“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
In my Philosophy class, I introduce the topic of free will to students by giving them a choice. I present them with two canned drinks (Pepsi and Coca Cola), and a bottle of water. I ask them to choose which drink they would like; a heated debate regarding which cola version is superior to the other usually ensues. Then I ask them to consider: what factors led you to making the decision you did? I usually receive a range of answers about previous experience of, or associations with, each brand. Occasionally, a student points out that as their teacher, I have limited their choice by only giving them three real options, and telling them to make a decision. I question whether this has really placed a limit upon their freedom to choose, or simply influenced the outcome of their choice, and explore whether there is a difference between the two. I then ask them to consider: to what extent were you totally free to make a choice regarding which drink you would like? If you could go back and make the decision again, would you be able to choose differently? Would you?
Philosophically speaking, there are two significant schools of thought regarding the issue of freedom. Libertarians such as Sartre believed that people are entirely free to do as they choose, whilst accepting that the consequences of our actions are entirely our own responsibility. Freedom then becomes both our biggest gift and most burdensome curse – we are entirely free to do as we will, but we can only blame ourselves for our circumstances and the outcomes of our choices.
For Sartre, it is true that there are some things about ourselves we cannot change, and he calls this our facticity. For example, I cannot change who my parents are, or where I was born. However, Sartre does not see these factors as limitations of our freedom. This is because, as creatures with imagination and creativity, we always have the ability to imagine ourselves as different from the person we currently are. We can choose how to react to the things we can’t change about ourselves – I cannot change where I was born, but I can choose if I tell people proudly, or hide it, if I spend my life there, or never visit again. I can choose to fall into the stereotype of people that were born in my particular area, or I can reject that entirely. I do not have to be determined by the things I cannot control. Existential psychotherapy then takes this principle to help clients to consider what stories they tell themselves about their past, and how these can be re-examined in such a way that allows us to take responsibility for ourselves. This means that, rather than attributing blame for our circumstances to others (and in the process handing over our power to change ourselves to them) we come to see ourselves as the architects of our own destiny.
Determinist philosophers see things very differently. Behaviourists such as B.F. Skinner suggested that all behaviour is determined by environmental factors, and that freedom is an illusion arising from our lack of awareness concerning how we are manipulated by our environment. He demonstrated this extensively in his studies with animals, using processes of conditioning to modify the behaviours of rats and pigeons. Cognitive behavioural therapists then use this idea to help us to explore how we can ‘re-condition’ ourselves in relation to our environment. If being in a crowded place makes us anxious, we can examine what thoughts and physiological associations with have with crowded places, begin to question these and, over time, train ourselves to react differently by replacing old behaviours and cognitions with new ones.
The waters are muddied somewhat with the difficulty of understanding the nature of the human mind and thought. Scientific materialism would suggest that all effects have causes, and that any brain activity must have a physical cause, rather than spontaneously arising from nothing. If we accept the idea of mind-brain identity (that is, the idea that your mind and your brain are the same thing and consciousness is identical to brain activity) then research suggests that our brains actually make decisions before our conscious mind is even aware of them. Coupled with the fact that idea of wave-particle duality seems to demonstrate that particles on the sub-atomic level behave randomly and unpredictably, but also change when they are observed, it seems that we have a long way to wade through the quagmire before we reach a concrete conclusion about the nature or existence of freedom.
Whichever philosophical model of freedom one accepts, it seems that the idea of personal choice and empowerment are crucial in giving us a sense of control over our lives, which is a fundamental aspect of the therapeutic process. Even if we accept a deterministic perspective of human nature, understanding the ways in which we have been conditioned to respond to our environment, or the ways in which our genes or biology may influence us, may be crucial in allowing us to let go of old patterns of relating and behaving (even if this ‘letting go’ is itself determined by its antecedent causes!). Until we understand the nature of consciousness, there may be no firm answer to the problem of free will. Perhaps however, we have a choice as to whether to take active control of the things we feel responsible for, or to simply surrender to the things that feel inevitable. And perhaps there is no real choice at all.