Determinism: accepting all behavior, thoughts, and feelings as being the inevitable--lawful--outcome of complex psychological laws describing cause and effect relationships in human behavior. Understanding the causes of any behavior helps us accept it.
The ideas of free will, determinism, personal choice, moral responsibility, and scientific prediction are old ideas, but in this century they have not been discussed seriously. Too bad, because we need a much clearer view of reality. Sappington (1990) believes some interest is being revived. He believes free will can be compatible with science. So do I.
A recent publication by Bruce Waller (1999) is a clear, readable, convincing discussion of "will power" and the sense of personal responsibility that accompanies the notions of personal freedom and choice. Free will, as most people think of it, is a term describing the vague, mysterious process by which we come to some decision about what to do or think. While we have no way to see how our mind comes to any given decision, in the case of "free will" it does seem to us as though decision-making, while guided by some of our thoughts, is a rather autonomous and sometimes almost magical process. "Our" decisions certainly seem to come out of our head and often seem only distantly connected to outside or historical causes or influences. No wonder choices and decisions are assumed to be our responsibility. But the question is: Are we totally responsible or are many complex uncontrollable and often unknown factors--inside and outside of us--involved with what merely seem to be our "free choices?"
Waller says one reason for a culture keeping the concept of "free will," a common notion which has never been scientifically explained, is so society (and each of us) can hold the actor "morally responsible" for his/her actions. Our system of punitive control of bad behavior is mostly built on this assumption. We think: the murderer deserves to die. The rapist should be severely punished. The drug dealer and chronic criminal should just be locked up, perhaps forever.
Moreover, we think the person who doesn't "help himself" deserves what he gets. The drunk who refuses treatment is responsible for his behavior; he is "weak willed" or wants to drink and fall in the gutter. The 15-year-old girl who becomes promiscuous and then pregnant "should have known better" and deserves to be a poor, uneducated, ostracized mother. The abused woman, who knows there is shelter and help available but stays with her abuser, is "making her own choice" and is "morally responsible" for her own pitiful condition. The unmotivated worker or student is "lazy" and has to assume responsibility for his/her being fired or failed. They are getting their "just rewards." The anxious person who has lots of physical problems the doctor can't understand is "neurotic" or "sick" or "crazy" or "all messed up." Even the psychotic homeless person sleeping under cardboard on the street is assumed to be to blame for his/her condition, at least "no one else is to blame!" Our explanatory labels given to these people convey no deep understanding of the origin of their problems. Our thinking simply uses "free will" to blame the victims.
Waller also points out that many Behaviorists believe that "free will" and "moral responsibility" are intellectual cop outs, i.e. convenient and easy excuses for not looking deeper into the person's history--the environmental causes--for understanding. Why would we do that? If we can pin the responsibility on the victim, we can quickly dismiss the importance of unequal education, wealth, health, trauma, child care, social-family conditions, etc. If the immoral, addicted, criminal, incompetent, emotionally upset, and psychologically disturbed are "responsible," then why bother with exploring their history/environment/thought processes to understand what has happened to them? Sounds like a mind-set to prolong ignorance to me.
Although society assigns undue responsibility to the actor (often a victim), relatively little research has been supported to enhance the control an individual might have over his/her behavior. As discussed in chapter 1, how many schools or colleges offer courses in self-direction or self-control or self-help? These skills could be taught to everyone. But once we start thinking in terms of teaching coping skills, the concept of "free will" loses some of its power to blame the actor. This is because as we teach self-control to others it becomes more and more obvious that outside-the-actor factors (environmental, educational, and historical) have influenced how every human being behaves. Consequently, assigning "moral responsibility" exclusively to the individual becomes harder and harder to do.
Research has studied why some people are industrious and others are lethargic. The results included interesting concepts: "learned industriousness" and "learned helplessness." These traits turn out to be clearly the outcome of the individual's reinforcement history, often occurring in early childhood, and not the result of some innate trait, not just a character flaw, not intentional decisions, and not "free will." The lethargic ("lazy") or oppositional ("argumentative") person is certainly not "morally responsible" for how he/she was rewarded and dealt with as a child.
In short, the evidence is weak for the belief that "free will" is largely responsible for what we do. If we don't have "free will," then we aren't totally "morally responsible" for what we do (but maybe we are partly responsible). Similarly, we should question the beliefs in a "just world," that everyone gets his/her "just deserts," and that everyone has access to a level playing field. All these beliefs may be convenient delusions for the advantaged and the successful, who want to avoid responsibility for making it a better world.
Waller's article focused primarily on the philosophical and social justice implications of believing in "free will." While that is very important for a society, my focus in this section is on the personal use of thinking as a determinist in terms of self-acceptance and tolerance of others.
