My favorite statement about freedom

Liberation Day! The fact that we are still celebrating our liberation from the German occupation over half a century later shows just how much importance we attach to our freedom. Rightly so! Living in freedom, the right to plan your own life is a fundamental human need.

From a biological point of view, you can even say that without freedom there can be no life. We use a nicer word for it and call it autonomy, but it is nothing but freedom of action. Apparently, autonomy seems to be at odds with the fact that people are simultaneously in and in social beings, but modern sociological insights unmistakably show that, paradoxically, autonomy is a precondition for social behavior. From this biological perspective, it is not surprising that we often respond directly from our emotions when it comes to freedom. That starts at a very young age when toddlers are set against the rest of the world by responding with “no” for a while.

Because freedom touches the foundation of man as a living being, precisely because of the enormous importance of the concept, we feel a lot about it, but we think about it very little. And that's more than a shame, because a better understanding of freedom can help us better achieve our individual and common goals.

Let's start with a simple example. If you think you are overweight, you can decide that you want to lose weight. If you put your words into action, you deny yourself (at least temporarily) the freedom to eat whatever you feel like. You do this voluntarily, but as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight can attest, this does feel like a restriction on your freedom. And that is it. Freedom and voluntariness are two different things. An infringement of freedom is not so bad (sometimes losing weight is sensible), but an infringement of voluntariness feels less pleasant.

However, there is still something to be said about this voluntariness. For example, to lose weight, you can also decide to join the Weight Watchers, or you can decide to participate in a TV show where you and a few other fat people are helped by an entire team in your attempt to gain weight. to lose. In those cases, you voluntarily position yourself in a position where you give up your voluntariness in part. And that can also be very sensible. Not only if you are too fat, but also, for example, if you as an alcoholic finally take the step to join the AA.

It is certainly not the case that we only give up our freedoms individually and more or less voluntarily. Our society is full of restrictions on freedoms, which we often no longer recognize as such, because we are so used to it. How about the fact that most of us obediently hand over a significant part of our freedom of movement to the company we work for every day from 9am to 5pm? Or of all those children who go to school every day. Isn't it surprising that there are not many truants anymore? These kinds of collective restrictions on freedom are not necessarily bad either. Here too we achieve goals. Our organizations can be successful and our children are prepared for society. But we can no longer speak of voluntariness here.

An important core of this story is that there is a relationship between freedom on the one hand and goals on the other. If you want to lose weight, you can not eat everything. And the other way around, but exactly the same, if you do not impose any restrictions on food (by nature or consciously), you cannot lose weight. That relationship between freedom and goals is fundamental. The cyberneticist Stafford Beer has expressed this perfectly with his statement: "Freedom is a computable function of purpose". If you know what the purpose of a system is, whether it is a person, a company or a government, you can deduce from this how much freedom of action can still exist for and within that system.

I would like to emphasize that the above does not reflect a political position. Rather, this is a natural law (*). Nor is it a plea for a society in which people are deployed as unwilling parts for the bigger picture. On the contrary. The starting point of thought, and also the underlying thought of Stafford Beer's statement, is that you start from maximum freedom. Politically, liberalism and even anarchy is the basis from which you start. However, if we add to this story that we would collectively pursue certain goals (and regardless of the political color of those goals!), Then by definition it follows that we will have to limit freedoms to a certain extent. But only to the extent necessary to achieve those goals, and certainly not more than that.

Freedom is a computable function of purpose. It is one of my favorite sayings for a reason. Its implications are enormous. On the one hand, I see many examples of situations in which freedoms are restricted without any specific purpose (such as bureaucracy), and on the other hand I think of collective goals (such as solving the climate problem), which are currently out of our reach because we do not realize enough that we will have to give up freedoms for it.

We should not be able to make an individual decision as to whether or not to buy blasts. We should not want to be able to make an individual decision as to whether we go on vacation twice by plane every year. Let me speak for myself when I say that I cannot make those choices consistently for the benefit of the climate. What I can do is make a democratic decision to limit my freedoms. Let's arrange things in such a way that we can all make these kinds of decisions. Completely voluntary.

- -

(*) The natural law at issue here is the second main law of thermodynamics, probably both the most important and the least understood natural law that science has yielded to date. To learn more about this law and its meaning, I would like to refer you to my book “Why do things never happen by themselves? And why that is the wrong question. ”