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Freedom, Responsibility,
and Therapy

Overview

What is it about?

Mounting evidence suggests that a belief in free will is associated with numerous positive outcomes for human mental health and behaviours. Yet little is known about why the theme of freedom has such a significant impact on us. This book explores the role of different freedom-related concepts (such as free will and responsibility) in our mental well-being and psychotherapy. 

The book tackles both theoretical and practical questions:

  • How can psychotherapy help us to become freer individuals? Or can it?

  • Is taking responsibility for our actions important for our mental health?

  • If free will doesn't actually exist, what are the implications for psychotherapy? For example, can therapists continue encouraging their clients to take responsibility for their actions? Or should we just point out that people do what they are determined to do and could not have acted otherwise?

  • Is it possible to reconcile different counselling schools concerning free will?

Who is it for?

This book may be primarily of interest to philosophers, psychologists who study the theme of free will and behaviour, psychotherapists, and students.

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Caution

  • Before buying this book, please take note that this is an academic and philosophical work. The style of writing, for example, differs from the one that you can find in The Pyramid Mind, which is written for the general audience. I just don't want you to spend money on the product that you may not need (academic books are not the cheapest). So, before spending your money, I recommend you to download a free chapter first and to see whether it is something that you actually find interesting to read. Subscribe to my newsletter, and I will immediately send you a free chapter.

  • It is one of those philosophical subjects that can make you think hard and feel depressed as a result. So, be careful. For more details, read 'A story behind the book' below.

A Story Behind the Book

Born to Be Free:

Or how I had a gloomy life without free will
 

 

Suppose there is no free will, it is an illusion. In fact, it is what many researchers argue for nowadays. Imagine that tomorrow scientists and politicians jointly announce: ‘Human beings don’t have free will!’ Can we still feel well if faced with this reality? Will you be all right? Well, I could not, to tell the truth.

This story started when I was a first year PhD student in philosophy. Having background in psychology, I wanted to do research on personality and psychotherapy. My research supervisors suggested to focus on free will, as it was both a significant philosophical problem and one of the components of personality theory. It sounded like a good idea. It was a brand-new subject for me; I did not have any fixed beliefs concerning free will; and therefore, I thought that I could approach the subject unbiased. 

The first months were marked with the literature research. The goal was to master the subject, and I did nothing but read and learn the arguments. But after a while I noticed some unexpected change in my mood. Surprisingly, I started having the blues during the days, and it had been lasting for a few weeks already. It was very odd, as it was not a common state for me, and nothing bad seemed to have happened lately. Just normal routine days.

But something did happen, as a matter of fact, that went unnoticed and unannounced. Following some self-analysis, I detected an automatic thought crossing my mind with unflinching regularity, whispering in my ear: “There is no free will…”

It all boiled down to one curious conclusion: at some point of my research, I bought an argument that there was no free will. Though I initially thought that I did not have any firm beliefs concerning free will, it proved that I did have an implicit belief in free will after all. It was lurking somewhere in the shadows of my unconscious mind. And it turned out that it was a core belief, mattering a lot for me. But now it was shaken or even cast aside.

I later found out that it was not just me being so sensitive. It is now vastly documented that weakening the belief in free will predicts various negative outcomes for our mental well-being, such as decrease in the sense of agency, meaning of life, life satisfaction, prosocial behaviour, to name just a few.

Naturally, I wanted to bring my mood back to normal. It seemed ridiculous to be so affected by some ostensibly abstract philosophical question. Some of my mates were practicing therapists, and I decided to share this story with them. One thought that bothered me the most was that life might be sort of a movie. The script is already written. The universe already knows how your life will unfold: what will happen tomorrow or in ten years, and how it will end eventually. And your life is already directed. But the director is not you but some external force (be it laws of nature, God, karma, or something else), and you appear to be a blind puppet in someone’s play.

But expectedly free will is not something that therapists are used to dealing with. It is common when a client says, “Well, I feel miserable, because nobody loves me”, but it is quite unusual to hear a phrase, “You know, mates, I feel bad, because it looks like we do not have free will”. Many of my fellow therapists with whom I talked proved to know very little of what free will actually is. To be fair, even not all philosophy professors are well versed in all nuances of the free will debate, as the subject is extremely huge and very intricate.

Topping it all off, we had little idea of what to do with the side-effects of disbelief in free will. The situation was complicated by the fact that my disbelief was rooted not in my own irrational logic, as so often happens in therapy, but in some robust philosophical arguments skilfully developed by some of the brightest thinkers ever lived. When it is a logic of an ordinary person, it is relatively easy to spot weaknesses in his or her conclusions and to challenge them. But when you deal with the logic of professional philosophers, who are trained to build sound and compelling arguments, challenging those arguments is not a piece of cake for sure.

On the whole, it all looked like a comedy drama TV-show when a philosopher comes along frustrated by some metaphysical issue, and a therapist has little clue what to do with that. The only thing that could have made this funnier was if the therapist had become messed up as well after this talk.

It is not unusual for therapy to discuss existential questions, such as search for meaning in life, for example. But it turned out that there was very little literature on free will and sanity, let alone therapy. At most, there were some brief and theoretical comments but no practical recommendations. Some authors do write from time to time that our society could survive without the belief in free will, that we would be just fine. Though I found many ideas appealing, regrettably my feeling of the situation did not improve.

A little spoiler: I did get better on my own shortly afterwards. It has to do with the fact that I happened to rehabilitate my belief in free will, though with some considerable revisions. As my research continued, I eventually arrived at some moderate view, as it seems to me. Even if there is no ultimate freedom, there are still many important senses of freedom that can be acquired and developed.

In Freedom, Responsibility, and Therapy, I shed some light on the role of free will in our mental health and psychotherapy. It is not a memoir but a philosophical work, intending to explain some complicated philosophical ideas clearly and also provide some practical recommendations to mental health professionals.

Partly, this story was meant to reveal some personal motivation behind this work. But it also aimed to show that free will is not just another abstract question that philosophers idly think about, but it is the one that has substantial practical implications for our daily life. Not least the life without free will might bring lots of people down on a couch.

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