Worldview Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) works on the principle that by fixing faulty beliefs, people can learn to behave more effectively and be happier. As one CBT web site puts it, “clients change because they learn how to think differently and they act on that learning.” According to Wikipedia, “The objectives of CBT typically are to identify irrational or maladaptive thoughts, assumptions and beliefs that are related to debilitating negative emotions and to identify how they are dysfunctional, inaccurate, or simply not helpful. This is done in an effort to reject the distorted cognitions and to replace them with more realistic and self-helping alternatives.”

From a naturalistic standpoint, many people harbor distorted cognitions with respect to their true nature, since they suppose they possess souls, or some non-physical essence which has the power to transcend or contravene causality. They imagine that their choices arise in some respect independently of their body, brain and surroundings, the product of a libertarian, contra-causal free will that moves the body without itself being fully caused by anything else. If we were CBT therapists, concerned for the mental health and optimum functioning of our clients – people at large, let’s imagine – wouldn’t we want to fix this faulty belief? Wouldn’t knowing the naturalistic truth about themselves support healthier attitudes and more effective behavior?

Understanding that cause and effect applies universally (except perhaps in the quantum realm), people would see that they’re determined to act as they do instead of chalking up choices to a mysterious uncaused or self-created self. They’d stop beating themselves (and others) up so much over mistakes, accepting that these were fully determined, not the product of libertarian free will. Armed with the knowledge of the causes behind what they did, they’d be in a better position to change their behavior. (Remember, just because things are determined doesn’t mean they don’t change. They usually do, and often for the better when we put our minds to it in the light of reliable knowledge.) Indeed, some CBT-oriented psychotherapists now use explicit naturalism in their practice when it’s therapeutically appropriate, gently prompting clients to reexamine their belief in contra-causal free will. They’ve found this can help to relieve guilt and shame, lessen anger directed at others (parents, for instance), and open up possibilities for more effective action.

A good therapist uses techniques appropriate to the client, taking her particular problems, strengths and weaknesses into account. Challenging someone’s fundamental beliefs about themselves, however gently, can itself cause distress, which is why not all clients in treatment are candidates for what we might call worldview cognitive therapy. What about people at large? Would they be able to assimilate the naturalistic truth about themselves and put it to good use?

Since people come in all psychological shapes and sizes, responses to naturalism will be equally diverse. Many, perhaps most at least initially, will dismiss out of hand the idea that we don’t have contra-causal freedom. However preposterous from a scientific perspective, the meme of the causally transcendent self, like that of god, is a deeply embedded assumption in our culture, not easily uprooted. And after all, it’s what many (even therapists and counselors) suppose is the locus of responsibility and the necessary catalyst for change. Since determinism is widely equated with fatalism, from a commonsense perspective challenging the existence of the freely willing soul seems to challenge the very possibility of a life worth living. (That it does not is what the naturalist must reassure them about – a big part of memeing naturalism.) So it’s likely that the majority of those hearing about naturalism will remain happy, or not so happy, supernaturalists, psychologically insulated from the logical and empirical case against libertarian free will.

Others, perhaps a significant minority (i.e., those 15% in US polls who count themselves non-religious, up to 50% in Europe, see here), will be in a better position to re-evaluate their ideas about the self and its place in nature. Those receptive to worldview naturalism will likely have already questioned the existence of god and the supernatural “up there,” and so are primed to take the next step. Such individuals are usually independent-minded, open to having their beliefs challenged, and thus more psychologically resilient. Even so, for some the realization that they aren’t little gods will indeed prove stressful. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of several instances in which naturalism provoked an existential crisis of sorts, not a surprise given that one’s deepest assumptions and beliefs are in play. But to my knowledge, in each case the crisis was resolved by a healthy, even transformative, adaptation to the insight that we’re completely included in the causal web. For others, the transition will be easy, either because they have no particular psychological investment in having souls, or were skeptical about libertarian free will from an early age, or both.

For most of those ultimately convinced of naturalism, the change will likely involve a halting but not unduly stressful reconfiguring of the self-concept. The day-to-day subjective experience of being themselves will continue on much as before, but within a very different cognitive context. It’s that new context which, in the considered opinion of naturalists, offers so much. Having discarded the soul, the person is in a far better, reality-based position to think and act effectively, taking into account the cause and effect relations that link her in all respects to her physical and social environment. She’s also better able to take an accepting and compassionate, but not passive, stance towards herself and all other sentient beings caught up in the tumultuous project of life. Once we get past the initial worries about naturalism, the advantages accrue rapidly (as argued at Naturalism.Org and in Encountering Naturalism).

On the other hand, Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky thinks that large-scale naturalistic worldview therapy is just what the doctor shouldn’t order, since the illusion of libertarian free will is, he thinks, the irreplaceable basis for psychological and social stability (see his book Free Will and Illusion and a summary of his position here). Daniel Dennett, less dire in his imaginings, still worries about the “environmental impact” of naturalism, suggesting we be cautious in its dissemination (see his book Freedom Evolves). Dennett is right – we have to be responsible in memeing naturalism, making sure people realize that we remain effective agents, who make real choices, whose actions make a difference, who can be held (compassionately) accountable, who are capable of positive self-change, and whose values don’t disappear. All this is perfectly doable, and indeed communities of naturalists (mostly academics at the moment, but increasing numbers of lay folk) are getting along just fine without the myth of supernatural freedom. Progressive skeptics about free will such as Susan Blackmore, Joshua Greene, Derk Pereboom, Will Provine, Tamler Sommers, Bruce Waller and others are making the case that Smilansky is wrong: there are good naturalistic replacements for belief in the soul and free will. We don’t need to traffic in illusions about our fundamental nature to have lives worth living, or to stabilize society. (Smilansky is critiqued here, and free will illusionism is discussed on the Garden of Forking Paths, a blog about Agency Theory, here and here.)

Advocates of naturalism believe that by uprooting harmful myths about ultimate responsibility, and by shedding light on the actual causes of behavior, it can ground a stronger personal psychology and a more humane social compact. Imprisoned by the myth of free will, people aren’t as mentally healthy or behaviorally effective as they might otherwise be: they don’t have the power and control conferred by a clear grasp of their causal connections to the world, and they’re barred from the self-acceptance and compassion that flow from seeing that yes, we are the world in its unfolding.

In the first film of the Matrix trilogy, Morpheus offers Neo the choice of a red pill – the route to a rather disconcerting truth – or a blue pill, the way back to a pleasant, but illusory existence. Neo’s choice of the red pill represents the claim on us of truth, the desire to live free of illusion whatever the cost. Fortunately our choice isn’t that stark, since there’s good reason to think that being undeluded about human nature, although initially disconcerting for some, can be the basis for mental and social well-being. As worldview cognitive therapists, we can therefore confidently recommend naturalism to the world’s attention.

TWC, January 2008