Enjoy this new essay on the topic of intellectual freedom.
I struggle with notions of obligation and coercion, especially when it comes to our intellectual freedoms.
I defend certain Enlightenment and American notions of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, and freedom to act. I think it is important that we are able to think freely about issues plaguing us in the world, and we are able to come to our own conclusions, even if they are flawed.
We need to be able to come to our own conclusions regarding the issues in the world, but I feel as though it is often easy to offload our view in order to integrate with the collective. When I am talking about intellectual freedom, however, I am not talking about a dismissal of virtues, such as cooperation, compassion, agreeableness, and good will. I am not saying that we think and do whatever we want, and that we don’t care about the consequences of what we do and what we say. Certainly I think people take these Enlightenment and American views to mean such things, but that is not the way that it is for me. The views are not arrogantly self-righteous, a deep humility and skepticism must be part of this view of these freedoms.
For me, rather, it is a flight from doctrine and indoctrination. I don’t want to fall for dogmatic views, I don’t want to be told what to think about issues where I may have a different opinion, I don’t want someone with bad faith telling me what to do. I think it is important that we facilitate, foster, and cultivate our individual and intellectual consciousness, our own awareness, so that way we can really decide what is going on in the world, and what we must do as a consequence. This is not easy to do, of course, and certainly, there are many obstacles and challenges to being able to do so. I’m also not talking about ideological boundaries, where people are incapable of seeing another point of view because of what they already strongly believe.
But then, what is intellectual freedom? I think it is important that I identify that intellectual freedom is valuable, because it allows us to ask questions, intellectual freedom allows us to question things and explore on our own. The system, institutions, and groups are not necessarily right, just because they are popular, effective, or efficient. We may be a lot of things, but we are also subjective beings, and while we definitely have a strong evolutionary basis for group identity and cohesion, we also experience the world through our own lens, and I wish to honor this.
Each person brings their own individual experience, and I don’t think that we realize this at times, and become fanatical. In a simple way, I am talking about subjectivity, our subjectivity. There are many views that would claim that we are more a part of groups than we are anything else, or that there is no actual individual experience, that this is just an illusion. I totally understand these views, and while I would say that I understand the implications of these views, I struggle with the implications themselves, because I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, and much messier, and certainty less defined.
Intellectual freedom, then, is individual freedom. I am not arguing for American individualism, in that people are always rational, or that they only think about themselves, or that they never listen to the group. There must be a moderation of this view, we should not just be able to do and think whatever we want. Yet part of living a good life is coming to these conclusions for ourselves, being able to explore science and philosophy and the realm of ideas, and not getting hung up on the things that we think we are supposed to believe, say, and do. We are often told what to do, what to think, but this is not necessarily correct.
Intellectual freedom involves creativity just as much as it does balance and temperance. It is a creative endeavor, just as much as a moral one. While I would say the truth is not always the most beautiful thing in the world, that it is not always elegant, I would say that truth is important for us understanding how the world really operates. While I am a little bit jaded with notions that rationality, as an example, is the way that we can have intellectual freedom, I would say that part of intellectual freedom includes the ability to have rational discussion and debate, to focus on things that we can prove or substantiate in the world. In a sense, Occam’s razor.
I know that intellectual freedom can mean ideological freedom as well, but I think sometimes this is a conflation, and a mistaken one. I don’t think that freethinking means that we think whatever we want. This is especially true whenever we give in to any given ideology, that tells us exactly what to believe. One of the biggest mistakes with intellectual work, is that we assume the conclusion, we beg the question; and by that, I mean that we only look for evidence that supports our views (confirmation bias), and we look for evidence that confirms what we already believed at the outset. This kind of reasoning is circular, and obviously very flawed. Ideologies require that you don’t come to your own conclusions, but accept what people already think.
So this is really the hard part of trying to live with integrity. You don’t want to reject worldviews and different points of view, but you always want to have your own point of view. You don’t want to be antagonistic to the group, but you also want to accept that your experiences don’t fit into any neat category. You want to stand up to injustice, but you also want to be kind with the way that you approach others. You want to vote for a certain candidate, while still holding your own views. You want to be able to say which you think, even if it is unpopular. But intellectual freedom is not an easy thing to facilitate, and it is because intellectual freedom is at odds with expediency, and our culture of the “now.” It seems that it is much easier to just say and believe certain things that we are told, certainly we weren’t evolved to understand the truth, or at least a large percentage of the truth. We evolved for as much efficiency us humans could possibly have. Sometimes it may in fact be better not to know the truth, I think this is true in some ways.
Assuming that we can have integrity, however, intellectual freedom, in my estimation, is very important. It is important that we are able to explore and expand our point of view, contributing to the knowledge of the world, and come to conclusions that satisfy us. Intellectual freedom, then, can make the world a better place, because it can shine a light on areas where truth is not immediately apparent. In other words, when I am exploring the topic, I want to be able to explore that topic in an abstract sense, I don’t want to be told what to believe about that topic, and I don’t want to be told what I should believe in general. I want to be free to learn for myself. The reason why I advocate for such a specific version of intellectual freedom, is because I think that it is really important that people are able to ask questions, and question dogma, long-held assumptions, and even common sense views. It is very easy to manipulate someone to believe a certain thing, it is very easy to even coerce or force a person to believe certain things, and I think that this is a very big problem, believing what you’re told does not guarantee truth, nor does it guarantee originality. It seems to me that the biggest problem is that people are not really living, if they are just told what to believe, who to vote for and what to say and believe; in that way, they are not thinking for themselves, and experiencing their own world. I don’t know how to emphasize this view and point, except to just say that, even though group identity is important, we should still be able to understand our own points of view, and we should have the freedom to articulate that, in as much good faith is possible.
The way that I see the world, it is one of frequent ideological battles. You don’t believe these things, so you must be wrong. Your point of view is leading to the destruction of the world, or, less dramatically, your view is stupid and uninteresting. However we look at these things, we are constantly being bombarded with the way that we are supposed to believe and think about things. We can definitely trust collective wisdom, and I think that is part of the process of intellectual freedom, but we also have to understand why we personally come to these conclusions. Otherwise it’s useless. If we don’t understand how we came to the conclusions that we did, we are doomed to just repeat what we’re told, without even knowing why.
The values that I am advocating for are a little bit idealistic. In the real world, we have to make decisions constantly, and we have to be actors on the world stage. They are also not always efficient for getting things done, and they can have the downside of being ineffective. Certainly not everybody cares about truth, so if you’re speaking what you believe to be true, it doesn’t mean that people will connect with that. Maybe I am biased by Enlightenment thinking, or wanting to think for myself and be original and honest, but I legitimately believe that it is very important that we have this ability. I would say that we have a responsibility to get to the truth, and to get there honestly and with integrity.
So do what you can. Learn what you can, and contribute what you are able. Life is certainly not an easy or cut and dry thing, as we know, and it is really hard to think in a pure fashion, to allow yourself to come to a natural conclusion. We are certainly pressured to come to certain conclusions, and we ourselves don’t always know what we actually believe. So long as we continue to explore the world and the universe around us, I believe we will be okay. There is so much to understand, so much to overcome, and we can make the world better through honest engagement and thought.