The Layers of Freedom


Image by Giani Pralea from Pixabay

With every new scientific discovery, with every political change the world changes. We understand it a little differently and that ever so slightly redefines our relationships. Our relationship to other beings, to the larger collective.

This evolving understanding is the journey each of us embarks- this is the journey of overcoming darkness, of understanding the self, of individuation.

This parallels an unfolding our civilization is undergoing. What separates this moment from past power struggles, is the massive increase in technology. Technology is fundamentally a kind of leverage; it amplifies our ability to do something. The best example is the nuclear bomb; it allows a single intention to destroy the entire biosphere.

This increased ability to do something, is related to the notion of freedom in two ways. Freedom exists when a choice is to be made; and technology increases the effect of that choice. Second, technology enables new freedoms, e.g. by freeing up time. We’ll revisit this interplay of freedom and technology later.

In this essay, I will explore various aspects of freedom, and why freedom must be fundamentally reconsidered in light of the world today.


Layers of Freedom

Let’s consider freedom, and it’s many layers.

Is freedom desirable for its own sake?
Yes, because it seems to be the natural mode of humans, and all animals. A kind of pursuit of self-initiated goals, amidst the mortal chaos of nature, but free from top-down subjugation.

But what do we mean by freedom? Because, all animals, including humans, have a freedom of bodily movement, inviolably given to us by nature.

A different notion of freedom, are social freedoms, i.e. those freedoms defined within some social structures e.g. the freedom of speech, and the freedom of gathering.

Are these social freedom’s desirable?
Speaking from a place and time where these are highly prized; and from a personal experience of enjoying these freedoms, my intuition is yes.

But from a historical, and multicultural perspective, this seems less self-evident.

All societies[1] have an ethos, a spirit, a Zeitgeist, that reflects the goals of the society. Freedom is not some standalone, but rather contextualized in this ethos. It is grounded in the moral, social, technological idiosyncrasies of a group of people. It is grounded in the choices made by society, as codified in norms, about what society values. And this pipes down into the lived experience of the people; the pathos.

Some societies have found social freedom desirable- either for its own sake, or as a means to some other ends. But ultimately, these freedom’s have to be compatible with reality; our individual and collective desire to eat and mate; our ability to fend off rot and pathogens.

In our liberal free-market democracies, personal freedom aligns with the ethos of growth and flourishing. Crucially, the freedoms granted, both support the notion of individual flourishing; and supports the functioning of society, i.e. freedom of speech allows collective sense making.

But other societies have contended that other goals are higher than personal freedom, or personal freedom doesn't have the same importance that our society does.

But we shouldn’t lose the perspective that our freedoms exist within the broader machinery of society. Our freedom’s emerge from the interplay between our collective goals and aspirations, and how these aspirations translate to the workings of society.


Beyond Freedom of Action

When we consider freedom, we consider concrete freedom’s to do certain things, e.g. the freedom to speech and the freedom to gather- what I broadly consider the freedoms to do.

Is there any sense of freedom not captured by this notion of freedom to do.

Yes, I think there is a fundamental notion of freedoms that must exist before we can meaningfully talk about any freedom to do.

This is the freedom of imagination. This is related to the implicit or explicit goals and values of society; and understanding of how these goals are to be realized, e.g. how children should be educated. This happens beyond the individual, in the teachings and influences of parents, teachers, and society at large. Ofcourse, individuals may be free to do as they please, but without imagination an individual will be constrained to move between pre-defined spots.

Mere freedom of action does not guarantee one is free; In fact, from an alternative perspective the action might appear an act of bondage. Imagine a hamster in a cage, with the door open. The cage has food, water, safety, and a mate. The hamster might view it’s freedom as the freedom to run, eat, and mate within the cage. But from someone looking at the hamster, one sees it is not truly free. Thus, merely doing actions cannot constitute freedom, unless there is a deeper reasoning/intuition behind the action.

All freedoms of action are predicated on freedom of thought; on freedom of imagination. What good is the freedom to do, if one does not know what to do, or worse, why one is doing it?

Freedom and Technological Change

Why is this reflection on the nature of freedom relevant?

