Monday 24 January 2022

Do We Have Free Will?

by Jeremy Dyer *

Seneccio, by Paul Klee, 1922
The psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl wrote: ‘Psychoanalysis unmasks neurosis, and behaviourism demythologizes neurosis.’ This article was inspired by his thoughts in his 1978 book, The Unheard Cry for Meaning.

Psychological therapy—the classic ‘talking cure’—assumes the mechanics of unconscious motivation: childhood trauma and conditioning, subconscious conflicts and neuroses. These mechanics simply have to be unpacked, understood and exposed for an automatic cure. And in many cases, this works.

Behavioural therapy—classic ‘fake it till you make it’—assumes that functional behavior can overrule internal ills. Thus exercising at the gym cures depression. And in many cases, this also works! Additionally, it reveals that much uncovering ‘subconscious motivation’ is merely a waste of time.

Thus a blend—enter Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)—is ideal, right?


Both views, psychoanalytic and behavioural, are reductionist. They assume that we are a type of machine that can be broken down into parts, understood, and then rebuilt in a better way. Not all problems are due to childhood trauma, nor is behaviour modification the solution to all ills. We are far more than a complex machine, much more than advanced rats.

Both of the above, depersonalising, reductionist views of the individual—‘imprintings’ in the mindware—have logical solutions. Any particular lens of diagnosis implies the cure from that viewpoint.

But people are not entirely the slave of their history and upbringing - they can think and act for themselves, against the flow if they so decide. In defying our ‘programming’, in fact, we become uniquely alive. We are not all sheeple; predictable and controllable, like good soldiers and office workers.

No. The history of the world consists of the outliers, those who have broken the mould. Thrown off the conditioning, and rebelled. All progress depends on the ‘unreasonable man’, the playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw famously said; the one who breaks the mould, comes up with their own original ideas like Spartacus, Mahatma Gandhi, Virginia Woolf, Mao Zedung, Rosa Parks, Salvador Dali—people who think and act for themselves. History records many, hero and villain alike.

Viktor Frankl held that the true purpose of psychological intervention is to create a new meaning of life. What he decidedly means is the process of examining the meaning of one’s life and, intrinsically, how to come to terms with one’s difficulties. This method is not limited to a certified expert, but can be anyone or anything which truly inspires and motivates one, be it spiritually or financially. Change is the goal, to move past ‘stuckness’.

Frankl wrote, “Many people in good jobs are successful but want to kill themselves.” One university survey of students who had attempted suicide and also ‘found life meaningless’ revealed that the majority of these students were engaged socially, performing well academically, and on good terms with their family.

The desire for meaning, the awareness of the pain of living, is not a psychological dysfunction but a part of who we fundamentally are. In other words, to feel despair is entirely rational. It is the painful personal condition itself that we must engage, to become our authentic, unique self. The only solution to the experienced horror of a meaningless life is to try to make sense of it with full engagement. The exact same process that is force-fed the addict in rehab. Confronting the horror of ones existence.

We have ‘agency’ and volition, self-observation, meta-cognition, the will to act… Will to meaning is the universal, teleological survival-drive that is built into us all. If this dies, we die.

Everyone is bored with the media-driven, ideological clones. Be who you are, become more who you truly are: fascinatingly unique.

* Jeremy Dyer is a psychologist and artist.


docmartincohen said...

I found this piece rather too much in praise of the Angry Individual - the Nietzschean Superman. Take this claim, for example, admittedly offered in the form of a quotation: "All progress depends on the ‘unreasonable man’". I think there's a good argument for saying that progress actually is built out of social life and co-operation. Even the iconoclastic artist benefits from the farmer planting grain and the baker turning it into bread. But such people disappear in essays like this. Is there not a hint of hubris - even elitism in the theory?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

May Viktor Frankl not be unfashionable today, for the reason that he could be perceived as guilt-inducing, or blame-inducing? One presumes that the mechanics of unconscious motivation, as the author puts it, do not induce guilt, nor does behavioural therapy. The author writes that these approaches ‘depersonalise’ counselees. Yet what are the consequences of personalising them? The author would seem to be fairly clear: personal responsibility for suicide, and by implication, personal responsibility of others. I’d be interested how he reponds to this.

Jayman said...

Docmartin I agree with you. Progress in SOME areas is by trailblazers and renegades, and probably much more is achieved through co-operation. I think in the realm of ideas we all need challenge, and in the realm of everyday life we need co-operation.

Jayman said...

Thomas, I think the buck, philosophically and practically, stops with the choices of the idividual. And furthermore, because of this, the ideas of Dr Frankl are more relevant than ever today, when it is fashionable to escape responsibility by shifting it onto society, parents, trauma, history, etc. The life experience of any person reinforces this glaringly undeniable, self-evident truth of personal volition of us humans. We can choose to be who we wish to be, and decide to behave as we choose, despite adverse conditioning and circumstances.

Keith said...

Rarely do people think expressly in such existentially grand terms as the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of their lives. They are not tormented by life-spanning doubt. They live out their lives, I would argue, without pondering what life writ large is about or what life-defining purpose they have. They experience no festering conflict over the ‘will to meaning’. There is no ‘universal, teleological survival-drive’ built into everyone. These majority people simply just are, unconflicted by gnawing qualms or skepticism and unperturbed by life’s mysteries. In these cases, life isn’t framed around being or not being ‘fascinatingly unique’. In my view, there’s nothing wrong with, or insufficient about, any of that.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

One would assume that, under normal circumstances, people would not require professional help in connection with mental health. According to the CDC, in 2019, 19.2% of U.S. adults received mental health treatment in the past 12 months—which is close to 1 in 5.

You comment, ‘These majority people simply just are, unconflicted by gnawing qualms or skepticism and unperturbed by life’s mysteries.’ Might this not seem dismissive towards a very big problem?

I am a veteran counsellor. I once estimated that, in a larger-than-average Church, I counselled one-third of those there. This was not ‘professional help’, although I am professionally trained. In other words, the need may be greater than one-third. Seldom if ever were the problems small.

The causes of (contemplated or attempted) suicide, as one of the problems encountered in therapy, are often unrevealing. For example, a reason for suicide is previous suicide attempts. But take Jeff Eamer in Psychology Today, July 30, 2021. ‘As a Suicide Prevention Counselor, the common themes with nearly all my callers ... They had lost sight of any meaning or purpose in their lives.’

This raises the question, how may that be restored? I am not convinced that I found it in this post.

Jayman said...

Keith, actually I fully agree with you. Both mindsets exist, but what you describe is undoubtedly far more common. What I tend to write about is for those who are perplexed about their meaning. On the other hand, ordinary folk do sometimes have existential concerns (eg in a moment of crisis) or have an unexamined, implicit belief-system.

Unknown said...

Great article,Jeremy -- good,sensible, rational food for thought...

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