A choice of choices
There is no absolute freedom, except in dreams and in Utopia. In principle, you cannot disregard the given, the necessity of causes above, beyond, beneath and around your will. What we experience as being our will, particularly when we let it roam uncontrolled, has deeper roots in blind spots of the awareness. If you think like a physicist and include all causes, whatever you think and do, the smallest thing taking place, their causal chains and conditions imply the entire Universe.
In spite of this, quot Spinoza, even a stone thrust would believe – if conscious – that it flies free . For we do not think like theorists of the absolute; for us being free means - in good sense - following our own biography and our own initiatives instead of being pushed and constrained by oppressive forces.
Still, there are other unforgiving limits - not from outside but in ourselves. It appears that we want only what we are able to conceive. You want what you can want.
Even so, this is no reason for fatalism; in fact, smart initiative, what I imagine as an art of navigation, finds and creates amazing freedom, by its myriads of choices...
How sad that all this freedom remains unavailable to many who do not even know what they can want and what the choices are.
What is freedom, anyway?
Human freedom is not a notion of the infinite Universe, it has nothing to do with Physics and mathematics within which it does not exist; it is something that only makes sense when you speak about experiencing it and about its human size. Freedom is something tasted and “lived” subjectively in the terms of our human nature, within our life-world, shaped by the words of the language. Or else it remains beautiful philosophy or hollow political bull. You cannot let other people measure and define criteria of how you are free or how free you are.
Practical freedom is - positively – to do something different or differently from what would happen without your choices, to select as you prefer, to do something new, to become who you want to be, to have what you desire.
Still, the freedom really yours, being your own master, is to master what you want by some criterion higher than whim. Like your values and long term plans, for an example. This gives manifold freedom which is indeed yours; higher liberty that doing whatever you fancy.
Negatively – and not less crucially - your freedom is not to have and suffer, not to do, to let happen, not to become, not to be, what and who you do not want . It is to have a protective space and time of safety around you.
Actually, learning how to avoid what you do not want finds you more freedom that the triumphs by force.
How is personal freedom possible in a world where “everything is determined”?
One’s freedom is possible - in spite of omnipresence of endless and inescapable chains and force-fields of causes and effects– because of the complexity and the disorder of multitude. We chose to do or to avoid something every split second of our life; the day we stop choosing we are dead. (Certainly this choosing is itself determined by a condition: that we are aware, conscious beings, not objects).
The “real world”, relentless as it is, swarms with causalities - with necessary causes and their effects - but equally with necessary entropy, variants and crossroads. Myriads of choices available. Such choices, and the ability to select them, are the source of the tangible liberty we all can live, as humble as we are, in the face of an inexorable environment of constraints and laws at work.
In the infinite network of lawful causalities – this is how the material world and even the social world are described nowadays - there is always some uncertainty, some occasion and some unsettled footpath not prescribed but unobstructed.
This gives room to be an “agent”, one who acts - an autonomous author of events, endowed with initiative, who advances navigating knowingly towards a preferred goal. A person is also capable create or to start something new and unexpected, something which will surprise. We can do this even from very weak positions. In fact, the humble, being anonymous and numerous, have often choices unavailable for the great and famous.
The physical scientists see the Universe as entirely determined and predictable – in principle - by necessary formulas. Chance, accident and chaos themselves are lawful. Be it! Fortunately for us, some data are forever missing, the algorithms too reductive or too rigid, the formulas are so many and the disorder and the imperfections in the interstices of the many precisions so abundant and obvious, that there is still hope for us, the living, to obtain what we “want”.
Even in a society of unfreedom and total control, where “all that is not forbidden is mandatory”, complexity is such that is impossible to control everything. Hopefully even big data will go mad as they mimic the complexities of Mind multiplied by billions. The complication and the myriad forces at work in our human environment is such immensity, the potential scenarios so many, so scattered, that the discreet choices you and I make, can be for us - in practice - major acts of free will in our biographies. Provided that we develop a special mental attitude and skill; to attune to the complexity of the world, to wriggle through the interstices of hard fact, requires a very light hand, an art of not going against the grain but with the flow... or dare firm action. True, the gift to do all this is mainly born or emulated in early childhood; yet learning such ways is attainable to many, from humble to bright, if they keep an open mind and are modest enough to be apprentices of the wise.
