Sunday, February 22, 2009

Condemned to be free

"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." -- Jean-Paul Sartre

The realization that there is no rational reason to believe in God is quite a liberating one. The realization that the reasons we usually use to justify a God are logically hollow is comforting and reassuring. They make you feel free and light.

Freedom doesn't come without a price though. You start to feel this immense sense of responsibility. You, and only you, are responsible for your actions. There is no God to whom you can conveniently put the blame on when things go wrong. Things aren't as God meant them to be, and not everything happens for the best.

Suddenly, the meaning of your life isn't something you are given, but something you have to ask and determine yourself.

Humans want freedom, but I don't think humans equally want the responsibility that comes with it. It is as if humans want to be controlled, to be ruled over, because that makes them responsible for less. This perhaps explains part of the universal fascination with super natural and controlling Gods.


  1. yes well written i think you are student of philosphy ,r u ?

  2. No Yaseen, not a student of philosophy; not formally anyhow :-)

  3. I think that man believes in a fate for the very reason that he doesn't feel free. Conventionally religious societies do not allow alot of individual freedom, and since societies rarely blame themselves, the blame goes to God. "Khuda ki marzi thee". That's what a girl believes when she is pressurized into a marriage she doesn't want, for the simple fact that by putting it on God, there is some hope that you will find peace of mind, but by putting the blame of society and being helpless about it, you will keep seething in resentment. It's a coping mechanism; troubled, grieved people cannot afford to disbelief in God.

  4. Thanks for the stimulating comment Awais.

    When I was writing the post, I was feeling a little anxious after realizing how much I am responsible for if I don't believe in 'fate', but I did feel free -- I knew I had freedom to choose and act within reasonable bounds.

    The notion of God has no doubt turned out to be a very effective way to deal with suffering throughout human history, but I do like to think that there other ways to deal with suffering. As I mentioned here, I have been trying to 'internalize' values and attributes I usually associated with God, but I am not sure how I would react if put in a situation in which I truly felt helpless. Resentment seems to be the natural first response, but is it possible to humbly accept the situation without being excessively demoralized? Do we appeal to God because we have been raised to believe in a God, or because it is the only possible way to react in such a situation? Are there societies in which people might react differently? Buddhist societies immediately come to mind. As per my limited knowledge, Buddhism is mostly an atheistic religion, so they don't appeal to God and fate in such matters. They accept suffering as a fact of life, and suggest ways to cope with it.

    Though I do agree that the notion of fate and God sure is a powerful mental tool to help us cope with suffering.

  5. Do you think, perhaps, that you're conflating the notion of free will with disbelief in God?

    For a long time I was an atheist, but I did not believe in free will. These are two separate philosophical questions that I think ought to be addressed separately to avoid confusion, and then connections between them established.

    Sorry if that sounded pedantic :P

  6. @kk0isonlymyname

    I suppose you are right. Disbelief in God has nothing to do with whether I have a free will or not. Though, belief in God usually implies that you also believe in fate, or at least most muslims do.

    I really wasn't trying to make any deep philosophical point on free will, but was just musing on how it feels like when you don't believe in fate. I still might not have free will, but it sure feels "different" when I don't believe in fate and a super natural being who does everything for some divine purpose. You do start to feel more responsible for your actions, because there is no omnipotent and all knowing being you can fall back on.

  7. I guess that's more like agency than free will.

    I've been where you are, sort of. In my case I never felt that there was a God taking care of me, even when I believed in God. However, when I stopped believing in God, I believed more in my own agency.

    I think the next stage that one reaches when thinking more deeply about this is to question both agency and free will. The more you 'travel' (in the Nietzschian sense) the more you question your own power and abilities. And then you realize that the 'self-made person' is one of the greatest lies of the modern age.

  8. I wasn't aware of the distinction between agency and free will; probably because I am not that steeped in to the philosophical literature.

    When you don't believe in God, you are pretty much everything you are left with. But even if I grossly overestimate my own power and abilities, and I am really a powerless creature, I don't see why that would lead me to believe in a God. Not that you implied that it would, but just saying.

    It will be nice if you can suggest some text which talks about the kinds of things you are talking about.

  9. Agency refers to your freedom and your ability to determine your own future. So, for example, if you're wealthy, well-educated, able-bodies and neurotypical (i.e. not disabled) you have a lot of agency. You can increase your agency by having courage, standing up for yourself, being creative etc.

    Free will usually refers to being able to have done otherwise than you did. If you have agency you get to make choices, but if those choices are pre-determined you have no free will. So agency does not entail free will.

    I guess I would recommend looking into Buddhist philosophy for an alternative to the 'rational actor model' (among many alternatives). From a Buddhist point of view your self is an illusion created by the interaction of your 'components', and by your long-term memory. Western philosophers such as Dennett, Hume, Demasio and James have elaborate on this idea, known as 'anatta' (no-self).

  10. Sorry I meant 'able-bodied'.

  11. That was a clear and helpful explanation. Thanks!

  12. You're welcome :)