Fundamental Freedom
Published: 2024-01-12 . Back to ≈

Some reflections following an experimental session exploring the idea of Fundamental Freedom with Malcolm Ocean.

Core idea: When we consider something to be “not allowed/not an option”, we insulate it from our full, honest, participatory consideration.


  1. I have to do something. I have to do something (not doing it is not an option). My attention is fully on the thing that I have to do and what I don’t like about it. Behind a veil/outside of my attention are all of the things that I dislike about the hidden option of not doing it.

    If I were to allow myself the option of not doing then thing, then the negative features of that option would find their way into my attention. Note: this is only forcefully true when I legitimately consider this an actual option; it’s often only when I’m mentally gearing up to do I thing that it comes into near mode and I have to come face to face with possible unpleasant realities of it. If I’m not really thinking of doing it, I’m safe to idealize it.

  2. I’m not allowed to do something. There is something that I want to do, but it isn’t allowed. Because I don’t consider it an option, I’m spared from thinking seriously about what it would be like to do the thing. I’m safe to savor the positives and ignore the negatives.

What these examples have in common is the paradox that by forbidding an option, I make it more attractive. One colorful way to describe the pattern is that once I have forbidden an option and ceased to entertain it, I no longer viscerally feel the pressures which caused me to forbid the option to begin with. This “pressure void” puts me at increased risk of allowing back-pressure from the sanctioned alternative to push me into the forbidden alternative.

There are many pernicious forms of this overall bias. For instance, I might successfully allow myself the freedom of an option and repeatedly decide not to do it on the basis of its actual merits. But once that repeated, conscientious decision has coalesced into a habit, the habit itself might come to form a cognitive boundary which keeps me from fully considering the option, ultimately rendering me more likely to take the action in response to back-pressure from the alternative.

An interesting interpretation of the above is that in many cases I will be better off making an intentional effort to hold all options—even ones that I am quite certain are bad or undesirable—within the space of options that I present to myself when I am on the verge of taking an action, instead of trying to decide beforehand what action I am going to take (thus constraining my option space and creating forbidden options, and allowing “hidden alternative pressure void”).