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My Life, My Choices Philosopher and psychologist Stephan Schleim talks about personal freedom

Read more Last updated: January 2019
In collection Freedom
Reading duration: 6 minutes

We can decide what we eat, when we go to bed and what clothes we wear. But are we really as free as we think? Explore Life gets all deep and meaningful with German philosopher and psychologist Professor Stephan Schleim.

Professor Schleim, the topic of freedom is of particular interest to you. When is a person really free? Or is anyone really free?

According to the 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, we were ‘condemned to be free’, yet a few decades later people are arguing about whether we can ever be free in the true sense of the word.

So is there a definitive answer to this question?

Well, it all depends on what we mean by freedom. If you interpret it as the freedom to be exactly as you would like to be, then you could say that yes, as long as you are not distracted from your course by external factors, and if you have discovered your inner self so well that you know what you want, you are free.

As a rule, how free are we from the expectations, opinions and acceptance of others?

As free as we allow ourselves to be. Naturally, there’s huge pressure to conform, but we also have the option of creating inner distance. Even in a totalitarian state, there is no real way of knowing exactly what someone is thinking. However, lack of freedom beg­ins long before the rejection by others, namely with your internal voice that says: “You can’t do that – what would other people think?”.

Should we allow ourselves to be swayed by these pressures, for instance for the sake of our careers or to avoid being marginalised, or should we stand our ground and be true to ourselves?

This is possibly the most per­sonal decision we will ever have to make. But these days most people are more concerned with freedom as regards material things, for instance being able to buy what they want or to travel where and when they want. However, the ability to choose products in order to satisfy a need that was first created by advertising rather than true need is a false freedom.

So what should we be more concerned with?

The key question is, what do you really need in life? For instance, there’s a website called mymuesli.com, and you can choose from a possible 566 quadrillion – a number with 15 zeros – different combinations of muesli. There are people who think that’s fantastic and represents the ultimate in freedom, while others say: “But I’m okay with standard muesli.”

Currently progress and wellbeing are measured in terms of gross domestic product, but there are alternatives to this outlook. If, as a society, we were to push the social components, such as relationships and collaboration, to the forefront, this would have a huge impact on our priorities and goals.

Stephan Schleim is Associate Professor of Theory and History of Psychology at Groningen University, the Netherlands.

He deals with the theory, ethics and interpretation of psychology and brain research. Schleim also writes popular scientific texts, specialising in neuroscience.

In his book Die Neurogesellschaft: Wie die Hirnforschung Recht und Moral herausfordert [Neurosociety: How brain research is challenging law and morality], he questions the interpretation of brain research and the true meaning of its findings.
For almost 10 years, Stephan Schleim has been blogging for German publisher Spektrum on the topics of people, society and science.

People often link freedom to their relationships. Friends, employers, children, partners all expect a certain type of behaviour from us; some even have expectations as to how we should look. What happens if we don’t fulfil these expectations?

That depends on the specific situation. In my experience, a lot of what we fear never happens when we don’t conform to expectations. But there is also something else to consider. Even though we don’t think about it too often, our lives are limited, time-wise.
So the question is: what do I want to do with my limited time? What do I want to achieve and how can I go about this? Ideally, we shouldn’t wait until we are terminally ill to start thinking about this. To put it another way: whose life is it anyway? Why do we worry so much about the opinions or recognition of others? And what kind of a life is it, if it can be summarised in the sentence: “I kept everyone happy”? Every day, every minute and even every second is unique and we never have a second chance to behave differently in a given situation.

In one of your pieces of writing, you mention a study that showed that the readiness of participants to offer help depended on whether they were put under pressure. So in general, what factors influence our decisions?

First of all, there are environmental factors, such as a barrier that may physically block your path. Next, there are social factors: what behaviour is permissible and what consequences will there be if you break a rule? Then, there’s your inner voice: what you think will happen if you do such and such. This means that you consider your options with all the anticipated consequences.

The structures of reward and punishment to which we are conditioned are also imp­ortant and cannot be considered separately from the other considerations.

Let’s take hunger as an example. If we don’t eat, we suffer. All we can think about is the fact that we want to eat. Then when we eat, we feel rewarded. The lesson we learn is clear: if I’m hungry and I eat, I feel good.

And this is how learning via a structure of reward and punishment operates. Almost every interaction with the outside world either rewards or punishes us.

Since the experiments carried out by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, our free will has been questioned. Libet found that the relevant nerve activity takes place in our brains even before our conscious decision is made. You are heavily involved in brain research. What implications have arisen from this as regards freedom?

Brain research can’t provide full answers as to whether we have free will. It can measure correlations between influencing factors, such as time pressure, threats, advertising, noise and group pressure, and decisions. Depending on the situation, there are also certain influences that vary between individuals, and then there’s the rest that we can’t explain. In other words, there is currently no scientific model that fully explains the process of human decision-making.

According to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis – as well as 19th-century phil­osophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer – we never make decisions 100 per cent consciously.

However, it‘s not true that we don’t have any conscious control at all. We always have a degree of conscious control over our actions.

In your experience, what are the most important factors that allow everyone to feel free and able to make authentic decisions in life?

You need to find the time and space to get to know yourself and to become self-aware. Ask yourself: what do I really want? What am I just conforming to? And finally, try some centuries-old wisdom: change the things you are able to change, accept that there are things you cannot change, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

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