The Empowerment Paradox: Why Mastery Won’t Set Us Free


If I increase my ability to reach my goals, that’s a good thing, right?

Not always.

There’s a surprising way in which empowerment can come full circle and become powerlessness.

How to achieve a goal

Let’s see getting what you want as a two-step process:

  1. Discover what the cause-effect relationships that govern reality are
  2. Figure out how to set theright cause-effect relationships in motion.

This yields two corresponding obstacles.

At step one, I can’t attain my objectives due to a lack of knowledge. If I don’t understand how reality works, I can’t identify what I need to doto reach my goals.

If I set out to build a house, I must understand something about the laws of gravity to be able to sketch an adequate design.

At step two, I can’t get what I want because I’m incapable of executing the tasks that need to be done. I might know what is required, but lack the skills to execute the necessary actions.

Grasping the laws of gravity doesn’t make me a good house-builder just yet.

Something that removes these obstacles would be massively empowering.

Science eliminates them both.

How science crushes barriers

Science defeats the what-to-do issues from step one. It finds out the cause-effect relationships governing reality so that I can recognize which causes to act upon to achieve the change I seek to make.

Thanks to such knowledge, for example, we now know that praying for health is not super effective and that vaccinating is a better way to avoid sickness.

At step two, science frees us from technological obstacles: it designs appliances that allow me to manipulate reality in the way that reaching my goal requires. Science thus also takes care of how-to-do-it problems.

These days, if I would like to cross the ocean by boat, I am no longer at the mercy of weather gods but can always turn on the engine.

Science brings the world under our control: we are able do more than ever.

Science, therefore, liberates.

Empowerment = freedom..?

The inference that science increases freedom builds on a specific assumption about what freedom consists in. On this view, human beings are free when they are able to get what they want.

Thanks to science, both our capability to discern the cause-effect relationships that underlie reality and our means to influence these relationships are increasing. Our environment no longer consists of inscrutable developments — Getting sick? The Gods must be angry — but of processes that we (can) understand and intervene in.

Consequentially, we have more power than ever to ensure that reality unfolds as we want it to.

Science frees us, because it improves our ability to get what we want.

Our bodies are just objects

“We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you’.” –Leon Trotsky,

For science, the human body is just like any other object the universe houses: simply something “there”, something we might encounter in our pursuit to get what we want. Something that’s governed by cause-and-effect laws, which we can discern and manipulate in the way that helps us reach our goals.

In that spirit, science seeks to unravel how our machines work. At the end of that project, we will be able to change our physical bodies in accordance with our heart’s desire.

Once we know how our bodies work, we can treat them like we treat our cars: keep the parts we’re pleased with, and replace or repair the components that we would like to be different.

There will no longer be anything about our bodies in the face of which we are powerless. As soon as we understand the what-to-do and how-to-do-it, we no need to take anything about our bodies as a given if we don’t want to. We will no longer be forced to take our corporal characteristics for granted: nose size, voice sound, skin color — all those personal aspects will be something we can choose for.

Thanks to science, our physique will be completely malleable. This is liberating, because it increases our ability to get what we want.

Next: our minds.

Disenchanting the human mind

Science treats human beings as a part of the natural world; it tells us how we work.

Once we know how we work, we can develop technologies of self-transformation: ways of making our bodies and our minds more pleasing to ourselves.

After all, our brains determine how our minds work. Therefore, if we control our brains, we control our minds.

When we have discerned the cause-and-effect relationships of why we want what we want — the what-to-do — then the how-to-do-it will follow. So: once we understand the neurological basis of desires and values we can manipulate their causes in the brain.

That would allow us to change what we want in the first place.

A technology of the mind

A science of the mind yields a technology of the mind.

If we cannot get what we want, we can simply change some chemical stuff — change the secretion of these or those neurotransmitters or whatever — thereby changing our desires and freeing ourselves from this unattainable need that we were so silly to harbor.

This is not some far-fetched, futuristic fantasy.

To give one present-day example: anti-depressants such as Prozac influence the level of serotonin in our brain. This affects all sorts of emotions, reactions and attitudes. By taking it, people can deal with, for example, their low self-esteem or their desire to remain with abusive partners not by satisfying it, but by destroying it. (Interestingly, the opponents of Prozac, rather than making any direct objection to its use, point to regrettable side effects instead.)

Such desires need no longer be taken as a given: we can simply decide not to have them.

Surely psychiatric drugs can free us from unwanted mental states just as the discovery of penicillin once liberated us from the terror of tuberculosis?

What a wonderful illustration of the liberating power of science!

Choice impossibility

It is not hard to see why fans of Prozac think it’s empowering. Before Prozac, we were at the mercy of powerful psychic forces. Now Prozac gives us a way of controlling (at least some of) these forces, or else of extinguishing them altogether.

Philosopher David Owens asks us to consider this question:

“Science invites us to exercise control over our lives by finding out what we want, working out how to get it and then acting accordingly. But now we are being told that we shouldn’t take our desires as given, that we can act to change them as well. But if we change what we want, what basis is left for choice or decision?

Think about this for a minute.

When the technology of the mind is complete and we can alter our inclinations and values and desires as we like, what can we use to base our personal decisions on?

After all, when the science of our brains is finished, we could control which desires, needs and wants we have to begin with.

Here’s Owens again:

“If man is just a bag of chemicals, once we know what these chemicals are, we can re-mix them at will. And by re-mixing them at will we can give ourselves whatever character we like. But if we can choose a character at random, our current needs and interests lose their authority as grounds for taking any decision.

And what other grounds for taking decisions are there?”

What seemed like an expansion of self-control, threatens to rob us from any groundwork for making a choice.

What makes things special?

The heart has many reasons, the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal said, of which reason knows nothing. Since the heart merely pumps blood, it would be better to say that our mind goes through processes of reasoning of which we, as conscious thinkers, know nothing.

There are unique, involuntary emotional happenings involved in valuing something, caring about something, or something mattering deeply to you, or loving someone.

As of now, much of our emotional episodes are outside our control. That’s why they’re so intimate and personal.

The distinctive value of these unique mental states, including love and awe, depends on this imperviousness to rational regulation and control.

If we could bring about these experiences at will, we’ve lost something priceless.

All you need to know

I’ve suggested that, instead of contributing to a better life, a freedom to direct what we strive towards and care for in the first place, might be a curse rather than a blessing.

First, a successful science of the mind threatens to remove the fixed points that are needed to make decision making possible at all.

It seems that the ability to make a meaningful choice — a choice that is distinctively mine — requires that this choice is subject to some constraints which I cannot influence. This unchosen core is me, and without such an unchosen base there could be no decision being made by me at all.

That I — deep inside — harbor a bundle of personality traits, needs, desires and values which I cannot willingly alter makes my decisions meaningful as mydecisions.

Too much control removes that personal aspect from our decisions. If everything is under rational control, even our deepest wishes and needs and values, then there is no longer a sense in which the values and desires I now have, are mine.

This why the freedom to change what we want is more likely to lead to vertigo than to happiness. An increased ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment can bite its own tail.

Secondly, too much empowerment turns the most special things in life into experiences we can engineer at will, and therefore makes the extraordinary ordinary.

Contrary to the narrative of science as the big liberator, there is nothing regrettable about finding oneself, in the ultimate analysis, left with a fundamental core against which one is powerless.

Like to read?

Join my Thinking Together newsletter for a free weekly dose of similarly high-quality mind-expanding ideas.

Spread the love