by Alexander Anghelou
Does free will exist? Philosophers have struggled with this question that has enormous implications for centuries. Determinists claim that choice is an illusion and that we are predetermined to do the things the way we do.
We are born with a temperament in an environment that shapes us with our experiences into who we are. When faced with a decision, we can identify different options, but in reality most options are automatically eliminated as they would be out of character. Therefore, we end up ‘choosing’ the idiosyncratic option. So is everything predefined then? The perspective I will use to approach this question comes from practicing cognitive behavior therapy. I believe that people are coherent and consistent in their way of being. People get extremely uncomfortable when they behave in a way that is inconsistent with who they are. This means that they have the tendency to be predictable and to live in a deterministic world. I will illustrate this through two real life examples.
Julia has a history of being physically abused by her partner. One day, after building up the courage to leave her partner she breaks up with him. Her family and friends are happy and relieved that this relationship is finally over. Eventually, she starts to date new potential partners. One candidate is respectful, kind and attentive while the other is critical, dominant and verbally abusive. At this point, if someone were to ask her if she values being treated well by her partner, she would respond by saying ‘of course I do.’ When looking at her behavior, one would rapidly notice that she tends to sabotage her relationship with the ‘nice guy’ as she falls back into the relationship that looks more or less the same as the old abusive relationship she had left. This pattern can be noticed many times in her life and she can even see and feel stuck in this devastating loop.
Why does this happen? Our brain is a neural network which can be seen as interconnected representations that define our world or perception. We can call it our belief system. This belief system a bit like language opens or creates a world but also limits and constrains it. If one was to define themselves as vulnerable and people as hostile and abusive, then they would ‘set the stage’ so as to confirm their beliefs which would allow them to be coherent and consistent regardless of whether they enjoy being that way. It is this need to be coherent and consistent that makes us predictable and deterministic.
A concept I call the ‘Parasite Belief’ explains the logic behind our behavior. Beliefs are fed, strengthened and grown by confirming themselves in our daily life. A parasite belief is an association or statement that defines something in a dysfunctional way which effects and determines one’s behavior in a negative way. The problem with having a parasite belief is that when having a belief, we develop a positive bias to it which leads us to selectively attending situations that confirm it and to omit situations that don’t confirm it.
This allows us to avoid a conflict between belief and situation which would make us feel incoherent and uncomfortable. For example, a man develops the parasite belief ‘I am sick.’ After having had a period of fatigue and little non-life threatening illnesses, Joe comes to the conclusion that ‘he is a weak and sickly person.’ This becomes a belief that defines Joe. This belief makes Joe feel scared and anxious. To deal with these emotions Joe does many medical check-ups whose results show that nothing is wrong with him. This is reassuring and offers immediate relief, but rapidly doubt reappears in the form of a thought that says ‘What if the doctors were unable to detect the life threatening illness that I probably have?’ Another coping strategy that Joe adopts is to be hyper vigilant and to monitor his body for any symptoms. This makes him notice and misinterpret body sensations as symptoms of illness which he elaborates by making worse case scenarios. In turn this generates physiological symptoms linked to anxiety that further confirm the idea that he is sick. Like a parasite, this belief feeds itself through confirmation.
The more the belief is fed the bigger and stronger it gets. This means that we become better at identifying or perceiving situations that confirm our belief and omit and disregard any evidence that goes against the parasite belief, therefore being coherent and consistent with our belief system.
Parasite beliefs can be created by experience but also through repetition from an external source and /or significant events that were lived vicariously.
So what about free will? Everything we do and experience is influenced by our belief system. So choosing Coca-Cola instead of Pepsi is not free will, it’s being consistent with who you are. In Europe, many people grew up being exposed to Coca-Cola and not to Pepsi. Therefore, they are in the habit of drinking Coca-Cola. Their belief is that a cola drink is ‘Coke‘ or Coca-Cola, and nothing else. This doesn’t mean that Coca-Cola is better; it just means that through experience this is what we know. We are comfortable with what we know and dislike what we don’t, even if it were to be better for us.
Let’s say you are used to drinking your coffee with three sugars. One day you decide that it would be better not to put sugar into your coffee, so you decide to stop. The first sugarless coffee would not be enjoyable, neither would the second but eventually you would get used to it and would find that putting sugar in coffee makes it undrinkable. Therefore, we can override our habits or way of doing things by actively going against them in a conscious and consistent way. This effort leads to change and the new way becomes the normal way.
Nevertheless, the decision to stop putting sugar in your coffee is based on the assumption that ‘it would be healthier not put sugar in your coffee’ should you have falsely believed that ‘adding three sugars to your coffee will extend your life by 20 years’ then making this change would not have been possible if you valued your life, unless the belief was changed. So, even what would appear as free will is still determined by our belief system.
The only way, I believe, free will can be reached is in the absence of any beliefs that would influence the decision. The reality is that every meaningful decision is influenced by many beliefs and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The good news is that becoming conscious of one’s beliefs and exposing and challenging them in a conscious and consistent way allows beliefs to become more robust and functional in our environment. We can change our beliefs breaking away from old patterns and creating new options to desired outcomes. So the fact that we can change means that everything is not pre-determined but that doesn’t mean that we have free will. The best case scenario is to be satisfied with who we are and therefore content about being true to ourselves or being determined by a belief system that we accept and agree with, knowing that changing is always possible.
Alexander Anghelou is a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist working in Brussels and London.