Degrees of Freedom Public Lecture Series

Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. in the Great Hall of International House

Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. in the Great Hall of International House

Presented by the Division of Arts and Humanities, UC San Diego

Co-Sponsors: Chancellor’s Office, UCSD Alumni,  Division of Physical Sciences, Division of Social Sciences, Extended Studies, and Eleanor Roosevelt College

Seating is limited. Please reserve your tickets at:

Video of  “Understanding and Engaging Human Imagination”:


What does it mean to be free?  Why is freedom important?  How does freedom in moral and political life relate to freedom in the physical world?  These are ancient and constantly recurring questions.  In classical Greece the philosopher Democritus claimed that freedom is preferable to slavery, even at the cost of material welfare, while in the twentieth century existentialists have argued that freedom is a burden to which we are condemned. What are we to make of the cognitive scientist’s claim that our minds are simply matter in motion, or of the physicist’s contention that the universe itself displays infinite degrees of freedom?  How should we respond to the anthropologist’s assertion that inequalities in wealth and status make some people less free than others?  And what of the belief that modern technology has the potential to liberate us from all constraints on thought and action?  Join us as six of UC San Diego’s finest teachers and scholars explore the degrees of freedom.

All lectures will begin at 7:00 p.m., and will be held in the Great Hall of International House.


January 21: Brian Keating, “Three Degrees of Freedom: the Cosmic Background and the Multiverse”

Abstract.  Cosmological observations have revealed a most mysterious universe. Modern cosmology seems to point to the startling possibility that our cosmos might be just the very most insignificant speck of what is now called “the Multiverse”. New telescopes, albeit with ancestry dating back to Galileo, have revolutionized our understanding of the universe once again. But, whereas Galileo’s refractor pricked our cosmic ego, now our telescopes seem to hint at an infinite universe with the possibility of unimaginable fecundity, yet devoid of life other than that our own tiny world. What does this imply about the seemingly perfectly fine-tuned universe in which we find ourselves? What does free will mean in an infinite universe, one with infinite degrees of freedom, infinite choices? 

Brian Keating, Associate Professor of Physics, is an astrophysicist. He and his team develop instrumentation to study the early universe. He is the author of over one hundred scientific publications and holds a U.S. Patent. Professor Keating received his B.S. from Case Western Reserve University and his Ph.D. from Brown University in 2000. In 2007, he received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at the White House from President George W. Bush for his work on a telescope he designed and fielded at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station (called “BICEP"). Professor Keating co-leads the POLARBEAR telescope collaboration in the Atacama Desert of Chile. He is a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath), the San Diego Air & Space Museum, Math for America, San Diego, and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. He enjoys flying children throughout the West as a Command Pilot for

January 28: Nancy Postero, “Indigenous Rights in Latin America: What Kind of Freedom Do They Offer?”

Abstract.  The 1980s and 90s saw the rise of important new political actors in Latin America: indigenous peoples. Seeking recognition from the State, they demanded more inclusive forms of citizenship.  Where that was impossible, they sought international attention and demanded human rights, especially human rights to culture.  Looking particularly at the case of Bolivia, this talk will ask: What kinds of freedom do these two frameworks of rights offer? How do the struggles of indigenous peoples demonstrate some of the deep contradictions and limitations of liberal notions of rights? Does "decolonization", the widely discussed indigenous alternative to liberalism, provide new possibilities of freedom?

Nancy Postero is Associate Professor of Anthropology. Formerly a human rights lawyer and radio journalist, she received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 2001. Her work focuses on the intersection of race, politics, and political economy.  She has carried out fieldwork with the Guaraní people of lowland Bolivia since1994. Along with numerous articles on indigenous politics in Bolivia, she is the author of Now We Are Citizens, Indigenous Politics in Post-multicultural Bolivia (Stanford University Press 2007); co-editor, with Leon Zamosc, of The Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Latin America (Sussex Press 2003); and co-editor, with Mark Goodale, of Neoliberalism, Interrupted, Social Change and Contested Governance in Contemporary Latin America (Stanford University Press 2013). Over the last few years, she has studied political performances and particularly the use of human rights and indigeneity discourses by state actors, indigenous groups, and the Right-Wing opposition. She is currently at work on a new book, Decolonizing Bolivia: Race, Citizenship, and Political Performance, examining how “decolonization” is being theorized, implemented, and contested under the Morales regime in Bolivia.

