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‘Lens Flare’ – Do We Really Have Freedom of Thought? | Philosophy in Action

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

After covering freedom of speech in the 1st instalment of our 'Philosophy in Action' series, Neville turns his attention to freedom of thought and its implications in the modern world.

Freedom of thought in Times Square?

Imagine you’re walking through a busy street in an even busier city. Something like Times Square. As you walk through this street, you hear the hustle and bustle of people all around you. Neon signs blare out messages from on high and the faint whispers of music lyrics weave their way through the cacophony of voices. Are you in control of what you’re thinking?

This question might seem obvious – of course I can control what I think! ‘I can prove it’, you might say. ‘If I want to think about penguins, I can think about penguins! See, I’m controlling what I think!’.

This is true, you can control your locus of thought – however, what if I now tell you (via the medium of this article), whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. No matter how hard you try, you have now thought of an elephant. You see, with conscious effort, a person can control their thought and concentrate on something – however, the mind is far too powerful and easy to distract, such that with one little stimulus, thought can be thrown off track.

Let me return to the example I just gave with Times Square. Times Square is known to be covered in advertisements. Now, even if I do not want to look at the adverts – they, due to their abundancy, force themselves into my vision. Whether I want to look, or not, I see the glowing golden arches of McDonalds – and, subconsciously or otherwise, I am now thinking of fast food and burgers.

I did not willingly choose to think of such things; indeed, the stimulus that caused me to think of these things was thrust in front of me – am I really in control of what I think about?

Freedom of Thought: The Philosophical Angle

There are three areas that this article will discuss when examining whether we have freedom of thought:

1. The attention argument

2. The valuable hierarchical relationship argument

3. The mental limitations argument

The presumption is that we are free to think whatever we’d like. These three arguments seek to debunk this and show, whether we like it or not, we have limitations to our freedom of thought.

In brief, the attention argument highlights, much like my previous example, how our attention can be directed and manipulated so that we think certain things. The valuable hierarchical relationship argument (VHRA) highlights how, when one is growing up or taught, we are controlled to think certain things. Finally, the mental limitations argument elucidates how, no matter who we are, each person has some kind of mental limitation (of some degree or type) that alters the way in which the person thinks (and the content of such thought as well).

Freedom of thought notebook

Attention Direction

This argument has already been explained via the previous example of Times Square, but it can be reformulated as such:

1. An entirely unconstrained right to freedom of thought would ensure that one can think whatever they’d like, but also have complete control on how to direct one’s attention (as attention is a form of thought).

2. If this were to be the case, if one had complete freedom of thought, one would be able to reject any intrusions upon one’s attention.

3. One cannot prevent intrusions upon one’s attention – although one might try to ward off such direction.

4. If one does not have the complete ability to control one’s own attention, one does not have complete freedom of thought.

5. One does not have freedom of thought.

A good example of this is a common prank (more of an annoyance) that a friend might play on you. Imagine you are counting something out loud. Your friend might then begin to say random numbers in an attempt to divert your attention and make you miscount. Inevitably, you are distracted, and must start counting from the beginning. Despite your desperate attempts to control your attention and thought-train, against your will your thoughts are distracted, and you lose concentration.

There is now an ethical issue that raises its head: business models often thrive off controlling consumers’ attention (and thereby their thought). Examples include billboard advertising (as I mentioned in my Times Square example), but also internet pop-up ads and letterbox leafleting.

The question at hand is should businesses be allowed (have moral permissibility) to control and exploit the attention of potential or existing consumers? Economically, it makes a great deal of sense – but with regards to consumer protection, how safe are people from the malleability of their own minds?

Relationship Rules

The VHRA is quite a daunting concept, but can be formulated more simply as follows:

1. A VHR is a relationship that forms between two or more individuals with differing levels of power/knowledge.

a. For example, a parent and child, teacher and student, priest and acolyte.

2. The person who is in the position of power (senior party) is often given the right to shape and control how the less-powerful person (junior party) thinks.

a. A teacher makes a child learn and think that working hard is morally good.

3. Such ‘thought-control’ is permitted in the interests of education and safety.

a. A parent forces their child to always think to look right and left when crossing the road.

