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Trance24's avatar

Is there such a thing as self control? (Details Important)

Asked by Trance24 (3311points) November 6th, 2009
29 responses
“Great Question” (5points)

This was a topic for my philosophy club that I unfortunately could not attend. A friend of mine also in said club argued to me before going that he believed there was no such thing as self control because it is a figment of our imagination, because for self control to exist there would have to be a self. The self what we often perceive as the self we most often relate to and make “decisions”, but ignore the other archetypes that reside in our minds.
I thought about it and its confusing complexity of what he was saying in bed last night this is what I came up with. I thought about how maybe we do not have any self control. We normally associate with out conscious mind or the mind that we can use and think with, when really there are so many other things going on in our brain at the same time. Our brains are so complex and make most decisions for us whether we think so or not. It is the driving force behind what we will remember what we will not, what we will in the end think, what is necessary and unnecessary. We do not have control over our brain the way we often think we do and our brain is compiled of essentially what we call our “self”, but we can not control all those complexities that co exist with our conscious mind. So really is there self control? Sorry for the long details =]

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Samurai's avatar

A lot of our own mind is ununderstood and uncontrolled by other parts of it, that doesn’t mean that we have no self control at all over it.

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faye's avatar

There is no end to philisophical discussions, lol! but down below acedemia, i think we certainly have self-control. Or wouldn’t there be mayhem, a lot of public sex and/or masturbating, [me, Hugh Jackman, mmmm}, and that’s what everyone tells me to use to quit smoking!

rooeytoo's avatar

If I didn’t use self-control my life would be utter chaos, so it must exist.

nxknxk's avatar

It would still be called self-control even if your brain acted independently.

6rant6's avatar

I would say that what people usually mean by self control is behaving in accordance with ones values.

Other reasons for acting out, especially “animal desires,” may obscure those values. We may act out of anger, or lust, or hunger despite our intentions to act otherwise.

buster's avatar

I love to shoot morphine, heroin etc. I think about it 100 times a day. I threw my syringes away one day and decided I don’t want that habit it or let it control me. Something controlling me thats not benefiting me and is inanimate is silly. I have self control. I chose not to shoot dope. Its all around me. I chose not use because I am in control not my drug addiction. It is very easy to lose self control. I have been there before too.

poisonedantidote's avatar

there is some evidence to suggest that out “choices” are normally post rationalizations and actually not real choices that we made. but i think the argument that there is no self control just does not hold water. its too generalized of a statement.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

In practice, as other people have pointed out, self control obviously does exist. But since this is a philosophical/metaphysical type question I will attempt to answer it as such.

Your friend is right to note that for self control to exist there must be a self. It is evident that there is a self though, what should be brought into question is if there is an ‘else’. The self is composed of your cognitive processes, which I obviously possess since I am capable of creativity. The ‘else’ is not so obvious, since there is no way by which I may know that I have not invented all that does not compose the self.

So we know that there is a self, but the behaviour may be deterministic or non-deterministic. Here I like to turn to science, as I am not aware of a philosophical measure to answer this problem. Science tells us that cognition is wholly contained in the neural networks of the human body, since a personality, memories and beliefs may be altered by brain injuries. Even what I call the ‘self’ may be altered by external forces applied to the brain. Chaos Theory tells us that quantities as small as quantum fluctuations can have huge consequences for overall outcomes after only a few operations. In my opinion, this is enough to conclude that Chaos Theory in conjunction with molecular biology can account for cognition being non-deterministic.

So we have a non-deterministic self. If the self is not a clockwork mechanism, then it must be in the control of something, since such a complex set of relationships has an impossibly small probability of occurring in a self-sustaining fashion. That control must be of the self, as we know of no other process that must be independent.

One of my favourite clinical trials in Psychology asked depressed and non-depressed subjects to estimate their level of control over a light by pressing a button and drawing conclusions from when it came on. The study showed a substantial illusion of control in non-depressed subjects. Although I am convinced that there is a self, and we have self control, I think the level of control we appear to have is an illusion much like the idea of a god being in control of the weather or if a truck’s brakes fail.

