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The Illusion of Freedom in Philosophy

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The ancient Greek story, Oedipus, although slightly disturbing for the modern-day college-student, prompts a very important question: can we escape our fate? ‘Free-will’ or ‘freedom’ versus ‘determinism’ has been a central problem amongst philosophers since Epicurus. Although it may seem to many of us that we are consciously making the choices we are, by our selves and with no influence from outside forces, it is important to question the accuracy of this belief. Are we truly ‘free’ in the actions we engage in and the decisions we make?

There are several different ideas and theories about freedom both in ancient and modern philosophy. Freedom can be defined, as per Thomas Hobbes, as not being hindered to do what we will to do. More broadly, freedom is the absence of opposition. And a ‘free choice’ is one where you could have chosen an alternative, but you ‘freely’ choose the one which you did. The difference between ‘unfree’ and ‘free’ is the difference between actions that are coerced, compelled or constrained versus those that are not. Our freedom can be determined by both internal and external forces (or the lack thereof). This essay will define internal forces as the forces which guide our choices, actions, and behaviors. For instance, psychological phenomena which may lead us to make certain choices. External forces will be defined as the law or any other form of authoritative institution.

The intention of this paper is to investigate the nature of our freedom by probing the question: are we truly free? It will be argued that we are not free in the choices we make and the actions we engage in. We are guided by unconscious motives and social institutions. Even if there was total freedom, we would still be chained by our own urge to follow and comply with social norms to ‘fit in’.

One of the forces which guide our behaviors is our unconscious motives. A Viennese pioneer, Sigmund Freud is the founder of psychoanalysis and the father of the present-day psychodynamic movement. As is the case of the psychodynamic approach, Freud understood our behavior as having been caused by events and relationships earlier in life, rather than our free will at any given moment. Essentially, the choices we make and the actions we choose to engage in are often guided by internal unconscious psychological processes and are not caused purely by chance. Our past experiences, especially in our childhood, may compel us to make certain choices. For example, many individuals may choose romantic partners who resemble their parents. Or, say you choose to attack and criticize homosexuals. You might see your behavior and your perception of homosexuals as your choice. Whereas Freud might say that you can’t help but feel and react that way since you yourself are a homosexual. In this way, our freedom can be determined by unconscious processes that motivate us to act and react in a certain way. Making decisions and engaging in certain actions and not others is a result of implicit psychological principles we can’t necessarily digress from.

Unconscious processes such as these are certainly a component of the forces which determine how we act, however, there are also external forces that compel and constrain us to act a certain way.

Kant would concur with Freud. The famous enlightenment thinker and 18th-century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant was known for his rigid and absolute moral theory. He also contributed to the deterministic literature on the concept of ‘freedom.’ According to Kant, similar to Freud, he asserts that physical acts are caused and are part of a chain of events. Essentially it means that if you choose to have oatmeal for breakfast and not cereal, your choice to not eat cereal may have been causally determined by say a video you watched last night about eating oatmeal (priming). And in this view, it would mean that there is no possibility for you to choose to eat cereal or not eat oatmeal. As Kant puts it, “internal” and “psychological” causes stand under the influence of the past. These forces compel the subject to act and the action is no longer in the subject’s power. More importantly, however, in his text An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?” Kant explores the nature of man and his reason. He claims in the text that we are immature in the way we simply rely on others for a sense of direction, “It is so convenient to be immature!” he argues, “If I have a book to have an understanding in place of me, a spiritual advisor to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all” (Kant, 10). We rely on social institutions for guidance and seek social approval in everything we engage in, from morality to our values to even our deepest and darkest sexual fantasies. Our freedom, and our enlightenment, according to Kant, lies in our ability to think and reason for ourselves. To cut our cord from the safe and warm womb of society. We can’t give authority figures and social institutions the power to “control the great unthinking mass” - us (Kant, 10). Social institutions restrict our freedoms and we let them by complying and not using our reason.

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To intermittently synthesize, there are essentially two ways in which our freedom is being constrained: internal forces (unconscious psychological processes) and external forces (social norms and institutions and our own inability to reason and think for ourselves). But we can overcome at least of these, by using our reason. We must think for ourselves, this is the key to freedom from external forces and with this freedom, we became mature, in the Kantian sense, and enlightened.

