Freedom to Learn Section VI: The Philosophical and Value Ramifications (part two) – freedom and commitment

Freedom to Learn or choose; self-directed learning; these are completely untenable concepts in the minds of many behavioral scientists, who believe that man is simply the inevitable product of his conditioning.” This chapter considers the issue of free choice in a world of determinism, the “continuing dialogue regarding the meaning of and the possibility of freedom.”

1.   Man is Unfree

The very title of this chapter would seem strange to behavioural scientists, who feel that “all the effective causes of behavior lie outside of the individual and that it is only through the external stimulus that behavior takes place.” Rogers describes a number of scientific experiments that clearly demonstrate the controlling impact of positive reinforcement on both animal and human behaviour. The experiments seem to be evidence that individual behaviour is shaped by outside stimulus so that there is no such thing as freedom in choosing one’s behaviour. Rogers ends this section by saying that “I think it is clear from all of this that man is a machine – a complex machine, to be sure, but one that is increasingly subject to scientific control … man is unfree, man cannot commit himself in any meaningful sense…” 

2.   Man is Free

Rogers regards the preceding examples as impressive tributes to the ingenuity, insight and persistence of the researchers, who have added enormously to our knowledge. However, they leave something very important unsaid. Rogers illustrates, with his own examples from therapy, which show individuals experiencing personal choice which appeared to be basic to their changes in personality and behaviour. Persons are able to choose, freely, how to behave. Behaviourists might try to explain these ‘choices’ with reference to intermittent reinforcement throughout the process of change, however Rogers finds such explanations “both inaccurate and inadequate. It is the meaning of the decision that is essential to understanding the act.” This sense of free and responsible choice, the experience of freedom to choose, is one of the deepest elements underlying positive change.

3.   The Meaning of Freedom

Rogers attempts a definition of freedom in the modern world:
  1. Inner, subjective, existential freedom – “…the realization that ‘I can live myself, here and now, by my own choice’ … the discovery of meaning from within oneself … the burden of being responsible for the self one chooses to be.”
  2. This experience of freedom as something that exists in the subjective person is not a contradiction to the universe of cause and effect, but a complement to it.

1.1. Freedom makes a difference

Rogers reports on research that shows how “the person who is free within herself, who is open to her experience, who has a sense of her own freedom and responsible choice, is not nearly so likely to be controlled by her environment as is the person who lacks these qualities.” He also reports on research showing that the degree of self-understanding within a person is the best predictor of future behaviour. Rogers points out the significance of inner autonomy: “the individual who sees himself and his situation clearly and who freely takes responsibility for that self and that situation is a very different person from the one who is simply in the grip of outside circumstances.”

4.   The Emergence of Commitment

Rogers moves from a discussion about freedom to one about commitment, the lack of which is “the disease of our age”. He makes reference to Polanyi’s thoughts on scientific knowledge as personal knowledge, stating that deep personal commitment is the only possible basis on which science can firmly stand. For Rogers, “commitment is more than a decision. It is the functioning of an individual who is searching for the directions that are emerging within himself … persons are most successful in such a commitment when they are functioning as integrated, whole, unified individuals.”

5.   The Irreconcilable Contradiction

The two points of view in this chapter are irreconcilably contradictory:
  1. Modern psychological science and other forces in modern life see the person as unfree, an object to be controlled – it is almost heresy to question this view;
  2. Arguments against the absolute truth of science, evidence from therapy, from subjective living and objective research show that personal freedom and responsibility have a crucial significance and commitment has meaning.

We must accept the paradox and live openly with it.

1.2. An Update

Rogers finds support for his views in the writings of a theoretical physicist at a later date – in particular about the relative autonomy of self-organizing systems, leading Rogers to conclude: “The paradoxical quality of our freedom is still there, but it is a paradox with its roots in the nature of the universe.”