Free will, restaurants and eating disorders

In the first half of this article, I introduced the restaurant game as a way to play with our assumptions about free will and agency. I kept thinking about and playing this game, in part because it’s so relevant to eating disorders.

Perhaps philosophers often turn to the example of the restaurant to illustrate why determinism cannot be just because 1) eating is so visceral (foreign bodies enter my body) which makes it important in the everyday life, and 2) it’s so simple (to be hungry, to eat, to stop being hungry). Both things make it a good candidate for an illustrative example. Then, on top of that animalistic simplicity, a restaurant menu adds just the right level of extra complication.

A menu is a highly structured and usually predictable type of complication, a familiar convention with its section headings, font choices, and strategic pricing. That’s enough to make this eat-and-drink thing feel like some sort of notable decision, with unspoken rules and social signage galore. And that makes this episode feel like a lot more of a one-time chance where you can do it “right” or “wrong” than when you’re shopping or looking in kitchen cupboards, where the timing is less constrained and the choices are much more numerous and include off-roading giving up and getting carried away.

For someone with an eating disorder, the viscerality of eating is no longer straightforward; the small amount of formalization a menu brings to food decisions can seem anything but slight; “right” or “bad” worst-case scenarios can be laden with far more than FOMO and scrounge up someone else’s dessert. This may be a reason for you not to play the game if you suffer from an eating disorder that you are not on track to recover from. Or it may be a reason for you to seriously think about playing it.

In a long-running article on “taking, losing, and letting go of control” in recovery, I suggested that letting contingency in is an important part of allowing recovery to happen (yes, let it be instead of or in addition to make it happen), and that

Probably the most liberating of all is to actively begin to choose not to choose. You can wait and see if your friend brings something for pudding with her, you can wait and see the weather or if there are any Pimm’s left in the store, or just wait and see how you feel.

The version of the game I suggested then was “Let the decision be made”:

Choose a specific decision that needs to be made – whether to watch a movie or read a book, or when to cross the road, or what clothes to wear in the morning – and think carefully about the alternatives. So don’t make the decision.

(NB: If you are still at a vulnerable point of illness or recovery, be careful of this and do not choose food-related things, otherwise you may become distressed and compromise your food intake. If you are more advanced in recovery or post-recovery and feel comfortable doing it, also try it with food: what to cook for dinner or what to eat at a restaurant. There’s no point doing this if you’re still sick enough to choose anything other than the lower calorie option.)

That always seems like good advice to me.

Or if you want to play the restaurant game even though you’re worried about not being advanced enough, another version I do quite often is to narrow it down to two options and then stop and wait to see what comes out of my mouth when the waiter arrives. It’s less risky.

Or you could put some protection in place like: if really nothing happens that looks like I’m eating anything decent, someone else I trust will choose for me, or I’ll have a standard meal that will be waiting for me at home. This ensures that you are getting real food. But of course, the discomfort of “failure” can still be significant, but again, you can learn from it as well.

In my most recent article on the body and free will, I explained how the momentous start to my own final and successful recovery attempt was like nothing more than being carried along by a momentum that was built a long time ago. It may seem difficult to reconcile this with the equally important fact that the decision to get better is something that must be grasped with both hands – or else continually let slip, and thus see more and more years be lost to disease.

But in the end, the reconciliation is already there: the decisions are made whatever philosophical twist you give them.

In the same interview I quoted in part 1, the scientist Susan Greenfield expanded from restaurants to explain why sitting down and seeing what’s going on can’t be a way of life (unless you’re mentally ill):

Eating Disorders Essential Readings

I strongly believe in my free will. So I can see you might be, in your Sue Blackmore way, sitting there and saying, “I wonder what she’s going to order” and so on, and that could be a lot of fun; but I don’t think every minute of your life you’re like, “I wonder what she’s going to do.” Well you could if you have schizophrenia but I think for most people most of the time you have to assume that other people are acting of their own free will and that you yourself are an entity cohesive. (Consciousness Conversations2005, p. 100-101)

But there are alternatives to all of these assumptions, and it’s not just science that makes “freedom” and cohesion suspect (even if it is). [e.g. Blackmore & Troscianko, 2018, pp. 218-246]); direct personal experience can too, if given the opportunity.

Perhaps in the end, much of the vehement insistence that free will must exist comes down to a simple misunderstanding of the alternatives. In the textbook I just quoted, Sue Blackmore and I quote a scholar called James Miles offering one reason why people are so unhappy with the unfree restaurant scenario:

Much of the problem, he says, is a confusion between determinism and fatalism. Fatalism is the belief that because everything is determined, it is useless to act. But a determinist, Miles reminds us, will make as many decisions as a follower of free will; the only difference is that the determinist will recognize his decisions as fully determined. In a restaurant,

The determinist will always choose the fish over the wood pigeon, he or she will simply not cast the runes in search of instructions, offer a quick prayer for guidance, or invoke this as proof from God or of free will. (Miles, 2013p. 214-215)

It’s quite fun to let go of the runes – and it can be a lot more liberating than clinging to fictional forms of freedom. Let me know what happens if you try it!

Source: Sue Blackmore, used with permission

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