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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

On Free Will


Growing up under the prescriptions of religiosity, I was taught the concept of free will—the ability to act at one’s own discretion. For instance, 1 Corinthians 10:23 states, “I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”


The separating factor between humans and angels was supposedly that the former had free will while the latter didn’t. However, this explanation didn’t account for how Satan and his demons were said to have chosen to stray from their heavenly position (Revelation 12:7-9).


Nevertheless, I was led to accept passages such as Deuteronomy 30:19 which states, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”


In any case, my upbringing under the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and subsequently the Church of Christ, later conflicted with other Judeo-Christian perspectives. In particular, the matter of determinism conflicted with my belief in free will. Of this, one source states:


Some conceive free will to be the capacity to make choices undetermined by past events. Determinism suggests that only one course of events is possible, which is inconsistent with a libertarian model of free will. Ancient Greek philosophy identified this issue, which remains a major focus of philosophical debate. The view that posits free will as incompatible with determinism is called incompatibilism and encompasses both metaphysical libertarianism (the claim that determinism is false and thus free will is at least possible) and hard determinism (the claim that determinism is true and thus free will is not possible). Another incompatibilist position is hard incompatibilism, which holds not only determinism but also indeterminism to be incompatible with free will and thus free will to be impossible whatever the case may be regarding determinism.


In contrast, compatibilists hold that free will is compatible with determinism. Some compatibilists even hold that determinism is necessary for free will, arguing that choice involves preference for one course of action over another, requiring a sense of how choices will turn out. Compatibilists thus consider the debate between libertarians and hard determinists over free will vs. determinism a false dilemma. Different compatibilists offer very different definitions of what “free will” means and consequently find different types of constraints to be relevant to the issue. Classical compatibilists considered free will nothing more than freedom of action, considering one free of will simply if, had one counterfactually wanted to do otherwise, one could have done otherwise without physical impediment. Many contemporary compatibilists instead identify free will as a psychological capacity, such as to direct one’s behavior in a way responsive to reason, and there are still further different conceptions of free will, each with their own concerns, sharing only the common feature of not finding the possibility of determinism a threat to the possibility of free will.


Far more complex was this matter than I’d been led to believe in my youth. Eventually, I settled on a compatibilist view of free will. Regarding this position, one source expands:


Compatibilists often define an instance of “free will” as one in which the agent had the freedom to act according to their own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” In other words, although an agent may often be free to act according to a motive, the nature of that motive is determined. This definition of free will does not rely on the truth or falsity of causal determinism. This view also makes free will close to autonomy, the ability to live according to one’s own rules, as opposed to being submitted to external domination.


Some compatibilists hold both causal determinism (all effects have causes) and logical determinism (the future is already determined) to be true. Thus statements about the future (e.g., “it will rain tomorrow”) are either true or false when spoken today. This compatibilist free will should not be understood as the ability to choose differently in an identical situation. A compatibilist may believe that a person can decide between several choices, but the choice is always determined by external factors. If the compatibilist says “I may visit tomorrow, or I may not”, he is saying that he does not know what he will choose—whether he will choose to follow the subconscious urge to go or not.


Given that I’m a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) practitioner, I challenge the notion of predestination in alignment with predeterminsim—the belief that all events, including human actions, are established or decided in advance. For instance, some sects of Christianity maintain that a deity essentially serves as a puppeteer for human beings rather than allowing for free will.


Nevertheless, I don’t inflexibly demand that others should, must, or ought to accept my worldview. Now, suppose I were to conclude that there’s no such thing as free will and that people are merely guided by spiritual or other metaphysical forces.


To maintain that view while advocating use of the ABC model and unconditional acceptance, the two core tenets of REBT, would be nonsensical. Whether or not one kissed someone on the face or shot the person in the face wouldn’t matter, because one supposedly had no free will to decide which course of action would be taken.


Why then would I advocate concepts such as personal agency or personal responsibility and accountability (collectively “personal ownership”)? Kiss or shoot, it wouldn’t matter. Obviously, this position takes an individual into the realm of nihilism, relativism, or even fatalism.


