Am I in Control of My Own Thoughts?

How does the debate of free will vs. determinism tie into my own mental health?

This post is inspired by own interest in this historically philosophical debate. This debate has been a hot topic in several fields, such as ethics, law, biology, sociology, and several other subjects. For example, is it right and just to punish somebody who is not in control of their own actions whatsoever? This thought is the basis behind the court ruling of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Essentially, someone who is not in control of their own actions is not held as responsible as someone who chose to something evil when they could have chose otherwise.

Several arguments can be made in support of determinism. For example, several physiological processes occur in our bodies that tend to be unappreciated because we are not consciously aware of them. While these are regulated by the brain in some way, it is true that we cannot consciously choose how many times our heart will beat per minute, or how the antibodies of our immune system fight off a bacterial or viral infection.

But surely, the case can be made for free will as well. We have the power to choose some of the most important things in our lives, such as who we have relationships with, or what vocation we decide to pursue. We even have the power to choose whether we incorporate God into our lives or not. This is a decision that could have astronomical implications for the trajectory of anyone’s life!

So how is it that arguments can be made for both sides on free will vs. determinism. Isn’t it supposed to be one or the other?

My answer after years of intensive study into this subject is… Absolutely not! How so, you may ask? I can tell you this; it takes way more than a simple blog post to incorporate every viewpoint that should be considered. Even applying this debate to the context of mental health field is difficult to cover entirely, though I hope to at least provide some general insight into this.

Similar arguments can be made as the ones I made above for determinism and free will in the context of mental health. One condition that tends to be more deterministic in nature is tourette’s syndrome, which is a neurological disorder in which an individual has involuntary tics. Another is schizophrenia, in which an individual experiences visual and/or auditory hallucinations that are not in line with reality. Compulsive behaviors in general also tend to carry a deterministic connotation to them.

But free will also ties into even the most deterministic cases in nature. An individual, regardless of their condition, can choose whether or not to comply with a treatment plan, or to make necessary changes in their environment. In general, we also have the ability to choose positive thoughts over negative thoughts (though some individuals do have a diagnosable condition where this becomes very difficult for them to do so without the assistance of a biological treatment).

What this demonstrates is that free will and determinism is more of a spectrum, and not one or the other. In the case of mental health, It is very beneficial to know whether the condition is more deterministic in nature or if it leans on the side of free will. This way, an individual can be more informed about what treatment options are best for them and their situation. I would even make the case that biological treatments should not be the first line of addressing every person’s mental well-being. Though they are useful, especially in extreme cases, I firmly believe in an individual’s capacity to make decisions that positively influence their mental health. Therefore, I strongly believe in the power of psychological and sociological interventions for some cases.

Although this is probably where I should conclude for this post, I will continue to provide insights into this debate. My honors thesis on this topic will be completed before I graduate from Oregon State, and so my plan is to adapt this work into a book for you guys to read if you would like! It will be as informed as possible into this debate, and will also be more academic in nature,. Finally, it will incorporate theories from positive psychology in order to help individuals live more meaningful and fulfilling lives, as the father of positive psychology himself Marty Seligman studies. Thank you for reading, and I hope you all had a great weekend!

7 thoughts on “Am I in Control of My Own Thoughts?

  1. It sounds like your spectrum between determinism and freedom is an attempt to correctly locate the meaningful and relevant cause of the behavior. It is not a question of whether the behavior is caused or uncaused, but instead what the particular mechanism of causation involves.

    If the causal mechanism is rational thought, free of any significant interference by mental impairment or disease, then the cause is a freely chosen “I will” (free will). Because such choices are the result of the person’s own purpose, their own reasoning, and their own interests, we cannot say that the choice is uncaused.

    If rational thought is severely compromised, due to impaired ability to reason, or impaired perception of reality (hallucination, delusion), or an irresistible compulsion, then the person’s choice is primarily caused by those mechanisms, that require treatment to correct.

    And, of course, if the person is being coerced by someone holding a gun to their head, then the person holding the gun is the cause of the behavior.

    All three events are deterministic, in that in each case they are reliably caused. Free will, ironically, is a deterministic event.

    But then, since ALL events are deterministic, WHY bring it up? Reliable causation is never an issue, except to some confused philosophers. Universal causal inevitability makes itself irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It is like a constant appearing on both sides of every equation, and it can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

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    1. Really good points brought up here. I think ultimately, this is a very complicated debate that is currently beyond our understanding. But it is really interesting to incorporate several arguments from perspectives of many fields, including neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, etc.. Due to the complicated nature of the debate, there are several instances where an argument for free will can be made and can be flipped into a deterministic argument, and vice versa. To me, it is very important to understand how this works, which is basically what you demonstrate here. Thank you for sharing!

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      1. It’s more complicated than it needs to be. The most recent article on my website breaks down the paradox. But if you’re interested in the neuroscience, I’ve found a couple of excellent books: Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Mind” has a very good theory of consciousness; and Michael Gazzaniga’s “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain” covers a lot of experimental data, especially from the split-brain studies.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you for the resources. I hope to make the time to check these out. More perspectives are definitely preferred over fewer perspectives when it comes to something like free will vs. determinism. Thank you for reading!

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