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The Phenomenology of Freedom

A number of philosophers have offered reports of the subjective experience of free will. One theme that looms large in these descriptions, indeed nearly to exclusion of everything else, is the ability to do otherwise.

For example John Searle writes,

... [R]eflect very carefully on the character of the experiences you have as you engage in normal, everyday human actions. You will sense the possibility of alternative courses of action built into these experiences ... [T]he sense that "I am making this happen" carries with it the sense that "I could be doing something else." In normal behavior, each thing we do carries with it the conviction, valid or invalid, that we could be doing something else right here and now, that is, all other conditions remaining the same. This, I submit, is the source of our own unshakable conviction of our own free will. (Searle, 19Ч p. 95)

Searle's descriptions of the experience of the ability to do otherwise are highly controversial and we won't try to adjudicate whether he is right. Rather, we want to point out an important omission in this area. While nearly all the philosophical focus has been the ability to do otherwise, there are other aspects of the phenomenology of freedom that are hardly ever discussed. To illustrate this, let us consider another case.

Suppose a man has been diagnosed with lung cancer. He is offered the options of chemotherapy or radiation treatment. At the level of cellular biology, the mechanisms of action of the respective treatments are quite different. Nonetheless, they are both similarly potentially life-saving, and they both generate a similar profile of horrible side effects. One therapy is administered at St. Joseph's Hospital uptown while the other at University Hospital downtown, but both hospitals are just as good and are at an exactly equal distance from the man's house. Thus the man has two options, but they aren't terribly divergent—in all the ways that matter, the two therapies seem much the same.

Compare this man's subjective experiences as he chooses between the two options with what is experienced by the young man in Sartre's story. Recall this young man chooses between fighting for the Resistance versus staying home with his mother—two ways of expressing himself that are utterly divergent in that they speak for completely different aspects of his self. It is very plausible that the experiences of freedom of the two men during choice are quite different. The man who has cancer experiences the "narrowness" of his options. His options aren't at all divergent; they are both contained within a small region of option space. In contrast, the young man in Sartre's story feels the amazing distance between his two options. The gap that separates them is vast; it is dizzying to traverse it. As the young man moves back and forth between his options, it feels like a trek between distant worlds. When the man diagnosed with cancer moves back and forth between his two options, he hardly shifts at all.

These examples illustrate that experiences of spaciousness and movement are important aspects of the phenomenology of freedom. It should be clear that these experiences are closely connected with latitude. Latitude is linked to the size of an option set; it consists of the potentialities for self-expression that are gained as one's option set grows. Correspondingly, the difference in the subjective experiences of these two men just discussed arises from the difference in option set size. That is, the option set of the young man is larger because the options within it are highly divergent, and the young man's freedom is experienced as movement back and forth within this expansive space.

Now consider the young woman thinking about what to do for spring break. Like Sartre's young man, she too has an option set of large size. In particular, she has numerous and varied options that give her diverse opportunities for self-expression. But there is something else in her case: Even as she is deciding what to do, she is actively building new options. That is, she is deploying her potent powers of option construction to dream up new avenues for self-expression. If her space of options is sparsely covered in certain important regions, she will deploy her creative powers to fill it up. This gives rise to an additional experience of freedom. In addition to spaciousness and movement, she experiences a feeling of unboundedness. Her option set is already expansive; it permits great movement within it. But in addition to this, its perimeter is not fixed; she has the power to enlarge it.

Nearly all philosophers who have discussed the phenomenology of freedom have done so in terms of the experience of the ability to do otherwise. If the feeling of freedom exclusively consists of the feeling that one has this ability, then there should be no difference at all among these three agents—the man diagnosed with cancer, Sartre's young man, and the young woman in college planning her spring break—in their subjective experiences of freedom. All three agents equally well have the ability to do otherwise.

We agree with Searle that phenomenology is central to understanding free will and forms the basis of our conviction that we are free agents. We have argued, however, that in addition to the feeling that one has the ability to do otherwise, the feeling of spaciousness, movement, and unboundedness are core aspects of the experience of freedom. The latitude account of free will readily makes sense of these other aspects of the phenomenology of freedom, while standard views don't, is an important piece of evidence in favor of our latitude account.

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