02 October 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Paradox of Freedom + NEWS

News: Isabel, Manuel, DemocratsAbroad.org, and Ceit might still be looking for a flat.

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing The Paradox of Freedom.

We have already discussed this topic twice, the first was:
Freedom and Privacy

And last year we discussed: Is freedom an illusion? I am including the essay for this subject although of course things might have changed and Sunday’s topic is quite specific.


--------Isabel has sent me this email with some activities for this Saturday and Saturday the 11th: ---------------

Would you like to organize something with the philo group? I though it would be nice if we go to see a movie:

- Che, El Argentino (v.o. en castellano e inglés con subtítulos en castellano - Plaza de los Cubos), we could meet all there at 20 hrs on Saturday 11 October and then get tickets, get a Coca-Cola and pop corn before the movie

Anyway next Saturday 4 Oct there is something going on at Pza Mayor, in the bars there they will offer cava and snacks

Take care, isi

I think everyone interested on the play about the Spanish boxer Urtain was aware of the meeting. Anyway you may want to e-mail it to the group. It is on Valle Inclán theatre in Lavapies plaza, I think we could meet Wednesday the 8th because it matches with spectators’ day so tickets are cheaper (up to 8 euros). It is played by a great theatre group named Animalario. It could even be a interesting play to discuss in any of our sessions because I think it is full of meanings.


For those who are following the Presidential election in the USA you might be interested in the following activities:
Vice Presidential Debate
October 6, at 7.30pm at the International Institute, c/ Miguel Angels 8 (metro Ruben Dario)

Third Presidential Debate
October 16 at 8pm at the Casa de America, Plz Cibeles

More details from the www.DemocratsAbroad.org website.

See you Sunday, take care



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Is freedom an illusion?

In everyday life we speak of freedom in many contexts. One very strong
impression we have of freedom is a sort of metaphysical freedom.

For example, we look at a tree and see that it is attached to the
ground, immobile and fixed. We look at out pet gerbil and realize how
limited and limiting its life must be. We consider our opportunities to
go shopping and buy what we want practically when we want it. Choose
from a menu our favourite dish, go on holiday to our favourite
destination, and if push comes to shove we also feel free to change jobs
if things become uncomfortable. And then there is the collective
impression that we dominate and control the world and its contents;
excluding us of course.

Needless to say that this state of affairs can give a sense of
confidence that can lead to such claims as we are free to choose or
conduct our life as we want.

This sense of freedom is different from what I shall call a sense of
psychological freedoms. That is, attitudes or mental dispositions that
are not constrained or restrained by inhibitions, emotional
restrictions, negative character traits or disruptive personality to
mention a few possibilities. Thus, suffering from a phobia might hinder
what we are able to do or having a difficult personality might limit our
social, if not professional, prospects.

In politics and social interaction we have such ideas as freedom of
speech and freedom of movement, free elections, free and independent
judiciary, freedom of association, and so on. The idea here is that
authority and those in power have no right over us other than what has
been enacted by a freely elected government following some sort of
constitutional constraints. This is probably one of the most important
freedoms we enjoy, but maybe do not appreciate as much as we ought to.
Not only do we seem to take these freedoms for granted, but we are very
reluctant to help others to obtain such freedoms.

One freedom worth mentioning and which is certainly a freedom we give a
high priority is economic freedom. by economic freedom I do not only
mean freedom to start or conduct a business, but freedom to earn a
living pursuing a career of our choice and of course freedom to spend
our money how and on what we wish. We usually associate this freedom
with the fact that our income is limited to our needs and that certain
goods and services are priced beyond our means.

I would say that one of our strongest justifications for economic
freedom is the fact that we can do some things we want. If I have the
money and want to buy a certain cereal from the shops I might feel
myself justified in thinking that I am economically free to buy that
particular brand of cereal which I want. If we can do something we want
then, surely, we are free?

To answer this question I would argue that a lot depends on what we mean
by freedom for what we want. And what we mean by illusion, about what we
can do, instead of what we perceive we can potentially do.

If we measure freedom by what we want, then surely each individual would
want different things, thus what I want might not be what you want. If
we all get what we want, does that make us collectively free? I mean,
can we extrapolate objectivity, we are free, from subjective criteria, I
am free? We usually do, but are we justified?

We might of course judge what a person wants by asking them what they
want and see what they get. Thus we could use this as evidence for the
proposition; getting what you want is evidence for freedom.
Unfortunately, there is a "but." With some people what they say they
want, and get, does not necessarily reflect what their first choice is,
but maybe what they are getting is a compromise or worse. For example,
some might want a snack or some nuts without salt, additives or fancy
flavor, but all they could find is something without the fancy flavor.
So, if they decide to buy a packet of crisps with an advertised low fat
content can we say that they got what they wanted?

And what about those who do not really know what they want but they go
ahead and buy things just because they have the money. Does this count
as evidence for freedom? Does economic freedom amount to much in a
debate on freedom?

