, yes, risky experiences (e.g. it is indeed risky to not carry a gun on one’s person at all times because one never knows when a “bad guy” might jump out, but it is also a practical, lived demonstration of intense faith, vulnerability, and love to not carry a weapon), perhaps we can begin to look at things a bit differently, to re-imagine and begin to see that things (and people!) are capable of so much more than what we first thought. Whitehead says it better than I ever could: “Our minds are finite, and yet even in these circumstances of finitude we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite, and the purpose of life is to grasp as much as we can out of that infinitude.”
This article was originally published at Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism.