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The Shrink

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Debates about free will can seem far removed from the consulting room. In fact, they are deeply relevant to psychotherapy, as the whole enterprise assumes we are able to influence who we are and who we will become. Therefore, the prospect that free will may be an illusion – that we mistakenly believe we’re making decisions and acting on our intentions while our brains are doing it all for us upstream, out of awareness – could be a threatening one for psychotherapy.

But we don’t need to get too metaphysical. That we are the product of our genes and life experience is undeniable. All we need for psychotherapy to be possible is a sliver of space for self-directed change.

Existential therapy is one of the few schools to focus on the bigger issues in life. It rightly points out the tension between the aspects of human existence over which we have no control – such as the fact that we were born and will die – and the need to take responsibility for the choices we have to make. It’s difficult to get that balance right.

One aim of therapy, therefore, is to address the belief people sometimes have that the way they are is entirely due to circumstances, that they can’t help it and can’t change. As Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, the attempt to treat ourselves as though we were inanimate objects, with no possibility for change, is a kind of self-deception. Coming to see that there may be some room for manoeuvre could be a breakthrough.

Of course, it’s just as important in therapy to bear in mind the other side of the imbalance, which means recognising the limits of freedom and not overemphasising our ability to reshape ourselves.

Psychotherapy can be exactly about navigating the grey area between what is definitely beyond our control and what little we may be able to change. At best it can help people to steer clear of both extremes: that of believing we are free to design ourselves just as we like and that of looking for excuses not to change at all.

The Sage

Philosophy, eh? How difficult can it be? Not very, it seems, in the opinion of many scientists. Although the problem of free will is considered to be one of the most philosophically intractable, there are people in lab coats claiming to have the answer: it doesn’t exist.

The most recent of these is the Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab. In We Are Our Brains, a book that became a bestseller in his home country, he describes free will as a “beautiful illusion”. An illusion because everything we think and do is determined by our brains, often without our conscious awareness; and beautiful because we can’t help but feel that we have some control over our own lives.

Such free-will deniers happily admit that they are as much in the grip of this illusion as anybody. You’d certainly struggle to identify any difference their conviction makes to how they live. They tend to support more liberal penal policies but, then, so does anyone who accepts that nature and nurture have large roles to play in criminality. Other than that, they’re just as likely to be mad at you for being late as the next person.

This should not surprise us. We cannot live as though we are mere automata, even if that’s what our philosophical theories would seem to demand. Not that they should. Of course, at one level all our thoughts, beliefs, decisions and desires are determined by neurones firing. But they only fire the way they do because those particular thoughts, beliefs, decisions and desires have the meanings that they do. For instance, you cannot understand why the brain produces stress hormones unless you understand why a situation is experienced as stressful. The brain is the seat of consciousness but we cannot explain human behaviour in purely neurological terms. 

A necessary illusion is likely to contain an unavoidable truth. In the case of free will, that truth is that human beings do things for reasons and are able to modify their behaviour on the basis of argument and evidence. Is that free will? You decide.


The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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