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Against Psychoanalysis as a Basis for Determinism

Updated on October 17, 2009


The debate between free will and determinism has gone on for millennia. Advocates for each side have made compelling arguments for their respective positions. In the paper “Free Will and Psychoanalysis” John Hospers relies on Freudian psychoanalysis to argue that our actions are determined, and thus, free will is nothing more than an illusion. Here I will present Hospers’ position on this matter, and provide an analysis of his argument. Further, I will attempt to argue in support of the libertarian thesis. Ultimately, though, the most important criticism I make against Hospers’ argument is to attack the basis on which his argument is grounded. I reject Hospers’ thesis by appealing to arguments made by Karl Popper.

Hospers begins his paper by pointing out that before he attempts to demonstrate that free will is a myth, it must first be clear what is meant by freedom. Hospers rightly points out that no one is completely free. No one is completely free because everyone is limited in one way or another, either physically or mentally. For example, I am not free to fly to outer space, because I do not have the means get there. Thus, when people argue that we have free will, it must be understood as a type of freedom that is less than the ideal, or complete type of freedom. Free will does not rely on a maximal freedom to do anything one wishes.

Hospers is critical of libertarians who characterize free will as actions done voluntarily. Hospers argues that not all voluntary acts are free acts. For example, suppose that a gunman confronts you and demands that you give him your wallet, or else he will kill you. One could say that the agent voluntarily chooses between saving one’s life and giving up the wallet. However, the choice here is not a free choice because the agent is forced to act in one of two ways, neither of which are good options for her. In other words, the agent voluntarily chooses between two options, however the choice is not free because the agent has been coerced into choosing one of two very bad options. Thus, an action cannot be free if it is forced; freedom can only be said to exist in the absence of force, otherwise coercion is at work, and coercion is the antithesis of freedom.

Hospers accepts that a free act would indeed be free if it were not compelled or coerced; however, he doubts that actions can ever be uncompelled or uncoerced. Hospers is inclined to accept the belief that our actions are determined by the influence of our past experiences, environments, and social conditioning. But more than this, Hospers argues that these influences act on our subconscious, such that we have no choice as to how to act. Thus, our actions are entirely determined subconsciously and are beyond our ability to consciously choose. Hospers states his position as follows, “it is the unconscious that determines what the conscious impulse and the conscious action shall be” (p. 362, italics are Hospers’).

But I would argue that this account of action seems contrary to experience. The basis for believing that actions are free comes from the internal experience of this phenomenon that we are all familiar with. When I decide whether I want a glass of water or a glass of milk, I make a conscious choice which of the two drinks I would prefer at that point in time. If it were true that our actions were determined by our past experiences, and so on, then it would seem that I would always choose the same beverage. However, I do not always choose the same beverage. Sometimes I choose water; sometimes I choose milk. Thus, it would seem that I do have free will. Of course, the determinist would reply that the unconscious does not always determine the same action over and over; this is why it appears as though we have free will. Sometimes our unconscious chooses milk; sometimes it chooses water, thus the illusion of free will.

It seems as though we could go on arguing for each side of this argument; however, neither side is likely to admit defeat any time soon. Rather than pursue this line of argument further, I want to address a deeper problem with Hospers argument. I want to reject the very basis on which Hospers argument rests. Hospers uses Freudian psychoanalysis to argue that our actions are unconsciously motivated. But, we can only accept Hospers thesis to the extent that we accept the thesis of psychoanalysis. We must question whether psychoanalysis offers a solid basis for supporting the determinist position. If we can find fault with psychoanalysis, we can reject the premise of Hospers’ argument.

Psychoanalysis is not a factual thesis but a hypothetical thesis. That is, psychoanalysis is not, nor has it ever been more than a theory. Thus, psychoanalysis cannot justifiably claim to know facts; it can only claim to have evidence that supports or contradicts its hypotheses. Yet, Hospers suggests that psychoanalysis is a factual thesis. For example, on his concluding page, he says, “[t]he facts are what they are, regardless of what words we choose for labelling them” (p. 369). Here, Hospers is referring to the “fact” that actions are determined because psychoanalysis has shown this to be the case. But Hospers has given us no good reason why we ought to appeal to the authority of psychoanalysis for the belief that our actions are unconsciously motivated. I suspect the reason Hospers grounds his determinist argument in psychoanalysis is simply because psychoanalysis seems to have great explanatory power. That is, no matter what behaviour we witness, psychoanalysis has an explanation for that behaviour, and the explanation always lies in unconscious motivation.

Psychoanalysis claims to be a scientific theory. Thus, the real issue at stake here ought to be whether psychoanalysis is a credible theory, such that we should accept its doctrines concerning human action and motivation. A. J. Ayer proposed that when testing a scientific theory to see whether its claims were credible, the claims of that theory must be empirically verifiable (p. 13). That is, when a theory claims to know some proposition, that theory must be able to demonstrate that it predicts accurately; it must offer empirically verifiable proof of its claims. Regarding psychoanalytical claims, its propositions are empirically verifiable. For example, if someone has, say, a neglectful mother, and that person goes on to commit a murder, the psychoanalyst has an answer for the motivation behind this behaviour: the man’s mother was neglectful. All the theorist has to do is provide proof that the mother was indeed neglectful and the hypothesis is verified. Thus, psychoanalysis can meet Ayer’s criterion of verifiability. In fact, there does not seem to exist any human behaviour that cannot be analyzed or interpreted as having an unconscious motivation. Thus, according to the psychoanalyst, their theory is constantly confirmed ever time they set out to verify it.

However, in response to Ayer’s verification principle, Karl Popper took theory acceptance one step further. Popper argued that for a theory to be scientific, its propositions must be falsifiable, refutable, or testable (p. 48). Verification alone is not enough, Popper argued. While many propositions appear verifiable, this does not mean they are true. For example, that psychoanalysis can account for any type of behaviour at all does not mean that its explanations are true. Psychoanalysts are merely interpreting behaviour in light of their theory. Thus, when they observe the behaviour of a person, any action at all can be labelled as being unconsciously motivation. One might think that this is a strength of the theory and that it establishes its truth. However, as Popper points out, this is actually the weakness of the theory: there is no conceivable test one could perform that would refute or falsify the theory. In other words, there is no way to test the theory. That is, there is no test we could provide that would prove, once and for all, whether the theory was true. And if there is no way to test the theory we have no good reason to accept it as a credible theory. Popper himself classified psychoanalysis as a pseudo-science because it did not meet the demarcation principle between science and pseudo-science.

If the strength of Hospers’ thesis lies in the credibility and certainty of psychoanalysis, and further, if that credibility and certainty has been found wanting, we then have good reason to reject the basis for Hospers’ argument. Thus, if we are to establish that actions are determined, we must look elsewhere for a more solid grounding for this thesis.




Ayer, A.J. Language, Truth, and Logic. (London, England: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).


Popper, Karl, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).  



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    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Nice summary of KP's demolition of psychoanalysis :)


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