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  • Writer's picturefrederique STREF

Free will and determinism

Updated: Jun 27, 2021


“Free will: is the complete freedom to do or not to do, to choose according to one's will and therefore by extension the absence of constraints. In philosophy, the capacity of the will to make a choice by itself in complete freedom, i.e. the ability to decide for one thing rather than another, for example between good and evil without external stimulus, with no other cause than the will itself, is called free will.”

“Determinism: the will would be determined by forces that are not controlled by the human being. Psychoanalysis is based on the idea of an unconscious determinism of psychic life, ideas and acts: an idea or act that comes to mind would not be arbitrary. They have an antecedent, a meaning, a cause that can be discovered by exploring the unconscious. According to Sigmund Freud, this psychological determinism "excludes any form of chance and nonsense". Freud gives multiple illustrations in his work "Psychology of Daily Life".

Determinism is the theory according to which everything is determined, i.e. according to which each effect is determined by its cause, the present is determined by the past, and the state of the universe at a given moment by the state of the universe at the previous moment. This theory, which subjects everything to universal and absolute causality, therefore seems to deny all freedom: if man is determined, he is not free to choose as he thinks because his actions are governed by causality and were therefore already determined before his birth.

“Some inadequacies of our psychological functioning[...] and certain apparently unintentional acts are revealed, when they are subjected to psychoanalytical examination, as perfectly determined by reasons beyond the control of the conscience. » Freud, dans « Psychopathologie de la vie quotidienne », Paris, P.U.F., 1980

Two main conceptions are opposed on this subject: on the one hand, if we conceive freedom as a form of independence or spontaneity, we tend to oppose it to determinism; on the other hand, if we conceive freedom as a form of obedience to reason or adherence to oneself, we no longer see in determinism a difficulty to think of freedom.

Freedom as the initiation of a causal chain (Kant)

Some thinkers have wanted to see man as a kind of magical power, freedom, allowing him to temporarily escape universal determinism in order to trigger a "free act", i.e. to initiate a causal chain that would not be born from nothing. This is why we generally speak of "free will". We imagine that there is a kind of free will in man above the match that plays on passions, desires, instincts and natural inclinations.

Kant, Critique de la raison pure, 1781, Trad. Tremesaygues et Pacaud, coll. Quadridge, PUF.

Proponents of free will assert the existence of freedom against determinism. All-natural phenomena are determined (i.e. the cause determines the effect, the state of the world at a given moment is determined by its state at the previous moment), but man would escape this reign of the law of causality.

"We know that many people invoke against an absolute psychological determinism, their intimate convictions of the existence of a free will. This conviction refuses to bow to the belief in determinism. »

Freud, dans « Psychopathologie de la vie quotidienne », Paris, P.U.F., 1980

So, man escapes the laws of nature? It seems like a gratuitous statement to satisfy a human desire. We can thus protest against this idea of free will invented by philosophers to satisfy a moral and religious need, or even to ensure the ideological conditions for the functioning of the repressive state apparatus: free will legitimizes punishment because it makes every man responsible for his actions.

But if everything is determined, how do we explain our sense of freedom?

It must be an illusion. Several arguments have been put forward, in particular by the great critics of free will, Spinoza Nietzsche and Freud.

"Man believes he is free because he ignores the causes that determine him to act"

According to Spinoza, if man believes he is free it is simply because he is aware of his actions and desires. Seeing that his actions are in accordance with his desires (or wills), he hastily deduced that he is "free". But in reality, while it is true that acts are in conformity with desires, the fact remains that desires are themselves determined. But man is not aware of what determines his desire.

B. Spinoza, L’Ethique, trad. C. Appuhn. BS, Œuvres, Garnier-Flammarion, 3, 1965

"Man believes he is free because he identifies with his dominant desire"

Nietzsche offers another subtle argument to explain the illusion of freedom that we feel: we believe that our will is always realized because we call "our will" that of our desires which has prevailed over others and which is therefore translated into actions: we have in us a civil war of desires, but we identify with the one who wins the battle, thus creating the fictional idea of a unitary "I".

F. Nietzsche, Humain, trop humain. Mercure de France, 1906

Determinism is not fatalism. According to fatalism, no matter what we do, the same events will happen. According to determinism, on the contrary, each of our actions has an influence on our future.

Can we conceive of inner freedom compatible with the idea of determinism? Freedom must no longer be conceived as a form of spontaneity (in the sense of indeterminism) but rather as a form of self-sufficiency or consciousness.

E. Schwitzgebel, Belief, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ,2014

Freedom as knowledge (Spinoza)

Spinoza refutes a freedom conceived as indeterminism (men believe they are free only because they ignore the causes that determine them to want and therefore to act), but he admits another kind of freedom. His ethics invite us to liberate ourselves through adequate knowledge of the world.

B. Spinoza, L’Ethique, trad. C. Appuhn. BS, Œuvres, Garnier-Flammarion, 3, 1965

Freedom as self-acceptance (Bergson)

In a deterministic framework, we could also think of freedom as self-acceptance. Would not be free the being who escapes the laws of nature by producing chaotic acts, but simply the being who achieves a lucidity about himself and a deep agreement with himself. The free act would therefore not be the act that results from nothing but on the contrary the act that results exactly from ourselves, that is, the act that reveals our essential nature.

