It was Theodore Parker who first said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But what about the arc of the understanding of human nature? What does that bend towards? In Models Behaving Badly, Emanuel Derman highlights two alternate answers:
“Hegel wrote that ‘the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.’ Spinoza's claim is that the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of our lack of freedom."
We are either becoming more aware of our freedom, or learning more about the shackles and chains that imprison us. Which is it? Well, here’s another way to look at it: who says it has to be one or the other?
This is one of those observations that I think of as surface conflicts. At a quick glance, the two seem to be opposites, incompatible and irreconcilable. But if we look closer, we see that these two aren’t opposites at all. They can and do co-exist, and are even complementary.
Consider it like this: we are learning that we are free in areas in which we thought we were imprisoned, and that we are imprisoned in areas we once thought we were free in.
An example of an area in which we have more freedom than we realised is our role in society. We’re realising that the parts we choose to play in the masked ball of society are malleable. We can be what we want, when we want, where we want to, and for whatever reason we decide is pertinent. In the words of Tim Ferriss, “reality is negotiable”. We can choose what point within (or without) the hierarchy we want to occupy.
An example of an area in which we have less freedom than we imagined is decision making. We’re learning about an increasing amount of things and ways which subtly influence our decisions. The biases in our mental machinery. The influence of our immediate environment, of the narratives we expose ourselves to and the information we consume. The past precedent of our own conduct and of those we look up or down to. Our biology, our psychology, and the cultures we are and have been immersed in. All this and more shapes our decisions, perspectives and philosophy more than we like to admit.
This is what the arc of our understanding of human nature is bending towards: an increasing consciousness of our freedom in some places, and our enslavement in others.