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Free Will and Determinism

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Free Will and Determinism

Are our decisions our own? Or are they determined by external forces, such as genetics or upbringing? These questions preoccupied philosophers and psychologists alike and continue to be debated. Free will and determinism are two sides of the same coin. Both seek to fathom the reasons for human behaviour and decision making.

We should thus examine both sides of the free will and determinism debate and look at different examples to fully comprehend the difference between them. Problems with free will and determinism will also be the topic of our discussion.

The free will and determinism debate is a philosophical debate that addresses the extent to which uncontrollable factors influence our thoughts and behaviour. There are two main sides to the debate: either people have free will, or factors beyond our control impact our behaviour.

Free Will and Determinism [+] Debate [+] StudySmarter

Free will vs determinism debate, Flaticon

The argument for free will

The argument for free will stems from the assumption that humans have complete autonomy to make their own decisions. Proponents of free will argue that while external factors can influence our behaviour, humans ultimately decide for themselves how and whether to respond to these factors.

If a poor person steals because they have no money to feed themselves, free will advocates argue that they still decided to steal despite the external factors (e.g., poverty). The decision to steal was their own.

Since individuals have complete free will to take any action they choose, it is also impossible to accurately predict their behaviour.

Maslow (1943) and Rogers (1951), known for their humanistic approach, believe that all people inherently have free will and control the outcomes in their lives. We are responsible for our actions and consequences because external forces do not constrain us.

The humanistic approach in psychology supports the concept of free will in humans.

The argument for determinism

The argument for determinism stems from the assumption that humans do not have free will because our behaviour results from internal and external forces. Cause and effect dictate our behaviour, i.e., our actions directly result from our past experiences, our environment, and our genetic makeup. Free will is an illusion.

While proponents of determinism agree on the above points, there are different levels of determinism. These are hard determinism and soft determinism.

Hard determinism

Hard determinism holds that our behaviour is solely the result of factors beyond our control, such as biology, experiences, and environment (fatalism). Free will is utterly incompatible with hard determinism. There is biological, psychological, and environmental determinism within hard determinism (see below).

Free will and determinism [+]  Determinists believe our biology, past experiences and environment determine our behaviour [+] StudySmarter

Determinists believe our biology, past experiences, and environment dictate our behaviour, Shikha Shah, StudySmarter Originals

Proponents of hard determinism would argue that being born into a low-income family is an environmental constraint. Stealing food is not a choice made out of free will but out of the need created by poverty. Poverty is the cause, and stealing is the consequence.

Since an individual’s behaviour directly results from their biology, experiences, and environment, behaviour is predictable.

Soft determinism

Soft determinism holds that our behaviour is, to some degree, the result of factors beyond our control, but we still retain some elements of free will. Proponents of soft determinism also contend that some behaviours are more constrained than others, i.e., the degree of free will may vary depending on the behaviour and the situation.

Proponents of soft determinism would argue that being born into a low-income family is an environmental constraint, but choosing to steal is an example of free will. This is true when there are other options, such as borrowing money or receiving support from the government.

Since external factors constrain individuals, their behaviour is predictable but not inevitable because they also have some free will.

Free will and determinism [+] Scale representing the spectrum  of free will and determinism debate [+] StudySmarter

A scale representing the ‘spectrum’ of the free will and determinism debate, Shikha Shah, StudySmarter Originals

Biological, psychic, and environmental determinism

In the following, we will consider biological, psychological and environmental determinism as different subtypes of determinism.

What is biological determinism?

Biological determinism is the view that our biology is responsible for our behaviour. Biology includes our DNA, brain processes, and hormones, among other things.According to this view, our internal biological processes control us and determine our behaviour. Our actions are not carried out because of free will, as our nervous system and hormones trigger them. From the perspective of biological determinism, we are nothing more than biological machines.

If anxiety runs in the family, a person may be predisposed to suffer from anxiety. In stressful situations, the predisposed person’s nervous system may trigger specific responses that indicate anxiety, such as nail-biting, rocking, or hyperventilation.

John Bowlby believed that humans are innately programmed to form an attachment to a primary caregiver; this is called the monotropic theory. He also noted that losing this attachment in the crucial first years of life can lead to long-term social, emotional, and cognitive damage (maternal deprivation theory). There is also an increased risk of delinquent activity, as his study of 44 thieves demonstrates. On this basis, there may be biological explanations for criminal activity.

The biological approach in psychology supports biological determinism, which examines the influence of biology on behaviour.

