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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: Free Will & Determinism


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Determinism is the view that free will is an illusion, and that our behaviour is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control. Consequently, our behaviour is viewed as predictable. The causal laws of determinism form the basis of science. An example of an external force would be the influence of parents when rewarding certain behaviours, whereas an example of an internal force would be hormones influencing the way in which someone behaves.

However, while determinism is the view that we have no control over our behaviour, there are varying degrees of determinism, including hard and soft determinism. Hard determinism is the view that forces outside of our control (e.g. biology or past experience) shape our behaviour. Hard determinism is seen as incompatible with free will. Soft determinism is an alternative position favoured by many psychologists. According to soft determinism, behaviour is constrained by the environment or biological make-up, but only to a certain extent. Soft determinism suggests that some behaviours are more constrained than others and that there is an element of free will in all behaviour. This was the view of Nick Heather (1976) who proposed that while our behaviour is predictable, that doesn’t make it inevitable. We can choose how to behave, but normally we only have a limited number of behaviours to choose from.

Free will is the idea that we can play an active role and have choice in how we behave. The assumption is that individuals are free to choose their behaviour and are self-determined. For example, people can make a free choice as to whether to commit a crime or not. Therefore, a person is responsible for their own actions, and it is impossible to predict human behaviour with any precision.

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