Free Will, the Soul, and Self Actualization

I was thinking today about whether it’s possible for us to live in a world where humanity, and more specifically, individual people, consistently actualize their potentialities as human beings. Where people strive to live the best life they can lead. I began by thinking about the differences between people who resign themselves to their circumstances and those who actively work in their environment to bring their goals to fruition.

From the perspective of those who see themselves as victims of their circumstances there are a couple of broad classes. There are those who are religious and espouse some version of “it’s God’s will that these things should happen”. Others take a less religious, yet still spiritual or supernatural point of view, “the universe has a purpose,” or “everything happens for a reason”. And sometimes it’s more of a secular personal resignation, “What am I supposed to do?” and any myriad of excuses and explanations are offered as reasons. This is literally the ‘victim of circumstances’ approach. It is an inability to act, for whatever reason.

There are some interesting things to say about where these different points of view come from, and what their purpose is (i.e. – why the one espousing them takes that stance). Are they using these explanations as an excuse to not take control? Or do they really believe the ideas? And the statements are simply ways of coping with these facts. Of course aspects of both ideas are important for all of us. We all need to understand we can take an active role in bringing about the character of our lives, while accepting that certain events are outside of our control. But I’m actually interested in a different aspect of this problem (at the moment).

What I’m curious about is the relationship between the idea of ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self actualization’. What is the difference between someone who is passive and acts as a victim of their circumstances, and someone who takes the initiative to make some sort of change in their lives? If you’ve read this blog before, you’re likely anticipating some reference to free will here, and you’re right! There are a few broad views of free will, and each would answer this question differently. One would say that all decisions are equally free and those that take initiative and actualize are better people, engaging in personal responsibility, and making a free choice. Those who don’t are lazy (I’ve oversimplified, I know).

Another view might say that all of us have the inherent nature to be a victim of circumstances…that our psychology is such that we tend towards these deterministic ways of behaving, but that we all also have within us the ability to rise above that, use our free will, and actualize. My view of behavior would say that even the choice to take personal responsibility has a deterministic causal relationship, and is thus not “free” in the normal connotation with which we use “free will”. And as I’ve mentioned before, I think it’s these causal questions that are the real important ones for us to address, not the free will one. What I find important is understanding what is going on psychologically, neurophyisologically, that bars a person from reaching their potential.

The free will label isn’t significant in addressing these problems. But I realized that to a certain degree it is, in the role that it continues to play in our understanding of behavior even after naïve notions of it have been discarded. As I mention above, there are a large class of people who react to passivity and an inability to rise above your circumstances as a case of the person not wanting to or not trying hard enough. As if the decision is within reach…you just have to do it. Whether it has to do with putting yourself through school, being persistent in the face of rejection, rising to the challenge, etc…a common reaction is, “Well, look at all these other people who did try and work hard and accomplished such and such, why can’t you just do that?” We can often compare people who grew up in extremely similar circumstances even, and see a drastic difference in life decisions. This notion that a decision “could have” been made differently often causes us not to see the need for some of the types of interacting that I often argue are necessary.

This is pervasive in society. Depression is a great example. People often view depression in this light, like the person who is suffering from depression just needs to think differently, and they’ll be fine (okay…sure, but how to accomplish the thinking differently is the question). Depression is not something you choose to be in, depression is a neurophysiological problem that needs to be addressed. And even with all the knowledge we have about this from the cognitive sciences, this particular issue is even now still contentious. The “it’s all in the head” answer I call it. Of course…everything is in the head, but mental states are realized by physical states. Any mental problem has a physical correlate, or stems from a physiological dysfunction. Physical processes have to follow certain physical laws. So how can you just decide to think differently? What is this “you” that can make this decision separate and distinct from the physical processes going on in the brain?

We would never say that a schizophrenic or someone with down syndrome could just think their way of their conditions. We would say, of course, their problems are “physical”, but what is so different about a person who won’t take responsibility for their choices and their lives? That behavior is based on their psychology, which is based on their neurophysiology. It is a “physical” problem at root.

The point I’m attempting to get at with all these points is that I wonder how much the role of the idea of an immaterial soul plays in these debates. Possibly not even explicitly. Many who would deny the existence of a soul still often implicitly discuss things around the framework of a non-physical, free willed “you” that makes choices and decisions. If you have this immaterial and intrinsic you, something that is separate from the body, then what is stopping a soul, or you, from just making the right choice? We’re back to personal responsibility existing in a vacuum. When you take the perspective of this framework, then it is these entities that make decisions, freely. The soul can choose to act or not to act, so why should we have sympathy for those that choose not to? But everything we’ve learned about human behavior and cognition, everything we know from neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology, behavioral economics, and the like…really constrains the free uncaused nature of our mental lives and behavior. I don’t even necessarily think you have to give up your belief in a soul (if you have one) to accept the role these sciences play in describing and explaining human behavior (otherwise brain damage could never affect the behavior or personality of the brain damaged).

I find it striking that even people who have some working knowledge of many of the ideas coming out of these fields still continue to engage in the conversation as though those ideas aren’t relevant to certain types of choices. This is why I question whether there is another reason at play here, because until people not only have a better appreciation for these nuances of human cognition, but also those same ideas are truly internalized, we will continue to have broad ranging disagreements about how to deal with certain behaviors, about what is possible for people to accomplish, and the role that government, society, and all of us as individuals can or should play in helping people engage in these processes. The knowledge that these sciences have to offer about human behavior is out there, but how that knowledge should integrate into our personal and societal interactions isn’t always so clear. On one extreme is the class of people who would just as well disregard these facts. On the other extreme are people who acknowledge these facts and believe the inquiry stops there. I would argue that both miss the ways in which we can best interact to allow individuals to overcome psychological obstacles to behaving and living their lives in the best way possible.