“Freedom” of Choice

I once read an article that argued that “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with” (Source Unknown). My first reaction to that was sincere disbelief. Upon reflecting on my changing identity, however, I’ve noticed that I’ve started acting more like my family members and friends over a period of time. I’m becoming more concerned about my lack of organization (thanks, Mom!). I’m starting to make much more of an effort trying to complete menial tasks to a level of perfection that I wasn’t even aware of (thanks, Dad!). I’m starting to procrastinate on my assignments (I might’ve been a culprit of this before, but Muhammad, Prince Procrastinator, made it much worse). Even after these changes, I was under the assumption that it was a rare occurrence; self-determination is an innate aspect of life, after all. As an individual, I should be able to choose who I want to be, correct?

And that’s when I encountered behaviourism.

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Behaviourism is a school of thought in psychology that attempts to work around the limits of the introspection method (which involves asking a patient to identify their thoughts and feelings in response to a stimulus) by objectively observing the behaviour of the subject. Having a focus on the qualities that can be seen visibly greatly reduces the potential for bias, given that it is much easier to identify external qualities than having an individual try to determine their internal thoughts. From the conceptualization of the idea in the early 20th century by John Watson, behaviourism has always supported the dominance of environmental influence in the life of the individual. Over time, practitioners of behaviourism came to the conclusion that the life of the individual was almost wholly dependent on external influence. Since external influences determine the individual’s life, their choices are a result of the influence of their environment. The person the individual becomes as they mature is a directly affected by the environment they grew up to the point where their behaviour can be related back to the environment they matured in.

Everything you do can be connected back to an environmental factor.

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

– Arthur Shopenhaur

Impossible! The implications of such a belief oppose everything that I have learned as a living person. I’m supposed to be the one who decides what I do, what I think, what I believe… the notion that my identity is manipulated by my surroundings, without my notice, terrifies me. Perhaps I’m an individual who often lives in the comfort that I’m in complete control over my own actions. My will is mine alone; I choose to do what I want to do. I can spontaneously touch my toes with my hands while resisting the instinct to bend my knees as I’m doing so – albeit there is definitely a rather annoying pain factor involved (but that’s beside the point). Unfortunately, there exists a problem in my otherwise sound logic: the negligibility of the action destroys any relation that the action has to my persona. An individual will only will themselves to perform an action when the action itself relates to their character. The behaviourists have won this argument that unfolded in my thoughts.

“We’re a government that believes in everybody having the illusion of free will.”

-Anthony Burgess

Part of the reason that I’m in opposition of determinism is that it stands against everything that human society is built upon. Society functions under the premise of free will. Punishment is received after committing a misdeed because it is believed that the doer had chosen to act in such a way. Generosity, intelligence, kindness, and hard work are all rewarded because it is believed that the doer had chosen to act. If you eliminate the freedom of choice and say that the outcome was determined before it had occurred, aren’t you making the doer seem to be more of a victim of fate than an individual? Even religious individuals who practice religions that involve the worship of a Higher Being are run on the freedom of choice. You choose to believe in the religion, you choose to follow it, you choose whether or not you will commit sin; without choice, you’re really just a machine that’s being programmed by your surroundings as you continue to exist. The freedom to choose is ingrained in the life of a living organism, both literally and metaphorically. At each passing moment, impulses are sent through nerve fibres to initiate movement; impulses are always simultaneously being sent from – and delivered to – the neurons in the brain.

“All human beings are interconnected, one with all other elements in creation.”

-Henry Reed

Determinism surely limits the individual aspect of a person, yet in return, it enhances the collective aspect. Your identity is dependent on the world you surround yourself in, and in that way, the “elements” of the world take part in your identity. It’s a two-way give and take: part of your identity becomes influenced by the element of your environment, while the element is influenced in the same manner, the element in this case being a living organism. Both individual’s lose sovereignty over their identity, but also become dependent on one another over time. The example I used earlier involving my family demonstrates the influence they have on my identity, but on a deeper level, it also exemplifies my dependence on them. Without the people closest to me, I wouldn’t really know who I am; after analyzing literature, I found the effect to be similar in dynamic characters.

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One can trace Dorian’s identity in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in terms of Dorian’s environmental factors. Dorian’s lack of certainty in his identity can be attributed to the fact that his father was killed before he was born, and his mother died shortly after he was. While it may seem that Dorian is naturally an indecisive character, this quality can be traced to his upbringing. He was fated to be indecisive, in that sense. Dorian’s whole story was decided by his creator, Oscar Wilde, while Dorian is really just a puppet that experiences his fate. According to the extreme behaviourists who believe in determinism, living organisms in the world are all akin to Dorian: their character is determined by factors that are outside of their control and that are, for the most part, unseen.

