Psychological Determinism and Free Will

Can we choose our way?

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The idea that our actions are, to a large degree, determined by our psychological make-up may be viewed as a threat to traditional notions of free will. In what follows, Solomon Schimmel creates a hypothetical dialogue between psychologists, particularly Freud, and two traditional religious thinkers, the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and his near-contemporary, the Christian Thomas Aquinas. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology.

It is not the free‑will model but determinism [i.e. the denial of free will] which dominates scientific conceptions of man. Thoughtful psychologists and social scientists know that there will always remain significant domains of human behavior that are unpredictable and beyond external control. The number of factors that influence us are large and their interactions complex; there are also practical and ethical limitations on studying them scientifically. 

However, the scientific advances of the 20th century, based upon determinism as a working model of human nature, have vastly increased our ability to predict individual and group behavior. So it is reasonable, psychologists say, to assume that the determinist model is more accurate than the free‑will one. The adoption of a determinist model has profound implications for our notions of sin, vice, crime, responsibility, guilt, blame, and punishment.

Medieval Philosophers: Humans Can Rationally Choose

Maimonides and Aquinas would say to the determinist that the debate between them is in part semantic rather than real. We do not mean by freedom of the will that man's acts are uncaused. On the contrary, we who speak of the temptations of the flesh, the devil, or the evil inclination, of how differences in individual temperament, knowledge of Scripture, or the company we keep affect us, are acutely aware of how man's behavior can be influenced by biological and social factors.

psychological determinism and free willHowever, we believe that man has been endowed with reason and will. He is capable of using his rationality to apprehend what is good and do what is right. Surely you social scientific determinists do not deny man's ability to reason, weigh options, and anticipate the consequences of actions. Most of you do that all the time and recommend that others do so as well. You consider objectivity and rationality to be the very cornerstones of your scientific enterprise.

Freud: Human Choices Are Irrational

To which the determinist, particularly Freud, would respond that belief in man as capable of rational decision making is wrong. On the contrary, man's reason is subject to great distortion by irrational biological and social forces of which he is usually unaware. He cannot control them with reason because they control his thought processes. What may appear to the untrained eye to be objectively rational is nothing more than a pseudo‑rationality serving man's selfish interests and impulses. Even if man's reason were not distorted by these forces, their influence on him is far greater than whatever counterforce reason might exert.

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Dr. Solomon Schimmel

Dr. Solomon Schimmel is a psychotherapist and Professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College.