The Slavery of “Free Thought”–Part 1: What Thought?

Let’s examine the phenomenon commonly and often quite immodestly portrayed by some involved as free thought. Many even write it as one word, “freethought“, as if jamming the adjective and noun together somehow is distinctive, hip, or innovative. [Analog: “Hey, I drive a ‘silvertruck’, work as an ‘atmosphericscientist’ and grow an ‘organicvegetablegarden’; see how rad, groovy, alternative, and independent I am from the constraints and oppression of societal linguistic mores.” Uh, no! I simply would sound like a self-important fool.]

Let’s examine “free thought” (in reality, two words). From

adjective, fre·er, fre·est, adverb, verb, freed, free·ing.
1. enjoying personal rights or liberty, as a person who is not in slavery: a land of free people.
2. pertaining to or reserved for those who enjoy personal liberty: They were thankful to be living on free soil.
3. existing under, characterized by, or possessing civil and political liberties that are, as a rule, constitutionally guaranteed by representative government: the free nations of the world.
4. enjoying political autonomy, as a people or country not under foreign rule; independent.
5. exempt from external authority, interference, restriction, etc., as a person or one’s will, thought, choice, action, etc.; independent; unrestricted.

1. the product of mental activity; that which one thinks: a body of thought.
2. a single act or product of thinking; idea or notion: to collect one’s thoughts.
3. the act or process of thinking; mental activity: Thought as well as action wearies us.
4. the capacity or faculty of thinking, reasoning, imagining, etc.: All her thought went into her work.
5. a consideration or reflection: Thought of death terrified her. doesn’t have a definition for the bogus combination freethought; but quite clearly, it would be a combination of free and thought. “Duh!”, you may say…but bear with me.

Clearly, from number 5 under free, the most literal meaning of free thought is: thinking that is exempt from external authority, interference, restriction, etc., as a person or one’s will. In short, purely free will in thinking–the free thinker as a basal concept. So-called “freethinkers” act like they’re elite, special, a clique or club of the intellectually elevated, who somehow have moved beyond the shackles of external imposition on their contemplations. In fact, almost all human beings are free thinkers to some extent; and most “freethinkers” indeed have bound themselves and are not so “free” after all. Let’s explore how.

Consider the realms of thought–outside extremes of insanity or mental handicap–as a series of nested archetypes, astronomical orbital systems or spheres. Consider Matryoshka dolls if you prefer a physical analog. Each one but the biggest is a subset of the next largest, and each one but the smallest includes (but covers more than) the next smallest.

From the inside out, the Matryoshka Thinking Nest behaves like this:

* The smallest within is purely computational “thought”, the kind performed by computers and calculators, constrained inescapably by code based on purely arithmetic logic and nothing else. Call this “robotics”, as it can be automated. For that reason, most people don’t consider this as “thought”; but since you and I and several mammalian and avian species can do at least rudimentary math, it is a form of thought. In fact, any organism with brain matter performs calculations, whether or not it consciously realizes this. Of course, we humans can do much more. [I don’t mean advanced mathematical logic–numerical methods, trig, calculus, any math Archimedean and later, though even Archimedean concepts are easily automated today. I mean direct or applied arithmetic.]

A lot of this thinking truly is instinctive and unaware, given the millions of calculations our brain makes without conscious effort. Yet was perform rudimentary, conscious computations on a frequent basis: balancing the checkbook, deciding whether to play ball given a 20% vs. 70% chance of rain, slowing down by 10 mph so that speed trap ahead doesn’t nail us. We freely perform these thoughts, making them, quite literally, free thinking!

* Emotion is the most subjective, and next most instinctive, form of thought–one that can benefit us (love leading to compassionate behavior, risk-taking that reaps rewards, or fear of an approaching bear) or hurt us (sheer panic, sustained despair exacerbating clinical depression, or rage turned violent). It also is the least rational mode of thought, and often overwhelms all of the others to our detriment. Addictions, which are chemical, nonetheless thrive on emotions run far amok. Emotions can be instinctive (fear of that bear) or chosen and freely thought (procrastination and the motivation to overcome that).