I apologise for the lengthy answer, but this is a great question. I would like to know of a purely philosophical method of solving this problem so I don’t have to refer to science – the two are best kept separate in such circumstances. I hope this helps.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh Excellent answer.

Trance24's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh Its lengthy but lovely =]

Harp's avatar

“Self-control” is an unfortunate phrasing. It does sound like it implies a real self that is somehow both controlling and being controlled, when what it’s really talking about is impulse control. The “self” in “self-control” is really used in the sense of “auto”; what we actually mean is a brain which is generating impulses in its more primitive sectors, but is then engaging its higher cortical cognitive functions to override those impulses. There is no self, in the philosophical sense, involved, but it is a process that’s all contained within the same organism, hence “auto”. The “control” doesn’t come from outside; the impulse isn’t controlled by physical constraints or other imposed measures.

ShanEnri's avatar

Yes we have self control! Our brain, whether it acts independently or not, is still controlling our ‘self’. Or its self, either way you look at it. And you do use some control, when you resist doing something is that not self control?!

wundayatta's avatar

I have my suspicions that the feeling of self control is an illusion. All my life, I’ve experienced the world as if I am me. I feel a continuous sense of me. I feel like all my choices are mine. I feel in control of who I am and what I do.

And yet… In the last couple of years, I have experienced what it is like to have my thoughts changed by taking a few pills. One moment, I could consider committing suicide, and in a blink of an eye (well, a few days, anyway), I could not ever consider the thought.

Under the influence of pills, I went from an angry, impulsive, self-destructive person to the calm, contemplative, loving person I had thought of myself as all my life. The wierd thing was that I had a continuous sense of myself. No sudden breaks. It’s just that I was thinking things I couldn’t think a few days before.

I asked @Harp which of those me’s was the real me. Both are, he said.

I don’t feel like I’m in control of me, any more. Worse, I can’t tell when its “me” and when it’s the me that makes bad decisions. I can’t tell if I have control or not. Sometimes I know exactly what the best decision is, but I make a bad one. Why, I wonder, am I doing these risky, self-destructive things? Could it be brain chemistry as the doctors say?

It all feels like me. But I don’t do what I want to do. I do other things that I want to do. I don’t know what self I am any more.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

If we could ever stop trying to control others, then perhaps we could finally control our selves.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@daloon In the context of antidepressants, are you not exerting self control in taking the pills that you know will modify your thought? If it is your choice to take the drugs, then the consequences are also your choice.

wundayatta's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh I’m not sure I understand your point. Am I not always demonstrating self-control, whether I take the meds or not? It’s just that some people seem to think that I am unable to control myself because my brain chemistry is fucked up. All I can say is that I always feel like I’m in charge even when other people tell me I’m not.

When I do things that hurt other people, it’s because I’m irresponsible and weak, and maybe lacking in morals. That my brain chemistry may or may not be working correctly is irrelevant as far as my responsibility for my actions is concerned. In the end, I do things that I know could hurt others for purely selfish reasons. That’s just who I am. Brain chemistry does not excuse me.

I’m just not a very nice person, for all that I try to be one. I do good things in some places, but in what is arguably the most important place, I am not making choices that reduce the harm I cause. I am choosing to try to fill a ravening hole in me in ways that could ultimately be very self-destructive. That’s me. Not brain chemistry. Me.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Sorry, it seems like I misunderstood your post.

“I don’t feel like I’m in control of me, any more.”
My point is that you are always in control of you, the difference is just which aspect of you is the most prominent at a particular point in time.

I don’t like blaming the ‘brain chemistry’, because if we understood the human brain a little better we could probably say that communism is brain chemistry. In reality, it is just a point of view, but since everything in the brain is biochemistry, everything could potentially be blamed on chemistry.

