Friday, November 18, 2011

Can we be truly free? Being a basketball star, yoga, and liberation

In my philosophy class yesterday, we discussed the problem of freedom. Specifically, we focused on this question: If cultural determinism is true, can we really make any genuinely free choices? In other words, if our ideas, worldviews and reactions to events in the world are all ultimately determined by the society and cultural environment in which we are a part of, can we really have freedom in any meaningful sense of the word?

Here's an example I used in class to illustrate this question: Suppose I decide tomorrow that I don't want to be a philosophy teacher anymore. As interesting as talking with students about philosophy can be, I decide that ultimately, teaching philosophy in a university enables me to have only a very limited impact on the lives of people and on society as a whole. I want to do something else that will enable me to have a much more direct impact on people's lives, that will inspire them in a much more direct way. I decide that the best way to do this is to become an NBA star. Yes, you heard it right; NBA as in National Basketball Association. I decide that nobody could fail to take notice of a severely shortsighted, five-foot-eight Chinese guy who is nevertheless able to dunk. And once people take notice of me, they will get curious about how I got to be in the NBA, and will want to interview me on all kinds of late-night TV shows (Larry King, Jay Leno, etc.). And then I will be able to unleash my inspirational words and teachings on the public. Since way more Americans watch TV than take philosophy classes, I figure that if I can get to this position of great eminence, I will be able to make many friends, gain many fans, and influence and positively inspire the lives of millions. Great idea, no?

But of course, there is a very practical problem: How am I supposed to transform this five-foot-eight Chinese body--a body which, I may add, has no aptitude whatsoever for ball games--into a high-jumping, basketball-dribbling-and-dunking-NBA-star body? But well, this is a philosophy thought experiment, and in philosophy thought experiments, money is never an issue. Which means that, at least in theory, I can hire the best basketball coaches in the country and spend all my waking hours training until I acquire the requisite athletic abilities and the basketball skills. Which means that, at least in theory, only time and a shitload of training stands between me and the athletic prowess and basketball skills of Michael Jordan.

Can you see the resemblance between this

And this?
 [Image taken from here]

But here's the problem: Even if I succeed in becoming the greatest basketball sensation since Michael Jordan, and go on to inspire millions on Larry King with my philosophical abilities (yes, a philosophical basketball star. Think about that :-)), it will still be questionable whether I will have done anything really significant. After all, it can be argued, my breaking out of my present mode of existence (being a philosophy professor) and becoming a basketball star, as radical as this may seem, is still very much an action that is conditioned by the cultural and social environment of which I am a part. After all, if I did not live in this time and age and in this part of the world, it would never even have occurred to me to want to become an NBA star. Indeed, I probably got the very idea of becoming an NBA star from watching NBA stars on TV. Which means that even my radical act of reinventing myself has its roots ultimately in mass media, which is, of course, the biggest purveyor of social and cultural norms in contemporary society. So here's the question: If even this act of radically reinventing myself is ultimately an act that is conditioned by social and cultural norms, and therefore not genuinely free, is there any action we can take that is truly free? Right now, I don't have a definite answer to this question, although I'm leaning more and more towards "no."


What has any of this to do with yoga? You may be wondering. Well, although we don't usually couch it in these terms, what we ultimately after in yoga practice is also freedom. Whatever form of yoga we practice, the ultimate goal is moksha, or liberation from the chains of samskara, or the karmic grooves that have defined and bound our actions thus far.

But here we are in a somewhat similar predicament as my NBA-star-wannabe alter-ego: None of us would have encountered yoga if we did not live in the time and place that we do now. This is true whether you first encountered yoga by seeing it on TV, through the introduction of a yoga-practicing friend, or by randomly picking up a copy of Yoga Journal on some newsstand somewhere. You may argue that your yoga practice today and your present understanding of it has evolved to the point where it has transcended these humble beginnings. Fair enough. But even if this is true, it still remains the case that you would probably never have encountered yoga if it weren't for the fact that you live in this culture and society with its various norms and values. Even if you are one of the relatively few people who first started doing yoga on some hippie commune somewhere, and you now practice some obscure and highly esoteric form of yoga that is not accessible to mainstream society, it still remains true that you are a member of a subculture, and insofar as all subcultures originally arose as reactions to a perceived establishment or "mainstream culture", you are still, by extension, a product of the norms and values of this time and age. In other words, we are very much limited and conditioned beings. How, then, can we be truly free?      


