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Free Will

Reclaiming Freedom

Steve Taylor says of determinism: “I refute it thus!”

One of the main trends of recent academic culture has been to take freedom and autonomy away from human beings. I don’t mean that professors armed with guns have been locking up their intellectual opponents; I mean that from sociology to philosophy, from psychology to neuroscience, a common theme has been to try to show that our ‘free will’ is either severely limited or non-existent, and that we have much less control over our own lives than we’d like to believe.

It was one of the central beliefs of behaviourist psychology. You might feel as if you are free, making your own decisions and choices, but in reality everything you do, or think, or feel, is the result of environmental influences. Your behaviour is just the ‘output’ or response to the ‘input’ or stimuli which your brain has absorbed and processed. Freudian psychology also emphasized the lack of free will. It suggested that your conscious self is just one small facet of your whole psyche – the tip of the iceberg – and that its activity is determined by your unconscious mind, which includes instinctive and other automatic biological drives beyond your conscious control.

By contrast, existentialist philosophy and humanistic psychology emphasised human autonomy, asserting that choice is one of the defining characteristics of human life, even if it isn’t necessarily a positive faculty. According to Søren Kierkegaard, the sheer extent of our freedom may induce a state of disorientation and dread, and we make our choices “in fear and trembling.” Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the freedom to choose courses of action without fully controlling or even knowing their consequences contributed to human anxiety. In his famous phrase, we are “condemned to be free.” And in reaction to behaviourism and Freudian psychology, humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers asserted that human behaviour is not necessarily determined by our past and present experiences, since we always have the capacity to make choices based on our assessments of current situations.

However, in sociology, there was a movement towards the denial of autonomy. Theorists argued that your sense of self is a ‘social construction’ and that people are necessarily formed and exist inside a nexus of social influences which determine their lives. Linguistic theorists also argued that our view of reality is created through and limited by our language. We cannot see beyond the assumptions in the framework of the semantic and grammatical structures we have absorbed from our parents and our cultures.

Gene Theory & Neuroscience

Modern genetics and neuroscience often deny our autonomy in a much more direct way. According to geneticists such as Richard Dawkins, we – our bodies and minds – exist as ‘carriers’ for our genes, to enable them to survive and replicate. Everything we do is determined by and is on behalf of our genes. Our behaviour is either the result of our own instinctive – and therefore unchosen – desire to increase our reproductive success, or else is the instinctive result of traits selected and developed in our ancestors because they provided some survival advantage. So the reason why some of us feel driven to gain success in fields like politics and creativity, is because success makes us more attractive to the opposite sex, and so increases our reproductive possibilities; or, for example, according to Steven Pinker, the reason we find lush countryside landscapes beautiful is because for our ancestors such vistas represented a plentiful supply of resources to foster their survival, so nature selected those who were drawn to such landscapes.

In much neuroscience, brain activity – that is, the behaviour of neuronal networks and brain chemicals – play a similar causal role to genes. Your moods, your desires, and your behaviour, are determined by the levels of various brain chemicals such as serotonin or dopamine, or by the automatic activation of neuronal networks which predispose you to certain traits or impulses. If you feel depressed, it’s because of a low level of serotonin. If you are psychopathic, it’s because areas of your ventromedial prefrontal cortex are less active than normal. If you are a Born Again Christian, it’s because you have a smaller than normal hippocampus. (The latter two are actual neuroscientific hypotheses.)

These versions of both contemporary gene theory and neuroscience are what might be called ‘can’t help’ approaches: we ‘can’t help’ being depressive, psychopathic, religious, racist, polygamous (if you are a male), and so forth, because our genes have programmed us to be so, or because we have been biologically burdened with the brain chemistry or neural networks associated with that behaviour.

Harnessing Free Will

free will

What is the root of these assaults on our autonomy? Why do intellectuals and scientists feel such a strong impulse to show us that we are powerless, controlled by forces beyond our own control?

