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Are You More Than Your Body? Free Will

Part 2: On making decisions without separating self from body.

In the first part of this post I argued that conflating your self with your body is a problem only if you conflate yourself with a body-as-object, e.g. an aesthetic object. Doing it properly, with a full appreciation of what it means to be absolutely nothing but flesh and blood and other tissue, is liberating as well as (and because) almost certainly true. I suggested that it’s actually impossible to objectify yourself if you consider that you are nothing more or less than your body, because the subject–object distinction is then void.

This means that a materialist (there is nothing but matter) perspective makes self-objectification impossible, whereas a dualist (mind is separate from matter) position allows for it and may even encourage it. This is perhaps surprising: it means, for example, that the pathology involved in a disorder like anorexia may be a systematic byproduct of spiritualist attitudes which reject materialism as a reductive rejection of human specialness.

If we’re asking whether philosophical positions can have an impact on health and illness, free will is the other obvious candidate. Did you choose to get ill? Can you choose to get better? If so, how? Even more so than with dualism, there are still plenty of philosophers and scientists who defend one version or other of freedom of will, and doubtless they’d be dismayed by my cursory treatment of the question here. But I think the essence of it is rather simple, and to me the essence of it is that there cannot be anything it means to pluck an undetermined decision out of a metaphysical vacuum.

And where do you go from here? The obvious next step is, OK, so universe is deterministic, and determinism is (in a common view, which I share) incompatible with free will. But then you remember that the universe also includes randomness effects, and by definition randomness (or stochasticity) makes things nondeterministic. But this doesn’t necessarily change a great deal. Instead of being able to say, if we knew the starting conditions in total detail we’d be able to predict everything that’s ever going to happen, with randomness in the picture we can say that if we knew the state of everything in the universe and knew the probability distribution of everything stochastic in the universe (e.g. the position of every electron), then we’d be able to predict the probability of everything that’s ever going to happen. The point is that neither in the deterministic parts of the universe nor in the stochastic ones is there any room for magic: for anything that is neither determined nor random.

And yet, just as I may very well talk dualistically about ‘listening to my body’, I also often use the terminology of effortful decision-making when I speak and write about how to make the choice to embark on recovery, and how to keep deciding to do the hard work of sustaining the recovery process over weeks and months and years. On the view I’ve just outlined, the decision to eat this breakfast or not will get made one way or another, and there is a predictable probability of both outcomes (depending on how complete our knowledge of the state of the universe is), and there was never any space for magic to intervene, even though for the average human being there was also no way of predicting with anything approaching certainty which way it would go. That said, despite this apparent divergence between theory and experience, I’ve also observed that on the evening that for me was the pivot from defence of illness to acceptance of the necessity of recovery, the overwhelming feeling was of being carried along by something greater than myself. Not wresting conviction from thin air, but realising that a decision had been building almost despite me, and all I had to do was surrender myself to its momentum. Sometimes maybe, at certain strange moments, the illusions cede a little.

It’s easy to assume that if you abandon the idea of psyching yourself up to act against anorexia (or whatever other ill), everything subsides into endless entropy. If you don’t make the effort to force the bowl of porridge to be eaten, it will remain untouched. If you don’t exert iron will every cold dark morning, you’ll never get out of bed. If you don’t resist your base instincts at every turn, you’ll ‘take up wholesale rape and pillage and knocking down old ladies just for fun’ (Claxton, 1986, p. 69). All these versions of the story about giving up free will – the story where doing so means giving up on there being anything good or dependable in life – are untrue. ‘The dreaded mayhem does not happen’ (Claxton). Yes, sure, it’s always possible to say, I can’t be bothered to eat this, I was never going to anyway – to cloak your inertia in a newfound philosophical disguise, and say that without free will there’s no point bothering, that in a universe without free will I may as well give up and freewheel my way to the grave. But that’s seeing only half the reality. The other half is recognising that all the agonising, all the uncertainty and second-guessing and gradual non-linear progression towards a decision – all this is part of what it means to live in a universe in which there is no freedom, except through blind chance, from anything that came before.

