How Free Are You? As Free as You Decide to Be

You aren't completely controlled by your genes, your brain, or your environment.

Posted Dec 07, 2013

One of the main themes of modern intellectual approaches has been to take away autonomy and freedom from human beings. From sociology to philosophy, from psychology to neuroscience, a common theme has been to try to show that human freedom or ‘free will’ is limited or non-existent, and that we have much less control over our own lives as we like to believe.

In psychology, this was one of the central beliefs of behaviourism. You might feel as if you are a free human being, making your own decisions and choices, but in reality everything you do, or think or feel, is the result of environmental influences. Your behaviour is just the ‘output’ or response to the ‘input’ or stimuli which you have absorbed. Freudian psychology also emphasized a lack of free will. It suggested that the conscious self is just one small facet of the whole psyche - the tip of the iceberg - and that its activity is determined by the unconscious mind, including instinctive and biological drives.

Meanwhile, in sociology, theorists argued that your sense of self is a ‘social construction’, and that it is impossible for identity - and by extension, free will - to exist outside a nexus of social influences that determine our lives. Linguistic theorists argued that our reality is created by language, and that we cannot see the world outside the framework of the semantic and grammatical structures we have absorbed from our parents and our cultures.

Humanistic psychology attempted to reclaim the self, insisting that we do have free will, and have the power to change our lives for the better and to move towards self-actualisation. The modern Positive Psychology movement - derived from humanistic psychology - emphasizes the same points. 

Gene Theory and Neuroscience

However, modern gene theory and neuroscience deny autonomy and freedom in a much more direct way. According to gene theorists, we exists as ‘carriers’ for our genes, to enable them to survive and replicate themselves. Everything we do is determined by or on behalf of our genes. Our behaviour is either the result of ‘leftover’ traits which were developed by our ancestors because they provided some survival advantage, or the result of our desire to increase our reproductive success. For example, according to Steven Pinker, the reason why we find lush countryside landscapes beautiful is because to us that represented a plentiful supply of resources to foster survival. While the reason why some of us feel ‘driven’ to gain success in fields like politics and creativity is because success makes us more attractive to the opposite sex, and so increases our reproductive possibilities.

In terms of neuroscience, brain activity - or neuronal networks and brain chemicals - play a similar causal role to genes. Your moods, your desires and your behaviour are determined by the levels of various brain chemicals (such as serotonin or dopamine) or by ‘neuronal networks’ which may predispose you to certain impulses or traits. If you feel depressed, it’s because of a low level of serotonin. If you are a psychopathic, it’s because areas of your ventromedial prefrontal cortex are less active than normal. If you are a born again Christian, it’s because you have a smaller than normal hippocampus (the latter two are actual theories which have been suggested.)

Both gene theory and neuroscience are what might be called ‘can’t help’ approaches. We ‘can’t help’ being depressive, psychopathic, religious, racist, polygamous (if you are a male) and so forth, because our genes have programmed us to be, or because we are biologically burdened with the brain chemistry associated with that behaviour.

One is tempted to reply to these assaults on self and free will in the same way that the 18th century author Doctor Johnson responded to the philosopher Berkeley’s claims that matter did not really exist. ‘I refute it thus!’ he shouted, as he kicked a stone. Doctor Johnson could have used the same method to illustrate the capacity for free will. It’s difficult for any philosopher or scientist to argue that we don’t have free will, when our everyday experience is that there are always a variety of possible choices of action in front of us - like a pack of cards spread for us to pick - and we feel we have the freedom to choose any of them, and to change our minds at any point. After all, whenever you read a book or listen to a lecture claiming that there is no such thing as free will, you’re always free to close the book, or to throw a tomato at the lecturer.