Perhaps it’s an unconscious desire to abdicate responsibility. Perhaps the modern world has become so complex and stressful that scientists and philosophers feel an impulse to retreat from responsibility, to pretend that we have no control over the chaos. I wouldn’t go so far myself, but a conspiracy theorist might argue (and some already have) that this autonomy-denial is a form of oppression – an attempt by the intellectual elite to keep us down, convincing us that we are powerless so that we won’t challenge their authority. More rationally, the rash of free will denial may be related to the desire to prove that there is no ‘self’. Free will is, of course, one of the strongest features of the self. If you believe that inside our mental space there is ‘no one there’ – that our sense of self is ‘just an illusion’, which itself is a mere side-effect of neurological processes – then you have to believe that the self’s free will is an illusion, too.

Yet no matter what the motivation, one is tempted to reply to these assaults on free will in the same way that the eighteenth century author Doctor Johnson responded to George Berkeley’s arguments that matter was a mental phenomenon: he shouted “I refute it thus!” as he kicked a stone. Johnson could have used the same method to illustrate the denial of determinism and his capacity for free will. It’s difficult for anyone to persuasively argue that we don’t have free will when our everyday experience is that there are always a variety of choices of thoughts and actions in front of us, like a pack of cards spread for us to pick from, and we feel we have the freedom to choose any of them, and to change our minds at any point. After all, whenever you read a book or listen to a lecture claiming that there is no such thing as free will, you’re free to close the book, or to throw a rotten tomato at the lecturer.

One of the problems is that scientists, and philosophers, often tend towards absolutism. Geneticists may argue that behaviour is completely determined by our genes; neuroscientists that behaviour is completely determined by brain activity; social constructionists and behaviourists may argue that social and environmental forces completely determine our behaviour, and so forth. But in my view, it’s more sensible to be democratic than absolutist: it’s likely that all of these factors have some influence on our behaviour. They all affect us to some degree. But none of them individually, nor all of them together, are completely dominant.

I believe the same is true of free will. The conscious self is not an authoritarian dictator; but it isn’t a slave either. Rather, our free will is another factor or force amongst this chaotic coalition of influences. The upshot of that is that no matter what social and environmental forces influence me, no matter what genes or brain structure I’ve inherited from my parents, I’m in here too, and I can decide whether to kick the stone or not, and, generally speaking, how I react to the world.

Freedom Strikes Back

Interestingly, some popular neuroscientific ideas about the limitations of free will are being contradicted by neuroscience itself. For instance, recent research has shown that rather than being fixed, our brain structure is very flexible, and continually changing: the brain is not hard-wired but soft-wired. The relatively new field of neuroplasticity shows that practicing habits or behaviours brings real physical changes to the parts of the brain associated with those activities. For example, if you begin to learn to play the piano, you will develop more neural connections, and perhaps, through the process of neurogenesis, even more brain cells themselves, in the parts of the brain associated with motor activity – the motor cortex and cerebellum – and musical perception – in the temporal lobes. Or if you meditate regularly for years, you will develop more ‘gray matter’ in the areas associated with attention, concentration and compassion – in the frontal lobes. So in this sense, rather than being completely controlled by our brains, we have control over them.

Rigid determinism in gene theory is similarly contradicted by recent findings in genetics. The field of epigenetics shows that the genetic structures we inherit from our parents don’t remain fixed throughout our lives either, but are altered by our life experiences, so that the biology we pass on to our children will be different from that we inherited. For example, experiments training mice to develop an aversion to a particular smell have shown that this aversion was genetically passed down to their offspring, who became two hundred times more sensitive to the smell than other mice. This new behaviour is reflected in changes to both the genes and brain structure of the mice. Similarly, in human beings, studies show that twins exposed to very different environments and experiences show striking differences in their DNA in later life. Or, in a Swedish study of the descendants of a population which endured famine in the Nineteenth Century, it was found that the men had inherited a much stronger than normal resistance to cardiovascular disease, whilst those women descended from women who had been exposed to the famine while in the womb had a shorter than average life span.

One application of these findings would be to actively take responsibility for our genes, knowing that the health and well-being of our descendants depends on them. We could make a conscious effort to live positively, to be free of trauma and stress, and undergo as many positive and rich experiences as possible, to ensure that the genetic inheritance we pass on is as ideal as possible. It could be said that we have the capacity to control our genes rather than them just controlling us.

