Haven’t mentioned free will for a while…

In an introduction to psychodynamic ideas, Jonathan Shedler writes (p. 42):

“If behavior were unavoidably determined, there would be no reason to practice psychoanalytic therapy or, for that matter, any form of therapy.”

Although I’m not sure about free will, I don’t think this is a necessary consequence of having no free will. And maybe that there might be a reason is important for therapists with clients who reject free will.

Suppose we have no free will. Two claims still seem difficult to refute:

(1) We experience stuff, some of it fun, some of it not. The phenomenological feeling which goes along for the ride doesn’t seem to care about free will. Related to this, I think it’s interesting that we still go to the cinema and read books even though we know the ending has already been decided: we seem to derive great pleasure from finding out what happens next.

(2) Chatting to people partially determines our future experience (sometimes fun!) and behaviour.

So therapy is just another link in the big causal network in the universe. Hopefully it’s more likely to improve someone’s experience than some other links, however unavoidable and pre-determined going to see the therapist might be.

6 thoughts on “Haven’t mentioned free will for a while…”

  1. I think the question of “the existence of free will” is rather like that of god: if there is no experiment affected by “the existence of free will” (or “the existence of god”, or whatever question you care to ask), then the question is meaningless.

    We certainly have an sensation of making choices, and a experience of the time after we exercise these choices. This interaction between our choices and our experience is what is interesting to talk about – this is the stuff life is made of.

  2. Thanks for your thought provoking reply. Hmmm, this branches off in a number of directions. Let’s see where it goes.

    The relationship with belief in the existence of (a particular?) God is interesting. I wonder is it possible to distinguish between those who are sure there is no God from those who refuse to consider the question because they consider it meaningless. I’d expect the two groups to be similar in terms of how frequently they follow religious rituals. The main difference would be in terms of what they say they believe, and perhaps how strongly they try to persuade others of their opinion.

    Analogously for free will, can those who believe we have it, don’t have it, or that we should avoid wasting time on the question, be distinguished in terms of their actions? I guess what I’m trying to say is that what we say we believe can sometimes be inconsistent with how we act.

    I’m not sure that demonstrating we have no free will is impossible experimentally. It might be hard, and it probably hasn’t been done yet (though I wonder are there already experiments which have a bearing on the question?). Maybe “experiment” is the wrong word. Would it suffice to predict, to some suitably high level of precision, the decisions that a bunch of people make? First thought is, yes, it would.

    I was trying to avoid the issue of whether or not free will exists and instead to focus on one arm: let’s suppose, hypothetically, that it doesn’t. It does seem we agree on the importance of holding on to the experiential part. I wonder does anyone deny having this feeling of making decisions? Some psychiatric conditions involve a belief that one’s thoughts are being controlled by someone else, e.g., from an NHS page on schizophrenia:

    “Some people feel that their thoughts are being controlled by someone else, that their thoughts are not theirs, or that the thoughts have been planted in their mind by someone else. Another recognised feeling is that thoughts are disappearing, as though someone is removing them from their mind. Some people feel that their body is being taken over and someone else is directing their movements and actions.”

    1. Re: a test of free-will existing: “Would it suffice to predict, to some suitably high level of precision, the decisions that a bunch of people make?”

      Good point: free will in practical terms is not black and white. All levels of predictability and coercion. The sensation of choice is also not black and white, as you point out. Also: predictability and sensation of choice are sometimes orthogonal. Wee can feel free, but be predictable. And visa-versa.

      Interestingly, certain forms of psychotherapy provide exercises that help people ‘feel’ free. Mechanisms of liberation.

      Anyway, back to the topic: I like your take on considering one branch of the argument and pointing out that we can simply adjust our language as “contributing to causality” where we previously considered it as “choice”; and that the consequences are hard to argue against… at least that was my take after a brief scan. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  3. That is a strange comment re free will & psychoanalysis..I am pretty sure that Freud was a good old fashioned determinist and materialist! tho I havent checked for a while.

    It sounds a bit like saying theres no point in having a legal system with punishments if theres no free will….which is evident tosh, as behaviour determined by expected consequences as well as be experienced consequences…free will not needed.

    1. Nice to look at punishment that way. (Though also suspect there should be a remedial function of consequences of crime… but something for another time lest I inadvertently create a poor cousin of Clockwork Orange… Similar argument for this, even in absence of free will, as for the therapy.)

      One problem: folk who aren’t so good at inferring expected consequences might also be those who end up committing crimes. Being aware of possible punishments would have no impact. So danger is, they’re just sacrificed as part of the punishment theatre, to ensure that those who are good at inferring consequences don’t end up committing crimes.

      Another problem is that in especially socially deprived areas, the consequences of crime might not be much worse than being “free” — and, for ethical reasons, perhaps consequences shouldn’t be made worse! Again, not much of a deterrent even if would-be criminal infers the consequences.

      That’s skimming the surface… I’m sure there are large volumes writing about this properly.

      But anyway, interesting that it often comes down to not giving up free will, but just ensuring decisions made are as compatible as possible with having and not having free will.

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