Everything has its causes. Things don't happen by magic. According to determinism, there is nothing that "just happens," no "accidents" without a cause, no arbitrary divine intervention (or, at least, very rarely), no unavoidable fate, no mystical "free will" and no predetermined destiny. Furthermore, all events or actions are lawful, i.e. based on universal, ever present cause and effect relationships between antecedents (the past) and outcomes (the present). Gravitational pull is lawful, as is a rocket engine to counteract gravity. There are reasons, i.e. it is expected or "lawful," for an acorn to become an oak, not a pine tree. Likewise, in human behavior, it is predictable, presumably based on complex "laws," that most people will seek love, that behavior followed immediately by a reward tends to be repeated (called the law of effect), that frustration arouses a response (aggression, assertiveness, passive-aggressiveness or whatever), that unpleasant experiences tend to be repressed or suppressed, that negative self-evaluations are related to low self-esteem, that most humans can learn, with knowledge and training, to control their future to some extent, etc. Thus, life is "lawful."
All scientific efforts attempt to discover and understand "laws"--basic dependable cause and effect relationships. If there were no order (laws) in the universe, then there would be nothing to learn (except that nothing is stable and, thus, understandable). The opposite seems to be true; every event has a cause and this cause-effect connection is potentially understandable. I'm not saying we scientists understand everything right now (far from it) nor that we will eventually be able to predict all behavior. That's nonsense. Yet, I have a belief that we will be able to understand and control many of our own behaviors in 1000 years. It is our doubts about this matter that causes our reluctance to earnestly search for and use scientific knowledge about the laws of human behavior. Our ignorance about behavior keeps us preparing for and fighting wars; suffering hunger, preventable illness, and ignorance; making poor choices about careers, marriage partners, child rearing; having many avoidable emotional problems; etc. In short, discovering "laws" through wisdom and science, and using laws to improve the human condition is, I believe, the great hope for the future. Knowing psychological laws does not require us to be super smart; it is just understanding what's happening.
Much human behavior is unquestionably very complex, but it is reasonable to assume that all behavior is potentially understandable, i.e. a consistent, logical, to-be-expected outcome resulting from many causes. One way of looking at this is to say, "If I knew all the laws that are influencing your behavior, I would understand you perfectly. I would see that given your genes and physical condition, given the effects of past events and your memory (perhaps distorted) of past experiences, and given your view of the present situation, I would do exactly what you are doing, no matter how saintly or how evil. " If true, that is an awesome statement or belief.
If a person can learn to think this way, i.e. that all human feelings and actions are caused by psychological laws, then all behavior becomes, in a sense, "acceptable" because it is, at the moment, unavoidably lawful. The truth is everything is lawful, so far as science knows. Thus, all behavior, your's and everyone's, is the natural, inevitable outcome of the existing causes. No other outcome was possible given the circumstances (causes and laws). Such an attitude leads logically to tolerance of yourself and others --of all that has happened in the past. Moreover, a deterministic orientation offers hope that scientists and other careful observers, including you, will discover more and more useful knowledge ("laws") for changing the future. Accept yesterday, influence tomorrow.
A great deal of benefit can result from analyzing in depth the causes of some action--called causal attribution--and/or from changing one's views of the causes. Examples: rape victims can be helped to see the situation realistically and press charges, interpersonal conflicts can be reduced easier if the reasons for each side's position are understood, fighting couples can benefit from seeing the causes as external and temporary (not because the partner is an incurable jerk), and self-esteem can be raised if one can learn to feel personally responsible for many successes, capable of improving, and not responsible for all our failures (Baron & Byrne, 1987).
Determinism has been mentioned already in "the helping philosophy" in chapter 3, in the section on overcoming guilt in chapter 6, and briefly in the list of methods for reducing anger in chapter 7. Changing how one explains one's failures is important in coping with depression (chapter 6) and a poor self-concept (method #1 above).
- The last method helped us recognize our irrational thinking. Determinism is rational thinking, which can be used to replace harmful irrational ideas. Determinism replaces "awfulizing" and "musturbation" (see method #3). Understanding the causes of any upsetting event is a big step towards accepting and adjusting to that event.
- Most of us have pet peeves--different kinds of behaviors, attitudes, personalities, and circumstances that bother or upset us. Many of us are deeply disturbed by how we were treated by parents, siblings, peers, bosses, etc. Adopting a deterministic attitude or philosophy will help us accept everything that has happened--it was lawful, not awful. You may, of course, be able to change some things in the future, but whatever occurs, in the past or future for good or bad, is lawful.
- Most of us don't like some things about ourselves, as discussed in method #1 above. Understanding and accepting that there were causes for whatever we have done should reduce excessive guilt (or pride) or self-criticism, without reducing our drive to do better in the future. Moreover, developing a self-accepting way of thinking (credit for the good, less fault for the bad) can help raise low self-esteem.
