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The subject of "free will" came up in a discussion in a Psychology class I once took. Because neither I nor the teacher had defined our terms, the first half of this discussion was worthless; halfway through we realized we were talking about two very different things. To prevent that from happening, let's decide here what we mean by "free will". Under free will, xriso lists a number of definitions of free will. I propose that these definitions can really be boiled down to two:

In a religious context, the debate is fairly limited to theology and interpretation of Scripture (of whatever religion you may be), as well as personal convictions.

The psychological debate is more interesting. B. F. Skinner, in various works including his most famous Beyond Freedom and Dignity expresses the following ideas: firstly, free will is irrelevant; secondly, because there is no such thing. This is all my teacher explained to me (I haven't actually read the book, I've never seemed to have the time, so if there's an error in the nuances correct me), along with the fact that it caused incredible controversy and understandable consternation when it was published. With these ideas we seeded our discussion, and the following are the conclusions we came to.

There exist two "extreme" (as in, few people really hold these positions, but they make good rhetorical devices) positions in psychology: the humanistic and the deterministic. The humanist follows the Lockean tradition: that we are at birth tabula rasa, clean slates; from this zero point we learn everything. We have free will, meaning that it is absolutely impossible to predict an individual's response to a given stimulus (it must be noted here that "predict" is as opposed to the deterministic point of view. The physics-based arguments one hears are not addressed here, but they do eventually come into play). The determinist, on the other hand, holds that all behavior is completely controlled by either genetics or learning, and that knowing the sum total of an individual's experiences would allow one to predict the individual's behavior.

The middle ground is wide and varied, as any respectable middle ground should be; but, like all respectable middle ground, there are some ideas that tend to be common. Firstly: that we are tabula rasa at birth is mostly true. A somewhat famous saying regarding computer interface design is appropriate here: "The only intuitive interface is the nipple." This more or less sums up the middle-ground position, particularly if you substitute "intuitive interface" with "innate behavior" and "the nipple" with "sucking a nipple (and other, similar behaviors)." Secondly: our experiences do indeed have some hand in determining our behavior. Children who touch a hot stove soon learn not to do so. The extent of the influence experience has in determining our behavior tends to be the diverging point, and you could ask a hundred psychologists the question and receive two hundred answers.

At this point, I wondered, if experience does not determine behavior, what does? Keep in mind that theological considerations are not relevant to this particular discussion. To answer this question, we returned again to Locke. (Aside: it's quite funny; had Locke been given a hint of these ideas, Skinner would have been obsolete two centuries before he was born.) Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, states that "all ideas come from sensation or reflection." Sensation is that which I have called experience (Locke refers to both sensation and reflection as experience): to touch a hot stove is painful. Reflection is that which is built from sensation: to touch a hot stove is painful; to stick my hand in fire is painful; heat causes pain. There are many levels of reflection, and the higher levels to be the defining characteristic of sentience. So sensation and reflection (and our limited innate knowledge) are the only determinants of behavior.

The immediate conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the determinists are wrong, because known the sum total of an individual's experience does not include his reflection. But there is another layer; an onion so large as free will is not so easily unravelled. The correct response is the question: "Does knowing the sum total of an individual's experiences allow one to predict his reflection?" (Aside: we left feasibility behind a long time ago, back when we started with knowing the sum total of an individual's experiences.) Being able to predict an individual's reasoning (reflection) based on his experience would imply that each of us reasons in the same way. A quick look at E2 will disabuse us of this notion fairly rapidly. But it is also true that on a very basic level, most of us would indeed come to the same conclusions from an equal set of stimuli. We all know that fire is painful. And here we understand why we call the higher levels of reasoning the defining characteristic of sentience: because it is at the higher levels that each of us is different from the other, and it is the manner of our reflection on higher stimuli that defines each of us as individuals.

So what, then, does make our reasoning differ and define us as individuals? Well, on one level, lower reasoning. But that leads to circular logic; there has to be some base individuality. The answer is individual brain shape and size; individual connection configurations between neurons; and the like (and here, the physics might start getting relevant). This is the only possible base variable that affects how all the others vary. We have all heard how Einstein's brain was irregularly shaped in the area dealing with mathematics. So, to some extent then, the determinists are right. If we knew the sum total of an individual's experiences, the exact shape of his brain, the location of every neuron and all its connections, and we knew how to put all this data together and decipher it we could conceivably predict an individual's behavior. If we couldn't, and all our knowledge as well as the data was flawless, we might have to start bringing theology or quantum mechanics in (funny how everything we threw out crept back in), because our theory would have been effectively falsified. But in another way, the humanists are right, because gathering all that data about an individual would be next to impossible, and whether or not it is possible to have so much knowledge about the brain that the data would be useful is unknown.

In the end, it turns out Skinner was right, though. Free will in a psychological context does not exist, because it cannot exist, because it is irrelevant. What would we be free from? Reason? That, gentle noder, is known as insanity.

The question: Is behaviour free, or is it determined, and what are the implications for this for psychology as a science?

The answer: The determined or undetermined nature of human experience has long provided grist for the mills of philosophical and psychological debate. For psychology, the very existence of the science as a science has seemed to hang on this one issue. In this essay the aim is to show a brief account of determinism, and why it is, as a theory, flawed beyond recovery, and to show that this does not necessarily mean the death of psychology, but rather opens up promising new fields of enquiry.

