Freedom of thought

Freedom of thought

Freedom of thought (also called freedom of conscience and freedom of ideas) is the freedom of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others' viewpoints. It is closely related to, yet distinct from, the concept of freedom of expression.


To deny a person's freedom of thought is to deny what can be considered one's most basic freedom; to think for one's self.

Since the whole concept of 'freedom of thought' rests on the freedom of the individual to believe whatever one thinks is best (freedom of belief), the notion of 'freedom of religion' is closely related and inextricably bound up with these. While in many societies and forms of government, there has been effectively no freedom of religion or belief, this same freedom has been cherished and developed to a great extent in the modern western world, such that it has often been taken for granted.

This development was enshrined in words in the United States Constitution by the Bill of Rights, which contains the famous guarantee in the First Amendment that laws may not be made that interfere with religion "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Today nearly all democratic nations around the world contain similar language within their respective Constitutions.

A US Supreme Court Justice (Benjamin Cardozo) later went on to reason in Palko v. Connecticut (1937) that:

:"Freedom of thought... is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom. With rare aberrations a pervasive recognition of this truth can be traced in our history, political and legal." [cite court
litigants=Palko v. State of Connecticut

In other words, without the right to freedom of thought, other rights such as the right to freedom of speech hold little meaning.

Such ideas regarding freedom of thought, as developed over time, ultimately became a vital part of international human rights law. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is listed under Article 18:

:"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The Human Rights Committee states that the above Article 18, which became legally binding on member states with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

:"distinguishes the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief from the freedom to manifest religion or belief. It does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one's choice. These freedoms are protected unconditionally." [cite web
title=General Comment No. 22: The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion ( Art. 18) : . 30/07/93. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, General Comment No. 22. (General Comments)
work=United Nations Human Rights Website - Treaty Bodies Database
publisher=Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Similarly, Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference..."

uppression of freedom of thought

One obvious impediment to those who would suppress freedom of thought, is that no one human being can possibly even "know" what everyone else is really thinking — let alone successfully regulate it.

This impossibility of controlling thought is perhaps summarized in the biblical context in Ecclesiastes 8:8: "There is no man that has power over the spirit, to retain it; neither has he power in the day of death." In other words, trying to control the thoughts of others is as futile as trying to control death. A similar sentiment is expressed in the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, where he seems to liken those who vainly attempt to control the emotions of their neighbours to "the children in the marketplace" who try to produce dancing with a happy song and mourning with a dirge, and then express frustration at their futility in trying to do so. (Matthew 11:16)

Laws that attempt to regulate what goes on inside a person's head have long been regarded with suspicion. Queen Elizabeth I removed one such law, several hundred years ago, because, according to Sir Francis Bacon, "'Not liking to make windows into men's souls and secret thoughts". [cite book
authorlink =
coauthors =
title=All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I
publisher=Palgrave Macmillan

While freedom of thought is said to be one of the fundamental principles of most democracies, the attempted suppression of freedom of thought is a prominent characteristic of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Freedom of expression can be limited in several ways — through censorship, arrests, book burning, or propaganda, and this tends to discourage freedom of thought. Examples of effective campaigns against freedom of expression are the Soviet suppression of genetics research known as Lysenkoism, the book burning campaigns of Nazi Germany, the radical anti-intellectualism enforced in Cambodia under Pol Pot, and the strict laws and crackdown upon freedom of expression by the communist government of the Peoples Republic of China.

Freedom of expression can also be stifled without institutional interference when the views of the majority become so widely accepted that other ways of expression are repressed. For this reason, some condemn "political correctness" as a form of limiting freedom of thought. Although proponents of "political correctness" claim that it aims to give minority views an equal representation, critics point to instances in which the majority view is also the view which is seen as "politically correct." For example, college student Max Karson was arrested following the Virginia Tech shootings for politically incorrect comments that authorities saw as "sympathetic to the killer." Karson's arrest raised important questions regarding freedom of thought and whether or not it applies in educational settings.

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which states that thought is inherently embedded in language, would support the claim that an effort to limit the use of words of language is actually a form of restricting freedom of thought. This was explored in George Orwell's novel 1984, with the idea of Newspeak, a stripped-down form of the English language lacking the capacity for metaphor and limiting expression of original ideas.

