Am I Free?

[Back to Freedom]


For as long as people have been asking questions, one way or another we have been asking this basic question: am I free?

This question matters.  It isn't just some piece of abstract philosophy - although it can be treated that way.  At other times, people wrestle with the question, and when they have doubts about the answer, this uncertainty can make their lives harder and darker than it needs to be.

There are many reasons why you are not perfectly free:

  • physical reality limits your freedom (you are not free to fly like a bird or breath underwater or walk to the moon);
  • social reality limits your freedom (you have obligations, you are not free to break the law or go against the many social conventions which bind you); and
  • the abstract concept itself limits your freedom (freedom is an ambiguous, paradoxical and self-contradictory concept).

But when people struggle with the question or try to deny their freedom, it is usually for one of two common reasons: they are wrestling with either fate or responsibility.


Our discussions of fate go back at least to the ancient Greeks, who had the idea that each person has a fate, a destiny which they are inevitably drawn to. This is not the same as thinking that your choices are predetermined: according to their understanding, you could make any decision you like, but whatever you choose, it will make no difference - no substantial difference - in the end.

(People sometime play with the idea that all our choices are predetermined, but every time they make a choice, the experience of choosing contradicts that idea.  Nothing can prove that our choices are not predetermined, but nobody can actually live as though it is true.)

We don't always call this 'fate' - there are various words which can be used. Very confident people sometimes believe they are destined for great things; unhappy parents sometimes curse their offspring with the prophecy that "You will never amount to anything."  But it's all just fate with a different name, and whether you think it is good or bad, it is damaging: you will not put as much effort into making the right choice if you believe that it will make no difference in the end, or even if you only suspect it.

It can be tempting, sometimes, to think that your choices and your actions don't make any difference.  Certainly, sometimes you fail, but even then, while your actions do not achieve what you wanted, your failure can achieve other things - for example, you can learn from it, and you can inspire others.  Aspects of the future are probably unchangeable (the sun is likely to rise tomorrow morning, whatever your feelings on the subject), but other aspects of the future will be affected by what you do, even if they are not determined by your actions alone.


The other perspective is that we don't like taking the blame for our actions - we try, all too often, to find ways to reduce or remove that responsibility. We make many different excuses: he made me do it; I didn't see the cyclist; the judge didn't like me; the selection process was unfair. And we can also use one of the most basic of all excuses: I couldn't help it, that's just the way I am.

Of course, you are 'just' the way you are. Reality is what it is, and you are part of that reality. But the future is not yet written, and every time you make a choice you select, from the many possibilities, the future you want to create, the person you want to become, and the impact you want to have on others.

Things don't always work out as you intended: sometimes your actions don't have the consequences you expected, maybe because you misunderstood something, or you weren't paying attention, or you had been misled in some way.  There is a longstanding debate about whether you are responsible for the consequences of your actions (intended or not), or whether you are responsible for the intended consequences, but most people recognize that they both matter - and the greater the anticipated impact on other people, the greater your responsibility to be careful and check your understanding and assumptions before you act.

Some things are outside our control, and sometimes our actions have completely unexpected consequences - as when you are driving along an empty road and someone shoots out of a side turn and runs straight into you.  We are not rational creatures in such circumstances: if I had not taken that route, the accident would not have occurred.  It may be true, but that does not make you responsible.  And the lack of rationality works both ways: when you were rude to that bloke in the pub's girlfriend, you might not have known he would hit you, but you should have known it was a possibility.  Being responsible for our actions involves taking reasonable care to anticipate the possible consequences, even when we don't know for certain what the outcome will be.


In short: you are not perfectly free - nobody is - but you are sufficiently free.

You are sufficiently free to be able to choose how to act and the impact you want your actions to have on others, and you are sufficiently free to take responsibility for your choice.

And this is all the freedom you need.

Of course, freedom is a big and complicated subject.  There are other, related articles on the subject if you would like to explore it further.


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