The Freedom of Plasticity, The Freedom of Limits


I've been ruminating lately on the word "freedom." We think of freedom as a good thing, because we know one of the great steps ahead we have made in our eternal progression is to have a fuller agency than we had heretofore ever experiences in our immortal existence. Indeed, we are taught that the great war in heaven was over agency, and whether mankind would have it or not. We also know the critical question of this mortal life is how we will use our agency, and that our postmortal prospects will be evaluated according to how we have used that great gift of agency.

Of course what this means is that agency without limits is no longer agency; it's nothing. That's part of what Father Lehi was trying to impart to his offspring before he died. Without limits, or the "Word," all would be "a compound in one." What we chose would have no meaning. We would be as lower life forms, going through life by instincts outside of any law other than the instinctually-imprinted commandments to survive and to procreate.

Throughout most of human existence, limits were ferocious. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse saw to that. Indeed, for most non-elite persons, life was what was handed to you by birth, time, locale, and genetics. There were still some important dimensions of agency, such as how you treated your family and neighbors, but there may have been little other possible expression of it.

Modern technology has loosened those limits. As Carl Trueman puts it, "In 1400, the world seemed fixed, stable, and solid. Today it seems as pliable as Play-Doh." There is a plasticity to our world and to our very selves that now permeates our culture.

So are we more free now than we were before? Or does this "Play-doh" world move us in the direction of Lehi's "compound in one"?

That's a complicated question, isn't it, because it could go either way. Here's more from Trueman on the subject:

"To put it bluntly, the modern cultural imagination sees the world as raw material to be shaped by the human will. Perhaps the most important factor in shaping this has been technology. To return to the medieval farmer: his life was utterly dependent on the soil available in his locale and upon the rhythm of the seasons.

"Today, irrigation means that we can farm in the desert; greenhouses, insecticides, and fertilisers mean that the soil and the seasons lack the omnipotence they once possessed. Nature’s authority has not been eliminated, but it has been significantly mitigated.

"The same goes for medicine. Diseases that were once death sentences can now be addressed with simple medications. Some, like polio, have even been eradicated. And geography is no longer the force that it was: with cheap transport, public and private, distances that were once measured in days or weeks can now be measured in hours.

"From agriculture to medicine, from automobiles to computers, technology is not simply a means of doing perennial human activities with greater speed and efficiency. It changes the fundamental relationship of human beings to their environment and to each other. Neither the seasons of the year nor the geography of the land are as significant as they once were. Technology shifts the balance of power from nature toward human agency and the competition between agencies.

"Technology also reinforces the focus on the individual, and on individual satisfactions. Take something like music, a basic part of human societies throughout history and across the globe. In the past, music was always a live, and often a communal, activity. Somebody had to be playing music for it to be heard; and somebody had to be present in order to appreciate it.

"Now we can listen to whatever music we choose, whenever we want, and, perhaps most significant of all, we can do so in privacy. Music has been transformed from something with a primarily live and communal focus (live concerts notwithstanding) and has become most commonly an item of consumption for the individual. If expressive individualism has come to focus on personal satisfaction as the meaning of life, technology has served that cause well.

"All of these things contribute to, and reinforce, a cultural imagination that tilts toward seeing the world simply as “stuff,” the future as something we can make in whatever way we desire, and nature not so much as a fixed reality as something that is to be overcome and remade through technical mastery.

"If the modern person considers himself to be something he can create for himself, so he tends to extend that same notion to his relationship to the world in general. We no longer think of ourselves as subject to the world’s fixed nature, or of it as having an objective authority or meaning. We are the ones with power, and we are the ones who give the world significance."

When we feel the most powerful, then, we are arguably the least free. When all freedom means is the ability to satisfy our desires, we've lost it. 'No limits' ironically leads to slavery, not joy. Ask any woman who has participated in the sexual revolution, and she can tell you the truth of that statement.

True freedom, then, is more like self-chosen regulation, self-chosen limitation. While some may imagine the Gods as omnipotent, I do not believe that is strictly true. While they may have all power, the Gods self-regulate. There are bounds they will not breach. To be all-powerful and strongly self-regulated is to enjoy the pinnacle of freedom. And the unifying dimension that sets the bounds utilized in self-regulation is love, of course. There is no other way to truly become free.

I suppose all of the foregoing is simply to say, CTR. Happy sabbath!