Are we free?

Freedom is a tricky concept. The philosophical debate has been raging since the ancient Greeks. Personally, I find Dan Dennett’s arguments for compatibalism rather convincing. Perhaps that has to do with my mathematical background. To illustrate it shortly, consider a lottery where the winning numbers are drawn with a bingo machine. There are two types of drawings you might think of: in the one case, the numbers are drawn after all the lots are sold; in the other case the numbers are drawn beforehand and put into sealed envelopes. Which lottery is more fair? Actually, there’s no difference. Determinism, if you will, is like a sequence of sealed envelopes that have been fixed before the ultimate lottery: life.

But I want to discuss another type of freedom that I’d like to call operational freedom. This to distinguish it from metaphysical freedom. Operational freedom is the freedom that matters to our daily lives. The freedom of action we experience directly, asssuming that sufficient metaphysical freedom is given. For insance, the life of an early hominid would be dominated by the need for shelter and food. Later on, when agriculture developed, Man freed himself partially of these. In many parts of our modern world, we are completely free of these chains. Indeed, most people in the western world would say a steady internet connection is the most basic need in life, taking shelter, food and water simply for granted.

Operational freedom in liberal democracies can be associated with rights guaranteed by law. Freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom from slavery, you name it. No doubt these rights codify our current operational freedom to some extent. Most people would agree that more freedom is a desirable thing. At the same time, history broadly shows a development of increasing operational freedom. I think it therefore a natural question to ask what our current limitations are. Or, perhaps a more fundamental question, what the limits of operational freedom itself are.


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