Being free by losing control: What Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can tell us about Free Will

In Walter Glannon (ed.), Free Will and the Brain: Neuroscientific, Philosophical, and Legal Perspectives on Free Will (forthcoming)
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According to the traditional Western concept of freedom, the ability to exercise free will depends on the availability of options and the possibility to consciously decide which one to choose. Since neuroscientific research increasingly shows the limits of what we in fact consciously control, it seems that our belief in free will and hence in personal autonomy is in trouble. A closer look at the phenomenology of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) gives us reason to doubt the traditional concept of freedom in terms of conscious control. Patients suffering from OCD experience themselves as unfree. The question is whether their lack of freedom is due to a lack of will power. Do they have too little conscious control over their thoughts and actions? Or could it be the opposite: are they exerting too much conscious control over their thoughts and actions? In this chapter, we will argue that OCD patients testify to the general condition that exercising an increased conscious control over actions can in fact diminish the sense of agency rather than increase the experience of freedom. The experiences of these patients show that the traditional conception of freedom in terms of ‘free will’ has major shortcomings. There is an alternative, however, to be found in the work of Hannah Arendt. She advocates a conception of freedom as freedom in action. Combined with phenomenological insights on action, Arendt’s account of freedom helps us to get a more adequate understanding of the role of deliberation in the experience of freedom. We argue that the experience of freedom depends on the right balance between deliberate control and unreflective actions.

Author Profiles

Erik Rietveld
University of Amsterdam
Sanneke De Haan
Humboldt Universität Zu Berlin


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