This view is parallel to that expressed by Michel Foucault. A french philosophical historian with a troubled past, Foucault addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control by institutions. He concerned himself with finding the roots of popular social institutions such as punishment or psychiatry. Power, knowledge and the self are three interdisciplinary ideas and his concentration. Power, he claimed is everywhere but unequally distributed. Power can influence people’s actions, what they think and even how they feel but it is hard to see it in action. Knowledge is theory and practice, this is how power is exercised. These forces influence the self, however, we can resist power and domination by critically thinking, gaining awareness and determining our own values. Foucault, like Kant, encourages his readers to look at the social institutions we subscribe to with a critical eye. By understanding that history is constantly changing and by rationally thinking about the historical significance of current social institutions we should have a clear answer of what we are doing and why we are doing it. We should be critically evaluating the choices we make. Freedom, for Foucault, is the freedom to choose instead of blindly following the crowd. We should question, think and then do. Today, however, it seems that most of us are guided by our norms and social institutions instead of ourselves. For instance, if an individual decides to pursue higher education, are they doing it because they want to? Or because it’s the ‘normative’ choice? A perhaps outdated example of complying with social institutions instead of questioning them would be the ancient Indian tradition of Sati, which was not a law but simply a norm, where when a woman’s husband passed away, it was her duty to voluntarily throw herself into a fire and burn herself to death. After big battels where thousands of soldiers died, thousands of women would kill themselves.

How many people are able to clearly articulate an answer to the question: what are you doing and why? We are expected to follow social norms and we do, instead of thinking. Similar to Kant, Foucalt encourages his readers to examine themselves and their lives and free themselves from the chains of society.

So far, we have discussed two ways in which our freedom is constricted; one is our own internal psychological processes and secondly by external social institutions. Another external and more concrete factor that determines our freedom are authority figures such as the government. In current American society, we can bring into question the extent of the freedom available to people.

America is widely perceived as the “land of the free.” It seems to be a place of liberty and many freedoms. While this is certainly true, after a critical analysis, it is clear to see that this is not in fact entirely accurate. Even if legally there are many freedoms available, there are plenty of other factors at play which restricts the ability of people to actually use the freedom available to them. Although there is freedom available to all, not everybody has the power to use it. In the USA, people’s access to available freedom largely depends on their social class, race, and even gender. The distribution of power, influence, and freedom is wildly unequal. For instance, let’s consider free speech. While legally this is available to everybody, not everybody can actually make use of it. Different people will be perceived differently by the public. An individual from the Bronx expressing themselves about mental health issues will be differently interpreted by the public than a male singer or a female CEO on Wall Street. There is even a distinction between the perception of when a male speaks up about gun control or education versus when a woman does so. Reflect on the restrictions placed on Muslims in this country, who walk on eggshells, careful not to be misinterpreted by xenophobics. A woman expressing herself through a certain dressing style may be called a ‘slut’ or that she is ‘asking for it’ and may feel unsafe dressing the way that she wants to. Homosexuals or transexuals may also find it unsafe to express themselves in the way they would like to. Does this sound like freedom? Freedom may not be restricted necessarily in a legal sense, but it certainly is in a social sense.

Ultimately, freedom, I believe is an illusion. In a personal sense, psychologically we are guided by unconscious forces. Externally, we are guided by social forces and even in the concrete sense, many people live in fear of accessing this freedom. While there are certain constraints which we simply can’t escape such as our psychological forces, and there are constraints which we can’t overcome for our safety, there is at least one freedom, which we can gain - the freedom over understanding our lives and ourselves. Using our reason and our judgment to determine our values and beliefs is important instead of blindly following and accepting everything. Ultimately, of course, the internal forces of our psyche determine everything. Even if we have all the external free will, we will always be bound and restricted by internal forces. I believe the following quote sums this up perfectly: 'Man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants' Arthur Schopenhauer.

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The Illusion of Freedom in Philosophy. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“The Illusion of Freedom in Philosophy.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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