One of the fundamental arguments in psychology (which, for the record, stems from philosophy) is the classic question: Is man really free?
The deterministic mindset basically says that “we are what we are” – deal with it. This can take the form of Behaviorists like Skinner (who believe everything is a product of conditioning; reinforcement and punishing) or religious zealots. Society has often been on the side of determinism – historically, people with mental illnesses were blamed for having done something wrong to “deserve” it (religious/karmic determinism), and even today we try to fix everything with a pill (biological determinism).
Interestingly, there seems to be a good dose of determinism in the readership here- and you’re in good company (with the likes of my man Freud, Ivan Pavlov, and Skinner). One poll question that is up right now, which 11 people kindly answered, asked :
THE QUESTION OF “SELF” IN PSYCHOLOGY IS HIGHLY DEBATED – DO YOU BELIEVE:
Ok, my blog, back to the important thing – me. Enough about you guys.
In general, I reject the idea of determinism because I think it leads to victim-y mindsets and behavior… and nothing irritates me more than a chronic victim mentality. But there’s also another, very personal, reason I reject determinism:
When I first went in for help because of a blossoming eating disorder in high school, the therapist I saw made a very matter-of-fact declaration that I was anorexic because of my biology (genetics and so forth) and medicine was the only chance I had at a normal life. This INFURIATED me. INFURIATED. Thinking about that moment I can still feel the rage. I had an eating disorder because I was a 15 year old insecure high school girl – and might I mention – I was so, so, so hungry. When she took the power away from me and gave the power to my biology, she completely ignored my emotional pain and insecurities that had sent me into this state of hunger/anxiety/chaos in the first place. It served to effectively piss me off enough that I went on to lose a LOT more weight, and things spiraled much, much further than they needed to. It was a mess.
Well, onward, time to get off the Negative Nancy Train to Jennifer’s Past. The antithesis of this victim mentality, a much happier and pro-active approach, is my other Viennese idol (next to Sigmund, of course <– to any new readers, this is one of my very casual references to Sigmund Freud, who I treat as my friend. It’s kind of schizophrenic at times, here on my blog) – anyways, my other Viennese idol (i.e. from Vienna) – Viktor Frankl. He has every right to be completely angry and victim-feeling because he was in a concentration camp. He wrote an incredible book titled “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he recounted his time at the camp, and then goes on to apply it to his theory of psychology – Logotherapy. Logotherapy is a form of Existential Humanism, which means it’s the opposite of determinism and Skinner. I’ve been mentioning frequently lately that I really want to explore some Humanism (especially Existential Humanism) on the blog over the next couple of months because I think it’s a really empowering, self-improvement-y way to grow and gain strength this spring… which is very in keeping with my perspective that self-improvement = new life, and spring = new life, so, naturally, spring = self-improvement.
Anyways, the Humanist perspective is phenomenological - which means it’s concerned with the individual’s mentality (kind of like the idea “perception is reality”). In a Humanistic therapy session, rather than the psychologist interpreting your dreams/ideas/behavior/etc. and telling you what you think (i.e. my man Freud), Humanists consider the client the owner of their experience and the only person that can determine their meanings. In fact, the idea of meaning is especially key to Existential psychology (hence the name of Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for MEANING”..), as you will see in….
… The 3 Fundamental Assumptions of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy!!!!!!
In this post I want to focus on #1, Freedom of Will, because I think he has an amazing way of counteracting the determinists arguments.
“Needless to say, the freedom of a finite being such as man is a freedom within limits. Man is not free from conditions, be they biological or psychological or sociological in nature. But he is, and always remains, free to take a stand toward these conditions; he always retains the freedom to choose his attitude toward them. Man is free to rise above the plane of somatic (physical) and psychic determinants of his existence. By the same token a new dimension is opened. Man enters the dimension of the noetic (reason), in counterdistinction to the somatic and psychic phenomena. He becomes capable of taking a stand not only toward the world but toward himself. Man is capable of reflecting on, and even rejecting himself. He can be his own judge, the judge of his own deeds.
… A sound sense of humor is inherent in this technique. This is understandable since we know that humor is a paramount way of putting distance between something and oneself. One might say as well, that humor helps a man rise above his own predicament by allowing him to look at himself in a more detached way..”
- Viktor Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism
It has often been said that humor is a sign of intelligence, and I think this makes sense. The ability to find the irony in situations requires a certain depth of perception, speed, and intellect. The ability to make fun of oneself is a reoccurring theme in theories of personality – it seems that the flexibility required to make fun of ourselves is a nice antidote to our innate, human narcissism.
Our freedom gives us the ability to be more than animals – more than the sum of our parts. Our freedom gives us the opportunity to find meaning. This search, journey, and triumph is completely internal – we won’t look beautiful or win an award, but we’ll die with purpose. The essence of life is an inner journey – not an outer one (as the ego would have you believe).
As Frankl explained in his memoir, please – don’t forget this is a man who just left Nazi death camps that is talking -
” The way in which man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances- to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”
Concentration camps are perhaps the saddest, most vivid examples of the power of man – and Frankl ends his book (well, the ending before a postscript was added) with one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read -
“We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Sherma Yisrael on his lips.”
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
If that isn’t free will, I don’t know what is.
Now, disclaimer, before I end this post and get a barrage of emails about hormones and behavior – my personal philosophy is neither strictly deterministic nor strictly “free” – I think everything is interrelated. In terms of my eating disorder, I think it was a case of “biology loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” Clearly, these are all complicated issues like nature versus nurture, is there a God, and can we control our destiny… so I don’t claim to know the answer, or even know if there is one. I chose to write this post because I think Frankl has an inspiring outlook on man, free will, and how much control we have over our mental and emotional reality. Since he was in a concentration camp I think he pretty much has earned some credibility in the mental resilience category.My goal is purely hoping to help us all find the “joie de vivre” – and I think if Frankl can survive a concentration camp then there’s got to be some good self-help stuff there for us…