Do we have free will? This question has bedeviled Western thought for millennia, spanning the centuries from Aristotle and the Greeks, to Thomas Aquinas and medieval Christian theology, to Einstein and modern science. The power of the question derives from a primal concern about the source of our sense of agency and responsibility for our decisions and actions.
The question has practical implications that reach well beyond a debate among philosophers and scholars. So, for example, should those who are severely mentally ill or cognitively impaired be held responsible for their criminal actions? What about children? Or someone who is drugged? Or forced at gunpoint to comply with a command?
No surprise—I do not have the answer. But I offer thoughts that help me to make sense of this question and enable me to reach an understanding that has some practical value. I will confine my comments to the psychological domain (although I think they can be applied to the physical sciences as well).
Provocative findings from two areas of contemporary psychological research challenge the belief in free will. One research thread suggests that automatic cognitive processes occurring out of awareness control our actions. Our sense of agency occurs after our choices have been made; choice is an illusion. The second thread offers evidence that the neural impetus to act is already under way before the conscious intention to act occurs. Again, choice is an illusion. These data and conclusions, not surprisingly, have generated pointed challenges and heated disputes among scientists.
This debate is not new to psychology, as behaviorist researchers of previous generations also argued against free will. The most notable was B. F. Skinner, who in his book, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” argued that we are the product of our reinforcement history and, consequently, freedom, dignity, as well as all other terms describing human traits and ideals are empty fictions. Needless to say, a great uproar ensued.
I would like to focus on four conceptual issues that are often overlooked in these disputes about the methods and meaning of these research findings: science and truth; the nature of will; yin-yang; and the pragmatics of “I can”.
Science and Truth
Scientist are independent thinkers who consider a question, pose a hypothesis to answer the question, devise experiments to test the hypothesis, and use the evidence derived from the experiments to determine if the hypothesis is true. If the evidence supports the hypothesis, the scientists have empirical justification for drawing valid, if provisional, conclusions about the question.
Now, if we accept the scientific evidence from the recent psychological research suggesting we lack free will, surely this conclusion applies to the scientists as well; that their hypotheses, decisions, tests, and conclusions are all determined.1 Validity and truth are, thus, comforting fictions, and the entire scientific enterprise of discovering an objective truth untainted by our personal opinions, subjective biases, and blinkered perspectives is a pointless exercise. What legitimate claim can scientists make that their findings should receive any more credibility than, say, astrology, reading palms, or divining from bird entrails? Paradoxically, if we accept the validity of the findings we must conclude that the findings cannot be objectively true. Furthermore, if we accept the soundness of this paradoxical conclusion, we also must, then, accept that this conclusion is not really the result of our judiciously considering the logic and meaning of the argument. Rather, it is just another round of self-delusion. And round and round it goes. Hmm…
What is Will?
It is typically assumed, both in common understanding and in the methods and interpretation of the research, that will is a single, conscious, heave of effort that leads to action. An alternative, more comprehensive understanding is that will is a “mental agency that transforms awareness into action, it is the bridge between desire and action.”2
Consider St. Paul’s definition of sin: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”3 I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. This is a situation that we all understand and often is a major focus of psychotherapy. A simple exhortation to engage will, to “get up off your butt and do it,” in these circumstances often fails. A conscious heave of effort fails because we harbor contradictory intentions and desires, some of which may be out of awareness. Will, the bridge between desire and action, is conflicted.
Psychotherapy is often focused on bringing hidden desires and conflicts into awareness, thus disencumbering will, enabling deeper conscious understanding of the conflicts, allowing deliberative consideration of the choices, and embracing responsibility for action. Cognitive science provides evidence for the power of unconscious factors, and neuroscience documents the neurological run-up to a conscious “heave of effort.” Will includes both these and much more.
Either-Or or Yin-Yang?
An assumption often made is that the question of free will is a dichotomous choice: Yes or no. It might be more fruitful to assume it to be a yin-yang relationship; freedom and determinism are interdependent, two sides of the same coin. So, for example, a piano has 88 keys. It is a deterministic structure that limits the possible notes that can be played. This relatively small set of keys, however, allows for the composition of an infinite number of songs. The 88 keys constrain or determine the possibilities, but within these constraints resides freedom.
Now consider the psychological and neuropsychological evidence of unconscious influences and neurological readiness potential that precedes conscious intention. We are a biological piano. We are able to make music, but are constrained in many, multiple ways by our anatomy. We do not have complete freedom and much happens out of awareness (and be thankful that it does, for we would be overcome to the point of paralysis by the Niagara of sensations, perceptions, ideas, and choices flooding our every waking moment). We are bound by the constraints of our being, which provide us with the means to create our music, sing our (December) songs.
One of the most important steps in psychotherapy is believing “I can.” It is understandable why many who are in dire straits, who have endured harrowing trauma, personal loss and anguish, or whose lives have been blighted by misfortune, feel doomed, condemned, and believe “I can’t”. The often difficult first step of seeking therapy carries the tentative hope that, “Maybe I can”. It is the beginning of the journey from “I can,” to “I will,” to “I did.”
William James, who is (in my view) the greatest American psychologist and philosopher, experienced a bout of severe depression, unable to rise from his bed, convinced that he had no free will to alter his situation. He overcame his depression by deciding that regardless of the evidence and compelling arguments for determinism, he would act as if he had free will; believe “I can.” His “will to believe”4 created the reality of free will.
James was a leader of the philosophical school called Pragmatism and he coined the term “Cash Value” to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash Value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words”. Cash Value can be applied to the question of free will.
Therapy is an act of courage, requiring effort, commitment, humility, resiliency, and honesty. All of these attributes, along with truth, justice, guilt, responsibility, dignity, etc., etc., etc., are self-delusional fictions if we seriously believe we are puppets of deterministic forces. The question of free will is a captivating puzzle and an impetus to interesting research and lively dispute. But, ultimately, only a conclusion of free will has any cash value. “I can” gives us our world. The choice between “I can” or “I can’t” is a hard-fought, life or death decision for many in anguish and distress, and scientific evidence and philosophical arguments are irrelevant. I take a stand for free will. I have no choice. . .5
- I first encountered this argument in the work of George Kelley, whose sharp, often sarcastic takedowns of behaviorism delighted me at a time when was unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. He held a vision of what psychology could be “beyond B.F Skinner and behaviorism.” His far-reaching approach not only influenced me, but was instrumental in the cognitive revolution that swept through psychology after his death in 1965.
- This quote is from Irvin Yalom’s brilliant book, “Existential Psychotherapy” (pg. 289).
- Romans 7:14-15.
- This is the title of one of his well-known books.
- Questions of whether children or those suffering from mental illness are responsible for their action presumes the presence of free will, for which these circumstances might be exceptions.