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Do you Believe in Fate or Free Will?

Posted on March 1, 2019

Do you Believe in Fate or Free Will?

Morpheus: Do you believe in fate, Neo?

Neo: No.

Morpheus: Why not?

Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.

Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean.

In my trauma trainings, I feel like I do a pretty decent job using epigenetics and neurobiology to explain the relationship between trauma and health risk, poor life decisions, and criminal activity. However, there is a tough point many hit during this journey. If study after study demonstrate that untreated childhood trauma leads to riskier sexual behavior, drug use, criminal behaviors, poor decisions, is there a role for personal responsibility or is free will dead?

This question is one I struggled with for years. Early in my psychology education and career, I aspired to become the next great existential therapist in the mold of Rollo May or Victor Frankl. I spent my free time in college reading Nietzsche and Sartre. As an existential therapist, I imagined helping people confront their existential crisis and help them understand how each action and choice defines them as a person.

Then I sat across from my first client, a teenager who grew up in the crack epidemic in an area devastated by gang violence. It took me less than one session to realize this kid’s behavior supported actions allowing him to survive and not a logical consideration of choice and consequence. After my first day, I realized that all the kids I would work with came from broken homes, poverty, families devastated by addiction and abuse, and communities traumatized by drug epidemics and violence.

At the time, I was only three years older than many of my clients. It was like we came from two different planets. These youth survived a hell that was hard for my small-town brain to comprehend. While I could step back and see how my choices defined me, my clients’ minds were hyper-focused on surviving the next minute or trauma.

About six hours into my psychology career, my entire life philosophy met its own existential crisis! I soon saw my ability for existential reflection as a privilege gained through a healthy upbringing, safety, economic security, and an evolving understanding of my white privilege. Free will, which I previously saw as all-encompassing, seemed to shrink to almost nothing for my clients who were trying to survive their reality.

I want to explore this topic further in future posts; however; I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you believe in free will?

10 responses to “Do you Believe in Fate or Free Will?”

  1. Sara Carrillo says:

    Ultimately, I believe in free will – but I also believe that our environment has obvious and long lasting effects on said free will. When I started working in the school system, one of the first things I had to remind teachers of, especially 20 years ago, is that NOT EVERYONE GOT A ‘LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’ CHILDHOOD. I remember, early on, taking a child to the principal’s office for misbehaving in class. When we got out of there, I knelt down at eye level and I promised him that never again would I do that. No matter what happened, we would deal with it in the classroom.I was horrified and appalled by the principal’s behavior and attitude. The child was Hispanic and she threatened to have his parents sent back to Mexico if he misbehaved again!! At that time, every teacher in the district was white and middle aged, while we were getting a huge influx of Hispanic children, many of whom didn’t speak English. There were growing pains, to say the least!

    So, while wonderful, successful people can,of course, come from the most abusive backgrounds, their journey to becoming wonderful, successful people is something that the people who come from the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ backgrounds often cannot – and don’t try to – understand. It’s our job to stand by those kids, give them every bit of support and strength that we can, and be their cheering section with every achievement.

  2. Lance Schendorf says:

    As another privileged individual who is learning more everyday about just how much that shaped my worldview, I believe that, in an existential sense, we have free will. I love Frankl’s work also. But I now recognize that he survived the Holocaust with his philosophy intact because he, too, came from the privilege of academia,medicine and the Jewish tradition. Would he have kept his beliefs at a gay working-class gypsy experiencing the same horrors? We’ll never know.

    DO we have free will if we do not know or believe that we have free will is perhaps the real question. People who make poor choices often do not see a choice. They may never have seen a functional family unit or the modeling of behaviors that we take for granted. How can a youth stay in school when Dad is in prison, Mom uses drugs and there are younger siblings who need to eat?

    Growing up I was always told that I could do anything I set my mind to and that became part of my persona. Even after going through a decade of methamphetamine substance use and multiple DOC sentences, I emerged to re-enroll in school to finish a degree in Human Services (I graduate in May at age 59). When people tell me how wonderful I am and “why can’t everyone just do like you,” I stop them and explain that the advantages I possess are what made this possible. I already had two years of credits, an unshakeable belief that I COULD do it and the love of learning inherited from a father who was a journalist and brilliant man. I don’t discount my hard work, but it took multiple attempts at treatment to enter real recovery.

    Anyway, some musings… I look forward to more on this subject — it is one close to my heart.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Amazing post my friend! Thanks for sharing your story. Right now, I agree “we’ll never know.” However, just our growing understanding of trauma helps us predict certain future behaviors for those with untreated trauma. In recent years, it seems our ability to predict future behaviors based on past experiences (TBI, trauma, attachment, economic status) has grown dramatically. We might never reach 100% (because we’ll find some degree of free will in the science) but I wonder how close we’ll get.