Internet censorship and freedom of thought

A current example of censorship and therefore attempted suppression of freedom of thought, is the control of information on the world wide web in such countries as Iran [ [ Iranian bloggers rally against censorship] "BBC News" 11 December 2003] , Saudi Arabia, UK [ [ Government sets deadline for universal network-level content blocking] ] , Egypt [ [ Egyptian blogger sentenced to jail] "Al Jazeera" 22 February 2007] , China, USA and [ [ Internet Censorship - law & policy around the world ] ] . In October 2006, Iranian mullahs ordered internet service providers to reduce connection speeds for home and cafe computers. [ [ Blocking Information In Iran] "Voice of America"]

Drug prohibition

Despite the many laws concerning freedom of thought, amongst philosophers, there is no consensus on what thought itself actually is. However, the field of neurochemistry uses a pragmatic view in linking thoughts to patterns of brain activity - "almost everyone now agrees...that the subject of mental properties and events is a physical thing." [cite book
authorlink = George Botterill
coauthors = Peter Carruthers
title=The Philosophy of Psychology
publisher=Cambridge University

Patterns of brain activity can be altered by taking psychoactive drugs – ranging from caffeine to fluoxetine (Prozac) to LSD. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines a psychoactive substance as "any substance that people take to change either the way they feel, think, or behave." [cite web
title=Drugs of Abuse - The Facts
publisher=United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Authors such as Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley and Terence McKenna have argued that certain psychoactive drugs, or ‘entheogens’, may be used to favorably alter the way we think.Fact|date=January 2008 Religious groups have also traditionally used specific plants to alter thought, aiding members in worship or helping to put them in touch with God. Examples of this are the Rastafari movement’s use of cannabis, Islamic Sufi mystics' use of hashish to be present with the Godhead, indigenous Amazonian peoples' ritualistic usage of the ayahuasca tea in order to connect with the spirit(s) of the jungle, Native American use of peyote and the chewing of khat (heralded as a "pipeline to Allah" among many Muslims in Eastern Africa).

Some non-governmental organizations, such as the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, argue that placing limits on the use of certain drugs is akin to placing a limit on thought itself – thus violating the right to cognitive liberty.Fact|date=January 2008

Constitutional rights-based arguments against blanket drug prohibition have featured in US legal history since the 1960s. In February of 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to religious drug use, ruling for União do Vegetal in "Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal". This case now features in arguments for and against drug prohibition. The distinction to be made is that government regulation of drug use is not prohibiting any thought but rather prohibiting conduct.

A recent British case involving this line of legal argument is that of Casey William Hardison, who is awaiting a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights after being refused a final appeal at the House of Lords, the highest court in Great Britain. Hardison is currently serving a twenty year sentence for producing a variety of entheogenic drugs.Fact|date=February 2008

See also

* Free will
* Freedom of speech
* Freethought
* Hate crime
* Public opinion
* Intellectual Freedom
* Neuroethics
* Prisoner of conscience
* Thoughtcrime
* 1984
* [ Islam and the Freedom of Thought and Belief]

References and notes

Further reading

# George Botterill and Peter Carruthers, ‘The Philosophy of Psychology’, Cambridge University Press (1999), p3
# The Hon. Sir John Laws, ‘The Limitations of Human Rights’, [1998] P.L. Summer, Sweet & Maxwell and Contributors, p260

External links

* [ Freedom of Thought] - Iranian Underground Art Movement
* [ "Dictionary of the History of Ideas": Academic Freedom]
* [ The Beckley Foundation] - a charitable trust that promotes the investigation of consciousness
* [ Internationale Medienhilfe (IMH)] - International organization for press freedom
* [ The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics] - a network of scholars elaborating the law, policy and ethics of freedom of thought
* [ Information about Casey Hardison] - the first individual in the UK to use an elaborate freedom of thought argument to challenge drug prohibition in court
* [ John Bagnell Bury (1861-1927) A History of Freedom of Thought] - E-book online (Copyright expired)

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