Have you ever found yourself expressing a point of view and suddenly wondering: “Where did I get this opinion from?” In that flicker of self-awareness you will have caught sight of a lesser appreciated liberty – freedom of thought.
We hear a lot about freedom of speech these days – and how it must be either protected or policed – but relatively little attention is given to what is arguably a more fundamental human right.
Trinity College Dublin psychologist Simon McCarthy-Jones seeks to redress the balance in a new book Freethinking: Protecting Freedom of Thought Amidst the New Battle of the Mind. “My central belief is that we should demand protection for our thought in all its rich forms,” he writes.
That means looking not only outwardly – to legal and cultural obstacles to free thought – but also inwardly to one’s own pride or laziness.
No wonder freedom of thought is neglected. It requires both individual effort and intellectual humility to uphold, as McCarthy-Jones explains in a timely and stimulating publication. “There cannot be a meaningful right to freedom of thought without recognising a corresponding duty to respect other people’s attempts to think, reason and seek the truth,” he says.
Duty? Ah, yes, one cannot have rights without duties. But is he suggesting you have a moral obligation to hear everybody out?
No, he says. “Listening to others is generally a good idea. Choosing not to listen assumes the other person has nothing of value to say… But if, for example, you want to tell me why the Holocaust didn’t happen, don’t tell me I have a duty to listen to you.
“However, we do have a duty to let other people think,” he says. “A century has passed since the philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out that thought isn’t free if professing certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. By this criterion, thought is everywhere in chains today. One way to address this is to legislate to prevent corporations from sacking employees for their thinking.”
Note, he says “for their thinking” not “for their speech”. Distinguishing between the two acts is key.
“Intuitively, free speech and free thought seem to point towards the same pole. But free speech can be at war with free thought. Too much speech can overwhelm us with information, creating what has been called ‘reverse censorship’. Inaccurate speech, such as lies, can corrupt the inputs of our minds. Others’ speech can try to discourage our reasoned thought and reflection. This all damages thinking. In the age of AI these problems will multiply exponentially,” he says.
Naomi O’Leary’s report in this newspaper last week on how Irish users of TikTok were targeted with divisive content to “intensify social conflict” shows exactly why we need to pay freedom of thought more attention.
It suits tech moguls like Elon Musk to bang on about freedom of speech while campaigning against the EU Digital Services Act – the very law that is lifting the lid on political and commercial interests behind such speech.
His company Twitter – now X – withdrew from the EU’s voluntary code of practice on disinformation a few months ago, meaning it refused regulators the kind of co-operation TikTok allowed for last week’s European Commission transparency centre reports. This is despite, or perhaps because, X had the highest ratio of disinformation posts of all large social media platforms, according to the Commission.
“Musk may be a self-professed free-speech absolutist, but champions of free speech are not necessarily heroes of free thought,” McCarthy-Jones says.
In this manner, the Trinity academic suggests we can shift the dial on interminable culture wars – the type of conflict being stoked by Musk and mini-Musks – by concentrating, first and foremost, on the brainwork behind speech. If we focus less on freedom of speech and more on freedom of thought it will take emphasis off making demands on others – via silencing or platforming – and place it instead on that philosophical maxim of ancient Greece to “know thyself”.
This can’t be done alone, says McCarthy-Jones. We need “a public workspace for thought” – some kind of environment where no one is cancelled for testing unpopular ideas, but also where the agenda is not set by shouty bots.
“Which is more problematic for thought,a chaotic, unfiltered environment, where it is hard to know what is true; or a calm, filtered environment where censors may have hidden important information from us? For me, I’d prefer a chaotic unfiltered environment, where both the market and our communities offer ways of filtering information.”
Others may feel differently, and that’s okay. You may wish to ask yourself under what conditions you think best. It’s this intimate question, rather than the institutional one, that interests McCarthy-Jones most – an understandable bias given he is a psychologist rather than a political scientist.
Asked whether Twitter/X qualifies as “a public workspace for thought”, he replies, “In my book, I talk about the ‘ARRC’ of free thought, namely how we use our attention, reason, reflection and courage to think freely. So, are we in control of our attention on X? Does X support deliberative reasoning and give us space to reflect? And do you need great courage to think publicly on this platform? I’ll let those who use X answer that.”