The will is free even in the face of powerful emotions

In the last post, it was shown that an emotion cannot be willed out of existence.  The reason is that an emotion is a consequence, and so it cannot be controlled directly.  What can be controlled are the thoughts and values that underlie the emotion.  These are within one’s power of choice.  Once the thoughts leading to an emotion are changed, even with the same object observed, the emotion changes accordingly.

There is a further aspect of emotions that needs to be addressed: What about overpowering emotions, emotions so powerful that in the moment of experiencing them they seem to control one’s action to the point where one is not free to do otherwise (the idea behind the “crime of passion” defense)?  What about what people call psychological “addiction,” according to which a person is compelled to act in a certain way, such as to overeat, to stay in an abusive relationship, to be the aggressor in an abusive relationship, or to gamble to the point of financial ruin?  Are these counter-arguments or qualifications to the existence of free will?

The first point to make about these questions is that there is a fifth step after the four steps previously discussed in regard to emotional responses.  The four steps were, in their necessary order: perceive, identify, evaluate and respond emotionally.  For the current discussion, there is a fifth and critical step: action.  This is a separate step, and never subject to becoming fully automatic.  No matter what emotion one experiences, nothing can make a man actually lift his fist to his wife.  He might feel like doing it, want desperately to do it, but is always free along the way and even just before the action, no matter how powerful the emotion seems, to stop, “take a deep breath,” and reconsider his action.  Recall that the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, most often quoted for his scientific experiments allegedly proving that free will doesn’t exist, himself very strongly defends free will precisely because of this possibility of aborting the action: As he himself stated: “The existence of a veto possibility is not in doubt.” (Libet’s critics have argued against this conclusion by stating that if neurons caused the onset of the action, they caused the veto of it as well, so even the veto is not “free.”  This and other arguments of the neurological determinists will be addressed in upcoming posts.)

You, the reader, have experienced this situation many times in your own life.  Perhaps you have had a passionate desire to go to the movies when you knew you should study for tomorrow’s exam.  In the times when you exercised the proper control, you have seen yourself say, “No, I can do that tomorrow night (or this weekend), but right now I must study or I’ll do poorly on the exam.”  Even prior to this reassertion of one’s values, there is a more basic step: putting one’s mind in focus, deciding to think about and address the issue of the conflict.

In cases where a person did not exercise the proper control in the face of a powerful emotion, he could also see a different choice or set of choices being made: He could see himself, if he slowed his thinking processes down to slow motion, saying “F** it – I wanna see the movie, so I’m going out with my friends.”  What has happened here?  This individual has chosen to ignore the context of the situation, to force from his mind the need to study, to de-focus his mind and literally not think, taking his emotion as a primary.  All of these actions are precisely what is in the realm of free will.  Free will, as was stated in the first post, consists fundamentally of the choice of whether and how a person will use his mind.  It can be easily seen from the above description that the individual did make a choice, though in this case the individual chose not to think or exercise his mind.  He engaged in a process of actively avoiding such thinking and evaded the knowledge that such thinking was required.

The emotion in the situation just described is not as powerful or all-encompassing as some emotions.  What about “overpowering” emotions?  It is inadvisable to even call these “overpowering” emotions because such terminology already presupposes that control is impossible in the face of them.  However, there are emotions that stem from deeply rooted patterns of behavior, perhaps years or decades of evasions of the type just described, that can seem overpowering to those experiencing them.  Still, they are not.

One of the best proofs of that fact is the example of rehabilitation of criminals and addicts.  By “rehabilitation” here is not meant the kind of walk-in-the-park programs where such individuals are forgiven their calumnies and dealt with tenderly.  The rehabilitation referred to here is real rehabilitation, where a career criminal or a life-long addict is changed to the point of never committing such actions again.

In criminal science, a multi-volume work by Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow titled The Criminal Personality demonstrates the method and the process of such fundamental change.  These two psychologists (Yochelson is also an M.D. and is the one who first developed the methods they describe) performed their research and practiced at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital and George Washington University Medical School.  Their program participants were, indeed, “reluctant converts,” (the title of their first chapter): career criminals.  Such men are not simply petty thieves but rather men who have devoted most of their lives to committing thousands of property crimes, and even murder, stopping only when they are imprisoned.  Yochelson and Samenov discovered a consistent pattern of thought among such criminals.  For example, one thought pattern was the view that anything belonging to someone else was really the criminal’s own property being kept in good hands by its current “caretaker” until the criminal could come along to relieve him of it (the authors call this thinking pattern “ownership”).  Other examples are “fragmentation,” a “rapidly fluctuating mental state” in which the criminal chooses not to focus or concentrate, and “victim stance,” in which the criminal considers himself the victim of forces outside his control.

Fundamental to the criminal’s approach are habits of thought that facilitated the other criminal thoughts and behavior.   These criminals engaged in a process of what Yochelson and Samenov called “cut-off,” which is basically the same action of evasion described above with respect to the student who went to the movies instead of studying.  Cut-off is blocking of one’s own thoughts.  If he does begin to think about the fact that the property of another person is really and rightfully that person’s own and not the criminal’s, or if he does begin to have empathy for the person who would be subject to the criminal’s depredations, the criminal cuts those thoughts off.  That is, he evades them so that he can continue with his actions and not be consciously confronted with the horror of his chosen form of life.

Further, such a criminal has the thought that he is “really” a good person, even though other people “think” he isn’t. Of course, a criminal who has spent the majority of his life preying on others, who has no respect for life or property, who has evaded rational thought time and time again, cannot authentically experience that he is a “good person.”  The criminal is engaging in yet another evasion when he repeats to himself that he is a good person, when he gives money to charity or helps others, all in an attempt to falsely construct the appearance of the self-worth that he lacks and that can only come from thinking and achievement.

In rehabilitating such individuals, Yochelson’s method is to fully confront them with the depravity of their actions.  He tells them that they are morally corrupt, and doesn’t let them get away with any evasions, soft-pedaling or substitution of pseudo-self-esteem for their true moral worth.  Then Yochelson systematically rebuilds their thinking processes by observing and confronting them with their facilitating thoughts, session after session, week after week, month after month.  He requires them to re-think and re-state the actual truth of the situation, and to act accordingly.  Needless to say, there are many drop-outs from the program, since criminals have choice not only about their behavior before prison but also about whether they are willing to endure the grueling psychological makeover Yochelson’s program requires.  However, those who make it through the program do live a non-criminal life afterwards.

The same sort of total makeover is required for those addicts (such as alcoholics) who choose to change.  The thought of the alcoholic, for example, when he thinks about never drinking to excess again, might be that it is too overwhelming to contemplate such a massive goal as “never.”  When programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous tell him to re-orient his thinking to set a goal of “not drinking today,” they are focusing on a change in the destructive thought patterns that stop many who drink excessively from being willing to change.  (Which particular program an alcoholic enters is not the subject of this discussion.  However, the specific contents of some of these programs are certainly open to challenge, for example the goal of seeking a “higher power.” What is relevant here is that the change in a person’s actions is a consequence of a change in his underlying thinking.)

Nothing demonstrates the fact that thinking controls emotion, and that action is always under one’s control, more than examples like these of such extreme personality change.  Excuses, evasions, pretenses at really being good, or “being able to stop drinking at any time,” are what makes the previous destructive behavior possible.  By contrast, the full conviction that one can choose how one thinks and acts, and the commitment to doing so, are what makes the subsequent productive behavior possible.

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