4. Freedom: Transcending Enculturation
and Choosing for Ourselves


    Our human spirits show themselves most dramatically in moments of freedom,
when we consciously resist enculturation and make free choices.  
Even tho we have the everyday experience of exercising freedom,
we might still be conditioned by the dogma of determinism
to believe that no acts are really free.  
Is human choice an illusion?





Freedom: Transcending Enculturation

and Choosing for Ourselves

by James Leonard Park

Freedom is...a nothing rather than a something,
a possibility rather than an actuality.
It cannot be grasped by thought
only known through the exercise of freedom;
and perhaps even then it is only in those rare moments
of anxiety in the face of freedom that we perceive
something of the abyssal and primordial character of freedom.

[John Macquarrie  Existentialism (Penguin, 1973) p. 139-140]


     Nothing is more characteristic of the human spirit than freedom.
We are persons of spirit to the degree that we shape our own lives.
As children, before our spirits had developed,
we had little capacity to resist enculturation and choose our destinies.
We were largely the products of our genes and our upbringing.
As we became teen-agers, we might have manifested spirit
as rebellion against authority—especially parental authority—
but we had not yet focused our freedom into constructive projects.

     Behavioristic psychology denies the reality of human freedom:
It claims our sense of choosing is an illusion,
that our behavior is really caused by our genes and conditioning.
The social sciences offer models to explain human behavior.
And if all our behavior can be accounted for
within these deterministic models, we are not yet persons of spirit.

     But as adults most of us can resist enculturation,
can rise above our social circumstances, at least to some degree.
If we were not free, we would all be mindless consumers,
hopelessly in debt because advertising would make us buy, buy, buy.

     Most enculturation is extremely useful.
Years of socialization has enabled us to function as adult human beings.
We have learned how to listen and speak, how to read and write,
how to relate with other people for our mutual benefit,
and how to function successfully within our
familial, social, economic, political, & technological systems.

     But enculturation becomes an influence to be resisted
when it dictates the essential content of our lives.
As we become more free, we will certainly use what we have learned,
but we need not pursue the purposes and goals provided by culture.
On all sides we are surrounded by social pressures
trying to squeeze us into various conventional patterns of behavior.
But when we notice that others have resisted conformity,
we might decide to design our own lives around our own goals
rather than accepting society's ready-made roles.

     The capacity to transcend enculturation develops gradually.
The better we understand the social processes that created us,
the greater our capacity to take responsibility for our own lives
—and become self-creating persons.
As we successfully resist conformity in small matters,
we exercise and develop the spiritual 'muscle'
that will empower us to break out of the expected patterns
in even more important and dramatic ways.

     The freedom inherent in our human spirits
enables us to rise above the social circumstances
that would otherwise control us entirely—if subtly.
Instead of remaining normal, well-adjusted adults,
we learn to name the internalized influences
that would shape our lives if we did not exercise our freedom.
And as we come to understand what is expected,
we can choose which (if any) of these expectations to fulfill
and which to reject and replace with purposes we freely choose.


     We exercise freedom most powerfully in selecting our own life-goals.
While we were quiet, unwitting products of enculturation,
our lives were just the unfolding of the assumed cultural patterns
the psychological outcomes of forces holding sway when we grew up.
But as our spirits develop more fully,
we can choose to pursue lives never before attempted.

     This freedom to choose our life-purposes comes in every degree
—from the smallest deviation from expectation
to the ability to re-design ourselves completely.

     Many 'spiritual institutions' are actually anti-spiritual
because they are primarily means of enculturation.
Many organized religions promote very narrow rules of behavior.
But if becoming persons of spirit means rising above enculturation
and choosing freely for ourselves, one step in becoming more free
might be disconnecting ourselves from narrow-minded religious groups.
In exercising our freedom, we might uproot ourselves
from the places where our spirits first began to grow.

     How can we develop our capacity to choose?
As children we were free only in the negative sense (freedom from)
—we could say "no" to whatever others told us to do.
But later we become free in the positive sense (freedom for).
After we discover within ourselves what Søren Kierkegaard calls
"the anxious possibility of being able" (not knowing what we can do),
we can arbitrarily exercise our freedom, choosing almost at random,
until we ultimately create a basic direction for our lives.
Of course, we can freely change this basic thrust at any time.
But if we consistently pursue purposes we have freely chosen,
we create ourselves around what becomes our 'project-of-being'.
We invent ourselves by making life-shaping decisions.