Because technology has deeply changed our relationship to the broader collective and other individuals. The founding fathers of the USA, deeply valued personal freedoms. But these freedoms were contextualized in a very different time.

Though technology has allowed some incredible freedoms, e.g. the ability to see people physically far away. Yet, it has also amplified more visceral human desires. So, on the whole it’s a new territory. And any notions of freedom, no matter how forward thinking, will become (or perhaps already have become) outdated.

In light of the changing technological landscape, some notions of freedom need to be reconsidered, e.g. freedom of speech where someone’s voice can reach countless others, but the accountability for that level of reach is non-existent. Or consider the notion of private data on private servers. Should laws against unwarranted search and seizure hold there. What if we’re talking about Facebook messages? One’s genome? One’s unique brain dump after death (e.g. when such a technology exists).


Freedom and society

How does society influence us?

At the broadest level society is the aggregate of morality, laws, values, incentives, the relationship of the individual to others and to the collective.

What is (un)acceptable? What is the risk/reward trade-off? Am I an atom in the void, or a bee in a hive? How much autonomy/self-expression/selfishness is accepted/required by society?Do I view myself as a consumer? Victim? Citizen? Warrior? Who are the heroes?

But societies’ influences are deeper still.

How do we talk about these things? Do we have the mindset and the language to conceptualize, e.g. different value structures.

Further still, they fundamentally shape and constrain our thoughts. This is explored in Orwell’s 1984, and more broadly posited by linguistic determinism (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). The strong version of the hypothesis claims that language constrains thoughts, seems to be disproven by the Dani peoples’[2][3] ability to distinguish colors.

But, the strong hypothesis includes overriding our sensory perception. This is quite strong.
Intuitively this seems incorrect because I can disambiguate colors, sounds, smells I don't have a label for.

But what if we consider the weaker hypothesis; one where our sensory perceptions are unaffected. Rather higher order thoughts and abstractions- those not directly perceived, but constructed in our minds- are indeed constrained. This seems highly plausible. Most complicated thoughts I have were either learned, or constructed from other mostly learned thoughts, e.g. constitutional democracy and Newtonian gravity[4]. And correspondingly, without any exposure, most of us wouldn’t come across those ideas[5].

Values are one such higher order structure that we construct. Think about what we, as individuals, value? What do we think is worth pursuing? These are things constructed in our minds, with a seed sowed by the broader social values.

This isn’t a bad thing. All societies broadly agree that flourishing of (at least some) life is the goal. And they sow these seeds to these ends; in a healthy society, social values bring individual flourishing.

But in a society, undergoing deep social and technological change, the outdated views of a society, can become a deterrent to the growth and progression of society, and the flourishing of the individual therein.

Without freedom of imagination, we may fall into a kind of authoritarianism- one not perpetrated by a dictator, but one where we unknowingly surrender our freedoms to ever complexifying technology and bureaucracy. This is related to Eric From’s thesis in Escape from Freedom. The argument, briefly, is that modern society affords humans many "freedoms from" restrictions they had previously faced. But without an effective place to apply the time and energy freed from those, i.e. a corresponding "freedom to", they will find freedom unbearable and disenfranchise them of it.


True freedom means the ability to rethink freedom itself. To rethink the self, and society in profoundly different ways.

And a truly free society is one that can change with the changing time.

A society that merely boasts freedom of action, without the presupposed freedom of thought, uses it like a rhetorical tool. An intellectual toy of sorts. A way to avoid self-reflexive reflections on freedom itself. This inability to separate the rhetoric of freedom, from the underlying being-doing-thinking free state is itself a constraint on freedom. Why? Because we’re settling for a booby prize; a knock off of real freedom. And we don’t even know it.



Education in a Time Between Worlds, Zackary Stein

Eric Weinstein, The Portal

Escape from Freedom, Eric From

[1] broadly, any collectived structure
[2] The Dani only have two labels for colors, corresponding to hot and cold colors. However, they were able to distinguish many other colors.
[4] Interestingly, Newton had to invent a language, i.e. calculus ,to conceptualize his intuitions. I certainly don’t think most of us have the intellect or impetus to create a new word, let alone a new language.
[5] Once in a while an Issac Newton will come around, or we’ll get an aha moment; but those will be the exception.