February 4: Paul Niehaus, “Giving Freedom: How Direct Cash Transfers are Reshaping the Way We Help the Extreme Poor”

Abstract.  Think about giving $1 to support international development.  In the traditional model, nonprofits control how this money is spent: they might use it to buy livestock, or pay for training, or anything else they think the poor need.  This model requires expensive staff and infrastructure – but it would make sense if we thought it were infeasible to get money directly to the poor, or that they were bad at using it.  But are those things true?  New evidence has shown that the poor have if anything a stronger track record of putting money to use than most NGOs.  At the same time, new payments technology is connecting us securely and electronically to even the poorest.   I will discuss how these trends are reshaping international development, and how the non-profit GiveDirectly I co-founded delivers freedom by mobile phone.

Paul Niehaus is Assistant Professor of Economics. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. Professor Niehaus works with governments in emerging markets to improve the implementation of social programs. He is a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a Junior Affiliate at the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD), an Affiliate of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), and an Affiliate at the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA).   He is also co-founder and president of GiveDirectly, currently the top-rated nonprofit by GiveWell and ranked among the 25 most audacious companies (Inc) and 10 most innovative companies in finance (Fast Company). In 2013 Foreign Policy named Professor Niehaus one of its 100 leading "Global Thinkers."

February 11: Monte Johnson, “It’s Complicated: The Relation Between Freedom and Democracy According to the Greeks”

Abstract.  The core of the early Greek concept of freedom (eleutheria) is the state opposite of slavery. Philosophers in the classical age developed an extended concept of freedom related to self-sufficiency, liberality, and independence in speech and action. But the most influential philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, were dubious of democracy, the kind of government centered on the principle of freedom. However, I will discuss some less well-known Greek philosophers who accentuated the importance of freedom and advocated democracy, including Democritus, Protagoras, and Archytas.

Monte Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy. He earned his Ph.D. from the Collaborative Program in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 2005 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. He is the author of Aristotle on Teleology (Oxford University Press, 2005) and several articles on ancient philosophy and science, including contributions to The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and (forthcoming) The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Science. He has been at UC San Diego since 2006.

February 18: Sandra A. Brown, “Youth and Addiction: Can There Be Freedom of Will?”

Abstract.  A decade ago we thought that teen heavy drinking was just a rite of passage and had no long term effects. Modern biotechnology has changed that perspective. The voluntary choices that  are hallmarks of freedom of will become rigid and compulsory with heavy alcohol or drug use, and youth are even more vulnerable than adults. Join the discussion of how decision making changes with exposure to alcohol, why youth are so vulnerable, and what we can do to restore full freedom of will.

Sandra Ann Brown is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Wayne State University in 1981 and is licensed as a psychologist by the California Board of Psychology. An internationally recognized substance abuse researcher, Professor Brown has had over 20 federally funded grants and 250 scientific publications.  She has extensive experience working with local, state and federal agencies and has led national efforts to identify and prevent alcohol and drug problems among youth. Professor Brown has also directed the development of clinical, education, and research activities as the Chief of Psychology at the Veterans Affair Health Services System in San Diego. She was named the Vice Chancellor for Research at UC San Diego in December 2010. In this position, she oversees the Office of Research Affairs, which is charged with creating opportunities, enhancing the research experience, developing tools and training to improve research administration, and supporting and promoting university innovations.

February 25: Sheldon Brown, “Understanding and Engaging Human Imagination”

Abstract.  As we change our world at increasing scale and pace, how might we engage our human imagination to have more insight into the future that we will soon be a part of?  Can humanistic analysis, cultural expression, and scientific inquiry come together to develop our imaginative capacities?

Sheldon Brown is Professor Visual Arts. He is the founding director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego. As an artist, Professor Brown has been exploring the ways in which developments in computation reframe our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The last several decades have seen a radical shift in the ways in which culture is produced, disseminated, and experienced by the advent of digital methods. The creation of the Clarke Center is motivated by looking ahead to anticipate how coming developments will change the means and modes of culture. How might further understanding of human behavior at the individual and social scales change the ways in which culture operates? Professor Brown explores this in his own artistic practice, which brings together methods from computer science, cognitive science, cinema, video gaming, virtual reality, sculpture, and literature, and in the Clarke Center, which brings together a wide interdisciplinary approach to asking questions about what the phenomena of imagination might be and how they might be furthered through new means of understanding.