- Viewing behavior in this deterministic way may make it crystal clear to everyone that useful knowledge or laws based on careful observations are needed to solve many problems. That may be the first step towards becoming a successful self-helper (and a truly rational or civilized science-oriented society).
STEP ONE: Learn to think like a determinist. Think of all behavior as caused and lawful. Discover the causes. (This is a long, rather deep and tiresome discussion of determinism--stick with it. It is not easy to change how we see the world.)
The ideal determinist doesn't just look for causes. If that were the case, the person always blaming others or the paranoid who feels persecuted by someone would be a super determinist. One ideally will search for the true causes by testing one's hunches. Psychology may be the only discipline in which the student has a lot of false beliefs about human behavior to unlearn as well as learning a lot of new things about the causes of behavior. Throughout our lives we are bombarded with unsubstantiated or just plain wrong beliefs: boys should be different from girls, people get what they deserve in this world, you can do anything you set your mind to do, self-change is just a matter of setting goals for yourself, there will always be poor people, masturbation is bad, you have to be thin to be beautiful, red-heads are hot-headed, the mentally ill are dangerous, men should earn an income and women take care of the house, and on and on. Each of those beliefs had their causes, i.e. it was/is "lawful" to believe those false beliefs, but it is wiser to question the beliefs, to value seeking the truth. All too frequently we do not question the beliefs passed on to us. A determinist, recognizing the value of truly understanding the laws of behavior, would constantly question his/her understanding of the causes of any thought, emotion, or action. He/she would recognize our current level of ignorance about human behavior, the degree of brainwashing done by society and religion, and the need for bold exploration into the true (proven) causes of everything. Here's an example.
Suppose we humans are capable of learning to live justly and lovingly with every other person on earth. That is, assume that the necessary knowledge will eventually become available and we are capable of acquiring and using that knowledge to interact considerately with everyone. In the mean time, are we "free" as long as we do not have and use that knowledge? Some people say "no" (Williams, 1992), to live a lie or to live in ignorance is to lose our freedom. Clearly, to be controlled by foolish emotions or false beliefs is to be enslaved by ignorance, but we are not yet knowledgeable enough to be free to live justly and considerately. We don't yet have the knowledge needed to assess what is fair nor the self-control skills to do what is just. Yet, our ignorance, while regrettable, is understandable and lawful. In short, while a hopeful, thoughtful determinist would be working hard to find the knowledge needed to be a kind person, a hopeless, unthinking, prejudiced, or hostile person is still "lawful." The latter just hasn't yet learned to value, seek, and use knowledge for better relationships.
My experience with students has taught me that there are several common misconceptions about determinism. Some are obvious errors, but a clarification is needed. For instance, the "laws" made by Congress or state legislatures are entirely different from "psychological laws." The laws of behavior or of physics exist, they can't be written by lawyers or challenged by courts or broken or changed by anyone. The laws of behavior determine how we act and feel in specific circumstances, just as the laws of physics determine how a rocket might go to the moon.
The most common confusion by students is between determinism, a way of viewing the world, and determination, a motivated state or a willingness to work hard for some goal. A determinist may or may not be hard working. Being lazy or indifferent is just as determined by psychological laws as being highly motivated. These concepts are confused merely because the words sound similar.
Perhaps the major objection to determinism rests on another misunderstanding, namely, each individual usually feels that he/she makes spontaneous choices and uses will power and, thus, is "free." Philosophers have debated these issues at length. No doubt we make choices--often making different choices or decisions from what we have made before. But making choices does not disprove determinism. Perhaps I can illustrate this point. Suppose a friend told you he had decided to go into engineering and that statement aroused anxiety in you about your own indecision concerning your educational and career choices. Your anxiety might then motivate you to find a book to read about decision-making and career choices. As you read and think about your future career, you may decide to take some tests, visit and observe persons in certain occupations, take certain introductory classes in interesting disciplines, talk to a counselor, read more books, etc. After weeks or months you might decide on a life work. It seems to you that you freely made the career choice; indeed, you did in the sense that no one else told you what to do. However, although there were very complex causes for each of those decisions, the process was lawful and totally understandable. You never once made a choice or acted in a way that was uncaused or defied the laws of behavior. Even if you give up and say "this career planning is too much work" or "too confusing," that too is a lawful decision based on your past experience, your self-concept, your calculation of the consequences, your tired or frustrated feelings, your inclinations to deny the problem, etc., etc. Thus, there are understandable reasons and laws for both careful, wise choices and for impulsive, foolish decisions. So, the determinist would say that whatever choice we make would have to be lawful at that moment (we might change our mind in a few seconds, though). The concept of free choice is probably more of an illusion than an act without a cause. We are not free to be unlawful.
