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Research Report: Are Human Beings Free To Choose Their Future Or Are They Determined By Factors Beyond Their Control?

Updated on June 12, 2017

Executive Summary

Are human beings free to choose their future or are they determined by factors beyond their control? What does free will mean to psychologists? The research section explored how the examined material was obtained to answer these questions and why. A literature review expanded on the information, using a range of articles focusing on indeterminist, compatibilist and illusionist theories were undertaken to find themes, trends, theories and influences that affected the free will debate. The findings section summarised what free will meant to indeterminists, incompatibilists and illusionists. The discussion section evaluated the content mentioned in the research report and assessed how effective it was in answering the questions. The conclusion section explained while there were theories about free will, the free will issue would most likely stay unresolved. Further research in genetics may prove human actions were determined or partially determined (Doomen 2011, p.175).

Source

An Excellent Book That Assists In Understanding The Free Will Debate: Free Will by Sam Harris

Research (Including Methodology)

The articles provided by the course were read. Alongside that, the phrase ‘freewill vs determinism history’ was searched in the Google Search Engine. Reading the page History of the Freewill Problem (History of the Free will Problem, n. d.,) gave a broader understanding of trends, theories and debates in freewill literature and assisted in understanding researched articles. References provided by Sappington's Recent Psychological Approaches to the Free Will Versus Determinism Issue (Sappington 1990, pp.19-29), was searched in Griffith Library’s Database such as Rychlak’s Concepts of Freewill in Modern Psychological Science and Bandura’s Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. This was because Sappington summarised the articles. The library’s link to Rychlak’s article redirected to JSTOR’s Database while Bandura’s article directed to Ovid’s Database where both were downloaded as a pdf. The articles revealed that indeterminist articles normally critique a wide range of theories in freewill literature. Accordingly, articles supporting and critiquing freewill were downloaded.

‘Freewill versus determinism’ was typed into Griffith University’s Library Database JSTOR’s Database, Wiley Online Library Database and Springer Database. Once peer-reviewed articles were located, they were downloaded. Next, the word ‘compatibilism’ was searched into JSTOR’s Database. JSTOR’s Database was primarily used because of its wide range of psychology articles. Articles about compatibilism were researched to determine whether freewill was compatible with determinism. The articles were read and notes were taken from them. The amount of information extracted from the articles determined how many articles would be needed for the research report. The notes were then organised to find what trends, themes and theories existed in freewill literature.

Sam Harris - The Case Against Free Will

Literature Review

Findings revealed there were two main themes within free will literature. Indeterminists believe humans have free will and compatibilist believe humans have free will while being controlled by external forces. The counter theme was how illusionists believed free will was an illusion. These articles were influenced by Humanistic Psychology, which emphasised the role of the individual, advocated indeterminist stances and qualitative research. Rychlak, Vilhauer and Sappington believed humans had free will. Through a rigorous humanism perspective, Rychlak’s article criticised free will theories. Rychlak’s versions of free will were “…the ability to influence one's life circumstances, in which case one can “behave or believe in conformance with, in contradiction to, or without regard for what is perceived to be environmental or biological determinants” (Doomen 2011, p.172). According to him, because humans “can select their own goals…they are different from other natural phenomena and must be understood differently” (Sappington 1990, p.21). This quote revealed that indeterminists believed humans could act without external control. Doomen criticised Rychlak’s views on free will as too broad to solve the debate (Doomen 2011, p.172). Sappington explained Rychlak’s research did not answer the question on how humans could select choices (Sappington 1990, p.21), highlighting a gap in his theory.

