Wednesday, 11 May 2011

“My Brain Made Me Do It” – The Problem of Free Will and Choice

If we take Naturalism as a starting point, as this blog does, then the question as to when, how and to what extent we freely choose our behaviour leads us in directions that are at odds with everyday thinking.

As I previously quoted in my introductory Psychotherapeutic Naturalism post


“Naturalism holds that everything we are and do is connected to the rest of the world and derived from conditions that precede us and surround us. Each of us is an unfolding natural process, and every aspect of that process is caused, and is a cause itself. So we are fully caused creatures, and seeing just how we are caused gives us power and control, while encouraging compassion and humility. By understanding consciousness, choice, and even our highest capacities as materially based, naturalism re-enchants the physical world, allowing us to be at home in the universe.”

Thomas W. Clark, quoted in: Fully Caused: The benefits of a naturalistic understanding of behaviour. 2008 Ken Batts.

Once we see every aspect of our thinking, feeling, behaviour and physiology as part of a web of cause-and-effect, it simply doesn’t leave any room for free will in the way most people think of it. The most common everyday view is probably still the dualistic one, namely that there is a mind distinct from physical brain processes (and therefore separate from the universal network of cause-and-effect) which does the choosing. However, there seems to be no good evidential basis for this view, nor indeed is it clear that this is even a coherent, meaningful notion (I will address the issue of mind-body dualism at more length in a future blog).

Of particular interest are the findings of neuroscience. Think about this, for instance:

A pioneering experiment in this field was conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, in which he asked each subject to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he measured the associated activity in their brain (in particular, the build-up of electrical signal called the readiness potential). Although it was well known that the readiness potential preceded the physical action, Libet asked how the readiness potential corresponded to the felt intention to move. To determine when the subject felt the intention to move, he asked her to watch the second hand of a clock and report its position when she felt that she had felt the conscious will to move.

Libet found that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his or her wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that she had decided to move. Libet's findings suggest that decisions made by a subject are first being made on a subconscious level and only afterward being translated into a "conscious decision", and that the subject's belief that it occurred at the behest of her will was only due to her retrospective perspective on the event.

So the fact that we subjectively feel like we are making a choice is no guarantee that it really is the case…

But where does that leave us in relation to responsibility, freedom etc? These questions have a particular relevance for us as therapists, because issues of choice, influence, and responsibility for change are so central to the work we do. It’s clear that we do have desires, beliefs and goals, and that the process of choosing between alternative courses of action arising out of these does occur. However, it’s also clear that we have, at the very least, less free choice than we think/feel we have.

Some useful points for us as therapists might be:

We can at least assume a lessened role for free choice in human behaviour, with more attention paid to what goes on automatically outside of conscious awareness, to what we do habitually, and to the causal role of environmental stimuli.

We can remember that people can have full responsibility for their actions without necessarily having full control of them; we don’t have full control of our dog’s behaviour, but we are fully responsible for it nonetheless.

We can remember that emphasising the supposed role of willpower in achieving change is not actually particularly helpful (see also Integrative CBT blog from January 2011: )

While we will no doubt continue to feel as if we have free will, we will probably have to make even greater shifts in our thinking about the issue as time goes by.

Hopefully, this is a start - for those who would like to read further on the subject, here are some suggestions:

Dennett, D.C. (1985) Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Oxford: OUP.

Dennett, D.C. (2004) Freedom Evolves. London: Penguin.

Elster, J. (2000) Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction and Human Behavior. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Evatt, C. (2010) The Myth of Free Will. Kearney: Morris Publishing.

Stanovich, K.E. (2004) The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thagard, P. (2010) The Brain and the Meaning of Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.