One of the problems is that scientists and philosophers often tend towards absolutism. Gene theorists often argue that behaviour is completely determined by our genes, neuroscientists argue that behaviour is completely determined by brain activity, social constructionists and behaviourists argue that social and environmental forces completely determine our behaviour, and so forth. In my view, it’s much more sensible to be democratic than absolutist. It’s likely that all of these factors have some influence on our behaviour. They all affect us to some degree, but none of them are completely dominant. And I believe the same is true of free will. Our own free will is another force, amongst this chaotic coalition of different influences. The conscious self is certainly is not an authoritarian dictator, but it isn’t a slave either. No matter what social and environmental forces have influenced me, no matter what genes or brain structure I’ve inherited from my parents, I’m in here too, and I can decide whether to kick the stone or not. 

Increasing our Free Will and Autonomy

I would argue that one of the most important tasks of our lives is to develop more freedom and autonomy. One of the primary ways in which we can develop positively and begin to live more meaningfully is to transcend the influence of our environment, and become more oriented towards who we authentically are. There is always a part of us with innate potentials and characteristics which is independent of external factors - even if that part of us may be so obscured that we can barely see it. But our task should be to allow that part of us to express itself more fully, which often means overriding environmental and social influences.

This even applies to genes and brain chemistry too. They may predispose us to certain types of behaviour, but we can use our autonomy to resist those influences, to control and even re-mould our behaviour. It’s by no means easy, but we can overcome our programming. We don’t have to blindly follow the environmental, genetic and neurological instructions we were born with. We can increase our quotient of free will and autonomy to the extent that it becomes more powerful than genetics, neurology or the environment. (Strangely, despite his rigid genetic determinism, Richard Dawkins agrees with this, stating that human beings are the only living beings who have the power to ignore the dictates of their genes. And interestingly, recent developments in science, such as neuroplasticity and epigenetics, suggest that, potentially at least, we can actually exert some control over our own neurological and genetic structures.)

Perhaps there are some people - many, even - who do largely seem to be the products of their environments, and of their biological inheritance. But I would argue that whatever the term ‘greatness’ means, it is usually manifested by people who have exercised their autonomy to a large degree, and largely freed themselves from external influences. These are usually people of strong will power, and have used this to harness and hone their natural abilities, until they developed a high level of skill and expertise. They have used their autonomy and self-discipline to expand themselves, to actualize their innate potential and become more than the sum of their environmental influences.

In a sense, this is only an extension of what every human being ideally does as they move from childhood to adulthood: to develop more self-control and autonomy. With the help of our parents, as we move through childhood, we hopefully begin to control our impulses and desires. We begin to learn that we can’t have everything exactly when we want it, so we learn to delay gratification, developing some self-control. As we need less care and attention from our parents, we become exercise more autonomy, learn to make more decisions for ourselves and to follow our own intrinsic interests and goals. In this sense, human development is a process of becoming less bound by biological and environmental influences - a process of gaining more free will and autonomy. And ideally, this process should continue throughout our lives.

Spiritual development can be seen as a process of gaining increased freedom and autonomy too. Many spiritual traditions place a great emphasis on self-discipline and self-control - control of one’s own behaviour, so that we no longer cause harm to others; control of our desires, so that we no longer lust after physical pleasures; control of our thoughts, so that we can quieten the mind through meditation, and so on. In some traditions, spiritual development is seen as a process of ‘taming’ the body and mind, and this is, of course, only possible through intense self-discipline and self-control. Although it can sometimes occur suddenly and spontaneously, the deep serenity and intensified awareness of spiritual awakening is usually the culmination of a long process of increasing our innate ‘quotient’ of personal freedom and autonomy to the point where this becomes dominant amongst all of other influences. When ‘awakened’ people are referred to as ‘masters’, this could easily refer to them being masters of themselves.

So we all possess a degree of freedom, and freedom is not a static quality. We all have the capacity to extend the degree of freedom we’re bequeathed with, to become less dominated by our genes, our brain chemistry, and the environment or society which we’re born into. We are potentially much more powerful than we have been led to believe - even to the extent of controlling or altering the forces which are supposed to completely control us. As stated above, this applies to our brain structures, our genetic inheritance - and also, of course, to our environment and our society. And to a large extent, our well-being, our achievements and sense of meaning in life depend on this. The more we exercise and increase our freedom, the more meaningful and fulfilling your life will be.