What is psychic determinism?

Psychic determinism views our behaviour as a result of unconscious feelings such as fears, desires and conflicts.

Under this view, motivations we are not actively aware of influence us. These may have arisen during childhood or traumatic experiences. Freud believed that all behaviours had a ‘root’ motivation that stemmed from the unconscious mind. Due to this, actions are not a result of free will, even if it appears otherwise. According to psychic determinists, we are motivated by our unconscious mind at all times.

An individual experiences a car crash, resulting in significant physical and emotional trauma. Years after recovery, the effects of the traumatic experience influence their daily decisions. They keep postponing their driving lessons saying that they have no time to get a driving license. At funfairs, they avoid bumper cars, saying that they prefer rollercoasters instead. Psychic determinists would state that although this appears to be free will, the individual is acting upon their unconscious fear of cars (specifically, the fear of crashing).

Freud’s theories about the Oedipus and Electra complexes in boys and girls respectively explain how psychic determinism views behaviour. When boys and girls are experiencing the Oedipus or Electra complex, they are likely to exhibit behaviours motivated by the desire to replace their parents of the same sex. For example, boys may copy their father’s behaviour and act hostile towards him because they act on their unconscious desire to replace him.

The psychodynamic approach in psychology supports psychic determinism, which studies the influence of the unconscious on behaviour.

What is environmental determinism?

Environmental determinism views that external influences, such as conditioning and associations taught to us by parents, school, and society, shape our behaviour. Our choices are the result of encouraged, reinforced behaviours during our upbringing.

In this view, we act according to what we are taught as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or the associations we make between action and consequence. Our behaviour is the result of what we have learned. Thus, we do not have free will because external influences motivate us.

A school child gets a bad mark in the exam because he was watching TV instead of studying. As a result, the teacher gives them extra homework so that the child can prepare for the exam the following week. At home, the parents take away the child’s TV and access to the phone after 7 pm as punishment. In the future, the child starts studying for exams early because he does not want to get another bad mark. Every time they get a good mark in an exam, the parents reward them with their favourite food for dinner. Environmental determinists would argue that learning, namely punishment and reward, influence a child’s learning habits.

Several studies have been conducted to demonstrate the influence of external factors on behaviour. Bandura’s Bobo doll study (1961) shows that children can exhibit physically and verbally aggressive behaviour when they see an adult doing the same thing. Bandura emphasises that behaviour emerges through observation and imitation.Skinner conducted experiments on animals whose brain structures are similar to humans and assumes that all behaviour is due to conditioning and reinforcement.

The learning approach in psychology supports environmental determinism, examining the influence of external factors (such as stimuli and response, punishment and reward) on behaviour.

Causal explanations using the scientific method

Psychologists prefer to find causal explanations using the scientific method when determining which factor(s) influence behaviour. To this end, they control confounding variables and manipulate the independent variable to test the outcome, the dependent variable.This supports the cause and effect argument of determinists because it explains behaviour and shows that we may be motivated by our biology, past experiences, or environment.

Evaluation of the argument of free will

  • The free will argument recognises the ability of individuals to make their own decisions and create their outcomes and has good face validity. People with an internal locus of control tend to have higher levels of health because they control their behaviour.
  • The argument holds individuals responsible for their actions and consequences, making accountability and punishment easy.
  • However, the existence of mental illness undermines the free will argument. Do mentally ill people, such as those with dementia, really act of their own free will and should they be held responsible for their actions?
  • The problem of the free-will argument is that it ignores the effects of external factors. Many actions are performed without free will, for example, in situations of desperation, necessity, or coercion.
  • If humans have free will and all actions are unpredictable, it is more challenging to study human behaviour to look for patterns or causes.
  • Brain activity has been shown to determine a choice long before an action, suggesting that the choice was made before conscious decisions were made.

Evaluation of the argument of determinism

  • Determinism acknowledges the influence of external and internal factors on behaviour.
  • Soft determinism allows for a balance between the two sides of the free will and determinism debate.
  • Determinism can be studied using the scientific method because it can explain cause and effect, which increases the validity and reliability of research.
  • However, the problem of determinism is that it undermines the dignity of individuals and their ability to make their own decisions. It is unlikely that all actions are predetermined.
  • The argument from determinism diminishes individual responsibility. A person who committed a crime could argue they had no choice but to do so; this makes accountability and punishment more complex. Can we punish people for their wrongdoing if they have no choice?