Shuttle128's avatar


“If the self is not a clockwork mechanism, then it must be in the control of something [...]”

There is no reason to believe this is so. Even if the brain was non-deterministic it doesn’t mean that it is under control of a “will.” The “will” is still not in control of the brain’s neural network whether random quantum fluctuations and chaos or simple mechanistic chemical behavior cause certain outcomes. The only thing that determines behavior is physics whether it be deterministic or non-local. Nowhere does a “will” enter into the equation.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar


“The “will” is still not in control of the brain’s neural network whether random quantum fluctuations and chaos or simple mechanistic chemical behavior cause certain outcomes.”

Cognitive processes are non-deterministic, in my opinion. The probability of a non-deterministic system being stable over almost a hundred years in over six billion cases is impossibly low, unless it is able to self-regulate. Self-regulation of the neural networks equates to self control.

The ‘will’ is not in control of a person’s neurological processes, it is a result of them. The will is not self control though; self control is simply the ability to self-regulate. As I said in my original post, I think the level of control we appear to have is an illusion. The will is likely an illusion, but that does not deny the possibility of self control.

Shuttle128's avatar


What about cognitive processes convinces you that they are non-deterministic? (I’m genuinely interested in your views—they seem very similar to mine though slightly different)

Of course there are self-referencing loops in the brain’s computations that allows parts of the brain to alter themselves, so I guess this could be said to be self-regulation. However, just because there may be a circular reference shouldn’t mean that this equates to self-control. Is self-perturbation self-control? Just because a system stabilizes itself would you really call it “control?” To me it seems that the word “control” implies an outside influence, some controller. In physics we call an inherently stable system stable….not controlled. A control implies a controller, some outside influencing mechanism, that is applied to the system in order to maintain stability. However, in a controlled system there is feedback which seems to go along with your self-regulation idea.

I may have answered my own questions here…..since the brain has feedback either from the environment or within the brain or body itself it has the properties of a controller. It’s very rare to find systems that incorporate feedback naturally. However, if we find them, we don’t usually call them controlled systems. It may simply be that the word control is arbitrary, attributed to controllers designed and implemented by intelligence. Which brings us back to the idea of self-control. If control implies intelligence implemented then it would appear that there is no self-control. I do think I understand what you’re trying to say though. I just think the term self-control implies more than you’re willing to go.

I think we may be on just about the same level here. I would be interested in learning a bit more about the possibility of a non-deterministic brain and the requirement of self-regulation (if there are any sources you can point to I’d gladly take a good look). I’ve speculated before that the illusion of free will might be caused by feedback.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

“What about cognitive processes convinces you that they are non-deterministic?”
I am a materialist. I am convinced that every phenomenon is able to be expressed as an equation based on the four fundamental forces. Looking at the physics of the Big Bang, matter was uniform in space as a plasma until quantum fluctuations caused certain regions to condense. Chaos theory tells us that small details are amplified over time, and since almost everything on the quantum scale happens in fractions of seconds, I think the biochemistry of the brain is likely to exhibit the results of probabilistic interactions, and where probability is concerned determinism cannot exist.

“Just because a system stabilizes itself would you really call it “control?” To me it seems that the word “control” implies an outside influence, some controller.”
So now we come to definitions. If you say control by definition implies an outside influence, then there is no self control because there is no outside intelligence capable of impacting human thought. I would define control in a more general sense, as having power over something and being able to bend it to your purpose. This obviously means that to bend the mind to your purpose you must have a purpose not formed by this same mind. We may observe this in people with mental disorders.
People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder feel a compulsion to do something, and they are unaware of the source of this compulsion. If we extrapolate this to the portion of the population we call ‘normal’, then we have a purpose that is not a result of rational thought. Personally, I have a compulsion to know the truth of a situation. When I entered a deep analysis of my religion prior to becoming an atheist, I knew the process would hurt myself and my family, but I had to go through with it. I still do not know why, but I digress.
So maybe the mind has divisions – an instinct and ad hoc ideas formed simply by the evolutionary desire to survive, which is capable of exerting control over other realms of thought. A person may feel a powerful desire to fight a person who has stolen from them, but their instinct of self preservation knows that the fight will be of no benefit so the desire is repressed.