     Work is one area of human life where we might exercise our freedom.
Normally human beings grow up within cultures that offer several occupations.
And we exercise our freedom when we train ourselves for an existing occupation
and then find our particular places in some organization
where we can pursue our chosen line of work.
However, we exercise a higher degree of freedom
(or even a different kind of freedom)
when we resist and reject all ready-made occupations
and choose a way of life that does not involve following an established pattern.

     Love is another area where we might choose for ourselves.
Instead of following a ready-made patterns of romance, marriage, & children,
we can create unique personal relationships beyond all expectations.


    Everyone who believes in freedom must confront determinism
—the doctrine that all human behavior is determined (caused)
solely and entirely by hereditary and environmental factors.
We might undercut this dogma by challenging its philosophical basis.
The determinists hold that this belief has a scientific foundation.
Granted, much evidence has been collected supporting the belief
that people are the products of their genes and learning.
But has anyone collected evidence supporting our freedom of will?

     All scientific disciplines must be able to specify
what new evidence might upset their hypotheses.
Beliefs that cannot be overturned by new evidence are dogmas.

     So this is the challenge to all determinists:
Try to conceive of a method of research that could possibly conclude
that some people (at least occasionally) exercise personal freedom.
I have yet to meet a determinist who could even imagine an experiment
that might have as one of its possible outcomes the discovery
that some individuals make choices independent of their enculturation.
If an experiment can only support a theory (and never disprove it),
the experiment is pointless because we know the answer in advance.

     This shows that determinists are dogmatists, not scientists.
If they acknowledge only evidence that confirms their dogma,
how can they claim that their belief is based on experience?
If a free act were to occur,
the determinists would not be able to recognize it
because they have decided in advance to interpret all human events
in ways that support the dogma of determinism.
If only one kind of evidence can be recognized, is that science?

     Clearly, most human beings are products of enculturation.
Determinists themselves might be good examples of how indoctrination works:
Thru a process called "education" human beings can be led
to embrace beliefs contrary to their immediate experience.
Usually they learn determinism from psychology courses in college.
Such indoctrination is so effective for some people
that it cuts them off from their experience of making choices
—acting in freedom—which they have been doing most of their lives.
Instead of trusting their own obvious, daily experience,
they trust the 'scientific authority' of the determinists.
Fortunately, such brands of psychology show signs of giving way
to more humanistic approaches, which notice personal freedom.

     We must agree that our acts are profoundly shaped by culture,
but this very recognition can become a tool to pry ourselves loose
from the life that would result if we never exercised our freedom.
As free persons, we transcend enculturation and choose our own pathways thru life.


    James Park is an independent existential philosopher,
exercising his freedom to shape his own life every day
in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
Much more will be discovered about him on his website,
An Existential Philosopher's Museum,
which now has more than 1,200 rooms.

Created April 24, 2004; revised several times, including February 27, 2008; 10-16-2008;
7-15-2010; 10-28-2010; 12-4-2010; 3-24-2011; 3-26-2011; 8-9-2012; 5-3-2013; 3-25-2014; 4-10-2015;

Further Reading

"Becoming More Free"
is an autobiographical reflection by James Park,
in which he reviews his own developing freedom.

James Park  Becoming More Authentic:
The Positive Side of Existentialism

    If you would like to explore the concept of freedom more fully,
See especially the first chapter of Becoming More Authentic :
"From Conformity to Autonomy" .
This chapter explains how we can freely set our own goals in life
and then proceed to fulfill those purposes in workable ways.

Go to the index page for this series of 8 secular sermons:
What Is Spirituality?

4. Freedom: Transcending Enculturation and Choosing for Ourselves"

has been adapted by the author from

Spirituality for Humanists:
Six Capacities of Our Human Spirits

by James Park.

If you click this title, the complete Table of Contents will appear.

And in 2011, this whole book was revised and made into PART II of
Spirituality without Gods:
Developing Our Capacities of Spirit

This exploration of freedom became Chapter 10.

Several others books on Existential Spirituality
are reviewed in the Existential Spirituality Bibliography .

Return to the Existential Spirituality page.

Go to other secular sermons by James Park,
organized into 10 subject-areas.

Read other free books on the Internet.

Can a Prisoner Ever Make a Free Choice?

Go to the opening page for this website:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum .

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.