Free Will and Determinism - Key takeaways

  • The argument for free will stems from the assumption that man is entirely autonomous and can make his own decisions.
  • The argument for determinism assumes that human beings have no free will because our behaviour results from internal and external forces beyond our control.
  • There is hard determinism and soft determinism. Soft determinism is compatible with free will. Hard determinism is fatalistic.
  • Biological, psychological, and environmental determinism deals with the influence of biology, the subconscious, and external factors, respectively, on behaviour.
  • Using the scientific method to find causal explanations supports determinists’ cause and effect argument because it shows how we may be motivated by our biology, past experiences, or environment.

Frequently Asked Questions about Free Will and Determinism

Free will and determinism is a philosophical debate concerned with how we or uncontrollable factors influence our thoughts and behaviours. 

The two sides of the debate are very different; however, soft determinism is a type of determinism that appears to be compatible with free will and determinism. Soft determinism is the view that our behaviour is, to an extent, the result of factors beyond our control; however, we still retain some elements of free will. A compromise between the two does exist.

An example of determinism is the act of stealing food because a person was born into a low-income family and cannot afford to pay for food. They had to steal food and did not choose to do so. 

In philosophy, free will is the idea that humans can make their own choices and that external factors do not constrain them.

The main difference between determinism and free will is humans' autonomy to make decisions. Determinists argue that external factors constrain humans and that free will is an illusion. Supporters of free will say that external factors may impact humans but ultimately have the autonomy to make their own decisions.

Final Free Will and Determinism Quiz

Question

Summarise the argument of free will in the debate of free will and determinism.

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Answer

The argument of free will argues that humans have complete autonomy to make their own decisions. Proponents of free will argue that although external factors affect our behaviour, ultimately, humans decide how to respond to them. 

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Question

Select the correct statement from the perspective of a supporter of free will.

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Answer

It is impossible to predict someone's behaviour with accuracy.

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Question

Which approach in psychology supports the concept of free will?

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Answer

The humanistic approach.

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Question

Summarise the argument for determinism.

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Answer

The argument for determinism argues that human beings do not have free will because our behaviour results from both internal and external forces. Cause and effect dictate behaviour, namely that our actions are the direct results of our past experiences, our environment and genetic makeup. Free will is an illusion.  

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Question

Where does hard determinism stand on a scale with ‘compatible with free will’ and ‘incompatible with free will’?

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Answer

‘Incompatible with free will’.

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Question

How is soft determinism compatible with free will?

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Answer

Soft determinism states our behaviour is, to an extent, the result of factors beyond our control. However, we still retain some elements of free will. As external factors constrain us, behaviours are predictable but not inevitable, as individuals also have a degree of free will.

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Question

What are three different types of determinism?

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Answer

Biological, psychic, and environmental determinism.

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Question

What is biological determinism?

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Answer

Biological determinism views our biology as responsible for our behaviour. Biology includes our DNA, brain processes, and hormones. According to this view, our internal biological processes control us and govern our behaviour. Our actions are not a result of free will because our nervous system and hormones trigger them. We are no more than biological machines.

Show question

Question

What is psychic determinism?

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Answer

Psychic determinism views our behaviour as a result of unconscious feelings, such as fears, desires, and conflicts. According to this view, we are not actively aware of motivations influencing us. These may have arisen during childhood or traumatic experiences.

Show question

Question

What is environmental determinism?

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Answer

Environmental determinism views our behaviour as shaped by external influences, such as conditioning and association taught to us by parents, school and society. Under this view, we act based on what we are taught is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or based on the associations we hold between an action and a consequence.

Show question

Question

Which type of determinism does Bandura's Bobo doll study (1961) support?

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Answer

Environmental determinism.

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Question

What kind of method do psychologists prefer when determining which factor(s) influence behaviour?

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Answer

Psychologists prefer to establish causal explanations using the scientific method when determining which factor(s) influence behaviour.

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Question

How does using the scientific method support determinism?

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Answer

Using the scientific method supports the argument of cause and effect by determinists as it explains behaviour and shows we may be motivated by our biology, past experiences or environment.

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Question

Explain how the argument of free will supports accountability.

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Answer

The argument of free will holds individuals responsible for their actions and consequences, which makes accountability and punishment straightforward.

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Question

Explain the issue with accountability and the argument of determinism.

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Answer

The argument of determinism diminishes individual responsibility. A person who committed a crime could argue they had no other choice, making accountability and punishment more complex. 

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