Can the bird in the cage be free?

Is freedom an illusion? I am writing this to answer the question which arose in one of my conversations about whether a bird in the cage could ever be free? This was a casual comment I had made but ever since I made that comment I have been sort of consumed by it so much so that I haven’t slept in a while. This perhaps is going to be the most disjointed article as I realize that I don’t know much about the topic. But I need to write and get it out else I would only be consumed by it. So here we go…

So is the bird in a cage free? I know it sounds stupid because the bird is obviously not free. It’s not the purpose of the bird to be caged but to fly. So why the question? I think the genesis is in defining what freedom means. How do I answer a simple question — am I free? I am free to think that’s for sure. Or is it? Even what to think is in some way constrained by my experiences etc. There are those who believe that how we think is also in some way programmed into us.

The assumed source of the aforementioned freedom is our language. Language empowers us to delineate options and to comprehend our decisions. Physical processes are inevitable and predictable: A plus B causes/ leads to C. Instead of being driven by such relentless causal sequences, thanks to language we can see alternative possibilities and choose one path of action from among them. But isn’t language a product of brain process? So language itself is a result of causal processes!

Then is this freedom an illusion? I recently read a quote from the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye. Although she developed the her metaphor for explaining the idea of oppression, it can also be used for making clear why many people have the illusion that they are free. Following is a long quote from Frye’s article “Oppression”, where she puts forward her picture of the bird cage:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

This image utilized by Frye for getting a handle on why it is so hard to perceive any reason why and when persecution exists can likewise be utilized for getting a handle on why numerous individuals feel that they are free, notwithstanding when they in reality live in a confine. For the vast majority simply stand excessively close to the wires and see just the wire that is directly before their eyes. This gives them the idea that they are free: Isn’t it so that it is easy to go out by walking around the bar? However, if they would do a few steps back they would see that they are caged in or perhaps they would see also that there is a door that is open.

Taking this a little further, our life and the whole of it- our past, experiences, relations etc. are like locks on the cage or the wires that make up the cage. And each of these locks have been placed by us in the process of living. By the very nature of living one goes on from a position of infinite choices to limited choices. Or is it? Isn’t knowledge supposed to be liberating. Yes but it extracts a huge price. Breaking locks to get out is possible but it requires great courage and fortitude. For each lock you break triggers consequences- desirable and undesirable. At least there is some notion of agency involved here indicating a choice. Choice to stay put or break free whatever breaking free might mean.

Is then freedom having the largest amount of potential experiences, and having the greatest physical and mental mobility to be able to choose from those experiences?It thus leads to a very simple proposition that we are free till we can experience choice.

Coming to this bird in the cage- is she free? What choices does she have? Choice of denying!!! She is free to deny food, she is free to deny her ability to fly, she is free to deny her existence!! But is this really a choice? I don’t know and I don’t think it is.

This is where good old stoics come in handy. The stoics were hard deterministic, so everything in life was sort of pre-ordained. I admit that this is a very simplistic reading of their philosophy. Since everything was pre-ordained there couldn’t be any free will. In any case the definition of free will appears to be a contradiction in terms. It requires that individuals make purposeful, accountable decisions but requires those decisions to be arrived at without any external force or cause. This is absurd and impossible. All actions are in a way consequence of prior actions. Absolute freedom is therefore impossible.

For a long time I have believed that I had a will which wasn’t free. For some reason I have always felt that there was no true freedom. Of late I have become more conscious of the fact that there might not be any will either. My perceptions, emotions etc. are nothing but a consequence of bio chemical processes in me. I see a picture or see someone or hear a piece of music and suddenly I feel a particular way. This feeling of a particular way is nothing but the sight or sound triggering some bio chemical reaction in me. One may say that given that we are biological creatures all our actions , thoughts of necessity would be a result of these processes. This is true to an extent. I think that the bio chemical processes are conditioned. I am conditioned to respond in some way when I see something or hear something. The moment I believe that my responses are conditioned I open myself to the possibility of all the influences — nature and nurture, learnt etc. which makes me respond in ways which even I don’t understand. For a long time I had been noticing that some songs would simply make me cry or that seeing particular scenes in a movie would move me in a way which I couldn’t understand. When I see myself as an observer, it seems ridiculous that a song or a scene might move me emotionally at that particular moment. I am conscious of these very rudimentary examples which influence the way I think. This leads to the possibility that even in other matters I am suitable influenced. If that’s so then all my thinking is in a way influenced by things that I am often not aware of. This knowledge has liberated me in a sense because now I am able to deconstruct my emotional responses to stimuli. I might not control them but I am able to understand them.

