Free Will and Psychological Determinism

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Inspired mainly by Marko Vojinovic’s recent essay on physical determinism [1], but also by Mark O’Brien on consciousness [2], Massimo Pigliucci on Hume and skepticism [3], and perhaps a bit by Graham Priest on logic and Buddhism [4], all which skirted the edges of the free will debate, I am going to tackle it from what I see as its flip side, which I will call psychological determinism.

First, a few ground points.

1. I am not actually sure if “psychological determinism” is the best phrase for what I see as the mental counterpoint to libertarian free will, or “something like free will,” as I call what I believe. That said, it’s the best term available, I think.

2. I will spell this out as “psychological determinism,” lest anybody get the idea I am talking about physical determinism., which I don’t consider tenable [5]. And, in line with Massimo’s pleas to focus and narrow discussion a bit, I encourage commenters to stay focused on free will and psychological determinism.

2a. Without necessarily calling myself a libertarian free willer, if the determinism to which free will is supposed to make itself compatible is physical determinism, I reject compatibilist versions of free will.

3. Given that psychology is a social science and thus, theoretically scientific (ahead of economics, at least, on its actual science level among social sciences), and in the worlds of modern neuroscience (fMRIs of dead salmon brains in particular, and overstated knowledge claims in general aside) has specific parallels in harder sciences, it’s legitimate to talk about this as an intersection of science and philosophy. (Psychology has had a clear intersection with philosophy from the days of Hume, arguably the world’s first psychologist.)

4. That said, I think that cognitive science and science of mind are, at best, in the Early Bronze Age of understanding, and perhaps in the Neolithic. We just don’t know enough about the mind to say exactly what we should call decision-making. I am going to call it that, though, with the clear implication that we will find that “something like free will” exists. As I noted two years ago, we are making progress on what science has to show us [6].

4a. Setting aside hype about the recently announced US and EU brain projects, the science of the mind is likely to make little progress in the near future, and thus, beyond what we know today, we can reasonably speculate ahead.

4b. Given that the issue of free will, or something like it, “versus” psychological determinism, is getting ever more airing in courts of law, at least in the US, it is a matter at the intersection of science, philosophy, and public policy which is not to be avoided.

5. I am also a non-dualist in general. That’s applies not just to dualism of ontological categories, like body-soul dualism. I generally reject dualism as a term for polarities. I will show how this plays out on this issue below.

And with that, I am going to connect issues of free will and determinism … to Buddhism! (But only as a psychology, folks.) I’m going to explain why I reject free will in the sense of being associated with a unitary self, and also why I say “mu” to the whole dualistic issue of “free will versus determinism.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it comes from Zen Buddhism. There’s no precise translation in English, but a good approximation to the meaning is to “unask” a question or idea. In other words, saying “mu” to “free will vs. determinism” rejects the dualism, that these are the only two ways of looking at decision-making in human consciousness. Related to that, to the degree that these are ever useful terms, it rejects the polarity behind them, that is the idea that a particular action is either one hundred percent determined or one hundred percent of free will.

And that gets us into the meat of the piece.

The reason I say “mu” relates to the idea of subselves, multiple drafts of consciousness, and even Hume’s “fleeting impressions.”

To use Daniel Dennett’s language, if there is no “Cartesian meaner” in a “Cartesian theater,” there’s no “Cartesian free willer” there either. There is no unitary conscious self with a free will at the center of the controls. And, depending on how one understands the idea of “volition” — how much daylight one puts between it and “free will,” and spells this out — there’s arguably no “Cartesian volitioner” there either.

Now, whether our subselves, or whatever of the “multiple drafts” is in the driver’s seat at any particular moment, might be engaged in something that might be called quasi-free will, is another question. I think something like that does happen. But, it’s as ephemeral as that particular subself, “draft,” or whatever, is in the driver’s seat. So, in that sense, I’m not totally against all of the ideas that are lumped under the rubric “free will.”

If you’ll allow me another sidebar, Dennett is not alone on these ideas, and he’s far from the first to express most of them. The “multiple drafts” language may be his, but little else is. In fact, Hume’s famous “I never can catch myself” observation is the origin, within the Western philosophical tradition, of much of this way of looking at things.

Another reason I oppose the idea of “free will” linked to a single unitary conscious self is somewhat related, and moves us from philosophy back to science. I do believe there’s a fair amount of value to the Benjamin Libet experiments and related research, even if sometimes, some people have overstated what they tell us.

Here, I disagree with John Horgan, who in a Scientific American column about free will and New Year’s resolutions, says [7]:

“Libet’s clock experiment is a poor probe of free will, because the subject has made the decision in advance to push the button; he merely chooses when to push. I would be surprised if the EEG sensors or implanted electrodes did not find neural anticipation of that choice.”

I don’t understand Libet that way. I’ve always understood it, and his work to separate subjective feelings of, and belief in, personal volition, from a (theoretically) objective idea of something called “free will,” as refuting the existence of any such objective idea. Horgan’s use of the word “subject” indicates where he stands.