Vilhauer’s article was a meta-ethical argument that free will scepticism should incorporate moral responsibility into their research (Vilhauer 2012, pp. 833-851). Vilhauer was published by Philosophical Quarterly which released articles about theism and personal humanism (International Philosophical Quarterly, n. d.,). Unlike Rychlak who was more concerned with proactive control, Vilhauer interpretation favoured a moralist approach, “free will is the kind of control over our actions necessary for moral responsibility, and we must be morally responsible for our actions to deserve particular kinds of treatment based on them, such as praise, blame, reward, or punishment” (Vilhauer 2012, p.833). Additionally, his argument relied on the assumption humans have “… an extremely strong reason not to intentionally harm other people” (Vilhauer 2012, p.824). That was an ambiguous claim which could have been dismantled by the existence of those with abnormal moral development. Thus, his article was reliant on an unstable assumption.

The concept of illusionism posed as a counter-theme to the previously discussed theories. Lazerowitz explained illusionism was the belief humans cannot feel their independence so it must be an illusion (Lazerowitz 1984, p. 6). Kant, Wegner, Spinoza and Skinner believed humans confuse free will with being conscious of their actions (Doomen 2011, p.173). Doomen claimed that illusionism did not clarify whether a free will was possible (Doomen 2011, p.168). Rychlak described the Newtonian views of the physicist, Helmholz as “unfortunate” (Rychlak 1980, p.130) and argued, “…free will is taken as an illusion is because of the fact that in psychological experimentation it is possible to predict subject behaviour even before it happens ...” (Rychlak 1980, p.16). He slanderously claimed Skinner unprofessionally dismissed non-illusionist theories (Rychlak 1980, p.22). Bias against determinism was also apparent in Sappington’s article due to the way Sappington only provided one theory that supported hard determinism (Sappington 1990, pp.19-29). Vilhauer's article also biased since through claiming free will scepticism should adopt a more indeterminist view (Vilhauer 2012, pp. 833-851). The bias against illusionism presented an unbalanced view of free will belief.

Source

The second theme was advocated by Bandura, Foley, May and Williams. Research into indeterminism and compatibilism showed they believed a person’s free will could be measured by the ability to control individual values (Foley 1978, p.425). This was since their perception of free will consisted of moral responsibility that was compatible with determinism. Bandura’s article asserted humans had free will because of their “forethought,” “override feedback control” (Bandura 1989, p.1181) and use “psycho-neural processes” (Bandura 1989, p.1181) proved they had agency. The strength of Bandura’s article was how he used neurobiology to support his claims. However, components of his social-cognitive perspective, such as self-efficiency, were too broad to prove the existence of free will.

Foley was published by Mind which published articles on humans, emotions, morals and religion. These humanistic characteristics were found through his suggestion; the main variable that could measure a person’s free will was investigating their ability to control their values (Foley 1978, p.425). His exploration of different aspects of compatibilist theories strengthened his article. Willaims’ article provided a causal interpretation of the free will, “there is no conflict between free will- and causal determinism. Causation creates free will...” (Williams 1959, p.529). Like Vilhauer, Williams was concerned with how moral responsibility caused freewill (Williams 1959, p.531).

Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24

May’s cluster theory claimed what psychologists called free will was instead “liberty” and “ensurance” combined (May 2014, p.2853). To him, “an agent has liberty in a situation just when she has at least two genuine options for action in that situation,” and to him, someone had “ensurance” when “…action depends in an appropriate way on her mental states and her environment” (May 2014, p.2851). He also stated, “first, we’d have to say that liberty is a necessary condition on free will and is incompatible with determinism. Second, we’d have to say that ensurance is a necessary condition for free will and is incompatible with indeterminism” (May 2014, p.2853). The strength of his article was how he criticised his experiments and explained his method. He conducted two experiments to support his theory: brainwashing and avoiding bypassing (May 2014, pp.2857-2863). May gave subjects two hypothetical scenarios where a woman called Jenny could steal a necklace (May 2014, pp.2857-2863). May concluded that participants believed Jenny would have free will in those scenarios (May 2014, p.2860). However, May’s article provided a limited view of the debate since it revolved around the concepts of “liberty” and “ensurance” (May 2014, p.2853). Hence, while providing a more balanced view than indeterminists, evidence showed compatibilists were interested in human agency, personal control and moral responsibility.

