Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Free will - my take

A little over a year ago, I was coming to the end of my one year A Level psychology course (for those not in the know, an A Level usually takes 2 years).

One of the papers we took was called "Debates" - we had to study the history of four debates relevant to psychology, and be able to argue both sides scientifically and critically. The four debates were "Nature/Nurture", "Psychology as Science", "Reductionism" and "Free Will vs Determinism".

And reading Responsibility inCharlie's blog reminded me of the discussion we had in class about free will.

I ventured the opinion that we always have free will, which was not popular with either my teacher or my classmates. My teacher asked me to consider a situation of a bank cashier during a robbery, someone holding a gun in her face and telling her to put all the money in the bag. Does the cashier have any free will at this point? Is she fully in control of her actions, or are they determined by the situation?

I maintained that yes, the cashier does have a choice. She can put the money in the bag, or she can take the chance of getting shot.

And I still believe it. I'm not denying that the situation, genetics, past experiences, etc., can all have a powerful influence on our behaviour, but in the end we make our own decisions and we pick whatever we think is the best choice in light of the information we have.

For me, having an "addictive personality" or having a gun to your head (sometimes they seem like one and the same thing) does not control your behaviour, it biases your decision towards a particular course of action. In this case, the threaten of violence makes you much more likely to comply with the gunman's request.

You have a choice of what to do in every situation. It may be extremely hard (in fact seem almost impossible) to do the "right" thing in light of addiction, or threat, or whatever, but "I can't help it" is never a defence.

It may be a shitty choice, but it's still a choice.

Feel free to comment, tell me I'm talking crap, or whatever - there isn't a definitive right or wrong answer here and I know for a fact there are holes in my argument. What do you think?


  1. hey, nice blog! bookmarked...

    happy blogging....

  2. and yes, about your take on free will, i think it is more to do with the phrase you are using that is a bit not in sync with what people actually perceive "free" to be.

    Perceptions play a big role in our understanding of various situations.

    Now, when you say that we have a "free" will which also includes the option of going for a shitty option ...then a lot of people may not be able to associate "free" with a shitty option....

    "Free" to them means...good, pleasent,nice....

    Ask any advertising guy or a company that sells soaps or anything for that matter...."free" is a magical word for them that gets them hundreds of thousands of customers...

  3. Thank you :)

    Yes, I think you're right.

    I wonder if that's particularly true in the US, as freedom is perhaps more valued there than it is here in the UK.

    Of course I'm using "free" in the sense of "unconstrained", rather than "obtainable without payment", or even "not imprisoned or enslaved".

  4. Anna, I agree with you 100%: yes, the bank teller is in a bad situation, but she does indeed have the choice not to comply.

    Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps and author of Man's Search for Meaning, said that even prisoners have free will: they can choose to live or they can lay down and die. (He wasn't talking about those going to the gas chambers, but rather those held as prisoners and workers.)

    And, of course, you echo my opinion about responsibility for addictive behavior.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. Thanks Pooper.

    The "I'm an addict, I can't help it" type behaviour seems to be linked to a growing trend in the Western world - something I call "Nanny State-ism" or the "Sue-everyone-to-fuck Culture".

    It's now so common to attempt to gain compensation, sue for damages or whatever, and it makes me sick. Most often, an accident isn't caused by negligence, it's just an accident and no-one's fault. So why do we have to sue the council, or the school, the doctor, the tobacco company for promoting cigarettes before anyone knew how harmful they were?

    Part of life is learning to accept that bad things do happen to people who don't deserve them, and all the sueing in the world isn't going to change that.

    Sometimes I think there aren't many of us grown-ups left.

  6. I forgot to add, both phenomena boil down to the fact that people really don't like taking responsibility for themselves.