Freedom of thought: Wikis


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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 different from and not to be confused with 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 oneself.

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."[1]

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."[2]

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..."

Suppression 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".[3]

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 in favor of a theory 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,[4] Saudi Arabia, UK[5], Egypt,[6] China, and others[7]. In October 2006, Iranian mullahs ordered internet service providers to reduce connection speeds for home and cafe computers.[8]

Drug prohibition

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."[9]

Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley and Terence McKenna have argued that certain psychoactive drugs, especially entheogens, may be used to favorably alter the way we think.

Religious groups and shamans have also traditionally used specific plants to alter thought, aiding members in worship or helping to put them in touch with God. The Rastafari movement encourages cannabis use, Islamic Sufi mystics use hashish to be present with the Godhead, indigenous Amazonian people use ayahuasca tea ritualistically to connect with the spirit(s) of the jungle, Native American use peyote, and chewing khat (heralded as a "pipeline to Allah") is popular 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.[10]

Constitutional rights-based arguments against blanket drug prohibition have featured in US legal history since the 1960s. In February 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.

Legal Definitions


In Canada certain credentialed medical practitioners may, and apparently at their sole discretion, make state sanctioned investigations into and diagnosis of "mental illness". These diagnoses appear to be based at least in part, and in some cases entirely upon, the investigator's expressed perception of the validity of the subject's thoughts and beliefs. This aspect of diagnosis is manifest in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) glossary definition of "delusion" which begins; "A false belief based on...", and is found on page 821 of the DSM-IV-TR and, similarly, elsewhere. Significantly the presence of "delusions" seem to form a primary criterion for the diagnosis of the majority of DSM-IV-TR "psychotic" disorders including Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder (Criterion A1 in the case of Schizophrenia). The DSM-IV-TR also states the "No laboratory findings have been identified that are diagnostic of Schizophrenia". This statement is also applied to Major Depressive episodes and Manic episodes.

The application of DSM-IV-TR criteria to the various pieces of criminal as well as federal health and provincial mental health law in Canada seems still to occur in spite of their conflict in this respect with Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, [1] which guarantees the "fundamental" "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression". Part VII—General, of the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982 states that "any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution "...(which contains the Charter of Rights and Freedoms)..."is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect".

The potential for state sanctioned involuntary detainment and treatment exists pursuant to the Criminal Code of Canada, [2] and these health acts. The Ontario Mental Health Act, [3] for example contains references to circumstances under which involuntary admission to psychiatric facilities can occur.

However, legal involvement and involuntary detainment and treatment is not fundamental to the DSM-IV-TR nor are implications of violent behavior at frequencies exceeding that of the general population attributed to those diagnosed. To a significant degree courts are in fact cautioned against the use of DSM-IV diagnosis in the DSM-IV introduction itself in its section entitled Use of DSM-IV in Forensic Settings.

In the Canadian criminal justice system, again, in spite of the Charter Freedoms, individuals continue to be subjected to discrimination based on DSM IV diagnosis within the context of part XX.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, [4]. This part sets out provisions for, among other things, court ordered attempts at "treatment" before individuals receive a trial as described in section 672.58 of the Criminal Code. Also provided for are external court ordered "psychiatric assessments" that may involve detention and the selective procurement of anecdotal accounts, psychiatric records, and records of past diagnosis and treatment.

The position of the Canadian Psychiatric Association [5] itself, stated in The Confidentiality of Psychiatric Records and the Patient's Right to Privacy(2000-21S),and [6] holds that "in recent years, serious incursions have been made by governments, powerful commercial interests, law enforcement agencies, and the courts on the rights of persons to their privacy."

An outline of this process as it occurs in the Canadian Province of Ontario is attempted in the publication The Forensic Mental Health System In Ontario published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, [7] in Toronto. The Guide states; "Whatever you tell a forensic psychiatrist and the other professionals assessing you is not confidential." The accused, their families, friends, physicians and other sources close to them are by law under no compulsion to participate in these investigations. They may, however, feel compelled and indeed coerced on ethical and medical grounds to divulge information to "assessors" in order to attempt to provide for and ensure safe and appropriate treatment of an accused placed in the custody and exclusive care of an individual or team imbued with the dual, and (in light of the above quotation from The Guide), conflicting roles of caregiver and assessor. This dynamic arguably constitutes torture not only of the accused but potentially of their afore mentioned families, caregivers and associates in light of the dangers reasonably associated with modern psychiatric treatment and the potential for non-treatment or mistreatment by the lawful omission of information pertaining to existing medical conditions whether related or not. This experience of torture indeed may extend to members of the forensic mental health community itself faced with the conflicting demands of ethical patient care and court mandated assessment.

With a finding of "Not Criminally Responsible on Account of Mental Disorder" as described in section 672.34 of the Criminal Code lifelong restrictions on freedom, mandatory "treatment", and indefinite detention subject to periodic non-judicial review appear possible well beyond the scope of set limits for detention for those found to be criminally responsible for the same or even much more serious offenses. Section 672.12 of the Criminal Code states "The court may make an assessment order at any stage of proceedings against the accused of its own motion, on application of the accused or, subject to subsections (2)and (3), on application of the prosecutor" implying that the test is not universally applied.

See also

References and notes

Further reading

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

External links

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