Determinism in Therapy: Why the Belief in Free-Will Can Be Detrimental to Your Mental Health

Most of my life, people told me that I was too hard on myself. I seemed to have always wanted to be someone that I wasn’t. I recall wanting to be strong and tough, to be a man when I was still a boy. Much of the shame surrounding aspects of my childhood pertains to the belief that I should have said and done things differently, that, simply, I should have been better. And most of my clients who struggle with distorted self-conceptions share my personal sentiment.

When we conceive of mental health, the initial thought is one of agency. We think of the well-adjusted as those in possession of themselves, physically and emotionally. The concept of free-will, in its purest form, refers to the human ability to choose, regardless of one’s circumstances. The thinking goes: If I will myself hard enough, I can always make good choices. For ages, psychotherapists worked to instill this idea in their patients, helping them to consider themselves as more than just victims. And, when perceived in that light, free-will seems like a good thing. I mean, it’s hard to imagine someone preferring to live in a deterministic universe, wherein their choices, needs, and efforts are wholly ineffectual. Yet, few stop to consider the significant downside of accepting free-will. What if free-will is not as emancipating as we believe?

When you ask someone to conjure up determinism, often they’ll tell you about a mechanical universe, in which humans operate like clocks. The environment is analogized to a clockmaker, an invisible hand that engenders everything we are. In this universe, we might as well give-up, as doing so would be just as inconsequential as its alternative. People often cringe at the idea, so they hastily opt to accept free-will instead. And, honestly, between these two, I would prefer the latter, too. But, when you carefully consider them, you realize that they’re both equally problematic.

On the surface, free-will appears superior. However, it’s nothing more than a Trojan horse. Because, shame, the feeling that you’re wholly awful, is founded in the idea of pure freedom. When I was a kid growing up in a chaotic household, I “chose” not to stand up to my stepfather, watching idly as he ruled through intimidation. I was terrified and ashamed, wondering why I wasn’t just less of a coward. As some point, late into my teenage years, I finally spoke up. After another episode of him storming around the apartment and breaking more of my belongings, I yelled at him and told him to fuck off. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of my bravery, as once he picked a fight, I immediately backed down. And I held onto that kid’s self-image for the majority of my life. I so badly wanted to be a hero, failing to realize that my size and strength wouldn’t allow it.

In one respect, free-will could have helped me see that I had the ability to train and become stronger (which I eventually did), that at some distant point, I could finally supersede my stepdad. But, in another, it caused me to blame myself for not being tougher in the first place. In therapy, I learned that there was no way a scrawny child could have ever defeated a much older and stronger bully. In fact, the bully only preyed on those who were much weaker. I finally asked myself: How could it have gone differently? And that freed me in a way that a sense of agency, or free-will, couldn’t. In understanding my inevitable constraints, I let-go of the belief that I should have tried harder to protect my mom, or, even worse, that I should have hit him. Fundamentally, I was as strong as I could be.

I don’t possess the wisdom to know whether free-will actually exists. But, I can speak of its practical limitations. In understanding the unlikelihood of having done otherwise, I drew myself closer to self-acceptance. Could I have attacked my dad? Maybe. But, what good would that have done? I’m now sure that, at the time, I reasoned in the same way. A person tends to flee or freeze in danger when he knows that he’s outmatched. My decisions made sense when perceived in their proper contexts. And, reviewing it now, I can only imagine a kid attacking an adult when he’s completely given up or if he’s at least someone detached from reality.

Agency will always have a place in therapy, especially when the patient understands that good decisions are mostly products of their environments. (It’s challenging to imagine a solely non-supportive environment giving rise to an emotionally healthy human.) However, determinism is also a prominent and permanent fixture. Even though the universe may not be completely robotic, our genes and environments make certain thoughts, feelings, and choices more and less likely. And that knowledge can help us unlock our stifling, emotional shackles.

14 Comments

  1. This is excellent insight. It is that place, where we see the realistic limitations and the truth that surrounds this (that we did the very best we could and most often very creatively as children ) to survive a likely impossible situation. The untangling is complex but so worth it in finding the strength that helped us then and now. The concept of agency and knowing we have it, is so important. Thank you for this thought provoking writing.

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    1. Tom, I don’t think there is a “contra-causal” assumption. Reliable cause and effect is something that everyone takes for granted. If you ask someone why they chose A rather than B, they will happily explain the reasons why A was the better choice. If we ask, “Did those reasons cause you to choose A rather than B?” They’ll respond, “Yes, of course.” A person’s own thoughts and feelings, their beliefs and values, their genetic dispositions and prior life experiences, in short, all those qualities that make the person who they are, are the most meaningful and relevant causes of their choices.