Let me qualify this question immediately. Wanting to buy a loaf of bread
or a colour TV and they are not in the shops because of some government
policy /or monopoly policy/ is of course a restriction of freedom. But
does having the money to buy something sufficient condition to have
economic freedom?

Some people would answer yes, and on purely economic ground, surely the
answer must be yes. But having money is not necessarily enough to
qualify for freedom. For some people having money might imply a life
style very similar to their peers. Thus, implying a certain peer
pressure to adopt a certain life style. For example, being a member of a
golf club, going to "exotic" holidays and so on. Barry Schwartz writing
for New York Times Magazine, points out that middle class Americans do
not like it when neighbours buy the same thing they do. This takes away
the uniqueness of their purchase. But working class people approve when
a neighbour buys the same thing because they see this as a sign that
they made the right choice. On the other hand, what Schwartz has to
consider is that big ticket items, for example top tier sports cars
worth three quarters of a million Euros, can only be afforded by a
selected few. By implication they belong to an exclusive peer group.

Does wanting something because of peer pressure qualify as evidence of
freedom? Of course peer pressure need not only be for goods and service
but could be for anything. There is always the example of someone who
buys a sports car because their colleagues at work bought a sports car.
But what about academic peer pressure to support one theory or writer
and not another. Or a political party because others are supporting the

The relevance of peer pressure cannot be dismissed that easily. Two
informal fallacies given in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
(1999) are the argument from the consensus of the nations and appeal to
popular sentiment. I am of course assuming that these two fallacies can
be interpreted as valid for peer pressure. The consensus of nations
argument appeals to mankind as a justification for an argument. If we
all think that we are free then surely we are free. In real life,
surveys are only done amongst a few dozen people. Even Schwartz accepts
that he only has real access to white Americans when carrying out his
research (New York Magazine). Appeal to popular sentiment has also been
described as 'mob appeal.' In a way nations are peers as much as mob
members are peers amongst themselves. Of course, I am not suggesting
that mobs and nations are the same.

But peer influence also seems to be included in a list of cognitive
biases /Wikipedia; list of cognitive biases/. This list identifies an
ingroup bias which is a bias to give preferential treatment to others
who are perceived to be members of one's own group. I interpret this to
mean that if our group thinks that we are free then we must be free.

I want to use peer pressure as an important factor in this discussion on
freedom mainly to move away from the traditional argument of determinism
and randomness. And also to introduce the idea that we are as
determining causes as any other agent. Thus to further show how
important peer pressure can be consider this quotation by Max Plank, "a
new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and
making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually
die, and new generation grows up that is familiar with it." (Max Plank,
Scientific Autobiography and other papers, 1949: see Thomas Kuhn below).
In other words, it is difficult to change the mind set of an ingroup.

I would say that peer pressure, as another limiting factor for freedom
can be applied to any social grouping. Of course the influence and
effect of peer pressure does not affect everyone the same. As I have
tried to show, this is an anomaly between the individual sense of
freedom and extrapolating group freedom from that. Intuitively we can
see this deterministic link, but maybe it will be hard to measure it.

We also have to consider freedom from the epistemological point of view;
illusion refers to our state of knowledge. Of course, the
epistemological factor might even be more important than the metaphysics
of freedom.

The ingroup bias might have as its basis the belief that members of my
group are much better than outsiders. We can read as much in Plank's
quote. Of course, why our group should be better than others need not be
based on objective criteria or facts but simply bias. For example, we
might have invested a lot of time and effort in the group and would hate
to discover it was all a waste of time.

So why should freedom be an illusion and how do we arrive at thinking
freedom is just what we commonly think it is? We must first distinguish
between our belief in freedom as a working hypothesis and our belief in
freedom as a matter of fact.

Our belief in freedom as a working hypothesis is of course more
interesting. When you consider this strategy it is quite an ingenious
thing to do. There are many times in our life when we assume that
something might be the case so that we can take a certain course of
action. One example that comes immediately to mind is approaching a
prospective partner. Some people have to assume that their prospective
future partner would be interested in them before introducing
themselves. And most probably behaved as if they were interested in
them. An independent confirmation of interest before the first meeting
might never be received.

Christopher Columbus assumed that the world was round which was very
much contrary to received wisdom at the time. And Achilles assumed that
he could reach the other side of the stadium despite Zeno's convincing
argument to the contrary. Maybe we adopt this strategy more often than
we care to admit or we're intentionally aware of?

In fact isn't this what we do when we talk about the future? When we fix
a day trip to the countryside during the weekend, we do this on the
assumption that we're still going to be alive, that the weather would be
fine, that the trains will work and so on. Of course, in reality there
is no future.

Illusion and our future have this in common; both are epistemological
states which do not represent reality. In the one case there is no
reality and in the other, our perception is very much different from the
facts on the ground.

