Psychological Determinism and Free Will

Can we choose our way?

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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.

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Dr. Solomon Schimmel

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