Free Choice – An Illusion?

Question – How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer – one, but the light bulb has got to want to change. According to award winning professor of psychiatry Irvin Yalom, this idea of free choice (also called free-will) presents a problem to many psychological therapists.

Their goal is to bring clients to the p oint where they can make a free choice about how to change their behaviour. And, in so doing, take responsibility for personal matters.

The trouble is, many years ago, the term ‘will’ was replaced by the word ‘motive’ and therapists learned to explain actions on the basis of motivation. This was because study and research in the whole field had shown how external situations influence us often without our conscious awareness and intention. In other words, something other than our conscious will determines our behaviour. Genetic disposition and childhood trauma can contribute to causing disturbed behaviour in adulthood.

Actually, the concept of free choice is opposed by all deterministic systems whether they be based on economic, behaviouristic or psychoanalytic principles. Thus, many scientists and philosophers think that free choice is an illusion. They conclude we become aware of our intentions, choices, and decisions only after they processed by our brains.

On the other hand, most of us each cherish our sense of having free choice to think what we like and intend what we wish. Who doesn’t highly value belief in this control over their own life? Therefore, the alternative view is that, although motivation can energise and influence us, it cannot replace our free choice. Despite various motives, the individual still has the option of behaving or not behaving in a certain fashion.

So, is free choice an illusion or a reality?

“The implications of this debate are profound. It determines our world view of whether we are victims of genetics and environment or bear responsibility for our intentions, decisions, and choices.” (William Klemm, professor of neuroscience)

Free choice and the brain
The brain functions as a coordinating centre of sensation and movement. On the other hand, the mind can be thought of as the element of a person that enables conscious choice.

It has become possible to study the living brain, and researchers can now watch the brain’s cognitive processes at work. Our sensations, memories, and thoughts show up as neural activity. And so, there is a tendency for neuro-scientists to assume that the brain and mind are the same thing. Actually. there is nothing in physics, chemistry, neuroscience or psychology that could even begin to offer a valid explanation of free will.

Consequently, it is a problem for scientists for anyone to suggest that the mind can make any free choices independently of what the brain is doing. How could the two be going their separate ways?

Maybe there is a third possibility. One that assumes that there is a lower degree of the mind and a higher one within each person. The lower degree of consciousness is made aware of sensations received via the brain. However, the higher degree is a mind of conscious choice whose decisions cannot be predicted from data available to science – but one which is in harmony with brain activity. In other words what goes on in both degrees of the mind is mirrored in what goes on in the brain. The mind and brain running in parallel.

The brain according to this way of thinking, is a detector and instrument of the higher mind rather than determiner of it. When we decide to act, our brain reflects this decision by instructing the muscles to do so.

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian politician)

My perspective on free choice
From my perspective I would like to say inner free choice exists in the higher degree of the mind. However, it is limited by social conditioning and the constraints of ordinary circumstances mediated by the lower mind. In other words what we do and how we shape our lives is not inevitable.

I would argue that without free choice, there can be no personal responsibility for what we do. No moral accountability for our conduct. No criminal responsibility in law.

Biologists talk about the human being as an organism, as part of the animal kingdom. Again, perhaps this is quite logical because the alternative to free choice is not being a human with moral responsibility but an animal or a machine without it.

The findings of biological research cannot determine any code of research ethics. They merely provide a framework for the way each scientist makes a free choice about the rights and wrongs of how to conduct experiments on animals or humans.

Spirituality and free choice
Actually, the field of spirituality is based on the idea of personal choice. The effort to regularly engage in a daily spiritual practice like meditation or prayer requires will-power.

The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg experienced visionary consciousness. He reported on what he heard and saw, with his mystical abilities, of what he termed ‘the spiritual world’. He said within the mind we are all held poised between two hidden spheres of influence. One of doing good from our divine source and one of doing ill from a corruption of this. If true, this state of inner equilibrium accounts for freedom to turn towards or away from what we value. Something we can do every moment of our lives.

We cannot have instant forgiveness for those who harm us just by choosing this option at one point in time. Not unless we are saints. But we are free to choose to face in this direction rather than the direction of resentment.

Our repeated choices define us. We make them our own. If this were not so, we would have no sense of who we are, what we want and where we are going.

I would suggest that the truth that can enlighten our spirit cannot be seen with a closed mind. It takes personal choice to open the mind as well as to close it. A humble mind is open to the truth. But one of intellectual pride is closed because it is too focused on its own ideas.

“There is enough light for those who love and seek the truth, but not enough to compel non-seekers against their will.” (Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Christ-centred philosophers)

As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.

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