      The problem is that the hard determinist presents reliable causation, causal necessity, as some kind of boogeyman that takes control of people and forces choices upon them. This sends the theist running for escape to the supernatural and sends the atheist running to quantum indeterminism.

      When causal necessity is presented as a puppet-master pulling our strings, people will reasonably object. And when the hard determinist tells the person in the restaurant that they had no choice, when they are staring at a literal menu of options, then the hard determinist is clearly not in touch with empirical reality, but caught up in an abstraction created by figurative thinking. He is actually saying that, due to causal necessity, it is AS IF the person had no choice. The problem with figurative statements is that they are always literally false. The person actually decided for themselves what they would have for dinner. That’s what actually happened in empirical reality.

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      1. “The problem is that the hard determinist presents reliable causation, causal necessity, as some kind of boogeyman that takes control of people and forces choices upon them…When causal necessity is presented as a puppet-master pulling our strings, people will reasonably object.”

        Yes, this is a big problem in memeing determinism, where people forget that the agent is just as causally effective and part of the picture as what determined her. Agential determinism, as well as distal and situational, is a crucial element in understanding choices. Determinism is still the case, but the agent isn’t powerless, but contributes her own effects to outcomes (see paper linked below)

        That said, research suggests that many, perhaps most, folks think they have the unconditional ability to do otherwise (see Nadelhoffer et al papers below) – the contra-causal assumption – so it’s important to challenge that to get them on board about determinism, including agential determinism . If people suppose they are exceptions to cause and effect, this helps to justify some pretty extreme judgments of credit and blame, expressed in retributive punishment and acceptance of deep socio-economic inequality as being justly deserved. It’s interesting you think most folks are already determinists. If only they were…

        Don’t Forget About Me: Avoiding Demoralization by Determinism: https://naturalism.org/philosophy/free-will/dont-forget-about-me

        Nadelhoffer, Thomas, David Rose, Wesley Buckwalter, and Shawn Nichols. 2020. Natural compatibilism, indeterminism, and intrusive metaphysics. Cognitive Science. 44(8). https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12873.

        Nadelhoffer, Thomas, Siyuan Yin, and Rose Graves. 2020. Folk intuitions and the conditional ability to do otherwise. Philosophical Psychology 33 (7):968-996. Doi: 10.1080/09515089.2020.1817884.

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      2. It turns out that “could have done otherwise” is true by logical necessity. And that is why people, including me, insist they have it. Here’s why: At the beginning of a choosing operation we are uncertain what we “will” do. If we already knew what we would do, we would simply do it, and choosing would not happen.

        But, we don’t know up front what we “will” do. So, we begin by considering what we “can” do. There must always be at least two things that we “can” do, for example, A and B. “We can do A” is true. “We can do B” is also true.

        The notion of “can” is a logical token that stands in for the as yet unknown thing that we “will” do. We then evaluate our two options. We consider what might happen if we choose A. Then we consider what might happen if we choose B. After comparing the two outcomes, we choose the option that we believe produces the best outcome. And that becomes the single inevitable thing that we “will” do.

        What about the other option, the one we didn’t choose? Well, because “can” was true at the beginning, “could have” is true at the end. We can honestly say, “I chose A but I could have chosen B”. Note that “could have” always implies that we “did not choose B”, and that this is consistent with what actually happened in empirical reality (that is, it is true).

        The hard determinist makes a logical error by suggesting that we “could not have done otherwise”. He is confusing what “can” happen with what “will” happen. What should he be saying instead?

        Determinism can safely assert that, given the same person, the same point in time, the same issue, and the same circumstances, the decider “will” always make the same choice.

        And that produces no cognitive dissonance to the listener. After all, if I had good reasons for choosing A, why “would” I choose B instead?

        But to tell him that he “could not have chosen B” rings false, because whenever it is the case in the past that “I can choose B” was true, then it must also be the case in the future that “I could have chosen B” is also true. It’s just the past tense of the same verb.

        The rule then is this: Whenever a choosing event happens in a causal chain, “I could have done otherwise” will always be TRUE, but “I would have done otherwise” will always be FALSE.

        So, anyone making the claim that “I could have done otherwise” in a totally deterministic chain of events is stating a logical truth.

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      3. “Determinism can safely assert that, given the same person, the same point in time, the same issue, and the same circumstances, the decider “will” always make the same choice. And that produces no cognitive dissonance to the listener. After all, if I had good reasons for choosing A, why “would” I choose B instead?…Whenever a choosing event happens in a causal chain, “I could have done otherwise” will always be TRUE, but “I would have done otherwise” will always be FALSE.”

