Why Psychiatry Should Discard The Idea of Free Will

Published in Psychology Today, 30th March 2016:

Why Psychiatry Should Discard The Idea of Free Will’.


“Consider the commonly used medical expressions “organic depression”, “rule out organic causes” and “non-organic psychosis”. What do these terms mean? Organic is defined as “relating to or derived from living matter” and, when used in relation to an illness, implies there is a physical cause. In turn, the term non-organic suggests there is no physical cause; an illness not related to living matter. This strange terminology is unique to psychiatry when compared to other fields of medicine.

To see the vast difference in attitude we can look at how we categorise hypertension (high blood pressure). Like mood and psychotic disorders, most cases of hypertension have no known cause, only known risk factors. However, rather than organic and non-organic, we define high blood pressure as “primary” or “secondary” – primary where a cause is not known, and secondary where a cause is known (e.g. renal artery disease). Notice the vocabulary never suggests some cases have no physical cause – they are simply primary. Jargon used in other areas of medicine include “idiopathic” (private/peculiar disease) and “cryptogenic” (concealed/hidden production). Unfortunately, in psychiatry we refer to organic and non-organicbiological and non-biological; some cases have causes, others don’t.

– Steve Stankevicius

Title image credit: Evan/Flickr

One Comment Add yours

  1. There are three impossible freedoms: freedom from causation, freedom from oneself, and freedom from reality. If you agree that these are irrational concepts, then you may also agree that the word “free” never can, and therefore never does, imply any one of them.

    Instead, “free” becomes meaningful only relative to a specific constraint. If you are in handcuffs, then your hands are not free. When someone unlocks them, your hands are free again. If a bird is in a cage and someone takes it outside and opens the door, then the bird is free.

    Does the bird have to be free of causation to be truly free? No. And if the bird was in fact free from causation, then what would happen when he flaps his wings? (Hint: nothing reliable).

    So let’s take “free will”. What does “free” mean here? As with the bird, it cannot possibly mean freedom from reliable causation, because without reliable causation we are not free to do anything, because nothing we do would have any reliable effect.

    Well, does it mean freedom from ourselves? No. If we were not ourselves then whose will would it be?

    Perhaps freedom from reality? Then there would be no will, but only a wish within a dream.

    Well, what do ordinary people mean by “free will”? They mean a decision they make for themselves, free from external coercion.

    For example, the Boston Marathon bombers hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to aid them in their escape. Because he was not acting of his own free will, he was not charged with aiding and abetting the crime.

    And this is how free will is interpreted by, well, pretty much by everyone other than the philosophers and theologians.

    This ordinary free will makes a meaningful distinction in a totally secular and natural fashion. And it is this distinction that is recognized not only by the ordinary man or woman, but also in a court of law.

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