Unfortunately I have no formal training as a philosopher, neurologist, psychologist or physicist, all of which would be helpful here. I have no sources to point you to; all of what I write is a result of my own thoughts.

wundayatta's avatar

I want to talk about something that troubles me with respect to mental illness and this issue. For many mentally ill people, it is very obvious when they are “out of control.” They might follow a woman into the bathroom and take off their clothes, believing that the woman loves them. They might walk down the street, seeing aliens all around, step into a bar, drink a lot and get very pugnacious, ending up in jail. They might walk into a drug store to pick up a prescription, and attempt to steal something they have no need of.

Later on, under the influence of proper medications, they are very clear that they never would do these things while “straight.” They are much happier medicated, because they don’t enjoy the outrageous manias and paranoia and hallucinations. But untreated, they believe different things, and see the world completely differently. And they are absolutely sincere in their beliefs in their perceptions.

For me, this is much more subtle. In my first mania, I found myself desperate for sex and love. I found myself doing a lot of sordid things to feed this need. I totally believed I was doing what I needed to do. My relationship with my wife was not good, but I didn’t want to divorce her because I wanted to stay with my kids, so I believed I could save my marriage by having affairs. At this moment, I might call that a delusion.

When I was diagnosed, I discovered that sexual obsession is one of the standard symptoms of bipolar disorder. And when medicated, together with couples therapy, my urge to do something about this desire for love/sex (I experience love through sex—i.e., it is my strong feeling that if someone accepts me sexually, then they must truly love me—I can’t imagine anyone ever having sex with me just for fun).

All my life, I’ve felt like I wanted more than one lover. Because this desire had been so persistent, I’ve concluded that I need more love than most people. Usually, I keep this desire under control, but, if what the doctors say is true, the disorder increased my impulsiveness (which seems like a decrease in my ability to regulate myself), and I could “act out” what had heretofore been stifled desires.

The problem for me is that when I’m doing either thing (controlling my desires or not controlling them), if feels like me, and if feels like me controlling myself. It’s ever weirder when I know fully well what I am risking by seeking more love, and I still do it!

It’s confusing because I am very clear that I don’t want to risk losing my family, and I am clear that I love my wife, but I was still seeking out other loves. I knew what I should be doing and yet I kept on going down the self-destructive path. Why? How could this not be me? How could I not be in control? Surely the truth was that I wanted to destroy my life? Or that I was selfish or immoral? But I was doing what I freely chose to do.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of it. I live in fear of it happening again. I was totally in control, I felt, and screaming at myself to stop, and I didn’t. Which was the real me? The one that wanted to stop doing things that risked the people I love, or the one who wanted more love?

My therapist can spin tales all day long that account for my behavior. She can link it to the way my parents treated me. She can link it to self-destructive impulses generated by my feelings about myself. She can link it to inappropriate meds.

I do believe that we can exhibit behavior and have no real understanding of why we behave that way. I think that most people are often not aware of why they do things. I think I should be aware because I have spent a lot of time in introspection and in trying to become aware of my hidden motives.

I believe that self-control is possible. I believe that because it feels as if I am in control. I also believe that chemistry plays an important role in determining the things I can think.

I don’t think I’m self-destructive. I don’t want to be self-destructive. Yet this behavior returns, and it is a sign to me of a manic episode. So I go back and get my meds changed. If it doesn’t work, is that because the meds are wrong, or is it because I truly don’t want to make myself behave like a normal person any more? The first says I’m “out of control.” The second just suggests I’m different from other people, and I am making an immoral choice. Since I believe I am in control, I choose the second explanation, which is bad because that’s the way into depression. I don’t want to be a bad person, and yet I am.

