The Meaning of Freedom

Any definition of freedom is, arguably, inherently ambiguous. The only form of unconstrained liberty is that which does not interfere with the liberties of others, hence the adage My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.”

The OED defines freedom” thusly:

Freedom, n.

I. The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition, etc.; liberty.


4. a. The state of being able to act without hindrance or restraint; liberty of action. Frequently with to and infinitive.


5. The fact of not being controlled by or subject to fate; the power of self-determination attributed to the will.

Definition 4a is the one that many people are most familiar with, as it is the one most invoked in the form of laws and governance, and the one used in setting out the four fundamental freedoms in the universal declaration of human rights, those being freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Look at that statement, and you’ll see that half of the listed freedoms are reactive — freedoms from conditions, defining a baseline from which we can exercise the other freedoms. That isn’t something that anyone can choose to have. We cannot, as human beings, simply choose not to need food or shelter or clean water or healthcare1. But fear” and want” are very nebulous concepts, and so different societies have the freedom to interpret them differently.

Ultimately, a reactive freedom is something that is set opposed to a proactive freedom. The very presence of fundamental reactive freedoms places limits on fundamental proactive freedoms; the precise nature of those limits is one of the foundational sources of tension in human society. As it would be impractical for two people to negotiate the limits of each respective freedom each time they met, and impossible2 to negotiate between half a dozen people — let alone a larger human population — it becomes necessary for people to relinquish a portion of their freedoms to ensure that they can live together.

To some, the idea of giving up any freedom is morally reprehensible, but as most of us have grown out of the morality of the teenager who’s just finished reading Atlas Shrugged3, we are capable of understanding that our freedoms and the freedoms of others intersect, and that therefore sacrificing some measure of freedom to ensure that others retain their own is a good thing. This is, after all, the bedrock of society: that we must relinquish some small amount of freedom in order to ensure that as many people as possible can exercise their own freedoms. Every society is different, and every society has its own ideas on exactly where the bounaries lie between societal and individual freedom. The American ideal of free-speech absolutism, for example, gives near-ultimate freedom in law4 to say things that are utterly reprehensible on all levels, for less-reprehensible people to deliver a well-reasoned rebuttal (usually in the form of two words involving sex and travel), and then the legal right for the aforementioned piece of shit to scream that telling them to fuck off is accusing them of thoughtcrime and cancelling them”, often in national media. Similarly, the freedom to own firearms is a distinctly American phenomenon, a freedom that values the ownership of murder weapons as being more important than the freedoms of others to be alive.

In developed nations, however, such freedoms are rightly seen as providing a conflict between the individua and the society, and are thus curbed by, for example, laws against hate speech and broad limitations on the ownership of firearms. And yet other states limit freedoms further, beyond those deemed necessary by many for the social good. The inhabitants may not have the freedom to be represented in some way in government, for example, being denied free elections. They may not have access to unbiased information, either by the lack of a free press or a Great Firewall, both of which are state-level attacks on freedom of thought (but more on that particular freedom in a moment). They may not have free movement, being prevented from leaving a country, city, or even a specific family’s employ (such as happens with many non-White immigrants to Dubai). These are cases where individual freedoms are curtailed further than is needed for the functioning of society, often to the empowerment (and thus greater freedoms) of the people in charge.

As we have thus demonstrated, the true meaning of freedom is tied in to the idea of society as much as it is to the individual, as it is through the mechanisms of a society that our actions derive consequences — at least, the kind of meaningful and significant consequences that can help someone develop as a social and moral being.5 When an individual is in a position to do anything without consequences, then in a very real sense it doesn’t matter what they do. In the white room of the philosophical thought experiment, their actions don’t impact anyone, and don’t make a meaningful change in the world. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, acting without material consequences is a privilege granted to anyone rich enough to buy off witnesses and the victims’ families.6 In both cases, however, the individual in question has an additional freedom — freedom from consequences.

And yet, even devoid of consequences (be they legal, societal, or metaphysical in nature), most people still knowingly restrict their own individual freedoms based on their understanding of how their actions may impact other people. Human behaviour is, seen in the broader scale, geared towards forming societies.

Societies, it should be noted, are not the same as states or even governments7. Examples of non-state societies aren’t common, but do exist — the anarchist communes in Franco’s Spain, for example, are a textbook example. In fiction, the island society presented at the end of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is an excellent worked example of a society existing in opposition to the anarchy of the mainland, especially as it comes to the conflicts between the freedoms of the individual and of society. One is free to do as one wants, as long as they benefit the society in some way. If they do not, they are exiled to another island which has no such rules, and each looks out only for themselves. Both are free of the titular predatory flora, but are very different in how they allow people to express their freedoms.

Going back to definition 5 from the OED, the power of self-determination attributed to the will, brings us to another inherent meaning of freedom: freedom of thought.

