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Free Will Versus Determinism

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Does behaviour result from forces over which we have no control? Or do we have free choice to behave as we wish? Do we really choose our actions? Free Will versus Determinism is one of the major debates within psychology and also within philosophy.

Free will

What is freewill? What determines its definition? As for any concept, two questions provide the key to a valid identification: "What aspects of reality give rise to the concept?", and "What is its purpose?"

According to Voss (1997), what freewill tries to account for is our introspective conviction that we are in control of many of our choices, and thus our destiny - that we are free to think and decide. We contrast this flexible, conscious control that we enjoy with the involuntary action of, say, our heartbeat or digestion, and with the instinctual imperative of a bird's nest-building or a dog's conditioned response. Our decisions are far more independent of nature and nurture than any animals; we are aware of our ability to think and of the consequences of our choices - we can claim responsibility for our actions. These are the meaningful differences that give rise to the concept of freewill.

Free will must account for our undeniable experience of freedom of choice. However, it does not necessarily need to conclude that our choices are free from antecedent factors - empirical evidence. It must also account for the flexible, conscious control that we experience in everyday life - the fact that we deliberately select goals, values, and optional plans of action (Voss 1997).

In free will, there is something or someone who will choose and choice is an action, therefore there should be an "actor", and this is "our mind" which is the totality of our mental processes. This aspect of our "mind" knows and aware of the self that recognizes the free will. Many of us believe that we choose to think or not, what to think about or which options should we choose, etc and this also includes the higher level of choices such as our goals and value. According to Voss, freewill pertains to choices that we can monitor and influence, and therefore must exclude subconscious and unconscious choices. This does not mean that such unaware choices are ultimately beyond our control - beyond freewill - but only that they must be controlled indirectly. We can control them through explicit change of values and beliefs, and through conscious modification of habits.

In contemporary philosophy, the question has concerned, rather the relationships of freedom to determinism, which is understood as claiming the each state of the world, including therefore our actions, is a strict causal product of earlier states of the world. In fact, According to Crayling (1995), there is no reason to take the obscure and over-ambitious doctrine of determinism, which few now believe, as setting the question. It was traditionally taken to do so because it was only at such a general level that there was no reason to think that our thoughts and actions had strong causal explanations. With increasing knowledge of the brain, we have stronger reason to believe that there are such explanations of our thoughts than that of universe is a deterministic system, and the question should now be taken to be set by the relations between freedom and the strongest version we can imagine of psychophysical science, a version which would represent our experience as a function of brain-states explained as a function of brain-states explained as products of earlier brain-states.


Over the centuries, the doctrine of determinism has been understood, and assessed, in different ways. Since the seventeenth century, it has been commonly understood as the doctrine that every event has a cause, or as the predictability, in principle of the entire future (Routeledge 2000). To assess the truth of determinism, philosophers have often looked to physical science: they have assumed that their current best physical theory is their best guide to the truth of determinism. It has most believed that classical physics, especially Newton's physics, is deterministic.

"Determinism is the view that, for everything that happens, there is a condition or set of conditions which are causally sufficient for that thing happening." -Oakley (2001).

Determinism applies even if there is a "mind-substance", different from the physical stuff of our brain (and everything else). It seems to imply that there is no freedom for human beings (or for anything else, for that matter). The consequences of determinism seem grave. If no one chooses freely, how can we blame, praise, or punish? How would you look upon another, who acted friendly towards you, if you knew that the person had no choice in the matter? And wouldn't you yourself feel trapped, knowing you could not control your actions (even though you had the feeling you could control your actions)? Some people believe determinism is compatible with free will. Compatibilism says that "if determinism is true, then we still can have free will". It does not commit itself to any of these views ("determinism is true", or "we have free will"), it only states that they are compatible. The view that both statements are true is called "soft determinism". The incompatibilist view is that both statements cannot be true; they point out that if determinism is true, then everyone's actions was determined to happen as it did before one was born. They hold that one cannot be held to be truly free and finally morally responsible for one's actions in this case (Routeledge 2000). Hence an incompatibilist would either be a hard determinist or a libertarian. Hard determinism is the view that determinism is true and that we do not have free will. The libertarian view is that we have free will, and as such, determinism must be false. Libertarians basically think we can tell that we have free will, just by introspecting at the time we make choices.

Free will and Determinism

In psychology, Free Will versus Determinism refers to the question of whether an individual has control over his/her behaviour and understands the motives behind it (Free Will), or if his/her behaviour is determined by some force over which he/she has no control (Determinism), such as his/her genetics or upbringing.

The debate surrounding free will



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