* Outside those are analytic processing and “reasoned” logic, which can make use of the mathematical results in the inner shell of thought to shape conceptual models and draw conclusions, and which uses desire and curiosity (emotional thoughts) as motivators. Call this “science”. Advanced math is the main way to describe, modulate and revise scientific concepts, and belongs here. While much of this can be automated, conceptualization and creativity (see below) still are the biggest forces of scientific advancement today. Artificial intelligence, I must acknowledge, seems to be a leaking of thought both ways through the outer shell of the smallest doll. However, “science, logic and reason” may be wielded by the self-professed “free thinker” as a panacea, the end-all or peak intellectual manifestation of the human experience, and as such, the very pinnacle of humanity. In reality, that’s a manifestly dogmatic, self-limiting, and truly enslaving approach, as I’ll cover in Part 2.

* Imagination, a.k.a. creativity. Most children are masters of this. This is expressed in countless ways, to the benefit of the “left” brain (science and engineering) or the “right” (all manner of artistic endeavors). Endeavors such as architecture, military strategy, philosophy, and music theory represent exquisite yet highly disparate blends of both sides. Although most of us favor one or the other, many of the most renowned thinkers for either side historically are adept at both (e.g., Socrates, Archimedes, Sun Tzu, Ben Franklin, and any scientist or engineer with artistic talent). Innovation–including but not limited to the great technological inventions of any era–would be impossible without this chosen shell of thought being well-cultivated and encouraged.

* Spiritual. This is not necessarily the same as religious; though religion certainly is a major component of this for many people. Plenty of highly spiritualized thinking can be done either within or outside a specific doctrinal religion. Perhaps the most primitive form of spirituality, one common to the great majority of people, is known as our conscience or better judgment–a guiding rudder that often invoked involuntarily to stop ourselves from delving into danger. [Most of us who are religious consider this a gift from God, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Christian thought, and it is an intrinsically spiritual phenomenon.]

But spirituality obviously can be taken far beyond that, into all manner of extrapersonal, wondrously out-of-self thought, with seemingly countless nuances of discovery. In essence, this is the outermost doll because it is the most naturally unconstrained. Even the doctrinal religions, within their walls of what’s right and wrong, permit an avenue to the spiritually timeless, a.k.a. eternity. This shell is quite vast…its exploration clearly a matter of choice.

One can attempt to subject their spiritual thinking to an external authority (usually God). Christians believe we freely choose whether to welcome all three Trinity persons (including the Holy Spirit) into our lives. Athiests deliberately reject it–sometimes with great conscious struggle or pull from the spiritual urges still suppressed within–while agnostics sidestep the matter as an unknown pending further evidence and/or spiritual influence.

Free will inherently means that even believers in God sometimes think spiritually outside what God authorizes or approves. This is often referred to as “sin”, taking the specific form of idolatry, malicious behavior (e.g., murder, theft, lying, abuse) or following false gods (including self-worship). Even in religion, however, free will exists; otherwise we revert back inside the inner doll and become robotic slaves to the deity, something unknown to any modern mono- or poly-theistic faith. Religious dogma or ritual, when mindlessly followed without consideration for its purpose, is not spiritual in nature and doesn’t fit in this thought realm; for one has bound himself to a robotic list of rules more akin to something made of the binary digits that occupy the inner nest. How telling it is that Jesus himself cautioned against rigid adherence to lists of rules, and vitiated the Old Covenant laws.

Historical figures who seemed to have attained high levels of the spiritual realm (along with more inner shells) include Isaac Newton–yes, he was a deeply spiritual theologian and scientist–as well as George MacDonald and ex-atheist C. S. Lewis. Monastic monks who live up to the ideal of their chosen path should have this one well-accomplished too. I believe Mother Teresa did; her motivations and seemingly disadvantageous selflessness in the Lord’s name indicate so to me. The Reverend (we must not forget that title!) Dr. Martin Luther King seemed intensely driven by Biblically rooted spiritual compulsion toward both racial justice and personal responsibility.

In any event, spirituality even has an outer shell, because of the fact that human thought is limited. This is because we are not omnipotent. We are powerful, but not as much so as we often believe. Our “gut instinct” can be wrong, as can our conceptualizations and calculations. We err, we exude unearned hubris, we behave contrary to our better judgment, we can fail to solve problems despite the collective mathematical, analytic, logical, creative, spiritual thinking of millions. To see evidence of this, witness the ongoing absence of Middle East peace, the internal discord amongst atheists, the sinfulness of the religious faithful, the existence of MRSA infections, or the absence of American self-sufficiency in energy, for example. We’re not that good and we’re not so smart as we think; in fact, it can be argued through tangible evidence and logic that we are a substantially self-destructive, corrupt and ultimately doomed species in our present state…just as the Bible tells us we are!


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