Free Will in Psychology

This blog post will attempt to assess the proper status of the concept of free will in the field of psychology. Specifically it will try to show that free will can be accepted in psychology, but only in a very limited sense.

I will begin with a discussion of the main alternative to free will – determinism. The physical world is often thought of as a deterministic system. Hoefer (2010) defines determinism as ‘given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.’ In fact, determinism is the foundation upon which classical Newtonian physics is built. (The recent development of quantum physics has shown that at the most fundamental level of matter, randomness, and not determinism may be the rule. For example, the position of an electron at time t cannot be predicted with certainty, even when all relevant variables are known. The best that can be achieved is a probability. However, this indeterminism does not extend to higher levels of analysis, such as analysis at the level of biology and neuroscience (Yoo, 2007). Therefore in any relevent sense, the brain is still strictly deterministic, like the rest of the macro universe.)

Free will is frequently defined as being in control of one’s actions (Gross, 2003). This can be understood as one’s will being the ultimate cause of any given free act. In this sense the will must be an uncaused cause. It is because of this status as uncaused cause that it is incompatible with determinism, which states that ‘every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions (together with the laws of nature)’ (Hoefer, 2010).

However, the physical world may not be all there is in existance. For our purposes here it is necessary to briefly mention the mind-body distinction – Frank Jackson (1986) devised the knowledge argument to illustrate the difference between the physical and the non-physical (or mental). His thought experiment involves imagining Mary, a neuroscientist living in the distant future, a time where all the physical facts about the brain have been discovered – we have a complete neuroscience. She has lived her entire life in a black and white room, and has never experienced colour. However, she has studied the brain extensively and specifically she knows all there is to know about the mechanisms of colour perception, from what happens when light hits an object and gets reflected into the retina, to how the information is transcoded and processed in the visual cortex. One day, she is allowed out of the room and is shown a red apple. It is argued that on seeing the red apple, she learns something new, specifically, she learns ‘what it is like’ to see the colour red. Because she already knew all the physical facts, what she learns must be knowledge of something non-physical, which we call mental. This establishes that there must exist both physical and non-physical things in the world, and that these differ from each other in important ways. This allows us to distinguish between the brain, on one hand, as a physical entity, and the mind on the other, as a non-physical entity.

However, this introduces a problem known as the interaction problem, which will have a bearing on free will. If the mind is non-physical, that is, if it has not got physical properties like mass, position in space, velocity, and so on, then it cannot come in casual contact with physical matter, such as the brain. For example, it is inconceiveable for any pattern of neural firing in the brain to cause a mental perception of the colour red, as physical processes can only affect other physical processes. This is important because the interaction problem also applies the other way, i.e. mental events such as will or intention, being non-physical, cannot affect physical matter, as we commonly assume it does when we consciously move our arm to reach for an object, for example (Feser, 2006).

Given that we have distinguished two radically different types of ‘substance’ (physical and mental), it is now necessary to distinguish on which level free will operates. We have already seen that free will is incompatible with the deterministic physical world. However since the mental world is outside the system of the physical world, it is not necessarily deterministic itself, or affected by the restraints inherent in deterministic systems. As long as we have established that the physical and mental do not interact, there is at least conceptual room for freedom at the mental level.

This mental free will was explored by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre worked in the phenomenological tradition of philosophy, a tradition which advocated the ‘study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view’ (Smith, 2008). Sartre underscored human freedom as a fundamental part of human consciousness. Crudely put, he argued that whatever set of circumstances presents itself to us, be it an event in the world, or a set of emotions, we are always in a position, through reflection, to make a choice about how to react to it (Flynn, 2004). In this sense, on a mental level, free will is a central part of consciousness.

As far as the scientific investigation of free will goes, since the brain is deterministic, free will is incompatible with any neuroscientific or biopsychological research agenda/theory. However, because of the interaction problem, this does not entail the free will is prohibited at a mental or phenomenological level. Since psychology can be contrasted with neuroscience as the science of the mind rather than the brain, there is still room for psychology to develop theories of free will such as those of Johnson-Laird (1983). (Note that in this case free will must be defined as the belief that one is the unlitmate, uncaused cause of one’s actions).This is permitted as long as such theories are limited to investigating the structures of free will, how and when it is experienced by an individual, how they impact other mental phenomena such as thoughts, emotions, etc. However, if the psychologist wants to go further to say that free will has a real effect in the physical world, through for example the control of behaviour, insofar as behaviour is an empirical, physical event it is not legitimate to claim that any psychological factors, including free will, have any impact of their outcome.
Therefore we can conclude that free will belongs solely to the mental realm, and as such is a proper object of study for psychology, as long as psychological theorising does not include reference to the causal efficacy of free will in the physical realm.