Increasing Free Will

I would argue that one of the most important tasks of our lives is to develop more free will and autonomy. In fact, a primary way to develop positively and begin to live more meaningfully is to transcend the influences of our environment to become more oriented towards who we authentically are.

As humanistic psychology suggests, we have innate potentials and characteristics that are independent of external factors, even if this aspect of us may be so obscured from us that we can barely see it. To humanistic psychology, our task is to allow that part of us to express itself more fully – which often means overriding adverse cultural and social influences. The same thinking applies to genes and brain chemistry too. They may predispose us to certain types of behaviour, but we can resist those influences, to control and even re-mould our behaviour. It’s by no means easy, but we can overcome our programming. We don’t have to blindly follow the environmental, genetic and neurological instructions we were born with. We can with resolve increase the quotient of autonomy with which we were born, to the extent that it becomes more powerful than our genetics, neurology, or the environment. (Strangely, despite his otherwise apparently rigid genetic determinism, Dawkins agrees with this assessment of our potential, stating that humans are the only beings who have the power to ignore the dictates of their genes.)

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Paths To Autonomy

Perhaps many people do seem to be largely the products of their environments and biological inheritance. But I would argue that whatever the term ‘greatness’ means, it is usually manifested by those who have exercised their autonomy to a considerable degree, to significantly free themselves from external influences. These are usually people who have used their strong will-power to harness their autonomy and self-discipline to expand themselves and develop a high level of skill and expertise, to actualise their innate potential, and so become more than the sum of their influences.

In a sense, this is only an extension of what every human being ideally does as they move from childhood to adulthood: to develop more self-control and autonomy. As we move through childhood, with the help of our parents, we hopefully begin to control our impulses and desires. For example, we learn that we can’t have everything exactly when we want it, and so learn to delay gratification, developing self-control. As we need less care and attention from our parents, we exercise more autonomy, learn to make more decisions for ourselves and to follow our own interests and goals. In this sense, human development is a process of becoming less bound by biological and environmental influences and gain more free will and autonomy. And ideally, this process should continue throughout our lives.

Spiritual development can also be seen as a process of gaining increased autonomy. For example, many Eastern spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism or yoga, place great emphasis on self-discipline and self-control: control of our own behaviour, so that we no longer cause harm to others; control of our desires, so that we no longer lust after physical pleasures; control of our thoughts, so that we can quieten the mind through meditation, and so on. In some traditions, spiritual development is seen as a process of ‘taming’ the body and mind, and this is, of course, only possible through intense self-discipline, requiring self-control. Although it can sometimes occur suddenly and spontaneously, the deep serenity and intensified awareness of spiritual awakening is usually the culmination of a long process of increasing our innate quotient of personal freedom to the point where our minds become the dominant influence. When spiritually awakened people are referred to as ‘masters’, this could easily refer to them as being masters of themselves.

In Western philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche meant something similar with his concept of ‘self-overcoming’. Nietszche spoke disparagingly of the ‘Ultimate Man’, who is completely satisfied with himself as he is and strives only to make his life as comfortable and pleasurable as possible. But in reality, says Nietzsche, human nature is not fixed or finished. Human beings are part of an evolutionary process – not a goal, but a bridge – “a rope fastened between animal and Superman” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1891). The potential Superman is the human being who is not self-satisfied, who has the urge to ‘overcome himself.’ For him, life is an attempt at bridging the gulf between animal and superman.

Liberating Freedom

We all possess a degree of freedom, and we all have the capacity to extend the degree of freedom we’re bequeathed – to become less dominated by our genes, our brain chemistry, and the society and wider environment into which we’re born. We are all potentially much more powerful than we have been led to believe, even to the extent of being able to alter or even control the forces that have been supposed to completely control us. And to a large extent our well-being, our achievements and our sense of meaning in life depend on this. The more you exercise and increase your freedom, the more meaningful and fulfilling your life will be.

© Dr Steve Taylor 2016

Steve Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK.

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