Let me illustrate this skill of gliding with an old Taoist anecdote from Quang-Tzu, one of my favourite thinkers:
A cook was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui.
His whole body was engaged in his work, with elegance and lightness, like a dance; the ox seemed to fall apart by itself under his knife.
The Lord inquired amazed of such excellence.
The butcher put down his knife, straightened his back and answered in essence: “my secret is not in the skill but in the Way... As an apprentice, long ago, I used to see the whole ox and break my knife while hacking it... now my eyes see the cavities, the natural grain, the interstices between joints and ligaments, the way around the bones...
...there is plenty of room for the knife to pass, I cut with my cleaver where there is nothing to resist and use up my blade, I do not need to sharpen it any more. I advance carefully and the lumps of flesh fall aside from the bone, by themselves..." 
Retain this paradigm. It may help you for a lifetime.
There are many freedoms, not one.
For a living person, for you and me, the word “freedom” means nothing “in general” but only related to the richness and nature of actual choices one can conceive and practice. To mean something, freedom must always have a definite domain and object. Many objects being possible, in the many fields of our lives, there are many dissimilar freedoms we enjoy. We gain to size-up each instead of confusing them.
For a start, your inner freedom can be evaluated– aim by aim and field by field - by the variety and latitude of meaningful choices which you are able to conceive and make in your mind; not even imagining that certain choices exist, reduces them to naught.
Multiply then the choices you consider, to have more freedom. First in your mind, then in whatever you set to do.
The emancipation of choices in the mind
If you want to engage in such pursuit of freedom, intent to navigate mazes of musts, ought’s and things “impossible”, you need to establish first of all, your own compass, a citadel of freedom understood, at work in your mind. This inner realm is nourished by the openness of mind and dried up by narrow-mindedness. Blinkered prejudice, even all-powerful is less than free, and it is vulnerable too. (Remember this when you fight it).
You are freed in your mind, by abundance and nuances of experiences and landmarks, of knowing, thinking and feeling... and a practice of willing. In my experience, the more books I read, the more I reflected to all I experienced, to what I observed, the richer my inner citadel became. The more I know and feel and judge about many different things, and about myself, the more I have from what to chose. This makes me resourceful when I meet obstacles.
When it comes to action, the first step in increasing my freedom of will is to consider why I want this or that precise thing. What makes me want it? Need? Pressure? Fancy? Imitation? Duty? What else could I want which is worth the same or more to me? I know myself in order to find the variety of wants to select from..
Being arbiter of my many desires is the next step. This requires some effort to replace popular laziness. I am emancipated inside when I understand myself so that I keep aware why I want something and I judge that my desire is worth, not weakness, nor blind slavery to instincts and drives – or mere ignorance - reducing my range. Maybe I want the wrong thing that will harm me. Often, my larger freedom is diminished by useless desires and false needs. Repeatedly, I find that what I want is not worth what it costs. I find that I am owned by vain things I possess and fear to lose; social positions, titles, proud relationships, serve my vanity but oblige and enslave me in exchange.
As we become aware of such strings turning us into puppets, we may consider some to cut: there is a choice...
Conscious of my “strings”, it is easier to free myself - if needed - of those weaknesses, or at least fight them to increase my freedom manifold.
A further step to my freedom is to observe that, beyond a mere choice of things to want at any moment, each thing worth to me, each aim I pursue, can be achieved not in one but in many different ways, by ever changing means, timing, places or people. This is yet another level of choice and of tactic. An open, flexible mind about the many means to an end grows your freedom accordingly. Rigid plans and obstinacy do the opposite.
