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.

In attempting to explain the violent opposition to psychoanalysis in his day, an opposition that included not only religious thinkers but many secular intellectuals and academicians, Freud proudly and defiantly declared:

"Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self‑love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe…The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world…But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present‑day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind…This is the kernel of the universal revolt against our science." (A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Eighteenth Lecture)

Again, The Medievals Respond

Aquinas and Maimonides might respond as follows: To the extent that your theories about the irrational influences on human behavior are correct, you contribute to a better understanding of man's proclivity to sin. However, this is all the more reason to encourage rational behavior.

In fact, that is precisely what you yourself are advocating in your own psychoanalytic therapy, which focuses on the patient's acquisition of insight (i.e., rational understanding) into why he thinks, feels, and behaves as he does. Presumably, this insight will enable him to change his behavior. We and our followers, some of whom have also noted the power of unconscious impulses, attempt to guide men to more effective use of their reason in fighting the irrational, sinful forces with which all of us must contend.

Notwithstanding their free‑will position, Maimonides and Aquinas realize that sometimes there are exonerating factors when man does evil or fails to do good. Conversely, modern psychologists, while affirming determinism, use concepts similar to the traditional free‑will model, particularly self‑control. The debate between the theologian and the therapist about freedom is softened by the many points of convergence between a qualified affirmation of free will and a determinism which tries to cultivate self‑control[…]

Self-Control Can Be Embraced By All

Modern psychology denies free will but talks instead about self-­control, ego‑strength, internal locus of control, or phenomenological freedom. It teaches people techniques to help them delay gratification of immediate desires.

Rational‑emotive, cognitive, behavior, and re­ality therapy share a common goal of helping the patient assume greater control over what he does, thinks, and feels. All of these rein­troduce into secular, determinist psychology and psychiatry traditional religious concerns with self‑control and acceptance of responsibility for one's behavior. Interestingly, one of the most insightful analyses of self‑control is by B. F. Skinner, the strict determinist and radical behaviorist.

My own view is that the determinist model is more scientifically useful than the free‑will one in the search for a better understanding of why we behave as we do. However, our use of the language of freedom remains valuable and even necessary. It enhances our self‑esteem, encourages us to develop self‑control, and reminds us how limited are our understanding of behavior and our ability to predict and control it.

These useful functions of the free‑will model should not, however, deter us from research to discover biological or social determinants of our behavior that are not subject to our direct, personal control. We must also be willing to face the logical implications of the determinist model. We have to reconsider our attitudes about guilt and responsi­bility, and the ways in which we ascribe moral or legal blame and administer punishment.

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Dr. Solomon Schimmel

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