The main flaw of the research was how the evidence used by psychologists was vulnerable to subjective interpretation. Psychologists such as Williams supported their argument by explaining how a human may act in hypothetical scenarios. These scenarios were prone to subjective interpretation without offering concrete evidence. Furthermore, all articles were reliant on qualitative experiments. Highlighting how unreliable qualitative experiments could be, Murray and Nahmias asked subjects questions about whether they understood scenarios involving determinism (May 2014, p.2863). Murray and Nahmias excluded 53% responses from their participants for not producing what they deemed as adequate to their incompatibilist view (May 2014, p.2864). This made the accuracy of their results questionable. Additionally, the results gathered from a group of people cannot be applied to the entire populous. There were uncontrollable variables that made studies unreliable, such as dialectical differences. This showed how psychologists could take and discard the information that did not suit their views.

Source

Findings

An analysis of freewill literature revealed two main groups that addressed the freewill and determinism debate; determinism and indeterminism (The History of the Freewill Problem, n.d.,). The History of the Free Will Problem showed that indeterminism side believed humans had freewill, the concept created branches of sub-schools such as libertarianism, event-causal, agent-causal, etc., (The History of the Freewill Problem, n.d.,). Indeterminists believed a person’s freewill could be determined by their ability to control their values (Foley 1978, p.425). Rychlak, Sappington and Vilhauer supported indeterminism. Rychlak’s believed freewill was “…the ability to influence one's life circumstances, in which case one can "behave or believe in conformance with, in contradiction to, or without regard for what is perceived to be environmental or biological determinants” (Doomen 2011, p.172). To Vilhauer, “freewill is the kind of control over our actions necessary for moral responsibility, and we must be morally responsible for our actions to deserve particular kinds of treatment based on them, such as praise, blame, reward, or punishment” (Vilhauer 2012, p.833). Results also showed determinists denied the existence of freewill (The History of the Freewill Problem, n.d.,). Kant, Wegner, Spinoza, (Doomen 2011, p.173) Skinner (Rychlak 1980, p.130) and freewill sceptics (Vilhauer 2012, pp.833-851) agreed freewill was an illusion.

Results also reported “…the most energetic debate in the freewill literature was about whether freewill was compatible with determinism” (Vilhauer 2012 p. 833). Compatibilism combined concepts from determinism and indeterminism (Foley 1978, p. 421). Bandura combined deterministic and indeterministic factors within his social cognitive perspective, stating, “it is because self-influence operates deterministically on action that some measure of self-directedness and freedom is possible” (Bandura 1989, p.1182). Williams claimed, “there is no conflict between freewill- and causal determinism. Causation creates freewill...” (Williams 1959, p.529). May claimed what psychologists called freewill was instead “liberty” and “ensurance” combined (May 2014, p.2853). To him, “an agent has liberty in a situation just when she has at least two genuine options for action in that situation,” and someone had “ensurance” in their actions “when the action depends in an appropriate way on her mental states and her environment” (May 2014, p.2851). He also stated, “first, we’d have to say that liberty is a necessary condition on freewill and is incompatible with determinism. Second, we’d have to say that ensurance is a necessary condition for freewill and is incompatible with indeterminism” (May 2014, p.2853). The results were significant in demonstrating how psychologists had diverse views of what freewill was. It also revealed indeterminists and compatibilists disagreed with illusionism (Doomen 2011, p.168). Compatibilists and indeterminism showed a consistent interest in human agency, personal control and moral responsibility. All articles supplemented qualitative experiments conducted by peers, theories and simulating hypothetical scenarios as evidence. Nonetheless, the research did not show whether humans had freewill.