Inner freedom – of good judgement, critical spirit and of imagination – draws, when unfettered, a rich map of choices of worthy wills and alternative ways to consider achieving them, one that allows you to govern yourself. This governing you is great freedom, the essence of your liberty. It is also a great feeling of freedom.
As you chose aims and consider choices of interest to you, you can go forth to size up how free you are in fact, in a given domain.
Judging how free you are at a given time in your life is – for each choice you consider important - to be aware of what allows, enhances and hinders it; what you need to be free(d) from and “free to (undertake)..”, in order to establish hierarchy and priority, to do, obtain or become – as you chose and not otherwise .
Freedom achieved inside will show outside
When you are watchful of what you need and want and aware of what choices there are for it, what prevents you to take those choices and what is needed to succeed them, you can work for your real-life freedom and claim your right to it. You can seek empowerment or find the opportunity to take it. With this attitude you will recognise what or who diminishes your freedom willed; is it yourself, lack of means, circumstances or other people?
In the same way as inner freedom is richness in the mind, your manifest, external freedom can be judged by the span of significant choices you can actually decide and make - without being harmed – about what you do  what you do not do and what you reject.
For a start, and for a large part, previous to material action, you are free in the world by the diversity of what you can express and communicate sincerely - or at least skilfully - to other people.
To amplify this range you require more than “freedom of expression” allowed. You need to learn and master many words and ways of communicating with people and with institutions. If you do, your freedom to be a person, to express and convey your thoughts, to do things with words, will find passages, be it in unfree worlds. With few, woolly words and shy speech you will remain of the oppressed, even in “free” countries. This is why humanities – Literature, History, languages, general culture, rhetoric, represent the education of free people and their hypocrite elimination from curriculum in favour of “ more useful knowledge and skills accessible to all” build the slope to servitude. With reduced vocabulary, insecure and shy, people are kept among the oppressed even in the richest countries.
In the life you live, you are free when you obtain actual choices of significant things you can do or not do, suffer or reject, be or avoid being. You are free when you not only know and dream about your choices but also do chose and follow what you started, so that in your life-story what happens to you is mostly because of you. This freedom increases with your energy, courage, skill, effort and resilience, as you grow able to steer past the difficulties, constraints and obstacles met on your way. Freedom is not for the lazy.
You can judge that you are free in your words and deeds when you know in your soul to be responsible for what you do. If it is not you the one who is responsible, you are not free; if you are not free you are not responsible, just an exécutant or an accomplice.
You are finally free only when you look back at what you did and achieved - successful or not - and you feel satisfied that you were yourself by that which you have chosen, instead of discovering that you were deceived to want the wrong things or worse, deluded yourself, defeated by weakness, obstinacy and error.
If you want to set other people free be a multiplier of choices; awaken people to choices. Unaware, uninformed, uneducated to perceive and use their choices, they are mere cogs.
But do people really want to be free?
Freedom requires people to understand and think out complicated things with their own mind; but most people desire things to be made simple for them.
Freedom makes one responsible. Most people hate to be responsible.
Freedom is taking the risk to do something else, to surprise other people with newness and to be surprised yourself by the newness. Most individuals dread risk and fight surprise.
Freedom needs one to take initiative, but folks are unimaginative, snug and lazy.
Freedom consists in making choices, many choices. Do people really want so many choices?
Who wants to be free? As Etienne de la Boétie wrote, we all, as crowds, suffer a fascination of voluntary servitude .
If you long for great freedom remember the Aesopian fable of the dog chained but fed and the wolf, proud and lonely, famished in the cold. It is the wolf who is free... at a cost.
In conclusion, to be free, make your own choices
Speaking for myself, I do want to be free, to defend my freedom and to increase it; there are many other people who want the same, as I observed and read. My thoughts are for us, freedom lovers ready to pay some price for it.
Even for this minority of freedom-lovers, it seems that most of us ignore a wealth of available choices or accept choices presented by others: authorities like teachers, leaders, specialists... and bullies.