  1. Everyone has a lot to say about what absence of freedom feels like and everyone sort of glosses over describing what complete freedom is supposed to feel like. How do we know when freedom is complete? Thanks professor for letting me audit this class...... :D

  2. My pleasure, sereneflavor :-) I don't know when freedom is complete, or if there could even be such a thing... But this is why I raise questions and get others and myself to think about them :-)

  3. We as individual are indeed very limited and conditioned beings. What's unique about human beings is that we are able shared our limited contributions with other human beings through writings and objects that we create to inspire other people. If we lived in isolation, we might have more degrees of freedom (no one stopping us from doing anything), but the number of things we can come up with on our own are very limited. We also seek approval and appreciation by other beings. If we're free to do whatever we wanted, but no one else cares for what we come up with, I think we would also feel that this freedom is kind of useless.

  4. maybe freedom has to transcend culture and relate to every person on a survival/instinctual level. in other words, if you're not afraid to die, you can live freely. you see that in the lives of the "greats" like gandhi, jesus, martin luther king, mother teresa.

  5. You could always start your own blog to have a more direct impact on people's lives.

    Oh wait, you already do that.

    I'm not sure we can know what complete freedom is unless we are completely free. I personally don't know anyone (that I'm aware of) who is even close to achieving moksha. So it's hard to define, especially while in thrall to the current culture. Therefore impossible, until achieved. Paradox.

    It's probably a good thing that I wasn't a philosophy major.

  6. Good point, Yyogini. We actually brought up your point in class too: If we lived in isolation (say, as a hermit, or in the case of a boy who had been raised by wolves), we wouldn't be free either, because in order to meaningfully exercise freedom, one has to be able to communicate with others, and get others to do the things that one wants. However, if one lived in isolation, one would either not be able to or have no use for such communication. Which brings up a paradox: If one lives in isolation, one cannot be meaningfully free. But if one were to live in civilization, one's choices and actions would be conditioned by the norms of the culture of that civilization, so that one is not free either.

  7. That is a good point, Wendy. If one is not afraid of death, then one would be much less constrained by cultural and societal norms, and would be able to live more freely. Very interesting. I'll think about this some more.

    Btw, I just visited your blogs and watched the videos that you posted there. Very cool! :-)

  8. Hello Deborah, thanks for sharing your thoughts, as always.

    "I'm not sure we can know what complete freedom is unless we are completely free."

    True. That's why we practice, right? :-)

    "It's probably a good thing that I wasn't a philosophy major."

    Hmm... in my opinion, it's never a bad thing to be a philosophy major :-)

  9. Dear Nobel
    Even if you are conditioned by your birth and circumstance to be limited in attaining being a basketball star of the same caliber as one of the greats, stretching your mind to entertain the thought that you could attain such a thing is a useful exercise. Who knows what flexibility it might give you, the possiblity of not feeling constrained by a short body and eyeglasses, yet being able to accomplish something physically great.

    I often think about one particular architect that I have always admired and who happens to be Chinese. I admired him before conceiving I would be practicing architecture one day in China. The opportunities that architect had at the start where beyond my grasp and his accomplishments stellar. It would be an interesting exercise, such as the one you did, to imagine myself achieving the same type of success he enjoyed. I may not attain that, but thinking about him, and learning from his experience and his life, I can fine tune my own. What I haven't done is put myself in his shoes and imagine attaining the same. It would be fun to imagine and maybe the exercise might inspire my life. That is my point. Your exercise of imagining yourself a baskteball star might inspire you to achieve greatness that manifest themselves in other ways.


  10. Hello Arturo,
    thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I like to think you are right that one can achieve many wonderful things by stretching one's mind and imagination. I think some very wise person (I can't remember who) once said that if you aim for the stars, if you miss, you'll still hit something high... Good advice to live by :-)

    "I often think about one particular architect that I have always admired and who happens to be Chinese."

    Do you have in mind I.M. Pei? I've heard lots of great things about him.

  11. yes, Pei, a gentleman architect