H. Bergson, L’Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience, Paris, P.U.F., 2013

From a neuroscientific point of view, free will would only be an illusion

In 1983, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment with surprising results. He asks participants in his experience to move their fingers whenever they want, and gathers two types of information: the moment when these participants make their decision to move their fingers, and the moment when the participants actually move their fingers (measurement made using a sensor connected to the participants' fingers). S. Taylor, The leap and spiritual science, Psychology today, 2018

The results of this experiment show that the decision to move the finger appears about 200 ms. before the movement.

But what is more surprising is that when an electroencephalogram is performed simultaneously on the participants, there is electrical activity in the brain (a signal called motor preparation potential, a signal known to prepare for movement) that occurs 600 ms. before finger movement. This means that the electrical activity of the brain that prepares the movement begins 400 ms. before the participants even make the decision to move their fingers.

The brain would therefore begin to initiate your behavior even before you have made the decision. Free will would be in a way an illusion. This may seem acceptable for simplistic or automatic behaviors. We know that a certain number of our behaviors are emitted without our being aware of it.

But could such a process also explain the making of decisions that are much less rudimentary than those involving moving a finger? Would choices about school orientation, our sexual partners or our place of residence be subject to the same deterministic principles?

In an attempt to answer this question, other researchers have developed a variant of Benjamin Libet's princeps experience. Using an MRI, the researchers were able to observe the active areas of the brain. As with the Libet experiment, participants in the experiment are asked to move a finger when they decide to do so. Except that here, participants have the possibility to choose to move a finger with their right or left hand.

A. Sans, Libre arbitre et neurosciences cognitives, 2013

The researchers found not only brain activity that preceded movement by several seconds, but also predicted whether the participant would move his right or left hand.

These experiments therefore call into question the notion of free will.

But then, why is it that our will alone is not enough to explain our behavior? What makes it so that we act before we even decide to do so?

In a given environmental situation, your behavior is monitored by consequences.

In psychology, and more particularly in behavioral science, we have known for several decades that behaviors are precisely selected by their consequences: behaviors are maintained by the environment that is the cause.

Thus, it is this relationship between our behaviors and their consequences that will determine how these behaviors will or will not be maintained.

According to B.F. Skinner and theory of behavior we act on our environment, which in turn shapes your future behavior. This learning mechanism involves biological mechanisms in your brain, making decisions that you are not aware of. More precisely, this consciousness manifests itself when everything is already at stake. It is this brain function that makes us believe that we still have a say.

The problem with free will is that it places our will, feelings or emotions as a direct cause of our behavior.

For example, a young person may be described as delinquent because he or she has a disturbed personality, or a student may be described as working well because he or she is motivated to do so. But by using this type of explanation, we use an incomplete causal chain. In reality, our will is not a direct cause of our behavior, but rather an intermediate explanation masking the direct causes. Our emotions or internal states are a part of our behavior and not mediators of that behavior.

C.Dubuis Santini, Lacan, Nous et le Reel, Séminaire 2015

Thus, attributing a teenager's behavior to a feeling of frustration does not explain his or her behavior until that feeling of frustration has been explained. When we want to act on emotional conduct disorders, action must therefore not focus on the emotions themselves, but on the environmental conditions that generated and sustain them.

C.Dubuis Santini, Lacan, Nous et le Reel, Séminaire 2015

Let us take the simple example of hunger. We might think that we are preparing food because we are hungry. However, the first time we felt this feeling of hunger, when we came out of our mother's womb, we had to wait until we were given food to relieve this feeling of hunger. It is therefore the confrontation with our environment (eating to be relieved) that has gradually taught us that this feeling of hunger can be relieved by an absorption of food. F. Dolto, Lorsque l’enfant parait, Tome 1, 2014

But it is especially when the determinants of our choices become more elaborate that they most mask the root causes by confusing them with intermediate concepts such as will, motivation, desire, etc.

So, things seem to get complicated (on the surface) when we have to choose between pasta, pizza or ratatouille. When we have to choose the color of our car, the first name of our child, or the brand of our clothes. When our behaviors no longer depend on a vital need to be satisfied, such as eating. Yet these more complex decisions operate on exactly the same principle: the same mechanism governs all your decisions, even the most complex ones.

Despite this deterministic observation, can we not still exercise some control over our behavior? If we decide to quit smoking, for example, can't this simple willingness be enough to stop smoking?

In reality, the part of control we can exercise is to act on the determinants of our behaviors, that is, on our environment. If we are able to identify the elements of our environment that maintain our behaviors, it is "enough" for us to arrange our environment in such a way that it controls our behaviors in the desired direction. It is a form of self-management. Self-management differs from self-control, which refers to self-control: "I have to quit smoking". Self-control makes more use of this notion of will, which alone is not very effective.

We are therefore dependent on our environment, without even realizing it. And we obey the laws of nature, much more than our will. We are not in control of your actions, they are built in interaction with the environment, and our "will" or "freedom" does not escape this interdependence.

Thinking that we are autonomous, we change your environment, without realizing that we continue to depend on it. At a critical stage, we realize that our environment possesses us more than we control it. This illusion of freedom is also an excellent lever for enslaving us. The incentive to consume in our societies is a striking example: "we never hold the consumer in slavery so well as by persuading him that he is king " (Marc Richelle, 1977).

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