Higher, systems of thinking and dogma, ultimate ideals proclaimed as infallible are sheepish surrender rather than liberation. We are taken in, generation after generation.
Many choices offered to us are framed; dice loaded with bias, thoroughly incomplete. Some are evil double-binds, like “Sophie’s Choice” . Do not let yourself be cornered.
To be free, keep this in mind: quite often, there is a choice of the choices themselves. Do not let people tell you as they usually do: "The choice is this." but rather say: "These are some choices; let’s see what other points of view there are." Higher, deeper, later, elsewhere, there are always more choices.
Do not entrust others to decide what choices there are, do not let other people choose the choices for you.
© 2011 - 2016 Ioan Tenner & Daniel Tenner (This is a complete re-write of "Freedom is the number of choices..." from 2011) Thanks to Djemâa Chraïti for many valuable observations to improve this text.
 Spinoza, LETTRE XXIX. (O.P. : LXII ; C.A. : LVIII) p.59-60, in SPINOZA LETTRES, TRADUIT PAR E. SAISSET (Ed. 1842), http://www.spinozaetnous.org :
"Une pierre soumise à l’impulsion d’une cause extérieure en reçoit une certaine quantité de mouvement, en vertu de laquelle elle continue de se mouvoir … Concevez maintenant, je vous prie, que cette pierre, tandis qu’elle continue de se mouvoir, soit capable de penser, et de savoir qu’elle s’efforce, autant qu’elle peut, de continuer de se mouvoir. Il est clair qu’ayant ainsi conscience de son effort, et n’étant nullement indifférente au mouvement, elle se croira parfaitement libre et sera convaincue qu’il n’y a pas d’autre cause que sa volonté propre qui la fasse persévérer dans le mouvement. Voilà cette liberté humaine dont tous les hommes sont si fiers. Au fond, elle consiste en ce qu’ils connaissent leur appétit par la conscience, et ne connaissent pas les causes extérieures qui les déterminent. C’est ainsi que l’enfant s’imagine qu’il désire librement le lait qui le nourrit; s’il s’irrite, il se croit libre de chercher la vengeance ; s’il a peur, libre de s’enfuir. C’est encore ainsi que l’homme ivre est persuadé qu’il prononce en pleine liberté d’esprit ces mêmes paroles qu’il voudrait bien retirer ensuite quand il est redevenu lui-même; que l’homme en délire, le bavard, l’enfant et autres personnes de cette sorte sont convaincus qu’ils parlent d’après une libre décision de leur esprit, et non par un aveugle emportement." pp 59-60
 To understand negative and positive freedom, a different clustering and main reference is Berlin, I. (1958) “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969
 After Mair, V. H., Wandering on the Way, Early Taoist tales and Parables of Quang Tzu, Bantham Books, N.Y., 1994, pp 26-27
 The “triadic” description of freedom as something precise and intelligible is proposed in MacCallum, Jr., Gerald, C., Negative and Positive Freedom, The Philosophical Review, Volume 76, Issue 3 (Jul., 1967), 312-334. : "...freedom is thus always of something (an agent or agents), from something, to do, not do, become, or not become something; it is a triadic relation. Taking the format “x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z,” x ranges over agents, y ranges over such “preventing conditions” as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance." p.314
 This common-sense, qualitative “measure” of choices, shows individual freedom lived, meagre or rich at a given moment. I prefer it to accepting the passive explanation of freedom as « the understanding of necessity » or the elusive freedom as “free will” or some mad dream, free from causality, free to do whatever. And definitely, freedom lived by the individual need not conform entirely to the notions of freedom defined by philosophers and politicians; it should rather seek to question them in the name of common sense and human well being.
 Etienne de la Boétie, Discours de la Servitude Volontaire, 1574
 IMDB "Sophie's Choice" (1982) Director: Alan J. Pakula, based on the novel by William Styron 1979
*Picture: The thinker's brain after Rodin's (CC BY 4.0) Bill, Sanderson, 1997 Wellcome Images