Are we "condemned" to be free?

I was looking up at Sartre and he says that people are “condemned” to be free. Well i was thinking, if people are condemned to be free, then doesnt’ it mean that they were captured or imprisoned before? I mean if we were truly free then we couldn’t say we are free, but only say that we just “are” because being free is the opposite of imprisoned. It’s like the good and bad, you can have either without having both. And since Sartre says we are “condemned” to be free, then it seems we were inslaved before. if that is true then wouldn’t that prove existance of a supreme being? as something or someone must have imprisoned “us”. Secondly i was also wondering wat it is to be free. I mean freedom is choice, yet do we really have a choice? Did we choose to be born? Did we choose to eat? I mean this as our body will die if we don’t eat, does that not imply that we are bound by ourselves and our genetics? Aren’t we also bound by nature and it’s laws? I mean no one can fly persay or even turn into a bird or something. I pose this question to everyone and specially to existentialists as i’m interested to see their answers.

I gotta say I’m not a believer in free will. We’re a bag of chemicals, no place in there for free will.
We are shaped initially by our genes.
These genes lead to proteins which monitor our environment.
These proteins feedback to our genes and our genes adjust to the environment.

I don’t see a place in there for free will.

i’ll take Badiou’s interpretation of freedom before the Event (which he writes is the Resurrection for Christianity). Basically, we are free to do as we choose, but we are slaves to our desires. Therefore, our freedom is really slavery to our own desires. We are incapable of choosing to do other than what we desire.
After the Event, Badiou writes that we gain freedom from our desires and obtain the freedom to choose. In that, we are no longer slaves to desire because we are able to choose what we desire. That, for Badiou, is true freedom.

Great post! A few comments…

I look up at Sartre most of the time, too! I like him, but he’s definitely confusing in the way the existentialists are fond of being… OK: It’s because we’re free that we’re able to say we are free. Why would being free prevent me from saying I’m free? Also, when you say we were ‘captured’ or ‘imprisoned’ before, I must ask–before what? Before we were born? We didn’t exist then, we weren’t free or unfree, we simply weren’t. Just because we are free now doesn’t mean we were imprisoned before. E.g., just because a cat is black doesn’t mean it was white before.

I don’t think Sartre is trying to imply or prove God’s existence. It seems to me he’s saying that whether or not God exists, it’s irrelevant to our present concerns in terms of the decisions we make with our lives. As far as our choices go, we have the freedom to make what we want of ourselves. Our existence precedes our essence, so first we are, and then we decide what we should be.

Sartre seems to be saying (this is an interpretation, but I believe a valid one) that even if God did exist, it wouldn’t matter because he’s not directly telling me what decisions to make. Ultimately, I have to listen to myself, which is precisely the problem because I don’t know what I am until I’ve decided. In fact, it is BY deciding that I become what I am. We are condemned to make choices and exercise freedom and be held responsible, by others and ourselves, without first knowing what will come of our actions and decisions. E.g., if I have an ethical dilemma, it’s up to me and only me to decide what I will actually do. Even if I go ask my father, a priest, etc., first of all I probably know what they’re going to say so that it’s really my choice in asking them in the first place, and then I still have to decide whether to take or follow their advice. Our choices are free in an almost frightening way for Sartre–and this freedom leads inevitably into despair since we lack absolute standards by which to judge our behavior. (Sartre later decided that Marxism was the solution to all the social problems of the world. Whether he’s right or not about this is still an open question.)

Just because I can’t break the laws of physics and fly doesn’t mean I’m not free. Also, the issue of birth–because it is unchosen and impossible to choose–is the root of the “condemned to be free” issue. It also happens to be the most cliche existential dilemma of our time–I didn’t ask to be born! The issues you’re raising are important ones from a free will perspective, but I’m saying that the really important choices aren’t ones like to eat or to sleep, etc., but the kind of choices that let us figure out who we are, ethical situations and so forth.

Once again, just because I don’t have magic powers doesn’t mean I can’t choose between pepsi and coke at the supermarket, or which route to take home from work, or whether to procrastinate on an assignment or get it done early, or cheat on my wife or stay faithful. These are definitely still chocies, for Sartre, he’s big on free will.


