January 9, 2009

Economics, Part VIII: Freedom

Neo: The Architect told me that if I didn't return to the Source, Zion would be destroyed by midnight tonight.
Oracle: Please ... You and I may not be able to see beyond our own choices, but that man can't see past any choices.
Neo: Why not?
Oracle: He doesn't understand them - he can't. To him they are variables in an equation. One at a time each variable must be solved and countered. That's his purpose: to balance an equation.
Neo: What's your purpose?
Oracle: To unbalance it.

I know, the Matrix trillogy has been done to death, but let's face it, the fact is that freedom is more or less THE theme of the three movies. They also happen to be a personal favorite, and this is my blog. Off we go ...

We have thus far considered the nature and the endgame of economic systems. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages, yet both tend to work to the same ends, through different means. Why is it, then, that the world continues to turn? Why haven't our economic systems fallen so far into disarray that we're all subjects to a single human power? Given our collective memory of the endless cycle of rise and fall from power, why do we bother to cooperate? The answer, I think, lies in one element in this system that we have not yet considered, an element that makes or breaks the very nature of the system itself, put to good use: choice.

Choice is what gives us our ability to go against the flow, to disregard our "fight or flight" instincts, or to do something contrary to the popular opinion of the society. We can choose to go to the store or to make do with what we have; we can throw the subsequent garbage away or recycle it or even just pitch it out the window. We can wear the popular clothing or we can wear something comfortable; regardless of the pressures placed on us from many sides - society, culture, even the laws of nature - we are still able to choose.

It was C.S. Lewis that said that predestination and free will are the same thing, two sides of the same coin. Actually, to be honest, so far he's the ONLY one who I've ever heard say this. We are hybrid beings, he wrote, born into a world of sin through no fault of our own, yet we are asked to begin making choices that will affect the rest of our own lives, even our own salvation. Our choices have consequences - destinies, as it were - and our destiny presents us with choices to be made which will make or break the path we're on. Choice is to causality like yin is to yang; the one must go with the other. Freedom, then, is our capacity to make choices, our ability to weigh the consequences and choose, however consciously or subconsciously, a course of action based upon what we perceive is the best outcome. This includes our ability to choose a couse of action that might not actually be the best outcome.

Put another way, we are not held to one set of actions. The choices we make change, and indeed, shape the very future that is so uncertain. I can choose to eat a hot dog or to eat something else or even to eat nothing at all. Perhaps I choose to wait for a while and THEN eat something. Either way, the choice is still mine; I can choose to follow the law or I can choose not to. I don't even have to eat if I don't want to (though the fact that I usually want to could tell you something about my waistline).

But in the end, there is another sort of freedom which we do not have, and that is freedom from consequences. This is the "yang" to the "yin" of choice. We are not free of causality as popular culture has led us to believe; we will reap what we sow. I cannot jump from a bridge and then expect not to fall into the river below, gravity being what it is. Every choice sets in motion other events, provides new decisions to be made and eliminates others.

For example, a choice was made a long, long time ago, but human history has reflected this decision ever since. We could talk through the story of Eden at great length, but even if the story is merely metaphor, something happened to distance humanity from its Maker. The author of Genesis records that a couple ate "the fruit" of a tree of knowledge. At some point, our species made a choice that blinded us to the consequences of doing things on our own, without the Creator. We began to think - deceived or not - that maybe there were no consequences. We were wrong.

One reason that the Incarnation is such a miracle is that God did (and does) what no one else could: he interrupted us (as a species) somewhere between cause and effect. We sin, and yet he gives us the chance to avoid the ultimate consequences of those choices, taking the penalties upon himself instead. As a missionary, I usually like to look at the incarnation for the way in which it exemplifies God making himself known and making the effort to relate to us on our own terms - in the flesh, face-to-face, sandle-to-sand. But in another way, in the grand scheme of things, this is not enough by itself. It is a lot, for sure, but it is not the whole picture. The Christian story is one in which the One who was not the cause took the effects; He removevd the consequences of the actions of another and took them upon himself. God, in essence, unbalances the equation; he alone understood the consequences of our choice and took it upon himself to give us back our dignity to choose a path, rather than allowing us to reap the ultimate consequence. The Creator found a loophole in the rules; he took the fall for the Created.

And that changed everything.

(to be continued ...)

1 comment:

Dan said...

nothing wrong with using the Matrix to start a conversation, just glad you didn't try to pick it apart and make it say more than it originally does... that said, excellent summary of freedom/choice.