Psychology and Philosophy on Free Will

free_will Free Will

One of the more heated debates in current psychology and philosophy is the existence of free will. The belief that we are the conscious scripter and performer of our thoughts, actions, and mental processes. But are these beliefs set in stone? Other theories have been drafted to challenge free will in intellectual circles. Determinists, for example, maintain that thoughts and actions are determined by prior causes (parents, schooling, country of birth, etc.) or by chance. In this view, we experience thoughts and actions rather than perform them. Another example is fatalism, the belief that everything is already determined by the universe. Fatalists are similar to determinists, because they too belief that our conscious selves experience actions rather than perform them. The slight distinction between determinism and fatalism is that fatalists don’t belief that chance plays a factor, because the future is already determined. In this view, your life is a movie (albeit a lengthy one) that already has a cast, script, and ending in mind. While an overwhelming majority of humans adopt the view of free will, the concept is of major practical importance, and plenty of psychological and philosophical aspects are being considered competent enough to weigh in one such a question. I consider three aspects of psychology below, which are the neuroscientific perspective, the humanistic perspective, and the behaviorist perspective,

The Neuroscience Perspective

New neuroimaging studies done through the use of Electroencephalogram (EEG) machines29171701 cast doubt on free will, as scientists can now predict choices participants will make in simple studies before the test subjects have consciously made up their mind, as shown in the picture above. Other experiments show the ‘firing off’ of motor neurons ( the part of the brain responsible for voluntary movement) 300 milliseconds before subjects become consciously aware of the desire to move. This seems to support the theory that decisions and actions are the result of prior causes. Free will suggests that we tell our brains what to do, and actions follow. Neuroimaging says neurons move, then we tell our brains what to do, and actions follow. So the neurons in this case are the prior cause. Studies like these have led to skeptics of free will, mostly through the neuroscientist community. However, this is not to say that the community is of one mind. Michael Gazzaniga, the lead experimenter on the famous corpus callosum experiment, claims that people are still responsible for their actions, regardless of the outcome of the free will question.

The Humanist  Perspective

Humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers are the group most likely to employ the concept of free will. Their main argument is that free will is necessary for self-actualization and change in one’s behavior. “How can humans change themselves without free will? How can drug addicts become clean? How can people become more compassionate?” Humanists also claim that the difference between voluntary and involuntary actions is clear evidence that free will must be inserted into the clockwork, as to make sense of this distinction. This argument is not as airtight as others. Sam Harris in his book Free Will points out that as long as the voluntary acts are preceded through prior causes or chance, the voluntary/involuntary distinction is a moot question.

The Behaviorist Perspective

Behavior psychology focuses mainly on observing actions, and has no opinion on mental processes. They claim that while consciousness will not be able to be reduced to a blackboard, focusing on actions and decisions that can be studied and quantified is time better spent. The behavioralist community is split on the question of free will. Some look at experiments where people are less likely to help others in need when subjects are in big groups of people, as opposed to being the only one who can lend a hand (known as the diffusion of responsibility effect) . Since the data suggests that people’s decisions can be heavily influenced by their surroundings, it seems to make advocates of free will queasy. Others depend on a simple behaviorist thought experiment. A participant enters a room with two muffins and is asked to choose one. With free will he chooses a muffin. Now imagine the same experiment with a subject without free will. He is given the same test and chooses a muffin. Finally, imagine you are the experimenter that watched both participants from a tv screen in another room. Could you discern the difference between the two? Regardless of free will or not, a choice was still made. That choice, in a sense, is yours whether or not you or your body decides to initiates that choice. Therefore, unless a distinction can be made between the two test subjects, free will (sort of) exists.


Since many aspects of current culture (politics, religion, court systems) rely on the assumption of free will, arguments from multiple directions like these and ones to come have serious practical consequences. And already the results aren’t encouraging. Students are more likely to cheat on exams after reading articles claiming that free will is an illusion.

Many philosophical belief systems take shelter in the assumption of free will. The concept of sin hangs in the balance of this debate. Humans absent of free will would be, by definition, not responsible for their actions. Therefore punishing people for being sinful would make no sense, because humans could therefore be reduced to biological puppets acting upon unknowable factors. This would certainly render beliefs like the Abrahamic religion’s concept of heaven and hell false, with the exception of a few Islamic sects that have a belief in fatalism. People also may be discouraged from acting morally if free will is proven to be false. If they don’t feel in charge, why not just sit back and let whatever is going to happen, happen? Others think it can inspire empathy, as people are less likely to be angry at someone’s poor decision if they realize he the the experiencer, not the performer. Hate of others seemed to be undermined if they’re not in charge of themselves.


1 thought on “Psychology and Philosophy on Free Will

  1. jmg6373

    I think this a great topic that I would be very interested in reading about. I have always admired philosophy however, I have not read a lot about. I look forward to reading your future posts.

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