        Ok, but as the papers by Nadelhoffer et al. suggest, many, perhaps most folks think they have the ability – the capacity – to have chosen otherwise in exactly the same circumstances such that perhaps they *would* have done otherwise. Most folks, that is, are not determinists, but libertarians in their conception of agency, and to tell them that they will always make the same choice in a replay scenario will indeed cause them cognitive dissonance. That’s been my experience, anyway.

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      4. Well, as it turns out, we do in fact have the ability to have chosen otherwise in exactly the same situation. However, we never would. The fact that we never would chose differently leads to the figurative notion that it is AS IF we never could have chosen differently.

        We often think and speak figuratively, but a figurative statement has one serious drawback: Every figurative statement is literally (actually, objectively, and empirically) false.

        Choosing is certainly a deterministic operation. The choice is reliably caused by the thoughts and feelings of the person making the choice. And those thoughts and feelings are reliably caused by the history of prior influences and prior choices of the decider.

        But the choosing operation is dealing with a matter of uncertainty. We do not know yet what we will do. And we will not know until the operation is over. In order for the operation to proceed, there must be at least two distinct options (e.g, A and B), and it must be true that we can choose either one (I can choose A is true and I can choose B is also true, even though I cannot choose both).

        If it were the case that either “I can choose A” or “I can choose B” were false, then the choosing operation would immediately stop, because it is logically absurd to choose between a single possibility. There must be at least two real possibilities and I must be able to choose either one.

        These are true by logical necessity, because they are required by the operation. And, since choosing has given intelligent species a significant survival advantage, it would be unwise to break it.

        But breaking it is exactly what the hard determinist does when he insists that we never could have chosen differently. All he may safely and truthfully say is that we never would have chosen differently.

        The ordinary person objectively observes themselves and others making choices in precisely this way. They know for a fact that, they can choose A and they can choose B, are both true. And their assessment that they could have done otherwise is validly derived from those facts.

        It does not occur to them that all of the events, including each thought and feeling that they experienced during the choosing operation, was causally necessary from any prior point eternity.

        But, then again, this is always true of every event, so it is hardly worth bringing it up. Universal causal necessity/inevitability makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It never changes anything. It is like a background constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

        The rational mind simply acknowledges it, and then forgets it.

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      5. “It does not occur to them that all of the events, including each thought and feeling that they experienced during the choosing operation, was causally necessary from any prior point eternity.”

        Right, since their background assumption, as Nadelhoffer et al show, as well as many conversations I’ve had with regular folks, is that they don’t suppose choices are causally necessitated. They think they might have done otherwise even given the exact situation.

        “But, then again, this is always true of every event, so it is hardly worth bringing it up.”

        It’s worth bringing up since most folks don’t understand or accept this truth. For some reason you suppose most folks are determinists, but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. When people see they don’t have contra-causal free will, that can, as the article illustrates, help reduce feelings of shame and self-blame: “In understanding the unlikelihood of having done otherwise, I drew myself closer to self-acceptance.”

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      6. Another name for causal necessity is “history”. People are familiar with history. They understand that a person’s character and personality are the result of the influences of their parents, teachers, and peers, and how they have personally dealt with those influences.

        If they take a course in sociology or psychology, they will learn more about themselves and others than they ever would from the notion of causal necessity.

        Causal necessity makes no difference. Every event that ever happens, from the motions of the planets to the thoughts going through your head right now, was causally necessary from any prior point in eternity. While that sounds ominous, the correct response to that logical fact is, “So what?”

        All of the utility of the notion of cause and effect comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. The knowledge that a virus causes Covid-19 and that the immune system can be primed to fight that virus by vaccination has given us some control over it.

        But all that causal necessity can tell us is that it was inevitable that the virus would appear and inevitable that we would come up with the vaccine. Causal necessity doesn’t tell us the cause or the cure. It tells us nothing more than Doris Day did when she sang, “Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.” And that’s pretty useless information.

        The implications that the hard determinist would have us draw from the logical fact of universal causal necessity/inevitability are generally false.

        Let’s take a closer look at this one: “When people see they don’t have contra-causal free will, that can, as the article illustrates, help reduce feelings of shame and self-blame: “In understanding the unlikelihood of having done otherwise, I drew myself closer to self-acceptance.” ”

        It was not really the notion of determinism or the disbelief in free will that released him from feelings of shame and self-blame. It was the realization that he was a child, with no control over the situation, that released him from shame and self-blame.

        In the hands of the hard determinist, they would attempt to convince him that he never had any control over anything in his past. And, if they are consistent in their message, they would also have him believe that he will likewise have no control over anything in his future. And that is the problem when we draw false implications from the notion of causal necessity.

