Is behaviour free, or is it determined, and what are the implications for this for psychology as a science?
The determined or undetermined nature of human experience has long provided grist for the mills of philosophical and psychological debate. For psychology, the very existence of the science as a science has seemed to hang on this one issue. In this essay the aim is to show a brief account of determinism, and why it is, as a theory, flawed beyond recovery, and to show that this does not necessarily mean the death of psychology, but rather opens up promising new fields of enquiry.
The first question, then, is: Is human behaviour determined? This essay will take the definition of determinism given by James (cited in Viney and Crosby, 1994, p.130):
"those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be. The future has no ambiguous possibilities hidden in its womb: the part we call the present is compatible with only one totality"
There are many different viewpoints occupied by determinists, but they can be broadly categorised into hard and soft deterministic views. The hard determinist says that there is no room for human agency what-so-ever in the universe, that every action is completely and necessarily the result of previous stimuli. They posit that, should some mythical being be armed with perfect knowledge of the physical properties of every particle in the universe at some point in time, and incredible computing power, it would be able to predict, with perfect accuracy, the future course of events. That is to say all human behaviours are explicable in terms of biochemical processes in the brain, and with enough detail, it is possible not only to predict its behaviour, but the behaviour of other brains it interacts with. Soft determinism presents the idea that people “do make conscious choices between different courses of action ... [but] the choices themselves are determined by other factors” (Sappington, 1990, p.20). This position is clearly very similar to hard determinism, except that it focuses more attention on the illusion of free will, as experienced by a person. Since the two ideas function in essentially the same fashion, this essay will not differentiate between the two from here on in.
Back to our question: Is behaviour determined? To put it simply, no, it is not. Determinism is the logical offshoot of the Newtonian mechanics of last century, and it bases its assumptions about cause and causation on a flawed premise, to whit; all circumstances A (being a complete picture of the universe) will always lead to some circumstance B, by iron causality, and B can only have been caused by circumstances identical to A in all respects. This is a flawed premise; the elementary particles of the universe as we know it are not bound by iron-clad laws of efficient causation, but are only potentials between two or more states until they are observed (this is a gross simplification, but a full discussion of even the basics of Quantum Mechanical theory is far beyond the scope of this essay; see Gribbin, 1985). This means that it is impossible to predict the outcome of any circumstances with any accuracy: there is an element of randomness at the fundamental level of reality. The fact that, for the most part, the random permutations of reality act in almost precise accordance with the predictions of Classical Mechanical theory is of no import to the question - if any element of reality is indeterminate, then the whole can never be said to be a determined system.
This viewpoint seems to lead to problems for psychology. At first glance, it seems that any hope for a predictive science is dashed; if there are no prior causes for some event, then the “iron chain of cause and effect” (MacKay, 1960, p.31) is useless there, and the normal sense of events flowing on from other events is disrupted. However, there are two (at least, two that will be covered here) mitigating factors in play. The first is that, though the specific behaviours of any one particle may be indeterminate, they are indeterminate within bounds. Schrödinger’s 1926 particle wave equation provides very clear theoretical evidence (since affirmed many times by empirical evidence, again see Gribbin, 1985), that there is a limited amount of states some potential particle can exist in, and these are (reasonably) easily applied. On the transition from the microscopic quantum level to the macroscopic level of human behaviours, then, we have a similar range of possibilities: most of the potential particles behave exactly as predicted by Classical Mechanics, due to the law of averages, but the variance in total is, in principle, calculable, and predictable. This is exactly the same ‘in principle’ as that of determinism; if we knew everything about the subject, then we could tell what was going to happen, except that from a Quantum Mechanical viewpoint, you get a range of behaviours, rather than an absolute.
The advantages of this are obvious; psychology is no longer constrained to throwing out measurements that are different from similar measurements under the term ‘error variance’, but has a useful tool (when developed a little more than has been done here, of course) for predicting and embracing such variance, not as an error, but as a natural result of the world at large.
The second factor that proves redeeming for psychology is a theory forwarded mostly by Stapp (2000), which from the first principles of Quantum Mechanics, builds a theory of mind which explains free will, attention levels, and the feeling of mental ‘effort’ subjectively experienced when concentrating, and the correlation between this experience of effort and performance on various tests of mental processes. He draws on the “well-known and well-studied” (Stapp, 2000, p.3) Quantum Zeno Effect (the tendency for systems to evolve slower the more rapidly observations are taken on it, in essence), to state that “focus of intention is maintained by mental effort via the physical mechanism of the Quantum Zeno Effect, and this connection explains many empirical features of the mind-brain connection” (p.3). Although he admits that his account is merely a sketch, and must be developed further, it provides a solid, well researched, and above all interesting explanation for limits on attention, a new approach to the age old problems of mental/physical dualism or monism, and resolves quite neatly the question of human agency.
The very nature of determinism, as has been shown, is based on the flawed Classical Mechanical conception of reality, and is therefore itself flawed. Though it provides useful data, and has been doing so for some time, it should be replaced with a theory based on that which replaced Classical Mechanics in our understanding of reality, i.e. Quantum Mechanics. Not only does a theory based on Quantum Mechanics provide for a more accurate view, it remains just as powerful a predictor of behaviour (much as QM is as useful for explaining physical properties as CM, and also provides for predictions where CM theory breaks down). It also, in human consciousness as an agent, fits better with people’s subjective experiences of free will. Stapp’s (2000) Quantum Theory of Consciousness opens many new areas of research, and provides a solid basis for further inquiry.
Gribbin, J. (1985) In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, Bantam Doubleday Bell
MacKay, D.M. (1960). On the logical indeterminacy of a free choice. Mind, 69,31-40
Sappington, A.A. (1990). Recent psychological approaches to the free will versus determinism issue. Pschological Bulletin, 108, 19-29
Schrödinger, E. (1926). The particle wave formula. (six papers, various publishers)
Stapp, H. (2000). A Quantum Theory of Mind. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory LBNL-45229
Viney, D.W., & Crosby, D.A. (1994). Free Will in Process Perspective, New Ideas in Psychology, 12, 129-141