This has many levels, from the cognitive to the metaphysical. Freedom of thought is simply the freedom to think and to believe what one will. In many ways this is an inherent freedom of the human condition8. Indeed, in many ways it is one of the traits of sapience, the defining nature of what we consider intelligent” thought. But freedom of thought is a tricky thing to ascertain. Short of developing telepathy or a mind-reading machine9, we cannot know what people actually think. The only things we can observe are their actions, including both physical acts and statements that they make, and neither give us any real insight into the true underlying thoughts. All we as human beings can do is to observe a person’s statements and actions, and try to synthesise those into some semblance of a mental model. If someone believes something truly heinous, but is scared of expressing that belief because of the societal repercussions, and thus their actions are constrained, they still have freedom of thought, but their observed actions do not match up with what they are actually thinking10. Likewise, someone who is part of a group but disagrees with its doctrines may — in the privacy of their own thoughts — have little to do with it, but they act exactly the same as members who believe in the doctrines because they gain social benefits from doing so (such as the atheist Christian” found in many American churches).

Indeed, the person in question may not be aware of their own underlying thoughts. Robert Cialdini, in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion offers seven techniques in which people can be subconsciously convinced to alter their behaviour and even their own thoughts. Do they then truly have freedom of thought? Even that is arguable; on the one hand they are free to change their minds at any point, but at the same time, their minds were changed by outside actors to begin with.

So we see that experimentally (or indeed experientially) determining freedom of thought requires a significant degree of cognitive Kremlinology.11 However, there is one place in which we can determine freedom of thought distinct from freedom of action, and this is in the form of consent. All actions involving multiple people require consent on some level, it’s not limited to sexual or even physical contact. Our consent can be granted or withdrawn at any time, but equally, many of us may feel unable to express that withdrawal in the immediate moment; our actions are constrained by circumstance in a way that our freedom of thought is not. At other times, we may believe we consent but we are doing so under false pretences, either because we are presented with incomplete or false information, or because our freedom of thought has been tampered with through the aforementioned persuasion techniques. And yet our minds are able (over time) to break through the barriers and assert our internal freedom of thought. While it may not always be directly observable, in many cases freedom of thought is clearly present and can be identified as such independent of freedom of action.

On a greater metaphysical level, however, do we really have any freedoms? Abrahamic religions offer us free will”, the idea that we have freedom to act free of fate, destiny, or a divine plan. And yet the abstract mathematics that governs the universe tells us that everything that is, exists as the results of a constantly-collapsing set of probabilities, and everything from our thoughts to the linear passage of time is just a higher-order effect of an ongoing cosmic probability holocaust, with even the granularity of the universe (as defined by Planck length and time) an illusion that we create. This is not the absolutist nihilism of Thomas Ligotti, for whom consciousness (and thus both freedom of thought and metaphysical freedom in general) is a malignant mutation, an unwanted cosmic curse from which we have no escape, but a means of observing the universe based on our current understandings of physics and mathematics. But at the same time, it is just a model, a best-guess as to how the universe operates, and right now we have conflicting models. While not all of them may be equally likely, some are more probably true than others.

The freedom to choose one’s conceptual model of the universe is a powerful one, though it is often hard to exercise — many such cognitive models are religious in nature, while others come from various traditions and scientific disciplines. Further, outside specific fields, there’s a sense that it doesn’t really matter. Sure, to scholars of religion or divinity, to quantum physicists and astrophysicists, to philosophers and occultists, it has a direct effect. But most people don’t have any need to really consider their conceptual model of the universe. It doesn’t help them pay the rent, put food on the table, get laid,12 or get a better job. It doesn’t matter. And that’s a pity, because being able to consider the nature of the universe is a wonderful freedom in and of itself — and that’s a very apposite adjective, because it provides an inherent sense of wonder.

Some people ask, Is this all there is?” To which the best response is, Have you ever really thought about how big this really is?“ And the freedom to consider that is the least practical freedom we have, but the one that has the most inherent meaning to the human condition through its inherent ability to provide wonder.

  1. No matter what the heads of Nestlé or American health insurance companies may claim.↩︎

  2. But funny to imagine.↩︎

  3. I almost need not reference John Rogers’ description of Atlas Shrugged here, but I’m going to do so anyway.↩︎

  4. Freedom only in as much as it is not directly illegal to speak such views. The popular conception of the First Amendment as providing freedom to speak such views without consequences in any private venue is both pervasive and total bullshit.↩︎

  5. Some choices can lead to physical consequences absent anyone else. I have the freedom to cut my head off with this chainsaw” does limit the future freedoms of anyone who chooses it.↩︎

  6. Where the punishment for a crime is financial in nature, it is a punishment only for those who cannot afford to pay it.↩︎

  7. Though getting half a dozen anarchists in a pub and asking if anarcho-socialism is in itself a system of government can lead to some very educational arguments for the budding student.↩︎

  8. An argument can be made that certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, inherently limit freedom of thought through altering what would be normal thought patterns. This is different from neurodivergence, in which ones thought processes are different from the accepted norm, but are no less free.↩︎

  9. If you do develop either, please get in touch. Either would indicate a higher-order theory of mind than people possess.↩︎

  10. Before 2016, this was the tactic that kept most far-right groups from recruiting openly — by making such arseholes scared to express their views. Sadly, the rightward shift of the Overton Window has made that a less-viable tactic.↩︎

  11. With about as much accuracy as regular Kremlinology…↩︎

  12. Outside of hanging round coffee shops and goth clubs in the late 90s, at least.↩︎