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.