Source

Self-Efficacy by Albert Bandura

Discussion

The research undertaken did not disclose whether humans had free will due to the debate’s complexity. To articulate why, “the presence or absence of encompassing determinism cannot be demonstrated as one is only acquainted with the processes that occur in the world one knows; possible worlds may be imagined, but merely provide laboratories for the mind, in which actual scientific experiments cannot be conducted,” (Doomen 2011, p. 178). This quote exposed the main reason research could not answer the first question; the articles were based on qualitative data and unprovable theoretical assumptions. Nonetheless, the research was effective in answering the second research question; what does free will mean to psychologists? The results varied but fundamental beliefs could be categorised into indeterminist, compatibilist and impossibilist schools of thought. Hence, the research was effective in answering the second research question and providing a vital overlook of existing trends and debates within free will literature.

Although the research did not reveal whether humans have free will, it provided comprehensive insight into how psychologists perceived the concept of free will. Rychlak and Vilhauer believed all humans could act without being controlled by metaphysical factors (Doomen 2011, p.172). Alike compatibilists, indeterminists adopted a Humanistic Psychological approach as they focused on the individual and human behaviour. Humanist influences were highlighted by the number of psychologists concerned with personal agency and moral responsibility such as May, Vilhauer, Williams and Bandura. Thus, the conducted research was effective in concluding what free will means to indeterminists, but it did not show whether humans have free will.

While research into compatibilism did not show whether humans had free will, it was useful in showing how compatibilists psychologists approached the debate. Compatibilists believed determinism and moral responsibility was compatible, while free will was perceived as an obligatory condition of moral responsibility. Foley suggested the main variable that needed to stay constant in experimenting on a subject’s free will was a human’s values and physical abilities (Foley 1978, p.425). This view was consistent amongst other compatibilists. May usefully suggested the free will debate was unsolvable was because of dialectical differences between psychologists (May 2014, p.2850). May also suggested that the current definition of free will was more applicable to the terms “liberty” and “ensurance” (May 2014, p.2851). Bandura’s article was also useful since it suggested that the debate may be solved with neurobiology. Williams claimed, “there is no conflict between free will- and causal determinism. Causation creates free will...” (Williams 1959, p.529). Nonetheless, this claim was not widely accepted by all psychologists. Although there was potential that compatibilism could solve the free will issue, there were too many issues in the theories’ broadness.

Source

The research investigated what free will was to illusionists. Lazerowitz explained that illusionism was the belief that humans cannot feel their independence, so it must be an illusion (Lazerowitz 1984, p.6). For example, Kant, Wegner, Spinoza (Doomen 2011, p.173), Skinner (Rychlak 1980, p.130) and free will sceptics (Vilhauer 2012, pp.833-851) agreed free will was an illusion. The findings suggested that indeterminists did not take illusionist theories seriously. Bias against determinism was clear in Sappington’s article since he provided only one theory that supported hard determinism (Sappington 1990, pp.19-24). Vilhauer’s article argued free will sceptics should adopt a more indeterminist view (Vilhauer 2012, p.833). Nonetheless, illusionism did not provide an answer to the free will debate and it could not be proven by scientific experiments. Rychlak’s claim illusionists believe free will was an illusion because humans were predictable. This theory could be disproven by chaos theory which suggested that humans were unpredictable (Sappington 1990, p.23). Ergo, the illusionist perspective on free will did not answer whether humans had free will and had substantial flaws in its reliability.

All researched psychologists played a role in concluding that question of whether free will existed remains a mystery. Rychlak played the most significant role in addressing and criticising how psychologists perceive free will. For example, Rychlak claimed psychologists were interested in focusing on someone’s morals to measure agency because, “…individuals who opt on moral grounds to dismiss certain alternatives do in one sense become more determined than individuals who never delimit their options in life” (Rychlak 1980, p.30). His explanation played an invaluable part in understanding why psychologists took an interest in exploring moral responsibility. This highlighted why Vilhauer suggested that free will scepticism would be strengthened by adding moral responsibility into the equation. Rychlak overviews of free will literature also provided a deeper understanding how Locke influenced May to conduct experiments regarding how much “liberty” someone has (Rychlak 1980, p. 17). Furthermore, Rychlak also had a prominent influence in the Humanistic Psychology landscape since his work was also assessed by Doomen (Doomen 2011, p.172) and Sappington (Sappington 1990, p.21). Therefore, Rychlak’s article was more useful than other articles considering it provided extensive insight into the history of free will literature.