The whole history of the universe funnels down into the question of whether you are going to make this porridge with water or with full-fat undiminished milk. If you think you’re giving yourself a free pass to use the nasty tasteless nutrient-free water by saying it was all bound to happen this way, you’re 1) just doing yet another predictable thing you were bound to do, because you have anorexia and anorexia is nothing if not predictable as hell, and 2) ignoring the fact that there is no way out of the effort. Everything is part of the decision-making. There is no freedom to choose other than you were always (bar randomness) going to, but that means there’s also no freedom from engaging in the process. Yes you can ‘choose’ the watery slop version of porridge, but that condemns you to keep agonising tomorrow and the next day about whether you’re going to choose it again or go for something that actually tastes of something and does your body a bit more good. Yes you can also ‘choose’ the version with flavour and nutrients instead, and that condemns you to unease, and then to more of it, if you choose it again, and then to a greater cognitive capacity to make more life-enhancing decisions like this in future, if enhancing your life keeps seeming like the right course of action for you. The point is, there is no cop-out. There is nothing but all of this stuff playing itself out, endlessly. You can pretend to play puppet-master if you like, but you are nothing but flesh and cells, doing over and over what they so near-magically do.

If you feel fated to remain ill for the rest of your life, that feeling is as optional and non-optional as the knowledge that you can throw off these shackles, starting tomorrow morning with a substantial fry-up. You can make either of them the excuse or the reason for how things turned out, but that too was always going to happen, or not. And because determinism-plus-stochasticity is so very far removed from usable day-to-day predictability, your future is still a mystery. And so you may as well embrace the endless processes, make the effort, know that making the effort had to happen (because anorexia is so rubbish), know that me writing and you reading this post had to happen – or else not. But whatever you do, don’t kid yourself that in a non-magical universe, effort is any less inevitable than sitting back and seeing what happens. There is in fact no distinction between the two.

So maybe, despite all the obviously fitting-seeming rhetoric of screwing one’s courage to the sticking point, which seems to point in the opposite direction from the acceptance of a non-dualist, non-magical reality, actually maybe in both cases it turns out the same. If you deviate from the conventional wisdoms that tell us we have to make lots of morally concerted effort to escape the shackles of the material and assert our fundamentally free humanity, and instead choose the route in which there’s nothing but the material, maybe that’s when it works. Maybe what seems like the safe route – making sure I keep control over myself, otherwise what on earth might happen? – turns out to be the route that creates the dangers: condemning me to a lifetime of misguided division of my self into warring factions. Maybe what seems like the hard route – the rejection of all the comforting untruths that humans have created for millennia to shield us from the brutality of there being no point and no plan and no pre-created value to our existence and nothing but this mortal matter right here, oh so briefly – maybe that actually turns out to be the easy route. Maybe it’s the one along which you can finally let go of the illusions, and the illness they breed and are bred by.

I don’t mean to make all this sound too rarefied. It isn’t. It’s a rejection of rarefication, if that’s a word. It’s saying get the hell on with eating this bowl of custard, because there is nothing else to be done. It’s compatible with the apparently most successful treatment for eating disorders (Södersten et al., 2017), the resolutely behaviourist Mando method: on their model, ‘all’ you have to do to get better is normalise your eating behaviours, and on a dualist model, that makes no sense, because it ignores all the complicated non-physical non-behavioural significance of you. But on a materialist view, there’s no category distinction between the eating of the custard and the fear of eating the custard and the longing to eat the custard and the anabolic cell generation the custard-eating initiates and the running upstairs the custard-eating naturally encourages, because all of it gives all of you the energy to want to take the steps two at a time. It’s all part of the same stuff. From the earth you flowed and will return.

Eating the thing you know you need, and allowing the next section of the causal thread to unspool itself, is all you need to do. And it may help, in all kinds of contexts, to remember that allowing means nothing more than accepting. Resist the simplicity if you will, but entertain at least the possibility that when you pretend there is more than this, you, here, and that there is anything else to be done, meaningful sustainable habit change becomes less not more probable.


Claxton, G. (1986). The light’s on but there’s nobody home: The psychology of no-self. In G. Claxton (Ed.), Beyond therapy: The impact of Eastern religions on psychological theory and practice (pp. 49–70). London: Wisdom.

Södersten, P., Bergh, C., Leon, M., Brodin, U., & Zandian, M. (2017). Cognitive behavior therapy for eating disorders versus normalization of eating behavior. Physiology & Behavior, 174, 178-190. Open-access full text here.