Of course, in practice this isn’t really what we mean by freedom. Instead we immediately begin putting restrictions on it so that it isn’t simply chaos. Of course, we can’t behave in anyway that is outside the bounds of our physical bodies. We can’t simply will ourselves to fly. We can’t simply hold our breath indefinitely. So there are some obvious boundaries that every creature encounters when considering its “freedom”.
This brings us more into line with a concept in mechanics which identifies the “degrees of freedom” that an object possesses. In other words, it describes the possible paths of motion it may take, based on the restrictiveness of its architecture or design.
Similarly, we have degrees of freedom that will limit what we can actually experience or do. In a social environment, these degrees of freedom are further restricted to promote coexistence between members and to minimize the intrusions of one individual’s “freedom” into another’s. While we tend to pride ourselves in creating free societies, in truth, it isn’t freedom as much as order and predictability that we desire. It would seem that the average individual’s concept of freedom is simply the desire to be “left alone” by potentially intrusive outside forces (i.e. government, business, etc.). In other words, the desire to be left alone focuses on those entities that are in the most powerful positions to further limit the degrees of freedom one can have.
Going a step farther, it would seem that one of the biggest obstacles to freedom is our own inhibitions. Which brings us to the second issue; free will.
Free will is subject to the same “degrees of freedom” constraint that our physical freedom has, however, this is a more complex subject because we have the apparent capability of deciding on any abstraction that we can conceive of. Our brains wrestle with concepts like infinity as if they possessed a physical reality. Herein lies the first difficulty, which is the degree to which our imagination is limited in granting the full range of “free” thought. How does one differentiate between a creative new thought versus the thousands and millions of ideas that we are exposed to through our education and society influences? Are we truly thinking freely or are we simply being influenced by other viewpoints that coincide with beliefs we already accept?
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the belief system represents the data organization mechanism of the brain so that concepts can be included or excluded based on the framework that defines the worldview. Therefore, one restriction of free will is that it must fit into our existing framework to even be considered as a possibility.
This particular aspect of brain function and data organization is especially pervasive because it defines the possible outcomes we accept based on the belief system we use. This is most strikingly demonstrated by various methods of coercion, propagandizing, and “brainwashing” that can occur which undermines the brain’s belief system and the power to differentiate our thoughts. These methods are specifically used to direct the “free will” of an individual into specific directions. Similar to the idea of hypnotic suggestions, this clearly illustrates that the brain is capable of being manipulated to perform in very specific, directed ways.
What we have to consider then, is that the brain was ALWAYS directed in some fashion, and that these methods simply re-direct (or reprogram) the brain according to whoever wants to exert the influence. But it seems implausible that such thoughts and decision-making could be redirected if they weren’t already structured in such a manner to begin with.
As with the case of hypnotic suggestions, false memories have been recovered, which clearly demonstrates how our data acquisition and filtering mechanisms can be compromised. In addition, it has been said that a hypnotized subject can’t be compelled to act in a manner that opposes their strict moral values, but it seems that even this is a bit overstated, since the context would be the determining factor in how successful such an attempt was.
In general, there is no question that our minds have a significant number of “degrees of freedom” which will be determined by our brain, experience, knowledge, and belief systems. This creates an environment where literally millions of possible thoughts can come together. However, options are limited by the same constraints which define us as social beings with all its attendant inhibitions and prohibitions.
So how “free” is our ability to think? Can we ever be sure that our belief in free will isn’t simply a product of our beliefs that have been passed on to us by others? How could we ever determine that a particular decision was truly “free” as opposed to being a composite of everything that we are mentally? Is my decision to write this blog entry a product of “free will”, or is it simply a directly predictable consequence of who I am given the opportunity for such expression?
It is for this reason, that I’ve concluded that “free will” falls squarely into the domain of philosophy, because there is no objective way to determine its existence, nor to establish its range of functioning. I believe that we have free will to the degree that we can operate within the parameters of our mind’s worldview, but we cannot easily move outside that realm.