Posted in Freedom

You’re Not Allowed to Die

Jumping from the physical sciences (biology, physics, chemistry) and into psychological research methods is quite a leap. I am no expert in biology, physics and certainly not chemistry, and I never finished a degree in any of them, but I’ve taken enough to get a general understanding of proper research principals. Applying that mindset to people, however, is quite strange.

My professor quoted determinism as the most distinctive philosophical quality of all science. He also went on to (proudly) mention psychological research has 20% more accounts of replicated studies than physics and I resisted raising my hand and snapping back with a “well, no one in physics fraudulently fabricates a picture of a black hole the way psychological researchers fake prescription medication research for their own profit.”

But, that’s beside the point.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, and the further you go in science the more determinism becomes a question. It’s nestled deeply in psychology as well, which is probably the most terrifying place it can rest.

In a very basic sense, determinism is the thought that everything, every event/state of affairs/decision we make has been determined by events previous to that state. Some hard-lined determinists argue this is reason to scrap free will, while others insist free will exists within the parameters of determinism.

There’s thought that Quantum Mechanics has solid foundation for undermining determinism, and while it does present issues determinism cannot provide answers for, it’s been pointed out there are a few ways it could in fact support the idea of determinism.

I haven’t spent years studying Quantum theory, I can only know what I’ve learned from friends who went further than me in physics, and from research articles I’ve read in some journals. But, the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy has a great, short section on the multiple ways QM supports and doesn’t support determinism. (No, there isn’t a ton of incomprehensible math or professional jargon you can’t decipher). If you are also skeptical, I’d take a look at that link. There’s also discussion of naked singularities and probability.

That article concludes there can be no definitive conclusion–not in the way of empirical, mathematical support for determinism as a way of the universe. Instead, it postulates the universe be made up of both deterministic and indeterministic variables (i.e, proper randomness, proper chance).

This is one philosophical topic we can actually gather data for. But what does this have to do with psychology? Fucking everything, as it turns out. Let me reiterate some of B.F Skinner’s words and warnings from an excerpt of his (deterministic) book Beyond Freedom and Dignity:

“The appeal to reason has certain advantages over the authoritative command. A threat of punishment, no matter how subtle, generates emotional reactions and tendencies to escape or revolt. Perhaps the controllee merely ‘feels resentment’ at being made to act in a given way, but even that is to be avoided. When we ‘appeal to reason’, he ‘feels freer to do as he pleases’.”

In terms of the behavioral sciences, he’s referencing controlling unwanted/unruly behavior not with threats or anger or obvious statements (i.e, you’re going to hurt yourself jumping off that curb like that), but appealing to reason (look at how likely you are to get in an accident drunk driving! You could kill someone, or yourself!), disguising the control so that the person believes they have a sense of freedom. Skinner is not too fond of freedom. He insists “we must accept the fact that some kind of control of human behavior is inevitable . . . we are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of the world has been and will be constructed by men”.

Appealing to reason is considered more compassionate than threats, but it can become unnecessarily coercive as it has within America’s mental health system. For example, if someone tells a professional “I can’t take it anymore, I want to end my life”. Often fear triggers a response of “how would your family feel? Would you want to do that to them? Think about how much you’d hurt them.”

And while on the surface that seems logical and effective, it’s shaming (how dare you consider doing this to your family). It’s refusing someone a decision and leading them into your preferred decision. And it’s also is a quick tactic to believe you have removed the crisis, to feel good for removing that crisis, to fulfill your quite well-intentioned need to save someone. It also often doesn’t allow us to explore the feelings behind the crisis in that deep, profound moment. But, it offers the question that is often debated of whether we have the right to tell someone “you have to live.”

This, of course, is rooted in the idea that if the benefit outweighs the risk, the benefit is worthy. The risk here would be removing someone’s freedom; the benefit, that someone continues to live. This, then, presents the question: is living chained (without knowing you’re chained) better than dying free?

It’s where the APA comes up with their experiment guidelines: if the scientific benefit is substantial, pain (human participants) or death (animal subjects) is warranted.

It makes us feel weird to think about all of this. It makes us feel bad too, for all the families who have lost someone to suicide, all the pain and horror that causes. As someone who was frequently suicidal, and attempted once, it makes me feel extra weird. We don’t want our friends or families or ourselves to feel that pain. But philosophically, that doesn’t remove the question of whether it’s our right to tell someone when they can live and when they can die.

And so, Skinner foreshadows many things really, with “The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever”.

The summary of his book, offered by one of my first philosophy texts, says he lectures on this idea that “behavioral scientists can and should be given the power to ‘engineer’ human behavior in accordance with an agreed-upon set of ideals (social harmony, individual happiness, and productivity)”.

Some form of control does seem inevitable. Is it because we like order and organization? Is it because we’re all power hungry? Is it because we can only see the world from our perspective and so absorb things personally/take them to heart? Or do we control out of fear of no control and therefore will never know if there is a version of constructive chaos?

I don’t have the answers. But, if we’ve created our mental healthcare system based on the idea that behaviorists should engineer human behavior into what they believe is the proper standard behavior, than I dare say we’ve actually lost some control.


Writer. Reader. Science advocate. Living well beyond the label Schizoaffective.

4 thoughts on “You’re Not Allowed to Die

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