The problem of free will in psychology

“She had deceived herself in supposing that she could be whatever she wanted to be…” (Tolstoy, 1956 p. 256).

Free will is one of the many controversies in psychology. The problem of free will has been greatly debated in philosophy and theology for centuries. As science developed, we have come to understand the natural physical laws once attributed to supernatural or mystical forces. The debate between free will and determinism is important for psychologists today in order to understand some of the underlying principles in the theories we readily practice. Free will may not be particularly important to practicing psychologists today as the deterministic principles on which the science has been developed from is often taken for granted. Take for example an ABA tutor working with an autistic adolescent. The tutor would hardly attribute the behaviour of the individual to deterministic laws to which we identify stimulus and reinforcement, it’s not as clear-cut. We identify the cause and effect relationship but it does not satisfyingly discredit free will. The problem with free will and determinism may become more problematic if psychology commands for all individuals to be treated as deterministic agents. In this article I am going to primarily discuss the impact of a phenomenological approach to psychological principles. In doing so, I wish to draw from the phenomenological work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and contemporary psychological research on free will. 

Free will and determinism are not opposites (Gross, 2009). Free will can be understood as the ability to be in control of your own actions, emotions and relative being. Determinism can be divided into two extremes  – soft determinism (a term suggested by William James in 1890) is a form of determinism which claims that it is not possible to identify all the physical laws involved on our psychological processes; strict (or hard) determinism suggests that everything can be determined through physical laws.

Phenomenological social psychology explores the problem of free will in more detail. Phenomenology is about lived experience and how people live their day to day lives. Often in psychology we pay particular attention on specific aspects of human behaviour or brain functions in the case of neuropsychological research etc. Merleau-Ponty (1962) states ‘I am free to act in the face of my world; my freedom is shaped in turn by this world.” This can be seen as a form of soft determinism on the human experience. Life experience and environmental factors are important in understanding human behaviour. Genetics, socio-biology and neuropsychological research are often derived from strict deterministic principles and we may be losing touch to what it means to be human. If we take the term ‘situated freedom’ we refer to neither absolute freedom nor an absolute determinism (Valle and Halling, 1989).

Merleau-Ponty comments that behaviourism is inadequate as it reduces human beings to purely ‘reactors to the world’. As he sees it, we ‘exist in a relationship with the environment in which each partially determines the other’. The issue of free will is extensively argued in Phenomenology and Cognitive psychology, but for the purpose of this article I wanted to mention an important area of research on human experience (see Dreyfus 2002 and Storey 2009).   

The video below is taken from the movie Waking Life in which philosophical concepts are explored. The clip speaks of free will and our knowledge of physics (a little off the point but an amusing look at the philosophical and psychological understanding of determinism).

Now to introduce a less abstract approach to free will, Daniel Dennet has argued extensively on free will and determinism in science. Psychology, as a science, is seen to adopt deterministic principles. Dennet (2003) argues that our brains can be seen as causally determined. Dennet also states that although we may be causally determined it is incorrect to assume that we are not morally responsible for our behaviour (Gross, 2009). Baumeister et al. (2009) believes that a disbelief in free will ma y lead to aggressive behaviour. Vohs and Schooler (2008) noticed increased cheating behaviour in individuals who declared a disbelief in free will. The authors suggest that moral behaviour rests on a belief in free will. These articles do not comment on whether we have free will or not, but they do show that free will may have a function in our behaviour.

Recently, Meyen (2009) has reviewed research on free will and forensic psychology. The claim reacts to Morse (22008) who asks the question – why is free will the conclusion for one’s actions? A ‘lack in free will’ is not seen as an appropriate response in the testimonies and reports of psychologist s and psychiatrists. The research highlights a confusion surrounding free will in this particular aspect of psychology.

In reading about the problem of free will it is clear that there is a lot of confusion and conflicting arguments, particularly in psychology. Dennet (2003) comments on ‘doublethink’ wherein we posit a particular view (deterministic principles determining behaviour) yet actively engage in activities we regard ourselves as free actions or under our control (Gross, 2009). Doublethink can be extended into other disciplines – take for example a strict religion. A strict religious argument may state that everything in the universe (including our behaviour and mind) is controlled by a force they call God. This all knowing force eliminates the possibility of free will as the entity has created the laws to which the universe works. This can be likened to a strict deterministic argument – we are just not using the word God as an ultimate force and using the understanding we have of how the universe works and construing that everything is determined. A strict deterministic argument and a fundamentalist argument of free will are similar in a number of ways and it seems to be suggesting an exemption to moral responsibility.

A ‘soft’ determinism appears to be the best approach to the problem of free will for psychologists and scientists. Whether or not we have free will has little impact on the psychological principles in psychology today (deterministic principles do have their merits) – yet I wanted to highlight that there: a) is a problem with the ethics of an underlying hard deterministic approach that psychologists may need to be aware of; b) there appears to be a functional relationship between human behaviour and belief in free will that psychologists can investigate further: c) a strict determinism (or fatalism) I think, is not sufficient and it may not be necessary. As scientists we may have to confront the issue that there may be concepts that we are unable to understand fully and free will is one of them.


Dennet, D. (2003). Freedom Evolves. London: Allen Lane.

Dilman, I. (1999). Free Will. London & New York: Routledge.

Dreyfus, H. (2002). Intelligence without representation – Merleau-Ponty’s critique of mental representation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences , 367–383.

Gross, R. (2009). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology. London: Hodder Education.

Meynen, G. (2009). Should or should not forensic psychiatrists think about free will? Med Health Care and Philos , 203-212.