Feser, E. (2006). Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld.

Flynn, T. (2004). Sartre’s Existentialism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 18, 2010, from

Gross, R. (2003). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology. London: Hodder Arnold.

Hoefer, C. (2010). Causal Determinism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 15, 2010, from

Jackson, F. (1986). What Mary Didn’t Know. The Journal of Philosophy, 83, 291-295.

Smith, D. W. (2008). Phenomenology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 18, 2010, from

Yoo, J. (2007). Mental Causation. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 16, 2010, from


~ by healthcarelounge on March 19, 2010.

3 Responses to “Free Will in Psychology”

  1. I would agree that there are different ways to interpret the concept of free will; at a basic level of causation (as in an uncaused cause) and also in an experiential way (as in ‘I feel that I caused that’). When we speak of such things we often mistake one for the other; an experience of causing something gets confused with actually causing something. This ties in with explanations of consciousness in that the stories through which we understand and interact with the world are often mistaken to actually constitute that world; phenomenological experience informs us of subjective objects which are ever distinct from objects per se. Indeed philosophical phenomenology, as I understand it, attempts to recognise and eliminate as much of the subjective element of experience as possible in order to more closely experience objective reality. Although the recognition and elucidation of what is brought to experience rather than received from experience is an interesting venture, I, personally (since this is a comment and not an essay) would favour a coherent ‘truth’ and look for the simplest story with the greatest explanatory power, ignoring concepts of correspondence with a ‘reality’ which I shall never know. Therefore ‘free-will’ in an experiential sense is perfectly acceptable as understood in your post but ‘free-will’ in any absolute sense (as in dualistic accounts of mental causation of physical events) not only fast becomes a convoluted explanation in light of the problem of interaction but also serves very little purpose in any coherent system of understanding; quickly becoming mysterious and avoiding explanation in favour of ‘just because’. The distinction you made (between the phenomenological and absolute) is important and helps to illuminate further discussion of the topic of free will.
    Futhermore, I would argue that Mary may well have a new experience/knowledge/memory which she labels as ‘seeing red’ and which is distinct from previous experience but that this is simply an addition to her existing knowledge/experience/memory and does not serve to demonstrate a separate mental realm; reading a recipe is not making a cake but these distinct experiences (knowledge/memory) both add to existing knowledge (experience/memory) rather than occupying separate realms. But maybe I just haven’t understood the argument, please elaborate….

  2. I have to say I do like the way in which you have looked at both sides of the arguement and structured it so logically. I found myself nodding along in agreement in terms of your explanations of both sides. However, I was expecting the arguement to take one side or the other in the end, which I don’t feel it quite did. You say that free will belongs to a mental realm and if I’m reading it right, then as long as we consider that it can have no imapact on the physical realm then it is a subject matter for psychology, which is kind of sitting on the fence a bit in my opinion. I would be interested to hear your own view point on the matter, as in do you personally believe we have free will or not? What I’m getting from the article is that free will is perhaps an illusion as everything is predetermined and it just makes us feel like we have some control over events? But I’m unsure if I have read that correctly. I will concede that the way random coincidental evernts bring you to a certain point could make the world seem predetermined but, my own view, is that you make the choices that lead to these events. Perhaps the events are predetermined but our choices are not. I read a fiction book once where all the major events in the peoples lives were predetermined but the choice they made at the juncture was not, a whole new set of predetermined events could be set off if they made the wrong choice at that point in time. It may be a bit of an unrealistic idea but it is a notion I personally quite like and I think could possibly incorporate both the mental and physical realms you speak of in this article.

  3. A repeated point I noticed in your article is the ‘incompatibility’ of free will and determinism. But compatibilism can be defined as one accepting free will without relinquishing faith in causal determinism. This allows us to have some degree of free will in the scientifically desired ‘deterministic’ universe. Furthermore, indeterminism would mean that our behaviour is the result of chance, which means we are not in control of our behaviour and rules out the possibility of free will.Certainly, our choices are determined by a combination of factors-who we are at that moment, something that has been shaped by both genes and experiences-and the actual constraints of a situation in which we find ourselves at any given moment. But Free will doesn’t mean doing things that make no sense, it means that our thinking, reasoning, emotions, personality etc. and everything else that makes us who we are actually matter. This belief is relflected in our Criminal Justice System, it is based on an acceptance of free will, without relinquishing faith in causal determinism (e.g. the insanity defence). I hope to explore the legal aspect of free will in greater depth in my blog posting. From what I have read on this subject, I think the only kind of free will that is coherent is deterministic free will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: