Reconciling Determinism and Self-Improvement

From what I’ve written in a previous post, you already know that I consider myself a determinist, and I generally align with the idea that there is no free will.

Those who travel from this philosophical idea to the self-development arena, however, are in for a big surprise. The idea that we are free to choose our own destiny and that we can create our own mind, is central to almost all self-help.

This wouldn’t normally be very problematic: it’s a general truism that the majority are going to be wrong about almost everything, so why are we even surprised? The fact that the gurus of the coaching and self-development world insist on seeing themselves as conscious agents, should give us no more pause than the observation that many fundamentalist Christians take exception to the theory of evolution.

There is, however a deeper issue here. It is a very common refrain that the belief in our own primacy and self-control, is in fact a crucial component of psychological health. In other words it’s not simple a nice but backwards idea to have: it is claimed that the idea itself is doing significant work in improving our lives.
As an example: a recent article from the Atlantic convincingly argued that a belief in free will does not exist in a vacuum:
“The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, look the dark truth in the face.” — Smilansky, Israeli philosopher

Untitled.pngOr perhaps the truth must be locked in a meandering labyrinth few are destined to find?

I can see this argument being used to cut two different ways:

In the practical sense, a belief in free will can be good to have simply because it can make us feel good and be more motivated.
This is not particularly damning to the life of a determinist, actually. There are plenty of uncomfortable ideas which -albeit true- we would do well to keep it out of our minds most of the time. Whilst you execute your final deadlift rep, you are under no obligation to envision a tombstone being lowered onto eventual grave.

In fact I see no contradiction in occasionally ‘lying to yourself’ in a controlled fashion, as long as you are aware of it and periodically review it.
It’s really no different from tricking your body with hyperventilation before a deep dive, pumping yourself up with endorphines to outrun a chasing leopard, or whispering “I’m the boss I’m the boss I’m the boss I’m the boss” while going to do something incredible. ¹

Though I expect Ant-Man to bring up the old canards about quantum indeterminism.

But there’s a more incisive version of the argument: is it even a coherent idea that by thinking positive thoughts, you are influencing the chemistry of your brain? Broadly speaking this is a case where people try to turn determinist logic on its head.
If I can’t decide my own thoughts, then how can I ever improve myself? Even when I have ideas or a drive to better myself, that’s all just determined anyway! Notice the vicious circle: if our minds are determined, then any decision to alter our minds is not ours. So how can we claim to influence our future, by acting on our predetermined ideas?

In my view though, there’s a way to (at least pragmatically) manage this seeming catch-22. It actually goes back to a frequent misunderstanding about determinism: to believe that our mental lives are ultimately beyond our control and that our will is not free, doesn’t mean that we deny that we have a will and that decisions of that will can influence your mind.
It rather argues that the very decision to influence our mind in a specific way, is part of a causal clockwork of which we’re not fully aware. But our decision does have an influence, and it is a necessary part of the whole.

In this sense, there is no big mystery to initiating the feedback loop from thinking positive thoughts to achieving a positive mental life. It’s really no different from any of the other decisions we make to alter our life:
When I’m feeling exhausted, I decide to consume carbohydrates to feel more energy. When I feel tired, I decide to go to bed earlier.
These are ways of managing my future mental life by acting in certain ways. Sure, nothing fundamentally escapes the laws of nature, but nothing really restricts me either. Ditto for when I decide to periodically think about the power of my own mind.

In both cases, I’m taking a decision that influences my mind through a causal chain (one indirect via consuming carbs, one directly through directing my mental effort). But my initiation of a self-contained causal cycle which I control, doesn’t negate the existence of the larger causal cycle that has determined my mind and that I do not control; and determinism has no problem accommodating either.

My own synthesis of this problem has been pretty pragmatic; and this is also necessary, because few philosophers have paid attention to the practical reconciliations that the hoi polloi might have to perform.
One: it’s okay to prop yourself up with some measure of positive self-talk, as long as you can (in your soberest moments) analyse it, and objectively assess whether it’s still helpful or has shifted to dishonesty.
Two: everyone knows that as humans we’re a small part of the causal chain in the universe. But within this small part, we can do plenty of things; including setting up feedback loops to influence our future mental life. We don’t rise above causality, but we don’t become wizards either.

Hope you enjoyed reading this meander 🙂

¹ Actually believing your own lies might  confer the ultimate advantage still. In this sense, wishful thinking may be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.


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