Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Freedom and Rules

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 24, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 24, 2007.

Doug Noon writes "In We Make the Road By Walking, Friere said that freedom can only exist in conditions that are subject to authority. The student, he said, 'experiences freedom in relation to the teacher’s authority.'"

There's a danger of this sort of thinking becoming Hegelian, where 'freedom' is defined as what one 'would' do, where what one 'would' do just happens to be that which aligns with the system of constraints and regulations set out by the rulers. Thus any existing set of constraints and regulations becomes self-justifying. c.f. the Philosophy of Right

What is actually happening here, though, in my view, is a refutation of the idea that freedom is defined as being 'without constraints'. On such a model, every constraint or regulation becomes a limitation of one's freedom, and then must be negotiated, as in Hobbes or Locke, against a criterion of personal or social security. The idea that a constraint or regulation is inherently a negative thing is strongly enshrined in modern liberal and libertarian thought. But it is the opposite extreme, the idea that every removal of a constraint or regulation is inherently self-justifying.

But if freedom is neither the presence nor absence of constraint or regulation, then what is it?

Without trying to post The Definition, let me say that 'freedom' is something like the ability to develop to one's maximum capacity. That is, freedom is not (simply) the absence of restraints, but also the set of gifts, affordances and capabilities that allows one to (as Mill says)_ pursue one's own good in one's own way. Freedom becomes, not some natural state that remains after all else is cleared (or determined), but something that is grown, built, created, or forged for oneself.

When Rousseau says 'Man is born free' he means, not so much that freedom is 'the natural state', but that all of his hopes and dreams and aspirations lie before him, as yet unshackled by the appropriation of his gifts, the denial of his affordances, the usurpation of his abilities, that characterizes a modern society of authority and control

Freedom is the result of an emergent system, the result of a process that allows for maximal variability and complexity. But it is not *merely* variability within a bounded system. The example of the river delta is misleading; nobody would say that the river delta is 'free'. Noon argues "Rules in a complex system delineate limitations rather than setting forth a list of specifications" and that "limitations of rules and boundaries provide coherence for a system". The suggestion is that a complex system does not inherently have the capacity to achieve coherence. This is false.

When Davis and Sumara say “complex systems are rule-bound” the suggestion seems to be that the resulting system is defined by the rule system, made possible by the rule system, and would not exist without the rule system. Certainly, there is no doubt that the imposition of constraints can shape a complex system. But that is far from saying that the system would have no shape without the rules; it would, just a different shape. And it is difficult to argue that the resulting, constrained, shape is somehow the complex system developing to its maximal capacity.

I think there can be rules, and I think that rules can contribute to the development of potential, but those are rules that do not take away, do not constrain, but rather, those that provide capacity, provide potential and possibility. Of course, those are rules that place an onus on the governors, not the governed, making it a responsibility and a necessity to build and support capacity, rather than to limit it and take it away.

And I think this is a better sort of freedom. Because freedom, when it is merely the absence of constraint, always has an end point, an empty point beyond which no person can become more free, a point that, when attained, is discovered to be pointless and purposeless. A freedom defined by one's capacities, however, has no inherent limitation, and can be extended indefinitely, to the limits of our imagination.

I never think about the rules. The rules don't define me, and never will. I think only about what I can imagine, about what is possible, and what I could be. My freedom is defined by my looking up at the sky, not down at the ground.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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