Although I can understand arguments against free will, I don’t value or use them in my personal or professional life. Even if my compatibilist perspective is wrong and there’s essentially no free will, I’d rather live as though I had choices which resulted in consequences than to act in entropic fashion—lacking order or gradually declining into disorder.


Noteworthy, REBT uses some concepts of existentialism and humanism. For context, suppose that there was no overarching theme or meaning to life. I maintain that humans have the ability to ascribe their own purpose and meaning in this relatively short existence on the Earth.


Both theologians and secularists may disagree with this proposal. All the same, my approach to REBT is predicated on the notion that: 1) Humans have free will. 2) Humans have personal agency and ownership regarding their reactions to events. 3) Humans are fallible and will never react perfectly.


This position is in alignment with Stoicism, which also influences the practice of REBT. Worth adding, one REBT source states:


REBT will not be effective until someone believes that they are an agent who has the free will to make significant shifts in thoughts, emotions and behaviors. While there are obviously some limits to the concept of free will and we cannot literality will ourselves to be whatever we want, the concept that there is room to change and improve is elementary to the system.


Addressing a limit to free will, in a blogpost entitled Circle of Concern I illustrated how each individual has constraints in regard to personal control by stating:


Suppose I encouraged you to stop your digestive processing, heart rate, blinking for a full day, breathing for a full hour, or growing hair through sheer will. It is unlikely most people would be able to control these processes.


Additionally, in a blog entry entitled The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path I highlighted how absolute logic and reason isn’t how the human mind functions. Arguably, other processes heavily influence how we behave.


As well, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky presents an interesting though not entirely convincing argument against free will. In one video, Sapolsky states:


Everybody thinks they’re seeing free will when we choose something. We’re consciously aware of doing it, we know what the consequences are likely to be. Most importantly, we know there’s alternatives available to us. And for most people that’s necessary and sufficient, there’s free will. And my whole point is that misses everything that’s going on, because you’re not asking the only important question, which is: How did you become this sort of person who would have that intent at that point?


And the answer is, because of the biology over which you had no control, interacting with the environment over which you had no control, stretching from one second ago to the moment you were a fertilized egg. And when you look at how that stuff works, there’s not a crack anywhere in which you insert sort of the everyday intuitive notion of free will.


Countering Sapolsky’s claim, a seperate source accurately suggests, “When you decide after careful deliberation that free will does not exist, you demonstrate that it does exist. That is the Sapolsky paradox.”


Still, one proposal I find convincing in regard to the neuroscientist’s work is what Sapolsky stated in a separate video:


I think in terms of free will, determinism – all of that, my feeling has always been there’s not a whole lot of free will out there. And if there is, it’s in the least interesting places and getting more sparse all the time. Now, there’s this whole new realm of neuroscience that I’ve been thinking about starting to do research on that throws in another element of things going on below the surface, affecting our behavior, and it’s got to do with this utterly bizarre world of parasites manipulating your behavior.


So, it turns out this is like not all that surprising, there’s all sorts of parasites out there. They get into an organism and what they need to do is parasite as the organism and increase the likelihood that they—the parasite—will be fruitful and multiply. And in some cases they could manipulate the behavior of the host. And some of these are pretty astounding.


This argument adds an additional element to the nature versus nurture debate. For instance, one’s genetic code which is passed down by relatives (nature) and an individual’s upbringing (nurture) may not fully explain a foreign environmental factor in adulthood such as a parasite that manipulates behavior.


This alternative element perceivably could influence one’s free will in regard to beliefs, decision-making, emotions, and behaviors. Worth noting, I addressed a similar external factor in a blogpost entitled TBI [traumatic brain injury].


Providing a personal anecdote, I illustrated how my own TBI history influences my ability – and sometimes inability – to effectively utilize REBT techniques. Of course, one could make a similar argument relating to a person’s influence from elicit substances.


In any case, I maintain that while there are exceptions to the free will argument, these are exceptions which prove the rule. Thus, I maintain that in general human beings have free will, are capable of demonstrating personal agency, and may take personal ownership for their reactions to events.


If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.


As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.


At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!



Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW





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