This issue is paramount because all of us are rational beings; thus, we are rationally aware of ourselves as well as the people and things around us. Because of this state of rational awareness, we must be able to make sense of everything that we are experiencing. If we do not, then we are alienated from ourselves and the world in which we live.
Meaning and purpose in our lives are derived from coherent placement within the context of a larger whole, and this "larger whole" is the metaphysical framework in which we find ourselves. No personal meaning can be manufactured apart from this underlying structure in which we exist. If I am a rat in a maze with cognitive functioning abilities, then I may think I have a meaningful life as I follow a trail of food or some other stimulus path. But if this trail leads to my being killed in a trap or falling over a precipice to my death, then my "meaning" or "purpose" in life was, in fact, very different than what I thought.
In short: I was living in delusion. The important point is this: the underlying ontology in which we exist will always matter, and no one is in a position where he or she can "manufacture" personal meaning apart from this larger metaphysical context. This is why we see young people with almost pathological drives to join gangs or be part of the "in crowd." They have a deep need for a sense of belonging. They desire to be a part of it all.
This need in each of us goes deep - to our very core - and no participation in a certain gang or clique can remedy it on the level that it must be addressed. It is an ontological insecurity, an ontological dependence. Thus, one must provide an ontological remedy on the fundamental level of being.
Nothing less will suffice.
I remember thinking extensively about human freedom during one period in my life. Do you know what I came up with? Simply this: human freedom is the capacity to choose in accordance with the dictates of reason.
In other words, it is the capacity to choose what makes sense.
Think about it: Is a person really free if he or she chooses something that makes no sense?
One might respond by saying, “Human freedom is the capacity to choose what we want. It has nothing to do with reason.”
It is tempting to think this way, but consider this: some of my greatest regrets are because I wanted things at certain times – and thus chose them – but I realized too late that this was not an expression of freedom at all but, rather, an expression of bondage.
Why would anyone ever choose something that makes no sense? And why would anyone consider such a choice to be the expression of freedom?
Surely we are all rational beings, and, as such, we try to make sense of things. This is the way we survive. If someone chooses something that is completely unreasonable, then, clearly, this person is in bondage to something quite irrational.
In other words, he is held fast by a power that makes no sense.
Let's look at a simple example: if I know that eating a meal consisting of two double cheeseburgers, large fries, a super-sized carbonated soft drink and a pint of ice cream is bad for my health, but I choose to eat this for lunch each day anyway, is this an expression of freedom?
I could say something like, "I choose to eat this meal for lunch each day because I want it – so, yes, it is an expression of freedom."
But as I look back on such experiences in the wisdom of later years, would I not rather say that these were experiences of bondage to appetites or impulses that made no sense?
I hope you see the relevant point. It is this: the bottom line is reason. The bottom line is what makes sense. This is why God says, “Come, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18). This is also why He places the facts of Christ’s life and death before us (as well as the facts of our sinful condition) prior to expecting any response of faith.
In short: there is an obvious rationality to existence, and this is the only context where one can sensibly talk about freedom.
You could think of matters in this way: acts of volition (that is, choices) do not spring from a vacuum. Rather, they spring from the content of our hearts. If our choices result from desires that overpower rational beliefs regarding what makes sense, then, clearly, our hearts are in bondage.
These desires of our hearts may be rooted in all sorts of unconscious needs and motivations – this, I take it, goes without saying.
Nevertheless, the bottom line with regard to freedom is reason and reason alone.
Issues such as free will require an examination of personal identity. In other words, in order for me to understand what it is to be free, I must first understand what it is to be the person I am.
Have you ever thought about this? Have you ever thought about who you are on a deeper level? I’m sure you have. Some are forced to do this when they go through a painful ordeal such as a divorce or a mid-life crisis.
I think people often become confused about the issue of free will because they identify themselves with their “misaligned” desires and actions. Thus, they naturally think that the capacity to express these desires and actions is what makes a person free.
It is an issue of personal identity.
What we must realize is that there is a level that is more fundamental to our being than the level of our desires, namely, the level of rational awareness. In other words, I am not merely a being who desires certain things. Rather, I am a being who is consciously aware of having such desires.
I do not live at the level of stimulus and response – as, for example, a laboratory rat does. A rat can be stimulated, and a rat will respond. This is the level of a rat's existence - the level of stimulus and response.
But I do not live at this level of stimulus and response. On the contrary, I live at the level of being consciously aware of being stimulated. And I live at the level of being consciously aware of responding.
So there is a level that is more fundamental to my nature than desire.
Do you see this? Do you see the importance of this realization when considering issues such as human freedom? One point should be clear: you simply cannot make sense of issues pertaining to human freedom without first making sense of issues that pertain to your personal identity.
If I asked you point blank, “Who are you – really? What would you say? Would you mention some “misaligned” desire and action and say, “Well, I frequently desire to eat a lot of food, and I usually act on this desire, so I must be a glutton”?
