Free Will and Determinism


Free Will

The notion of free will suggests human beings are free to choose their thoughts and actions.

There are biological and environmental influences on our behaviour - but free will implies we can reject them.

This is the view of the humanistic approach.

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Hard and Soft Determinism

Hard Determinism (fatalism): all human action has a cause - it should be possible to identify these causes. This is compatible with the aims of science which assume that what we do is dictated by internal or external forces that we cannot control.

Soft Determinism: all human action has a cause but people have conscious mental control over behaviour. William James (1890) thought scientists should explain the determining forces acting upon us, but we still have freedom to make choices.

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Biological Determinism

The biological approach:

  • Physiological processes are not under conscious control, e.g. influence of autonomic nervous system on anxiety.
  • Genetic factors may determine many behaviours and characteristics, e.g. mental disorders.
  • Hormones may determine behaviour, e.g. the role of testosterone in aggressive behaviour.
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Environmental Determinism

The behaviourist approach popularised the idea of environmental determinism - Skinner said free will is 'an illusion' and argued all behaviour is the result of conditioning.

Our experience of 'choice' is just the sum total of reinforcement contingencies that have acted upon us throughout our lives.

We might think we are acting independently, but our behaviour has been shaped by environmental events and agents of socialisation, e.g. parents, teachers, institutions, etc.

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Psychic Determinism

Like Skinner, Freud thought free will is an illusion but placed emphasis on biological drives and instincts underpinning psychological responses rather than conditioning.

Freud's psychic determinism sees behaviour as determined and directed by unconscious conflicts repressed in childhood.

For example, even a seemingly random 'slip of the tongue' is determined by the unconscious.

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Science and Determinism

A basic principle of science is that every event has a cause and these can be explained with general laws. Knowledge of these allows scientists to predict and control events.

In chemistry, adding a chemical (x) to a chemical (y) results in a reaction (z) within the controlled environment of the test tube. In other words the behaviour of z is determined by x and y.

In psychology, the laboratory experiment lets researchers simulate the conditions of the test tube and remove all other extraneous variables to demonstrate a causal effect.

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Evaluation: Determinism

One strength of determinism is that it is consistent with the aims of science. The notion that human behaviour is orderly and obeys laws places psychology on equal footing with other more established sciences, increasing its credibility.

Another strength us that the prediction and control of human behaviour has led to the development of therapies and treatments, e.g. drug treatments to manage schizophrenia. The experience of schizophrenia suggests some behaviours are determined.

One limitation is hard determinism is not consistent with the legal system. Offenders are morally accountable for their actions in law. Only in extreme circumstances are juries instructed to act with leniency, e.g. when the Laws of Diminished Responsibility is applied in case of mental illness.

Another limitation is that determinism as an approach to scientific enquiry is not falsifiable. It ia based on the idea that causes of behaviour will always exist, even though they may not have been found yet. As a basic principle this is impossible to disprove. This suggests that the determinist approach may not be as scientific as it first appears.

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Evaluation: Free Will

One strength of free wil is that we often make choices in everyday life. Everyday experience 'gives us the impression' that we are constantly making choices on any given day. This gives face validity to the idea of free will.

Another strength is that, even if we don't have free will, the fact that we think we do may have a positive impact on mind and behaviour. Roberts et al showed that adolescents with a strong belief in fatalism were more at risk of depression.

One limitation of free will is that it is not supported by neurological evidence. Brain studies of decision-making have revealed evidence against free-will. Libet and Soon found that the brain activity related to the decision to press a button with the left or right hand occurs up to 10 seconds before participants report being consciously aware of making such a decision. This shows that even our most basic experiences of free will are decided and determined by our brain before we even become aware of them.

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One strength is a compromise in the middle-ground position. Approaches in psychology that have a cognitive element, e.g. social learning theory, are those which tend to adopt a soft determinist position. Bandura argued that although environmental factors in learning are key, we are free to choose who or what to attend to and when to perform certain behaviours. This middle-ground approach is helpful in understanding aspects of behaviour which are not a straightforward choice between free will and determinism, e.g. learning.

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