Free Will

In psychology and in psychologically oriented philosophy two extreme positions have been taken on the question of free will. One—widely associated at present with psychology and often presented as a basic assumption in introductory textbooks of general psychology—is that free will is entirely illusory and that in order to be scientific psychologists must believe that all human behavior or experience is absolutely determined by causal processes that are in principle knowable. The other extreme, especially associated in this century with the existentialist movement in philosophy, is that human free will is real and ubiquitous in the sense that all experience and action involve some element of free choice, that with no change in the antecedent conditions one could always have experienced or acted somewhat differently from the way one did.

Among psychologists, the extreme deterministic position often seems to be based on the belief that it is taken by, and is somehow essential to, the physical sciences, and that it must be a basic assumption of any genuinely scientific enterprise. Quantum physics has accepted some degree of indeterminacy as an inevitable principle. Conditions, the knowledge of which would be needed for perfect predictability in psychology, would often include internal processes that could not be accurately known without interventions that would change them and hence the outcome; this seems sufficiently analogous to the basis for indeterminacy in quantum physics to argue for extension of the principle to psychology. Once indeterminacy is granted to be inevitable, a distinction between free will and a determinism that cannot possibly be verified may become scientifically meaningless.

The argument for free will is most often empirical. Having acted, a person often feels certain that he or she could have acted differently, could have made a different choice; free will, it is argued, is thus a basic fact of experience. This argument cannot escape the objection that causal determinants may simply not yet be sufficiently identified and understood.

Another pragmatic basis for a choice of positions on the issue of free will is the effect of various positions on general human welfare. Advocates of rigid determinism sometimes consider acceptance of their position necessary for convincing people that human behavior can be predicted and controlled, so that the future of humanity can be influenced by "human engineering" just as physical events can be influenced by engineering based on the physical sciences. Opponents of rigid determinism argue that acceptance of that position eliminates hope of deliberate change and thus has a detrimental influence.

See also: Behaviorism

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