Coming back to stoics- since everything was sort of given one could only find happiness in accepting things as they were. Almost all of the things which happen, events around us are in some way not in our control. And some of these events make us happy and some unhappy. The stoics point was simple, you couldn’t control what was happening around you. Stuff happens. But what you could control was how you viewed those events. Thus what you could control was your response to those events. Events are value neutral. Say, I can’t control being away from my daughter on her birthday (coincidentally its her birthday today- Happy Birthday love)… Now I can feel extremely annoyed and unhappy about the fact that I have missed her birthday or I can simply remain calm and accept that I can’t be with her and when I am with her I would make up for it. Former makes me unhappy, the latter frees me from it.

So my bird in the cage is free if she accepts the cage as a given. Paradoxically accepting physical limitations open up the possibilities of free thinking. Free thinking like forcing yourself to literally think of other things even when all the stimuli is making you feel and think in another way. So the bird in the cage can be free… Freedom is just a construct. Our world at the end of the day is nothing but a construct. The moment I accept the cage to be given, I become free… And this freedom isn’t dependent upon external factors. This is wholly within me…. I read Diving Bells and the Butterfly ages back. These were memoirs of Jean-Dominique Bauby who I think was an editor for a fashion magazine and suffered from lock-in syndrome. He suffered from paralysis and only was left with control over blinking of one of the eye lids. The book was dictated by this blinking of an eyelid. The title of the book — diving bells signifying a trapped body and butterfly signifying mind with its ability to escape physical state. We all are in some way trapped as Bauby was though not in the very sorry state he was in.

Have I answered the question that I set out to. I don’t think so. I am still very confused about it. I was looking for an answer to set me free. With all the constraints that the life puts on us how do we set ourselves free. How do we attain some modicum of happiness. Did the stoics have an answer- to some extent yes. The crux of the matter simply is this. There are things you can control and there are things you can’t. And I am not denying agency here. For things which I can’t control take it as a given and find ways to work around. For things I can control let me become more conscious of what and why I am doing something. Perhaps this would make me do the right thing.

Yes, my dear friend — my dear alter ego, you are free… You are not constrained by anything but your own mind… You are not caged dear friend.. If you think you are caged you just have to accept the cage as a reality and then you would be free… So close your eyes, accept the world as it is, accept what you are given and you would find that life is indeed beautiful.. Enjoy the little bounties that life bestows- a smile, a laugh, the wind, the rain, sunsets etc.. Also cherish the heartbreaks, the silence, the evil eyes- accept them… We are all alone in this cosmic journey of ours. What are we but mere speck in this infinite cosmos. As Nobakov said, “…the rest is rust and star dust”..

All it comes down to is this- live in the moment. We only exist in the present. There is no past because it is has passed and doesn’t exist and there is no future because it is yet to be revealed. If we exist only in the present then we should immerse ourselves in this moment. Enjoy the moment, totally immerse yourself in it and you would be free.. So don’t hold back that story you want to tell, or that person you want to meet or that book you want to read. Now is the only time!!!

Indulge yourself.. You never know “Kal ho na ho”… Okay the last comment was a bit cheesy ;). The fact is that we need to indulge ourselves not in some distorted epicurean way but what I meant was enjoy everything that we find around ourselves. Forever being grateful to those and that which makes our lives that much more comfortable and enjoyable. And lastly falling in love with ourselves. I am unique.. there is no other me.. So everything about me is that much beautiful or should be for me.. Accepting yourself as you are… Yes the bird in the cage is FREE.

Originally published at




Simple guy trying to make sense of the world

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Anand Raj

Anand Raj

Simple guy trying to make sense of the world

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