Are we free?

Q. We are told constantly by self-help gurus (and others) that we are free, just freely change, your beliefs, your thoughts, your behaviour? You have the power. I’m not so sure…it doesn’t always feel or look like that is true. Is a mother raising kids in a shack home free? To accept her lot? Are we free? Philosophically are there limits to the notion that we are free?

A. A philosopher responds. There are a lot of questions here. First, are there limits to our freedom? Of course there are. I am not free to do things that are physically or conceptually impossible, for instance I cannot, run a mile in three seconds or square the circle. The question of whether we can change our behaviour is often a question of what is physically and psychologically possible; it’s not a question a philosopher can answer. Can we choose what to believe? In contrast this seems like a conceptual problem that a philosopher should address. Arguably, we don’t choose to believe; rather we adopt methods of forming beliefs and believe the upshot of applying those methods. Second, am I ever free? And now we need to think what we might mean by freedom. Am I free to do what I want? It seems often to be so: I want a drink of water and help myself to one; that’s a mundane occurrence. But is this only the semblance of freedom? For was I not caused to want what I want. Well perhaps I was, if you believe that everything has a prior cause. What seems most pressing is the question of whether we are free in a sense that explains our responsibility for our own actions. And that’s a tough question. Professor Bernhard Weiss, Dept of Philosophy University of Cape Town.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Table of Contents