Freedom is something that many people strive for. Political leaders emphasize it. Soldiers fight for it. New college students experience it in a way they had not before. A few months ago, a quotation from Rachael Slick, an Atheist woman, caused me to start thinking about this topic more than I ever have before. In discussing her decision to stop following God, she said, “Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.” This quotation displays a common focus on freedom as the primary feature of life.
Freedom is important, but I think it can often be misunderstood. A simple definition of freedom is “a person having the ability to choose to do whatever he wants to do”. This definition seems consistent with most people’s idea of what freedom is. However, this definition of freedom is actually impractical, due to the broad nature of the definition. Using this definition, a person can choose to do anything he wants to do.
However, there are limitations that prevent people from doing anything they want to do. These limitations need to be considered in the formation of an accurate model of freedom.
These limitations can be physical. For example, a thrill-seeker may want to launch off the Earth with rocket boots and travel to Mars, but unfortunately cannot due to limitations of current technology and the human body. People can only choose to do something that is physically possible.
A lack of knowledge can also limit the ability to make certain choices. For example, a music enthusiast may want to see the Foo Fighters live. However, if he does not know that they are holding a concert in his hometown tonight, he cannot choose to go. The concert-goer only had the freedom to choose between options that he knew were available. As displayed by this example, a person only makes a choice based on the options he knows can be chosen.
Considering these limitations, freedom must have a more narrow definition than having the ability to choose among all options. At the very least, freedom involves the ability to choose between options that are possible to be chosen. Below is a visual that may help with understanding this concept.
The top arrow labels the entire picture as a representation of all options. The blue box represents options with physical limitations, which cannot be chosen because they are impossible to perform. The orange box represents options that the chooser does not know about. Since the chooser does not know those options are available, he is incapable of choosing that option.
The green box represents all other options after eliminating the first two types of options. In other words, these are all the options that are physically possible and that are known by the chooser. Once the chooser gets to this point, he can begin choosing between possible options. Assuming nothing else is thrown into the picture, this is the point where the chooser has freedom.
As with models about other topics, this model is not meant to portray a perfect picture of freedom. It is intended to show that freedom is more narrow than having the ability to choose among all options. By default, people have limited options when making choices. This idea may seem depressing compared to the idea of doing whatever one wants, but it does give a more accurate picture of freedom on a practical level.
This freedom talk may seem like a pointless intellectual exercise, but it is necessary to establish a starting point for understanding freedom. There is much more to discuss on this topic, all of which builds off the ideas in this post. For now, though, I choose the option of postponing discussion until a future post.