  3. Joshua Smith, LMSW says:

    It is an old debate: Do we have free will or is the world deterministic? While arguments for both sides are present, sadly (in my opinion) there is a lot of evidence, currently, that supports a deterministic worldview. That said, holding such a worldview removes a few points crucial to therapy and recovery of our clients.

    First, if people, and their behaviors, are products of cosmic clockwork ticking away then they lack any real personal responsibility. If I and my choices are products of outside circumstances, why should I ever be responsible for my actions if I lack any control over them? Most societies do not operate on this viewpoint, of course. People are made to be held accountable for their decisions (although some people push to have no responsibility for their actions or lack thereof) and that is the entire basis of every tribe and culture that ever had norms and, later, law. We cannot hold society together without the principal of personal responsibility, even if such an idea is merely a farce.

    Secondly, holding worldview that implies no personal responsibility holds that we as therapists or agents of change in general lack an ethical basis for encouraging or, certainly, requiring change in our clients. If people are products of chance instead of choice, what right or ,even more so, chance do we hold in eliciting change in anyone?

    Lastly, if pure determinism is how we view the world, what hope is their for clients to change? They are products of fate and I feel there is a reason why that word is the root of the word fatal.

    In truth, I know we are products of chance to an extremely large degree. I was born with a certain set of genetics, at a certain time in the history of creation, in a certain place allotted by chance, and the people around me were as well. They influenced me and moved me around like an eight ball on a cosmic billiard table. I in turn moved them. I feel as if I choose and I make choices that effect my life and those around me despite whatever invisible hands of fate that guide me. Ultimately the question doesn’t keep me up at night. I know people can change if they choose to do so. Maybe they were fated to change. Maybe there is no fate.

    The idea of determinism only teaches me one thing, extend grace to those in ill fated circumstances. Give hope to the hopeless, even if the cosmic ideal of hope is pointless. Believe in the potential of others even if the world is set against ever reaching that potential.

    Be well.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Wonderful comment! You speak as if from my heart. Let me ask you a question about your second point on therapy. Let’s say behavior is highly deterministic for argument’s sake. Engagement in therapy could be viewed as yet another variable impacting future behavior, correct? In other words, with perfect knowledge, we could predict pre-therapy behavior. However, since we would need to factor the benefits of therapy into the equation, post-therapy behavior (also predictable) would differ from pre-therapy behavior. I know I’m pushing this to an extreme that even I don’t fully agree with, however; I wonder what you think about seeing therapy (and other interventions) as net positive even in a determinist universe.

  4. Renee Stone says:

    I just picked up your book tonight as a reward for finishing my undergrad coursework in Human Services. I joked that it’s not right to be this excited about career development, but I’m in a very similar place to where you were when you realized you needed this book. I grew up outside Chicago and experienced a good bit of big T and little t trauma in my childhood, and I’m working so damn hard to break that cycle for my kids. I’m 33 and I think about this topic every day, especially as it applies to cycle breakers like myself. I’m so excited to read your book and embark on this career path.

  5. Joshua Smith, LMSW says:

    In a deterministic universe, therapy would certainly be another factor and a net positive for certain as long as one factor remains true, the client chooses to engage in the change process. A deterministic viewpoint provides a couple of road bumps on a societal level that we would have to account for.

    First, if a client chooses to engage in therapy and change for the good (even if the choice is an illusion because the environment pushed them to it) then we as a society are satisfied. Therapy works, huzzah! So why not take away the ability to choose? We could either A) make change compulsory which wouldn’t work because no buy in means no real incentive to change. Or we could B) arrange their environment in such a way to where they feel they made the choice we wanted (which is a very Orwellian thought). That said, we do this to a degree. MI, in a way, is an external factor working on the client.

    Secondly, if a client chooses to not engage in therapy, can we then hold a client responsible for lack of change. Deterministic viewpoints make it less ethical to do so since the lack of authentic free will and choice take away a person’s individual agency. That line of thinking can eventually lead to treating people not ready to change like we sometimes do dangerous animals and locking them up (makes you wonder about the state of the prison system doesn’t it?).

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Great comment! This topic brings up so many rabbit holes. There is an interesting branch of behavioral economics that tries to figure out how to set up systems that lead people to the “right” behavior (organ donation, paying taxes, etc). The book Nudge does a great job presenting this approach. For the most part, I agree with these initiatives because I agree with the “right” behavior most of these initiatives are supporting. As you mentioned…it is a slippery slope.

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