        If causal necessity is used to excuse one thing, then it must excuse all things. If it excuses the thief who stole your wallet, then it also excuses the judge who cuts off his hand. The idea that causal necessity would somehow make us all kinder and gentler and more just, is a myth. It is only true if you believe it is true and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it remains a false conclusion.

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      7. “Every event that ever happens, from the motions of the planets to the thoughts going through your head right now, was causally necessary from any prior point in eternity. While that sounds ominous, the correct response to that logical fact is, “So what?””

        Yes, this Dennett’s response as well in Elbow Room. But the “so what” is that since most folks are libertarians, they need to be disabused of belief in contra-causal free will in order to get them closer to truth, become more compassionate, and access more control.

        “All of the utility of the notion of cause and effect comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. ”

        Quite right, which is why it’s critical to get people on board about determinism. Thinking that they might have done otherwise in actual situations deflects their attention from the actual causes in play. So they lose the control that would otherwise follow from knowing the causes.

        “It was not really the notion of determinism or the disbelief in free will that released him from feelings of shame and self-blame. It was the realization that he was a child, with no control over the situation, that released him from shame and self-blame.”

        It was the realization that he couldn’t have done otherwise in that situation that released him, according to what he says. Not sure why you don’t accept his account.

        “In the hands of the hard determinist, they would attempt to convince him that he never had any control over anything in his past. And, if they are consistent in their message, they would also have him believe that he will likewise have no control over anything in his future.”

        Not so. The determinist needn’t deny the reality of agential control – I don’t at any rate, see https://naturalism.org/philosophy/free-will/dont-forget-about-me As you yourself say, control requires a reliable causal connection between motive, intention and action.

        “If causal necessity is used to excuse one thing, then it must excuse all things.”

        But it isn’t an excuse, rather an explanation in terms of what caused the behavior in question, as you agree. See the section on “Preserving accountability” in my paper in Neuroethics: https://naturalism.org/applied-naturalism/behavioral-health/addiction-and-drugs/determinism-and-destigmatization-mitigating-blame-for-addiction

        “The idea that causal necessity would somehow make us all kinder and gentler and more just, is a myth.”

        Actually, there’s evidence that presenting determinism mitigates retributive responses, see:

        Shariff, Azim F., Joshua Green, Johan C. Karremans, Jamie B. Liguri et al. 2014. Free will and punishment: a mechanistic view of human nature reduces retribution. Psychological Science 25: 1563–1570. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614534693.

        Clark, Cory J., Jamie B. Luguri, Peter H. Ditto, Joshua Knobe, et al. 2014. Free to punish: a motivated account of free will belief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 106(4): 501–513. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035880.

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      8. You say, “Yes, this Dennett’s response as well in Elbow Room. But the “so what” is that since most folks are libertarians, they need to be disabused of belief in contra-causal free will in order to get them closer to truth, become more compassionate, and access more control.”

        The truth is that causation and determinism are concepts. They are not forces. Causation never causes anything and determinism never determines anything. They are descriptive, not causative.

        Free will is never seen as contra-causal until someone tries to convince us that it is causation, and not us, that is doing the choosing. When we insist that we objectively observe ourselves and others making choices, they insist that it is not us, but something else doing the choosing for us. But that is a not the truth. It is a delusional view of causation.

        The presumption that we will “become more compassionate” if we abandon the notion of free will is way off the mark. There is no logical connection between the two. But, if you believe it is true, then it may work for you, just like a placebo.

        It is not necessary to abandon free will in order to understand that a person’s behavior may be the result of things that were beyond their control. The causes of behavior and the influence of society and subcultures are best studied in psychology and sociology courses, not in philosophy classes. The actual causes, the truth of the matter, is found in the sciences, not in abstractions.

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      9. Tom, I meant to include a couple of research papers on how most ordinary people (those who have not been infected with the philosophical paradox) view the notion of free will.
        The first is called, “Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions about Free Will and Moral Responsibility” by Eddy Nahmias, Stephen Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Jason Turner. It is located at http://www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrary/nahmias.pdf

        The second is called, “From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk
        Concept of Free Will” by Andrew E. Monroe & Bertram F. Malle. It is located at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13164-009-0010-7

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  2. I don’t believe that the notion of free will causes the problem. You were frustrated by an intolerable situation that you did not know how to fix. The adults in the house were also unable to resolve the problem. But a social or psychological counselor could have offered services to resolve the family issues. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it may also take a community to help a family in trouble. The political problem is how to organize resources so that family issues can be detected and assistance provided. As a child you had free will, but you had neither the tools nor the help you needed to address the problem.

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