This take on Libet’s famous experiments is in general line with what I’m saying [8]:

“The real importance of Libet’s experiment is that it is a compelling refutation of dualism.  From a non-dualistic point of view the result is not problematic in any way, but from a dualistic point of view it is impossible to make sense of.”

To tie this back to Dennett, whatever or whomever we think is in the driver’s seat as the apparent unitary self of the moment has decided nothing. Some unconscious or subconscious “entity” seems to have done the deciding, or anything we would call deciding if it were done by a conscious entity. Whether this “whomever” is an organized subself or not, neuroscience can’t tell us today, and therefore, per Wittengenstein, philosophy should resist speculation. As for what neuroscience may be able to tell us in the near future, I refer to the Wikipedia overview, which includes information on follow-ups to the original Libet [9].

Also, Horgan appears to be trying to distinguish between “free will” and “volition.” I don’t think there’s as much daylight between the two as he, and many others, may make it out to be, as noted above. At a minimum, critiques of unitary free will from the multiple drafts and subselves point of view would also apply to ideas of unitary volition.

What Libet does not tell us is anything about physical determinism; nor is it likely to tell us anything about psychological determinism. Libet’s results would be true in a physically determined world. How they comport within a psychologically constrained “self,” we can’t (currently) tell and Wittgensteinian silence again applies.

That said, what about veto power? We may still have a “veto” over possible actions, but even then, that veto may vary from subself to subself as to what a particular subself would veto or not, the degree of veto power it has, etc. Beyond that, that veto itself may be at such a deep layer we wouldn’t associate it with a quasi-formed subself, let alone a fully formed self. In short, Libet has some good ideas, but they need much further developing.

So far, part of what I am saying is that what’s actually happening in the human mind is far too complex to reduce to “free will.” It’s another instance where the human brain’s predilection for facile labeling of things leads us astray.

I think Libet’s discussion of antedating and backdating, subconsciously, our understanding of the temporal order of events, relates to that. His ideas here are certainly compatible with Dennett’s multiple drafts theory of consciousness, for example, but Dennett chooses not to go down that path. Why, I don’t know, but I think that Dennett has shows us his limits as a guide.

In short, the phenomena of consciousness in general, and volition in particular are far too complex, and our understanding today far too limited, to cram into a particular philosophical system.

Back to the issue of “mu” and, re Libet, one of those old ideas we need to move beyond. I am talking about the dualism that’s part and parcel of the “free will vs (emphasis needed) determinism” issue. Just because conscious, unitary-self free will doesn’t exist, there’s no need to believe any sort of determinism exists as the opposite pole, or the opposite answer to the question. This is part of why I reject physical determinism as unnecessary, and psychological determinism as one “pole” as incomplete. Since we’re unmasking old questions, we move beyond old ideas.

A good way to further explicate this is per Susan Blackmore’s latest book [10]. I’m sure that, were she to write in detail on this issue, she would have at least a few broadly similar ideas, above all, rejecting the whole dualism/duality present in the traditional framing of this as a “free will vs. determinism” issue.

I feel the same. That’s at the core of my “mu,” and per Hofstadter first tipping me off on the word years ago, why I deliberately use that word in this situation. I think we have to see this whole issue of apparent intentionality in human actions in a non-dualistic way.

That said, per all of the above, I do see some degree of psychological determinism, on an action-by-action basis, somewhat related to more crude statements of this issue, based on fMRIs, for instance in the context of legal defense for certain criminal cases. That is, can something like, say, childhood sexual or physical abuse psychologically determine some of our actions?

I’d say yes, to a degree. Here, I’m rejecting not dualism, narrowly speaking, but something analogous, polarities. Action X may be 23 percent psychologically determined and 77 percent volitional, or whatever word you prefer. Action B may be 42 percent psychologically determined and 58 percent volitional. Action C may be 8 percent psychologically determined, and 92 percent volitional.

If you don’t like the word “determined,” let’s borrow a word from genetics and developmental psychology, and talk about “tendencies.” That way, it sounds less like a classical version of determinism. Just like we have a 90 percent heritable tendency to be tall, a 50 percent one to intelligence, etc., and yet there still is an element of environmental expression related to these traits, ditto on having Z degree of psychological tendency in Action X.

There’s one more major reason I say “mu” to the whole issue. Cognitive science, neuroscience, etc., are perhaps in the Early Bronze Age. Maybe the Neolithic. But, our knowledge curve here, if even from a low base, hints at exponential growth.

Within a few decades, hype aside, we will realize how little we have known about the mind, and to the degree that we have gained new knowledge, we will realize how anachronistic “free will” is, and even more so, the “free will vs. determinism” debate.