Storey, D. (2009). Spirit and/or Flesh. PhaenEx, vol. 4, no. 1 , 59-83.

Tolstoy, L. (1956). Anna Karenina, trans. Rosemary Edmunds. London: Penguin Classics.

Valle, R., & Halling, S. (1989). Existential-Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology: Exploring the Breadth of human experience. New York: Plenum Press.

Vohs, L., & J., S. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will. Psychological Science, Vol. 12, No. 1 , 49-54.


~ by alanmcauliffe on March 25, 2010.

8 Responses to “The problem of free will in psychology”

  1. I like the argument! especially the comparing of the strict determinism to religion. Though again I personally would not be in the camp of a deterministic outlook on free will, though neither would i be in the camp for a chaos theory argument. I think there is more too it than either of those theories can give us, hence I would agree with your conclusion of “As scientists we may have to confront the issue that there may be concepts that we are unable to understand fully and free will is one of them.” though I do not believe that that is reason enough not to try our best to understand it.

  2. I would certainly be in the determinist camp and why soften it?! The decrying of free will due to the determined interactions of molecules is akin to denying the beauty of a sunset. Just because photons can be deflected and absorbed and light can be detected at various frequencies and that all of this is theoretically predictable does not detract from the beauty of a sunset. Similarily, the determined interactions of subatomic particles in atoms in molecules in organic compounds in organs in organisms which interact with other organisms within an environment does not detract from the subjective experience of choice. Free will operates at an entirely different level to determinism and as such the explanations and analogies within language and understanding which is applicable to one are not applicable to the other. Determinism can not be seriously asserted on the level of behaviour or experience and free will is equally incompatible at the level of molecules.

    • SO just a question on Lisa’s comment there, are you saying that free will and determinism are two different things that can exist at the same time? or am i reading your comment wrong?

  3. Yeah, thats what I am saying, they are different things like happiness and hormones; maybe one can’t exist without the other but the level of hormonal activity is a whole world away from the level at which we can speak of the experience of happiness. To get away from possible physical/mental distinctions we could also consider the difference between a line of computer code in binary notation (00100111001110000 for instance) and the properties of the program that the code subserves (the graphical rendition of a flying reptile for instance); they are connected but at such disparate levels that we dont really need to compare them. Free will concerns the ability of vastly complex organisms to make choices based on a wealth of experience and evolutionary history over eons of time. Determinism in my mind relates to the observation that particular (isolated) causes produce particular (isolated) effects. Introduce any amount of complexity and predictability very soon goes out of the window. So no fear that within a deterministc universe I could ever get away with blaming my misadventures on the electrochemical interactions of my constituent molecules (including those historical interactions between myself and my environment). Fatalists must lead very boring lives.

  4. Indeed they must but, I still do not fully understand how this can prove a hard determism and free will can co-exist. That is what soft determism is about. For the world to be truly determisnistic we can only have an illusion of free will. I can believe all I want I am here at this point in time, writing this comment for the second time because the internet crashed before it saved last time, because I chose to, but in a hard determist world, it was decided before I was ever born that this would happen at this point in time and I have no control over that, cept the control I believe I have. This is the only way I could see for hard determism and free will to exist in the same world at the same time. Even the example you give I would see as being a softly determined approach in that while happiness and hormones may only have a slight interaction or effect on each other, they still do have that effect. The more of a particular type of hormone wwe have the happier we are likely to feel. In the same way if only certain things in the world are determined and we have choices about others then the world is softly determined. Myself, other than a complete alternative, or the existance of either one or the other with its opponent, this is the only way free will and hard determism can co-exist simultaneously.

  5. Actually, another thought i had on the issue of free will in psychology, though not necessarily related to these previous comments or even necessarily to this post is that of free will and control. For my FYP I studyed some issues with control and previous research tells us that feeling in control of ones life is necessary to a person’s sense of well being. When a person feels that they do not have control over a situation, it can have very negative consequences. However, if we consider a deterministic universe, where everything is preordained, destined to happen, that effectively removes all control from us as to how we live our lives. No matter what we do, we have no control over it, it was decided for us before we were ever born. Therefore, free will, or at the very least the illusion of free will, is a prerequisite to living a functional life, because if we have no choice in how we live our lives, then we have no control over our lives.

  6. To take on a deterministic view point would lead to individuals feeling that they have no control in their lives.This is detrimental to mental health. Seligman(2000) highlights that we have created in our society an issue he terms as learned helplessness. This is characterised by a feeling of no control and individuals who report this have higher levels of depression. He also highlights that in the USA depression in young people is at it’s highest (Gillham, 2000) so to further promote a deterministic approach does not serve our society regardless of scienctific research. Soft determinism seems the safest and least damaging to society, which sould be the most important thing?

  7. The issue of control is a very relevant problem associated with free will. As I mentioned in the blog, research suggests that a disbelief in free will seems to indicate more aggressive behaviour and less helpful behaviour (Vohs and Schacter, 2008). Free will, or more specifically a belief in free will, seems to have a functional quality. Research in this area is limited. It seems logical to associate a lack of control following from a deterministic outlook (if everything is predetermined then anything is permitted). That is why I support Dennett’s ‘soft’ determinism – one has choice, which compliments our biological and cultural condition. Even if free will is a complete illusion, a fatalistic argument is still insufficient. While we may be able to predict certain behaviour for certain situations for certain types of individuals, the amount of variables in effect is vast. Our effort should not necessarily be to control behaviour, but understand it, and try to prevent atrocities from individuals manipulating the control or will of others (although I am aware that Behavioural modification produces great outcomes of maladaptive behaviour, I refer to the atrocities associated with propaganda and manipulation for the benefit for others).

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