There’s definitely a strong case for this point of view nowadays. But let me try to take the opposite position and let’s see what happens…

Just because we’re ‘a bag of chemicals’ doesn’t mean we don’t have free will. Our genetic material certainly influences our physical condition, but you’re not taking into account the kind of day-to-day decision making which genes (at least as far as we know) don’t account for.

A physical determinism stance would be more effective, from my way of thinking, to combat Sartre here. If you said that we’re just machines who blindly follows the laws of physics and THUS there is no room for free will, I might buy it. But genes tell me whether to take the laundry to the dry cleaners or just sit around the house? Not a chance.

But, since there only seems to be one action that we actually DO perform in any given situation, it seems to be possible that choice is an illusion, that we are not really in control. But this would fly in the face of all our notions of responsibility and justice. Voluntary action is the basis for imprisoning murderers and rapists, for rewarding those soldiers who perform exceptionally honorably for their country, etc. If they are just blindly following a predetermined path through the universe, why would we care? Unless, everyone else too, are ‘programmed’ to care. It does indeed seem to be a vicious circle. In such a case, it seems wisest to call a duck a duck, and seeing as how regardless of how virulently we deny free will, we will still continue to act as though our choices are voluntary and that we are responsible for our actions, and furthermore, if we are somehow programmed to believe in free will, then this should be sufficient commonsense evidence for the existence of free will.


If we put our faith in Christ, we become free? I have a little trouble buying this one, since it limits freedom only to those who’ve heard the Word. I think many Buddhist and Hindu teachers talk about renouncing this illusionary world and the desire for pleasure and possessions it creates.

But you’ve also got to remember that the will to renounce desire is in itself a desire.

You’ll never achieve nirvana if you still want to achieve nirvana!

And the funniest part is that Badiou is an adamant athiest! Although, i’m not so sure that those who haven’t heard the word are as condemned as Calvinists would have us believe. i posted a while back about C.S. Lewis’s allusion to this problem and i tend to agree with him. It’s not the “syntax” (i.e. words and names) used that matters, but the concepts. i wouldn’t be surprised if Christians find some Solomon Islanders from the 5th century in heaven.

I like that a lot, man… it really shouldn’t be the exact words, but the ideas. The problem is you’ve always got to couch concepts in words to get them across, but the traditional ones fail miserably to conjure up the grandeur and glory of abstract concepts: God, infinity, eternity, perfection, truth, mercy, justice, hope, love…

of curse we can fly, just dream

freedom, come on to have ultimate freedom you would have to be god, and sonce god dosnt exist, to be free would have to be what is instead of god… energy, we are energy ergo we are free,and if you cant see that there is because some thing is blocking your sight, most likely problems you hav ecreated on your own, or problems society have created

While our genes do not directly control our thought processes, they are governed by electrical impulses. What controls those electrical impulses? Proteins, salt channels, receptor proteins, ect. All the products of our genes acting in concert together.
As to this idea flying in the face of our notions of personal responsibility – well, nobody likes to think of themselves as an automaton. That doesn’t make it any less true. Unfortunately, we haven’t developed our technology enough to fix us when our behaviour pathways break down but we will. If you don’t know much about electronics and your TV is on the fritz, sometimes the only thing you can do is slap it and hope it works, which is pretty much the level we’re at right now in terms of our legal system.

Dear Blindseer,

As a Brit (and therefore someone who has been dealing with the French for ages) I advise you not to look up at Sartre…

No, for Sartre there is only life, there is only the what I am and the what I have been. There is no ‘before’ there is no ‘after’. He doesn’t even concede to Kantian materialism in Being and Nothingness, or at least not in the parts that I have read.

No, being free is something which, according to Sartre, is inherent in being a conscious (or rather a self-conscious) being.

Linguistically, yes. Sartre, however, is dealing primarily with phenomenology, which claims to be prior to language or at least to be concerned with something that is prior to language.

See above

No, because there need be no ‘before’ in the ‘scheme’ proposed by Sartre.

Why? Such notions of necessary cause are alien to the Sartrean

‘Really’ - ?

We have power, and potential. We are not free. Free will (in its present popular form) is the greatest piece of logical slight of hand (in that it oppresses those that believe in it) that I’ve ever seen. But it’s tosh…

It would appear so, though developments in future generations of humans, or neo-humans, that aren’t bred in a womb but in a lab will probably be able to overcome these limitations, or at least reduce them to negligible levels.