I mean, ever since Hume’s famous quote from “A Treatise on Human Nature,” we have no reason to deny how partial and provisional our knowledge of the human mind is:

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.” [11]

At times, to be honest, I become a bit frustrated with people who are either forgetting or ignoring that ideas related to “subselves,” “multiple drafts,” or similar, are more than 250 years old. The fact that free will, psychological determinism, and the paired polarity of insisting that the guiding of human actions is one or the other is shown to be anachronistic in the history of Western philosophy by the man who was, arguably, the world’s first professional psychologist.

What this reminds me of is the back-and-forth of “nature vs. nurture” in terms of human development. We know now that the proper understanding is nature via nurture, and we’re learning ever-more about what the nurture side means.

I must, at the same time, disagree with those (including Massimo) who think that traditional ideas of free will are in some way necessary to morality, especially if they’re worried about the barbarians of physical determinism at the gates.

Eddy Nachamias is an example of someone Massimo has favorably cited in the past [12]

“When (neuroscientist Patrick) Haggard concludes that we do not have free will ‘in the sense we think,’ he reveals how this conclusion depends on a particular definition of free will. Scientists’ arguments that free will is an illusion typically begin by assuming that free will, by definition, requires an immaterial soul or non-physical mind, and they take neuroscience to provide evidence that our minds are physical.”

First, not all neuroscientists make that assumption. And, philosophers like the Daniel Wegner definitely don’t link free will, or its absence, to dualism, or its lack.

Then, there’s this:

“Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them. These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities.”

I use the phrase “free willer of the gaps” to discuss these ideas. If psychological determinism shows that we have less free will, and that what we do have isn’t quite what we think it is, then we have to accept that [13].

Finally, I’m going to turn back to Dennett, and his bête noire on certain issues, Steve Gould.

Without saying this is part of my answer for how the subselves that produce the appearance of a self act, there’s also the question of how all this evolved. Is what appears to be free will an adaptation, or is it, shades of Dennett vs. Gould … a spandrel, i.e., an evolutionary byproduct? Or, at least, is our belief that we have a unitary self, with unitary free will, a spandrel? I side somewhat with Gould on this issue of spandrels in general, as it has some ties with issues concerning evolutionary psychology and some over-the-top claims coming from those quarters.

This then ties back to another version of psychology — evolutionary psychology. I agree very much with Massimo’s criticism of what I call “Pop Ev Psych,” while at the same time stressing that there is a legitimate way of doing evolutionary psychology which leads to legitimate findings.

One of those findings may be that our evolution of “agency imputation” may not just have been about imputing agency to motions and actions perceived by our senses, but imputing agency, i.e., a unitary conscious self, to our own selves. Jason Summers discusses this more [14].

Summers makes a lot of sense. Just as our story-telling abilities may have evolved in part to get us to believe our own stories, so, too, agency imputation and detection may have evolved to get us to believe our own agency. To use words of Dennett, it may have evolved to create our selves as our centers of narrative gravity. Here’s his key point:

“People were too complicated to understand by other means, so the brain evolved the easiest route to analyze these complex behaviors – self reflection. It’s not that people have free will. It’s just our brains gave up trying to predict such complex behavior and instead found a new way of dealing with others. This sense of ‘self’ has allowed us to interact and cooperate with others in ways we couldn’t have otherwise.”

Even if you don’t totally reject the idea of a “self,” if you grant part of the above defining what self is, and the related questions of what consciousness and free will are take on new light. They may not be any “easier,” they may be just as much “hard problems” as before. But, they may also lose a bit of importance if we think that, even in part, they’re  … artifacts? spandrels? of human evolution.

In short, to complete the circle and move us from philosophy back to science, we need to continue our study of how and why the human mind evolved to be able to confidently go down the road of making pronouncements about the actuality, or the appearance of, agency, will, selfhood and more, including, per Nietzsche, the genealogy of morals.

[1] Farewell to determinism, by Marko Vojinovic, Scientia Salon, 11 September 2014.

[2] The intuitional problem of consciousness, by Mark O’Brien, Scientia Salon, 1 September 2014.

[3] Are you sure you have hands?, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 18 June 2014.

[4] Logic, Buddhism, and all that, by Graham Priest, Scientia Salon, 8 September 2014.

[5] The simplemindedness of #determinism, SocraticGadfly, 23 February 2014.

[6] The state of consciousness studies, SocraticGadfly, 30 January 2012.

[7] Why New Year Resolutionaries Should Believe In Free Will, by John Organ, Scientific American blogs, 27 December 2013.

[8] The Libet experiment as a refutation of dualism,

[9] Neuroscience of free will, Wikipedia.

[10] Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[11] Quote from David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature.

[12] Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?, by Eddy Nahmias, The New York Times, 13 November 2011.

[13] Free will – a “god of the gaps” parallel?, SocraticGadfly, 26 November 2011.

[14] The Illusion of Self, by Jason Summers, 27 November 2011.


Steve Snyder is a newspaper editor and an atheist with a graduate theological degree. He blogs at Socratic Gadfly on politics, atheism, journalism, sports, and philosophy.

This article originally appeared here, republished under creative commons license.