Shuttle128's avatar

@daloon @FireMadeFlesh

It seems all of us agree that there are quite possibly two modes of control. One is conscious and the other is instinctual or impulsive. There are a lot of people who would agree with this. It appears that the experience of consciousness is at least partially separate from perception. This explains why you can consciously understand that what you are doing is undesirable yet continue doing it. A change in the chemical makeup of your brain could cause both perception and consciousness to be altered. A drug that alters your brain chemistry in a way to give you desirable results for both perception and consciousness would be one that allows both to be in sync with each other giving back the illusion of control to the consciousness.

I have a problem with procrastination, as I’m sure many here do, where I know full well that it would be beneficial to do work now rather than playing around on the internet. I sometimes yell at myself (in my head) to stop fooling around and get work done; however, I continue to procrastinate despite my conscious will to get work done. I would say when the conscious mind cannot get what it wants this is a lack of control. The conscious mind is trying to persuade the rest to go along with its plan and it doesn’t seem to want to budge.

What about when you feel you’re in control but your behavior is not “you?” This seems far more tricky because you are you are at each instant in time whether you are different from another you from a different time or not. We are constantly changing since we are constantly interacting with our environment. When you perform certain actions in a certain way for a long time, a model of how you think you act is formed in your brain. This conception of you is basically an average of what you come to believe about yourself. When your brain chemistry is altered your behavior is altered. You are skewed away from the norm of your personality. This explains how you could still feel you are in total control, yet make decisions that are not within your norm. I would not really call the skewed personality “you” though. It is partially you, but is influenced by an “outside” motivator: the differing chemical makeup of your brain.

@daloon This is certainly much easier to explain and accept from the outside. Thanks to you sharing your experiences I have some idea of how this might feel. I think it would be great for more people to share their experiences like this, a great deal of people could use some understanding. My girlfriend’s step-father is vehemently against any kind of medication even when supplemented with therapy. He believes that therapy is the only way to take care of any mental issue. I’ve tried to explain that there are physical issues that cannot always be solved in therapy but he doesn’t seem to understand. Both my girlfriend and her mother have had problems with social phobia and depression but if they were to be diagnosed as needing medication they would not be allowed to use it. I think understanding someone’s viewpoint who has gone through this would be extremely helpful in such situations, so thank you so much for putting yours out here.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@daloon Does it help if I give you all the lurve I can? That is an amazing insight, and I really appreciate it.

@Shuttle128 That seems to be a fair assessment. For some reason I don’t like the idea of not having complete self control, and that has probably added bias to my posts. Through my change in religious views (and along with it views on science, homosexuality, morality, sociology etc.) I have largely reinvented myself. I don’t like the idea that I have no self control, because that would mean my critique of myself is invalid and I have no way of knowing what I should be or controlling whether or not I become that person. If there is no self control, I’m not even sure I want to know because I am so comfortable with the illusion, but then I am the sort of person who must always find out.

Shuttle128's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh You do have very good points about the chaotic nature of the brain and its possible random roots in quantum fluctuations. I can’t deny the insight you have into control requirements either. That is a very important part of having a stable system. Ultimately it’s all bound by physics and doesn’t allow outside influence; however, when there is a feedback loop it seems that there is a way to modify your thinking by simply thinking. Some of this may be hindered by the chemical state of your brain or even the structure of your neural network, but there seems to definitely be a path that allows at least some self-determination. Speaking with you about this has actually opened my eyes to thinking about the brain in terms of controls and feedback, rather than simply inputs and outputs.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Shuttle128 The other thing I find amazing about the brain is its ability to re-route. When a large portion of the brain becomes necrotic or must be removed, often its function is taken up by other areas. If we could create a computer like this, able to rewire its circuitry to find a more efficient path, then I am sure we would have AI.

Shuttle128's avatar

I think the problem has always been writing an algorithm that mimics the learning capabilities of human brains. Though, a human has a lifetime to learn while a computer is usually expected to give good results fast.

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