4. Hence, due to the necessity of being inculcated with ‘correct’ ideas when we grow up, we do not have complete freedom of thought.

The essence of VHRA is that there are always circumstances where we take peoples’ words as gospel and follow them. When we grow up, we listen to our parents and teachers. When we are older, we may take guidance from our boss, or religious leaders. In all stages of life, there are these valuable hierarchical relationships which alter the way in which we think. Typically, such relationships are seen as beneficial – yes, they control the way we might think, or what we think, but often it is shaped for the better.

If we accept this argument, then it is clear that we do not have complete freedom of thought, and actually what we think is a product of our power-relationships with those who surround us. This then opens up several questions: should we listen to our elders if they are just listening to what they were told? Why should I listen to the senior party – should I not instead formulate my own ideas?

Some critics rebut the VHRA and claim that the junior party, although in most cases does defer to the senior party, they maintain full freedom to believe and think whatever they desire within the privacy of their own mind. In essence, the junior party might have to externally obey whatever the senior party decrees, but internally they can think whatever they like.

For example, Rachel might want to hit Susan, and Rachel might think that Susan deserves to be hit – their teacher tells Rachel that she is not to hit Susan, and that to want to hit Susan is wrong. Rachel may outwardly obey, but internally still think that she wants to hit Susan and is right to do so.

This raises the question: is freedom of thought worth anything without the freedom of expression to enact such thought?

"It is unsatisfactory and even painful to the thinker himself, if he is not permitted to communicate his thoughts to others, and it is obviously of no value to his neighbours"
J.B. Bury

Do teachers control freedom of thought?

Mental Block

The idea behind the mental limitations argument is as follows:

1. Unconstrained and complete freedom of thought requires complete and unobstructed mental faculties.

2. No one has complete and unobstructed mental faculties.

3. Unconstrained and complete freedom of thought cannot be obtained and is not possessed by anyone.

Now, I should clarify, by claiming that everyone has limited mental faculties, or has some kind of mental obstruction, is not to cause offense to all. Rather, the argument is trying to highlight that everyone has differing mental capabilities and tendencies which alters thought formulation and cognition.

Take, for example, those who had suffered PTSD, or 'shellshock' as it was known then, after WWI and WWII. Loud bangs from construction work or droning sounds from machinery were enough to trigger mental trauma within their minds and make them think they were back at war. Their freedom to think whatever they would like has clearly been warped by their own minds – whereas most would identify that a car had backfired, they would think that an artillery gun had been fired (for example). Further examples include those with mental illnesses, or those who have had warped mental experiences, such as drug-induced psychosis.

The implication is thus: our thought is a product of our minds, and our minds have been shaped differently from one another. Hence, only the platonic form of the mind, that is unshaped and fully equipped, could have true freedom of thought.

Now, I grant that this is a rather sobering idea – however, we should take comfort in the notion that our minds are all restricted in some sense, and no one person has more freedom of thought over another: we are all free to think what we like within the circumscribed bounds of our mind’s own margins.

Abstract art in a gallery

I am fully aware that this article sounds very conspiracy theory-like. However, there are some real unresolved philosophical quandaries that lie within the topic of freedom of thought. Whilst these arguments are rather abstract, and only really affect us when we think about them – the principles behind them, such as attention direction, or taking for granted what your teacher says, is really crucial to the way our society operates. If we were to unpick them, would our society change forever, and would it change for the better?

I shall leave you with those questions to ponder on, but while you do, think about this:

1. You saw the link for this article and clicked it – was that a free choice prompted by free thought?

2. I’m a Philosophy student at university…should you believe me like I am the senior party?

3. Did your desires and past experiences alter your mind’s limits and make it impossible that you would not read this article?

You shouldn’t think on things too hard…or can you not help it?

Blog Post Crafted by Neville

Neville is currently working towards his BA in Philosophy at Warwick University, having bagged three A* grades at A Level.

He has entered the Times Advocacy Competition three times, and each time was shortlisted into the top ~20 candidates in the country. In his free time he writes his own scripts, as well as other fictional and non-fictional works.

1 Comment

Another thought invoking and superbly written article

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