If you kill yourself, then the only reason you did it is that one day you made a choice to do it. Are things really that simple?
Popular Christian blogger Matt Walsh has been getting a bit of flack lately. In a blog entry that was, in my view, a pretty bad idea, he offered what he took to be a correction to the many messages of sorrow about the recent death by suicide of actor Robin Williams. People have been drawing attention to Robin’s struggles with substance abuse and, more prominently in people’s comments, with the mental illness that is depression. I think it’s right to draw attention to this, and for Robin’s sad passing to be a reminder to us all how debilitating depression can be, and to reach out and help those who battle it. Sometimes you know about it, a lot of the time you won’t.
I agree with some of what Matt says. He, like others, raises a concern over portraying suicide as a path to peace and escape. The widely circulated picture of Aladdin telling Robin Williams’ character, “Genie, you’re free,” is troubling, painting a potentially attractive picture to those looking for a way out. But Matt’s message is that Robin wasn’t killed by an illness. People who die from cancer are killed by an illness. But Robin Williams made a choice, as, presumably, does everyone who kills themselves when battling depression. That’s why he committed suicide – because of a choice. “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.” The apparent take home message is that if a person makes a choice, then it didn’t happen because of an illness. Personal responsibility is the theme here. Matt also said some potentially concerning things about depression as a “spiritual” issue. Because Christians are dualists (oh really?), we should readily believe that depression is a spiritual as well as a physical issue. “Atheists,” Matt says, of course would have no trouble thinking that it’s really a physical issue (don’t drink from the well, it’s full of poison). I’d also like to stop talking about this as a claim that Matt Walsh in particular made, because it’s a view that any number of people might have expressed (and not everything I will say relates directly to anything Matt has said – he simply raised the issue). It just happens that Matt said it on his blog. It’s a way of thinking that needs to be discussed in its own right, not just as part of an attack on a blogger. As far as Matt goes, I only hope that he changes his mind and publicly says so. Most of the time mental conditions like stress and anxiety can lead to weight gain, treat it on a natural and harmless way with meticore diet pills.
some people are so ideologically wedded to the notion of libertarian free will (and as much of it as possible) that virtually any attempt to bring a bit of realism to the issue is shunned as “mechanistic” or “naturalistic.”
What may well be driving thoughts like these is a shockingly naïve – and just as shockingly common – view of free will that plenty of Christians hold, unfortunately, for theological reasons. I don’t tend to invite debate about the Calvinist / Arminian divide largely because of the heat it often generates, and I am not inviting it here. But I will say that some people are so ideologically wedded to the notion of libertarian free will (and as much of it as possible) that virtually any attempt to bring a bit of realism to the issue is shunned as “mechanistic” or “naturalistic.” Or even worse, questioning somebody’s prized conception of free will might actually sound…. like something a Calvinist would say. And that’s the last thing we would want. True, it’s a view that would be at home in Augustine or Aquinas too, but never mind that.
Yes, everyone who commits suicide makes a decision to do so. But the claim that if you make a decision then you don’t do something because you are sick rather obviously implies that your decisions stand alone, apart from the condition in which you find yourself. This is a flatly false view of human decision making. Why is it that we outlaw drink-driving? Sure, people might be drunk, but ultimately how they drive is their decision, right? Perhaps so, but the quality of decision that a person can make when they are drunk is not the same as when they are sober. But what if a person had an illness with all of the same effects as being drunk? Would we say that whatever they decided to do in this state had nothing to do with the fact that they were sick – because they decided? Quite apart from specific states of affairs like having an illness or being drunk, Libet and others have shown us that the physical symptoms associated with a choice being made exist in the brain before we are even conscious of making that choice.1 The state of our brain drives decision making in ways that we’re not even aware of.
When you say that you have free will, the question to ask yourself is “free from what?”
This is why the term “free will” conceals so much that is not simple. When you say that you have free will, the question to ask yourself is “free from what?” If you’re a Christian you’ll ask “free from sin?” The answer is no. But even if you’re not religious you should ask “Free from my brain? Free from my neurons? Free from my chemistry? Free from my past? Free from my body? Free from the total set of circumstances in which I exist?” Here too, the answer is no.
Saying that people like Robin Williams did not die because of an illness but simply because of a choice is either to deny that mental illness is really a thing that affects our brains and decision making at all (and surely no informed and compassionate person can say this), or else to appeal to an extraordinary conception of freedom that disconnects our decision making faculties from our very selves. Yes he made a decision. But it’s just not true that if somebody makes a decision then they didn’t do it because of a condition or illness. He made an affected, afflicted decision, and before we sit at our keyboards and condemn decisions like these, we should be moved with compassion for those that suffer as he did.
Is suicide the only possible option for someone with depression? No, of course not. Nobody claims this. We need to provide support to people in this sort of condition so that self-destructive decisions are not the only options looming large in their troubled mind. But the appearance of saying that people suffering from mental illness can simply choose to be free of the pressures and pains of their experience is the appearance of being pretty callous. I understand that the real culprit is probably ignorance, possibly even wilful ignorance at the hands of a way of thinking about free will that is ideologically important to the speaker. But for what it’s worth, please take more care than that.
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
I wish that those commenting on Robin Williams’ suicide remembered this too.
- Talking (and talking, and talking) about mental health
- Growing old but still dying young
- Coming out
- Otago study links abortion with mental illness
- Abortion and Depression: An open letter to the pretentiously angry
- B. Libet et. al., “Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act,” Brain 106:3 (1983), 623-642. [↩]