Source

The main implication of the findings and doing further research was the unreliability of the presented evidence. The empirical research that psychologists used to support their articles was reliant on qualitative experiments. Experiments were undertaken in psychology comprised of having a select group of people respond to a question, then the researcher would interpret the results. Participants were excluded from the tests if they had not given adequate results (May 2014, p.2864). It was impossible for scientific experiments to confirm any theories (Doomen 2011, p. 178). The accuracy of the qualitative studies was limited since only a group of participants could be studied, which could not prove all humans had free will. Uncontrollable variables such as dialectical differences could compromise the experiments' reliability. Furthermore, psychologists such as Foley supported their argument by explaining how a human would theoretically act in different scenarios. Evidence and hypothetical scenarios could be manipulated to make one view appear more valid. While these flaws were useful in determining what free will means to different psychologists, it was not helpful in answering whether humans have free will.

Further research in genetics may prove that human actions were determined or partially determined because of their own biology (Doomen 2011, p.175). To gain a better understanding on how psychologists perceived free will, deterministic theories and examining articles that explore primary experiments could be pursued. Nonetheless, the research concluded there was a variety of beliefs about free will within free will literature.

Steven Pinker: On Free Will

Conclusion

The research undertaken did not definitively answer the question of whether humans had free will or if they were controlled by factors beyond their control. The results showed indeterminists and compatibilists believed a person’s free will was measured by their control over their values (Foley 1978, p.425). The view that free will was an illusion was rejected by indeterminists and compatibilists. Implications included bias and the psychologists’ reliance on qualitative research. There was no research being conducted that would solve the free will issue. Further research in genetics may prove that human actions were determined or partially determined because of their own biology (Doomen 2011, p.175).

Reference List

Bandura, A. 1989, ‘Human agency in social cognitive theory’, The American Psychologist, vol. 44, no.1, pp. 175-1184. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from JSTOR database.

Foley, Richard 1978, ‘Compatibilism’, Mind, vol.87, no. 347, pp.421-428. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from JSTOR database.

Information Philosopher n.d., The History of the Freewill Problem, Sky Builders, Cambridge, viewed 11 May 2017, <http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/history/>

Lazerowitz, Morris 1984, ‘Freewill,’ Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, vol. 16, no. 48, pp. 3-17. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from JSTOR database.

May, Joshua 2014, ‘On the very concept of free will’, Synthese, vol.191, no.12, pp.2849-2866. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from Springer database.

Mayer, Joseph; Willaims, Gardner 1962, ‘Correspondence: Determinism Versus Freewill, and Individual Ethical Subjectivism’, Social Science, vol. 37, no.1, pp. 50-53. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from JSTOR database.

Philosophy Documentation Centre n.d., ‘International Philosophical Quarterly,’ Philosophy Documentation Centre, Charlottesville, viewed 12 May 2017, <https://www.pdcnet.org/ipq>

Rychlak, Joseph 1980, ‘Concepts of Freewill in Modern Psychological Science’, The Journal of Mind and Behaviour, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 9-32. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from Ovid database.

Sappington, A. A. 1990, ‘Recent psychological approaches to the free will versus determinism controversy’, The Psychological Bulletin, vol. 108, no. 1, pp.19-29. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from JSTOR database.

Williams, Gardner 1959, ‘The Natural Causation of Human Freedom’, International Phenomenological Society, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 529-531. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from JSTOR database.

Vilhauer, Benjamin 2012, ‘Taking Freewill Scepticism Seriously’, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 249, pp. 833-851. PDF version, retrieved 7 May 2017, from Wiley Online Library database.

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