The first question, then, is: Is human behaviour determined? This essay will take the definition of determinism given by James (cited in Viney and Crosby, 1994, p.130):

"those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be. The future has no ambiguous possibilities hidden in its womb: the part we call the present is compatible with only one totality"

There are many different viewpoints occupied by determinists, but they can be broadly categorised into hard and soft deterministic views. The hard determinist says that there is no room for human agency what-so-ever in the universe, that every action is completely and necessarily the result of previous stimuli. They posit that, should some mythical being be armed with perfect knowledge of the physical properties of every particle in the universe at some point in time, and incredible computing power, it would be able to predict, with perfect accuracy, the future course of events. That is to say all human behaviours are explicable in terms of biochemical processes in the brain, and with enough detail, it is possible not only to predict its behaviour, but the behaviour of other brains it interacts with. Soft determinism presents the idea that people “do make conscious choices between different courses of action ... [but] the choices themselves are determined by other factors” (Sappington, 1990, p.20). This position is clearly very similar to hard determinism, except that it focuses more attention on the illusion of free will, as experienced by a person. Since the two ideas function in essentially the same fashion, this essay will not differentiate between the two from here on in.

Back to our question: Is behaviour determined? To put it simply, no, it is not. Determinism is the logical offshoot of the Newtonian mechanics of last century, and it bases its assumptions about cause and causation on a flawed premise, to whit; all circumstances A (being a complete picture of the universe) will always lead to some circumstance B, by iron causality, and B can only have been caused by circumstances identical to A in all respects. This is a flawed premise; the elementary particles of the universe as we know it are not bound by iron-clad laws of efficient causation, but are only potentials between two or more states until they are observed (this is a gross simplification, but a full discussion of even the basics of Quantum Mechanical theory is far beyond the scope of this essay; see Gribbin, 1985). This means that it is impossible to predict the outcome of any circumstances with any accuracy: there is an element of randomness at the fundamental level of reality. The fact that, for the most part, the random permutations of reality act in almost precise accordance with the predictions of Classical Mechanical theory is of no import to the question - if any element of reality is indeterminate, then the whole can never be said to be a determined system.

This viewpoint seems to lead to problems for psychology. At first glance, it seems that any hope for a predictive science is dashed; if there are no prior causes for some event, then the “iron chain of cause and effect” (MacKay, 1960, p.31) is useless there, and the normal sense of events flowing on from other events is disrupted. However, there are two (at least, two that will be covered here) mitigating factors in play. The first is that, though the specific behaviours of any one particle may be indeterminate, they are indeterminate within bounds. Schrödinger’s 1926 particle wave equation provides very clear theoretical evidence (since affirmed many times by empirical evidence, again see Gribbin, 1985), that there is a limited amount of states some potential particle can exist in, and these are (reasonably) easily applied. On the transition from the microscopic quantum level to the macroscopic level of human behaviours, then, we have a similar range of possibilities: most of the potential particles behave exactly as predicted by Classical Mechanics, due to the law of averages, but the variance in total is, in principle, calculable, and predictable. This is exactly the same ‘in principle’ as that of determinism; if we knew everything about the subject, then we could tell what was going to happen, except that from a Quantum Mechanical viewpoint, you get a range of behaviours, rather than an absolute.

The advantages of this are obvious; psychology is no longer constrained to throwing out measurements that are different from similar measurements under the term ‘error variance’, but has a useful tool (when developed a little more than has been done here, of course) for predicting and embracing such variance, not as an error, but as a natural result of the world at large.

The second factor that proves redeeming for psychology is a theory forwarded mostly by Stapp (2000), which from the first principles of Quantum Mechanics, builds a theory of mind which explains free will, attention levels, and the feeling of mental ‘effort’ subjectively experienced when concentrating, and the correlation between this experience of effort and performance on various tests of mental processes. He draws on the “well-known and well-studied” (Stapp, 2000, p.3) Quantum Zeno Effect (the tendency for systems to evolve slower the more rapidly observations are taken on it, in essence), to state that “focus of intention is maintained by mental effort via the physical mechanism of the Quantum Zeno Effect, and this connection explains many empirical features of the mind-brain connection” (p.3). Although he admits that his account is merely a sketch, and must be developed further, it provides a solid, well researched, and above all interesting explanation for limits on attention, a new approach to the age old problems of mental/physical dualism or monism, and resolves quite neatly the question of human agency.

The very nature of determinism, as has been shown, is based on the flawed Classical Mechanical conception of reality, and is therefore itself flawed. Though it provides useful data, and has been doing so for some time, it should be replaced with a theory based on that which replaced Classical Mechanics in our understanding of reality, i.e. Quantum Mechanics. Not only does a theory based on Quantum Mechanics provide for a more accurate view, it remains just as powerful a predictor of behaviour (much as QM is as useful for explaining physical properties as CM, and also provides for predictions where CM theory breaks down). It also, in human consciousness as an agent, fits better with people’s subjective experiences of free will. Stapp’s (2000) Quantum Theory of Consciousness opens many new areas of research, and provides a solid basis for further inquiry.


References: Gribbin, J. (1985) In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, Bantam Doubleday Bell MacKay, D.M. (1960). On the logical indeterminacy of a free choice. Mind, 69,31-40 Sappington, A.A. (1990). Recent psychological approaches to the free will versus determinism issue. Pschological Bulletin, 108, 19-29 Schrödinger, E. (1926). The particle wave formula. (six papers, various publishers) Stapp, H. (2000). A Quantum Theory of Mind. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory LBNL-45229 Viney, D.W., & Crosby, D.A. (1994). Free Will in Process Perspective, New Ideas in Psychology, 12, 129-141

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