It has yet to be seen, I’ll grant you that…

I’m no existentialist, though I’ve read a lot of that tradition. In the first half of my reply I’ve told you what Sartre says. In the second half I’ve answered from my own mouth. I hope that this is clear.

i don’t recall Sartre being very stable on the issue of “what I have been”…

thnx guys, this has cleared up a bit of the issue, as a i was overlooking the fact that, he didn’t believe in a “before” or “after”. It’s interesting to me to see how much value he put on freedom.

What do you recall?

Only a radical phenomenology that was only…“in the moment”.

A simple way to understand Sartre’s concept of “freedom” is to disassemble the etymological contexts in which the term exists- where it had its origins- and how it evolved there from.

Probably the first use of the word in primitive civilization was as a social prescription of privilege. It wasn’t so much a term which described a personal “state” of being, but rather when one was called “free” it meant that they were clear of consequence and punishment enacted by some authority. So the practical uses of the term involved diplomatic circumstances- the term was a designation of “rights”- and not what will later be called “metaphysical” or “ontological” and with philosophical and/or causal implications. (To further understand this concept I refer you to Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals.”)

It wasn’t until the basics of science were established that the notion of personal “freedom” was compared to the world of “empirical states.” At some point, some dude in a toga kicked a rock and it rolled. Then he figured that his body, being not noticably different from the rock, must also act and react with the same exhibitions of force. He used logic to conclude that since the rock moved a stick when it rolled into it, that his kick must also have had a cause even though he was only aware of his intention to kick.

Enter metaphysics.

From here, the term “freedom” not only represents the social prescription of “rights,” but also the negation of what came to be understood as the doctrine of determinism in science and philosophy.

Skip a few years and you get to Sartre’s basic idea. Sartre envelops the whole of metaphysics and determinism into one single ontological axiom- that of the “initial cause,” or the logical prerequisite to the functioning of deterministic systems. According to him, without an initial cause, such as “God,” human nature cannot possibly be determined because identity would have no intended design. But, and this is a critical component of his theory, Sartre does not define mankind as its empirical state, but rather as its intentional project, or its “decision” of being. So for Sartre, raising one’s arm into the air is indeed an event that must be an effect of some empirical state, but the conscious intention to do so, as long as one is aware of their raising the arm, is not caused by anything other than what is intended for the future result of that action. Or, the contrary, one cannot be conscious of an act they did not intend.

As Sartre once said- “the intention/act/end is part of an ensemble that causes the upsurge of “freedom” to exist as the consciousness.” For example, if I choose to quit smoking and am “in-progress-of-quitting,” the very next moment that project is renewed, and I must intend there again to resume the project I had established one moment ago- that of quitting smoking. If I light another cigarette, it doesn’t mean that I failed in my intentions and that I was determined to smoke another one- but rather that I presently establish a new project in my decision to cease my attempt to quit, and light one up. If at that moment I reflect and think “I must have been determined to intend this new project,” that is merely another choice, because I could also choose to believe that I was free to do so and that I wasn’t determined. Whether or not I was determined is irrelevent since one cannot exist backwards in time. This upsurge of freedom is always one step ahead of reflection. Picture a row of falling dominos in reverse.

Anyway, the bit about being “condemned” is in regard to the issue of having no excuse for what one chooses to do, without being “consulted first,” as Kierkegaard put it, by a God who would charge one with obligation and responsibility before hand. Much like Heidegger’s “thrown-ness.”

if you think about it the idea that were forced to have free will seems kinda contradictory.

i got the idea that sartre meant were condemned to be responsible for our actions though. i didnt view his arguement much as an attempt to refute determinism even if it was. maybe my bias. who knows

I am far from being able to give you a reasonable answer to your question, but I guess it would be better if you read Sartre first (the man is amusing) and then you’ll understand what the hell he meant…I can assure you that he adressed these same questions you are asking and that he could offer you some substancial answers.

(condemned to be free=born without asking, thrown in the world without knowing a thing, able to “understand” it only when you give some shape and meaning without it when your reason arises=the “world” and the “laws” which “rule” us are just "products of our interpretation and are not absolute) just an “interpretation”…

:laughing: :laughing: :laughing: