Don E. Gibbons, Ph.D., NJ Licensed Psychologist #03513
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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Determinism is the Secular Equivalent of Salvation

In considering the question of free will, it is also necessary to consider the question of moral responsibility. We hold people legally and morally responsible for their actions to the extent tha they know what they are doing is wrong, and understand the consequences of doing so. To the extent that this understanding is diminished, their guilt is reduced. But what criminal facing execution would have deliberately and with full understanding committed the crime that sealed his fate? How then could we hold him fully responsible for his act, and demand the ultimate penalty? 

Who could ever knowingly be so STUPID as to knowingly
and deliberately do anything that would lead to this?
Thinkers and philosophers have been debating the question of determinism versus free will for centuries. Briefly, the argument goes like this. If someone announces that he has made a decision and you ask him why, he will answer, "Because," followed by a list of reasons. Would he ever have decided otherwise? you ask. "Yes," he would answer, if he had other reasons. Our reasons determine our decisions, and our reasons are determined by our motives. But we do not choose our motives! Therefore, our decisions are all caused, and free will is an illusion. 

Can you think of anything that any human being ever does that is not determined by our motives, and the alternatives which we perceive before us? The most that a psychologist is able to do is to point out the existence of still other motives, of which we may be unaware.  The question is not, "Do I choose?" but "Do I choose to choose? and the answer is no!

Just as a computer makes choices in accordance with its instructions, we make choices in accordance with our motives. They are our programs. We only "feel" free if the choices before us are pleasant ones; but in reality, free will does not exist, for this kind of choice is just as determined as any other.

Today, neuroscience provides us with the conclusive answer to the question of whether or not we have free will. 

What we commonly refer to as "freedom" lies in the range of choices which are open to us, and whether or not those choices are experienced as pleasant or desirable, then some people's freedom can be a lot more limited than that of others. The psychiatrist Milton Erickson wrote a classic case study entitled "The February Man," in which he described a client who had such an inadequate personality that he had to do a series of age regressions with her to provide the corrective socializing experiences that she had missed, from childhood through her teen years and all the way into adulthood. This changed both her self and her motives, and greatly expanded her freedom to make her own choices.

Prisons  are still needed, of course, to the extent that they protect the public from dangerous persons, to the extent that they serve as a deterrent to others, and to the extent that they can make us want to do what we know that we ought to do (That's why we call them correctional institutions.). I worked in the NJ State Prison system for fifteen years, and i know that the system doesn't always work as it should, I agree -- but sometimes it does, when people begin to realize what leads to what. When I asked one inmate how he came to jail, he replied uneasily, "I was found behind the wheel of a stolen car." I asked him, "Did you steal it?" and he reluctantly replied, "Well, yeah."

When I say that there is no such thing as a behavior without a cause, I also have to admit that a person's self can be one of the causes. And what is the self? Is it the sum total of a person's past experience, or does it have a unique structure that is more than the sum of its parts? Most of us would say that each person's self is uniqe, and is capable of initiating action on its own.
But aren't there still reasons why you develop one kind of self and not another? Of course there are! So this whole free-will vs. determinism debate is like a reversible figure. If you look at it one way you see one thing, and if you look at it another way you see something else. That[s why the debate has persisted for hundreds of years, and why it will continue to persist until people recognize that it all depends on your point of view,
As far as deciding which view to emphasize, most of us would agree that Adolf Hitler should not be forgiven because he could not help himself/  But sometimes a  voluntaristic view of right and wrong needs to be balanced up a bit. Every day, I see people in my clinical psychology practice whose depression, anxety, and unhappiness are the result of beating themselves up for things which they couldn't help doing in the situations in which they found themselves. Determinists, however, realize this, and therefore they have no guilt. For atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers (although I an none of these), determinism is simply the secular equvalent of the Fundamentalist experience of :"salvation.".

Successful psychotherapy also provides us with  an increased range of choices available to us which did not exist before, and in that sense it can be said to expand our freedom. This is also the promise and the potential of hyperempiria, or suggestion-enhanced experience, and of visiting multiple Universes to re-write our own history, for the enhancement of human potential, the ennoblement of the human spirit, and the fulfillment of human existence.    

See also: Hypnosis and the Mind-Body Problem