I would say that you are a glutton only if you identify yourself with that desire.
In other words, if you are “going with the flow” of these desires and welcoming them as well as their indulgent fulfillment whenever you experience them, well, then, yes, you are probably a glutton. (But there is still hope for you, of course.)
But if, on the level of conscious awareness, you attempt to evaluate these desires in the light of rational reflection by saying something like, “Hey, I don’t want to do this. It just doesn't make sense. It’s killing me!” Well, then, you are by no means a glutton (although you may well be in bondage to certain gluttonous impulses).
There is much that could be written about how to obtain liberation on this or any other level – but this is another topic. The important point in relation to personal identity is this: it is the level of rational awareness that defines our being, so it is at this level that one must define what makes a person free.
One way to approach this topic is this: there is an obvious duality or "two-folded-ness" to personal consciousness. In other words, there is a subject as well as an object of awareness. And the important point that we must always remember is this: it is on the subject level -- that is, the level of rational awareness -- where the core of one’s identity is found.
One’s core identity will never be found on the level of desire or feeling. Furthermore, any identification on this level can drive a person to great discouragement - even to despair.
We all have desires. We all have feelings. These desires and feelings are grounded in our needs. And these needs are grounded in our state of non-self-sufficiency.
In other words, we are all "ontologically deficient" beings.
One of the problems of our “misaligned” nature is that we are naturally prone to project these needs laterally in an attempt to find fulfillment from other people or things rather than to direct them upward to a level of transcendence and sufficiency.
The acknowledgment of this tendency, I would say, brings one to the real heart of the issue.
This can be such a painful struggle for many of us, and the reason is obvious: none of us can change the past. For this reason, if we are not reconciled to it, then this alienation will surely cause serious problems in our lives. The only way to truly resolve this issue is to understand the necessity of the ground of our being.
We must understand what is fundamentally “there” so that we can align the direction of our lives to accommodate this foundational "ontology." There is simply no way around this brute fact of existence, and any attempt to live in defiance of it will result in frustration and, ultimately, despair.
Christian thought accepts the reality of an infinite, personal God, so personality (as well as the fulfillment of personal desires) has meaning. That is, personality itself "fits" into the reality of what is fundamentally there, so all of our personal hopes and aspirations for experiences of love, intimacy and fulfillment have legitimate grounding in the metaphysical framework of our existence.
Buddhism and Hinduism (and any other hybrid form of westernized eastern thought) promote a completely different ontology. The ultimate reality in these schools of thought is impersonal mind. Proponents of these philosophies contend that many of the problems that we encounter in life are due to the fact we consider ourselves to be personal entities that are separate and distinct from this ultimate impersonal reality. This fixation is, according to these philosophies, the underlying cause of our frustrations and agitations in life.
The multiplicity and materiality of the universe is simply a delusion according to this line of thinking, and the experience of personality itself is, in many ways, the ultimate delusion.
I do not think anyone can apply this philosophy in a consistent way and yet remain functionally sane in our world, yet there are threads of eastern thought that are rampant in western society.
Western materialism promotes yet another ontology, namely, impersonal matter in motion. As with eastern thought, there is no way that personal beings like ourselves can find a coherent "fit" within this metaphysical framework. All personal hopes and aspirations reduce to various forms of self-delusion, for we are ultimately like eddies in the material stream of life with no true autonomy as personal beings.
The mere statement of this problem clearly presupposes some objective set of values, for if this were not true, then there would be no basis for calling this issue a problem of "evil." Also, since any objective set of values clearly requires some sort of metaphysical grounding, the statement of this problem implies an objective misalignment between the level at which we live and the level that is fundamentally there.
In other words, legitimate ethical value judgments presuppose the reality of something like sin. Otherwise, such judgments would be merely arbitrary, and we would be left with a determinism of one sort or another that would provide no grounding for a distinction between what ought to be in relation to what is.
We must understand that there is a fundamental misalignment of being in this world. Whether one refers to this misalignment as “sin” (Christianity), “dukkha” (Buddhism), or anything else, it is undeniably there, and any attempt to live life apart from an acknowledgment and an accommodation of this truth will result in a flight from the self and reality. The end result will be a deep sense of unresolved guilt (i.e., a state in which one's misalignment of being becomes a true "rupture" of being).
This area can easily cause problems for need-motivated beings like ourselves because love entails a doing for the other for the *other's* sake, while need entails a doing for the other for *my* sake. The resolution of this issue (both conceptually and emotionally) necessitates the acknowledgment of a transcendent structure being that provides the only legitimate basis for other-regarding impulses and action.
This is the reality of our existence in this world, and, at some point, this reality must be faced honestly. Needless to say, a philosopher such as Heidegger strongly emphasizes this state of being, and it would seem to be true that any failure to acknowledge this personal reality results in a flight from the self as well as a failure to live life with genuine authenticity.