While it can be said that determinism is prevalent in our life, it is not certain if it is necessarily dominant. Your environment may have a role in determining who you are, but you’re always in control of which environment you place yourself in, are you not?  In the end, it’s you who choose who to be influenced by, like how Dorian chose to spend more time with Henry. One could argue that this decision would be Dorian’s – it was by his choice that he spent more time with Henry. “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Dorian was an average between Henry and Basil, since he rarely spent much time with others outside of those two. An individual living in this world can always choose who they spend most of their time with, and who rather would they spend time with than people who satisfy the desired idealistic qualities of the individual. And that’s the freedom of choice.


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3 thoughts on ““Freedom” of Choice

  1. Dear Rehman,

    This post was so intelligently put together and supported by scientifically intriguing facts, it’s easy for anyone to become absorbed by it. “I once read an article that argued that ‘you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with’ “, what a great way to start your blog and captivate the interest of others! I know for sure that this was what really brought my attention towards this piece. Personally, I love any type of “school of thought”, the way the mind works and the different characterizations truly intrigues me. I’d like to start with the clever way you brought in specific examples in the first paragraph; this allowed a more interpersonal perspective for the audience. Your use of quotations really supported the claims you made. For instance, in paragraph one, you were describing how “the life of the individual was almost wholly dependent on external influence.” and therefore, ” (an individual is) almost wholly dependent on external influence”. To support this, you used a quotation that solidified while adding onto the next paragraph: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” – Arthur Shopenhaur. As typical as this sounds, I promise I truly have gained a lot of new knowledge from your post, I’ve always wondered how to put a name to “Determinism”, and now, thanks to you I know. Lastly, the ending was phenomenal. I have always wanted to write about the connection between determinism and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” but could never structure it in a way that wasn’t boring to read; you took the mumbo-jumbo in my mind and harmoniously wrote it down without even knowing. This piece was absolutely wonderful.

    The only area I would add a bit in is when you introduce determinism, although I understood the meaning later on, there was no previous mention to it and the word just poped into thin air. Nevertheless, this isn’t a pressing issue, just a little area for improvement!

    Nicely done!


  2. Dearest Rehman,

    You never cease to blow me away love. I am so jealous of your analytical writing skills – what you have here is a real gift. You have this ability to be both eloquent and concise in your writing, and despite the fact that you talk about such intricate things – such as schools of philosophy – you have a way of making me understand so easily so, thank you.

    This piece definitely resonated with me because it touched on the ideas of how environment shapes a persons identity, while touching on the truth (my truth at least) about still feeling reliant on those influences for a sense of self. This is something that really hits me hard because, as most people know in AP, I feel that exact same way. I can say first hand that I am the type of person to completely hold onto my environmental influences because that is all I have known, and despite my ill feelings towards my lack of true self, I too feel dependant on these influences. It was so interesting to see the science behind it as you brought in both the actual terms for both Behaviourism and Determinism. This made me think for myself: ‘Who are the 5 people in my life that made up the average me, so thank you for rising an interest in me. It makes me feel seen in a way.

    Really, I only have one to work on, just because I loved this so much. Your analysis at the end was so relevant and smart because you made good connections, but it almost seemed a little weak just because it was thrown in at the very end. In the future, I would recommend you find ways to try to include more of PODG within the whole post, because although it was thoughtful, it really just seems sort of out place, and I know for a fact that you could!!

    Thank you so much for the read Rehman. it was equal parts educating and empathetic and I really enjoyed it love!


  3. Dear Rehman

    This post, which I loved, goes back to something that I myself have been ruminating on quite a bit. The idea that you’re nothing more than an amalgamation of your influences boggles my mind. It puts into perspective the idea that you don’t really have freedom to choose who you want to be. You can say that to yourself, and you can pretend that you have freedom of will and freedom of thought, but at the end of the day, you really don’t have a lot of freedom over your influences, and your influences control who you become. I think the main idea of this piece, and a very good way of summing up my own thoughts on this matter is in your quote ” I’m supposed to be the one who decides what I do, what I think, what I believe… the notion that my identity is manipulated by my surroundings, without my notice, terrifies me.” It is true. It terrifies me that I have much less choice than I think I do. It’s a horrid thought really, and one that you had no trouble crafting beautifully into words.

    As for improvement, I think that, if you are going to link this text to Dorian Gray, I think it would’ve been better had you found a way to integrate it more smoothly into the piece. Don’t get me wrong, your analysis of it was fantastic, and you connected it well to your idea, but I feel as if you should’ve done more to integrate it in as a whole, as it was a little jarring having it come out of nowhere.

    As I’ve said, I loved this piece Rehman, and I thank you so much for your thoughts on the matter



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