Being free by losing control: What obsessive-compulsive disorder can tell us about free will

Sanneke De Haan, Erik Rietveld, Damiaan Denys

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


It is often assumed that the exercise of free will depends on the ability to consciously decide between available options. Consequently, the more conscious control one has over one’s actions, the freer one is. Since neuroscientific research shows the limitations of what we in fact consciously control, it seems that our free will is in trouble. A closer look at the phenomenology of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) gives us reason to doubt this concept of freedom. OCD patients feel unfree. They do things they do not want to do, or think things they do not want to think. In order to regain control, they deliberate or pay extra conscious attention to what they do. Paradoxically, their recourse to conscious control often makes matters worse, resulting in a diminishment of the experience of freedom. Here, we combine Arendt’s conception of freedom in terms of action with phenomenological insights into skilled action to get a better understanding of the role of deliberation in the experience of freedom. We argue that this experience depends on the ability to rely on our skills as much as on the ability to deliberate. This implies that the dichotomy between unreflective action and freedom in the current debate is a false one.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFree Will and the Brain
Subtitle of host publicationNeuroscientific, Philosophical, and Legal Perspectives
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781139565820
ISBN (Print)9781107036031
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015

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