There are many ways we can arrive to the false belief that we are free.
Freedom as an illusion can be the result of many different processes.

Sense perception in particular and perception in general have always
been a source of philosophical problems. consider what Russell has to
say,'' ....Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions
that cause most trouble in philosophy--the distinction between
'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and what they
are. '' /the problems of philosophy; Guttenberg project/

One of the simplest forms of illusion, is what I will call, for a better
expression, being caught day dreaming. This is a sort of state were we
lack any sense of self-awareness and what is happening around us. It's
like receiving sense perception without analyzing what we are
perceiving. At the very best we might be victims, for example, of "the
availability heuristic bias." a tendency to predict something by
focusing on the salient or emotionally charged outcome. Or, at the very
worst scenario, we behave like a billiard ball which preoccupied
philosophers for many centuries. In the one case we react to emotions
and on the other we allow ourselves to be pushed around.

We call follow this by referring to sense perceptions or perceptions but
maybe we are unable to convert this data into meaningful information.
For example, we might have a pain in a part of our body associated with
certain symptoms but we cannot convert this data into a medical
diagnoses. We might even go a long to way to convert this data into
meaningful information but draw the wrong conclusion. Instead of
visiting our GP we consult our astrologer.

The availability heuristic bias can be interpreted, up to a point, as
taking things at face value. Either reacting to emotions or taking into
consideration what is obvious can mean that we might exclude factors
that are relevant to our debate but not immediately obvious. Earlier I
pointed out the discrepancy between the individual having a sense of
freedom and collectively being free. Taking things at face value can
have a bearing on this issue.

If we feel free because we can afford something there is the chance of
failing to consider factors that might give us a different opinion. For
example, never mind slave labour, but how many people had to endure a
nasty boss or horrible working conditions who were involved in the
process of bring us what we bought? Or maybe, had to work unsocial hours
or take pay restraints or damage the eco system and so forth. The point
is that the product we purchase is only the front end of a very long and
complex process. Some where along that process some people might have
had to give up their freedom more than they ought to have done or just

Barry Schwartz is the authority on choice. His paradox of choice can
help us explain my earlier question whether having money to buy
something equated to freedom? Plus many more things about freedom and
illusion in general.

Schwartz's idea is simple."Although some choice is undoubtedly better
than none, more is not always better than less.'' (in Scientific
American see below) The belief is that the more choice we have the freer
we are. The paradox of choice challenges and rejects this myth.

So, having one hundred different cereal options at the supermarket does
not mean that we have more freedom. But the problem is more serious than
that. There is the epistemological aspect as well.

Schwartz introduces the two types of freedoms which Roosevelt and Berlin
made; freedom to and freedom from. In a nut shell /you have to read the
papers to understand the scientific reasoning behind this/ the
conclusion is that middle and upper class people /in America/ equate
freedom with more choice; i.e. freedom to do. While the lower classes
equate freedom from fear and instability. And as Schwartz points out the
upper and middle classes in America can easily be equated with people
who have a college background /university degree/. Of course, I am not
going to discus class issues or university culture in America. For
example, I remember reading reports that having a fist degree in America
today is not enough to guarantee an average income. But that is not of
interest for us here. Nor am I interested in the fact that the upper
classes are depressed and unhappy.

I am only interested in one aspect of Schwartz's study; the link between
knowledge, university degree, and perception of freedom. Those who have
more knowledge /information/ equate their freedom to do things. Buy more
goods, buy better goods, buy goads with features they want and so on.
Doesn't this remind us of the model put forward by biological systems
theorists who suggest that we are an open system which requires
information to function? I have repeated myself many times in these
essays that as an open system we have to interact with our environment
to survive. (try Google; biological open systems).

In the end Schwartz does not see great advantage in having more choices
than what is necessary even for those with above average knowledge. In
fact, when you read Schwartz one idea that keeps coming to mind is
'information overload' except that I have not seen this word used in the
articles. Thus, we might go for freedom, because it is an easy option,
but overlook many other complex issues.

Schwartz mainly applies his theory to consumer goods. But I am sure that
some of his ideas can apply to other aspects of society. Maybe in
politics when politicians and parties overburden themselves and us with
all sorts of policies; from fighting terrorism to making jam sandwiches.
Maybe the choice of partner.

I have tried to show that it is very possible that freedom is an
illusion. But since illusion is part of our epistemological capacity the
question we now have to ask ourselves are; can this illusion be used to
take advantage of us? Who is taking advantage of this illusion? And how
are they doing it?

Take care


Bernard Russell
The Problems of Philosophy

Thomss Kuhn
The Structure of Scientific Revolution
3rd Edition
(Plank's quote on page 151)

Is freedom just another word for many things to buy?
New York Times Magazine, February 26, 2006.
(Barry Schwartz With Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner Snibbe).

The tyranny of choice.
Scientific American, April, 2004, 71-75.
Barry Schwartz

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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Paradox of Freedom + NEWS

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