To many people, determinism and thinking of everything in terms of cause and effect relationships seems like it would restrict their freedom, maybe even imply predestination. We value freedom; we want to be free of control by others or circumstances or even fate. First of all, it should be helpful to distinguish between two aspects of freedom: (a) how wide a range of opportunities are provided by your family, your education or employer, your religion, your government, your friends, your abilities, your conscience, your economic situation, your social customs, your awareness of the possibilities, and so on? This is what most politicians are referring to when they speak of "freedom." There is another meaning: (b) how possible is it to think or act in ways that are contrary to the laws of human behavior? The determinist would say, "No possibility! Can water flow up hill?" As illustrated by the career decision process in the last paragraph, when any behavior occurs, the determinist assumes that it is caused, that it is lawful (the to-be-expected, inevitable outcome of the causes existing at that moment). Remember, determinism doesn't rule out making bad choices, acting impulsively, freezing up, becoming psychotic or anything else that is lawful. Determinism doesn't restrict your options (except you can't do things that are impossible or unlawful), but at any one moment only one choice or action is lawful. A moment later another choice might be lawful if you thought of another factor or started feeling differently about one of the options.
It seems like you have more freedom if you have many options and lots of self-control. Some people can see only one solution to a problem; some people think they can do very little or nothing to improve their situation. Yet, humans are so capable and there are so many possible solutions to most problems that there are usually many solutions. The question is: how many solutions do you consider? This influences your final choice of what to do, although your choice, either simple or complex, is determined by the causes and effects operating in your head at that instant. We are "free" in the sense that we can know and use the laws of behavior to change ourselves, to learn more about the situation or self-help, to see more options, to view the situation differently, to change our "minds," expectations, emotions, and attitudes, to try a new approach, etc. Our mental activity becomes another cause of our behavior or feelings, sometimes the dominant cause. Our mind creates our freedom (within the limits of what is lawful). This is not always a conscious decision-making process, our minds will often change without any effort on our part because the interplay among the myriad of laws is constantly changing--we see the situation differently, our feelings change, we become interested in something else, etc., etc. This is lawful too. All our choices and changes, whether conscious, wise, quick, uninformed, emotional, careful, or otherwise, could clearly be caused by environmental and mental-emotional factors and, thus, lawfully determined. There is no magic.
Our ideas about freedom are fuzzy in other ways too. Examples: if you act very impulsively, is that freedom or being a slave to the whims of the moment? If you prefer to "do what you feel like doing" without much thought, is that freedom or being unthinking? If you do not have the decision-making skills or the knowledge to make wise choices, is that freedom or ignorance? If you are so upset or so in love that you can't make good judgments, is that freedom or dominated by your emotions? If you feel compelled to carefully weigh the pros and cons of several alternative solutions, is that freedom or compulsivity? The notion of a freely made decision seems unclear. Williams (1992) contends that we are not really free if we do not know the truth, if we are living a lie. Examples: if you are facing a solvable problem but don't know the solution, you are not "free" to exercise your potential. If you are dominated by an unreasonable emotion, e.g. dependency, you are not "free" to know the truth about your feelings and about how to become independent. If you have false views of the laws governing all behavior (e.g. the role of chance or of God) or false views of others or groups of others (based on race, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, being on welfare, etc.), you are not "free" because you are attempting to live on the basis of a false reality. If your relationship with your spouse is not as you see it, e.g. they may not have been faithful, you are living an illusion and not "free" to see and deal with reality. Other writers even go further and maintain that freedom involves considering others and "the greatest good for all," not just selfishly acting in one's own best interest.
In contrast with Williams and the hermeneutic-social constructionist tradition (insisting that only realistic and moral choices are "free"), I still believe we humans are often "determined" to do stupid, mean, immoral things, because these acts are lawful in our circumstances and from our psychological history. With the wise use of these same laws, however, I believe we are "free" to become, i.e. capable of becoming, smart, kind, and moral. You can see that there are many different notions about the simple-sounding concept of freedom.
Regardless of how we define freedom, determinism is still a tenable notion for describing everything that happens. And, how do we explain the existence of these laws of behavior (or physics)? Is it merely "the nature of things?" If so, what a miracle! Is it the work of God? If so, what a miracle! We don't know why the laws exist, only that they do.
"Will power" is another poorly understood concept. It is not calling on some special power or an unexplainable force to enable you to achieve some desired goal. It is merely an understandable, straight-forward but maybe-unusual-for-you concentration of effort to reach a goal. We think of ourselves as being in control when we make a special effort on a project, and we are, but there isn't any magic involved in increasing our motivation to overcome the temptations or difficulties we face. There are lawful reasons or causes (usable self-help methods) for these surges of "determination," e.g. we may have increased our motivation by thinking about the importance of the project, by visualizing the possibility and consequences of failure, by confronting our despicable lack of commitment, etc.