Shackled by Determinism

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Jeffrey Thayne

One goal of the natural sciences is to discover regularities in observable phenomena that allow us to predict future phenomena. George Kelly explained, “It is customary to say that the scientist’s ultimate aim is to predict and to control.”1 To this end, the natural sciences have largely, if not completely, adopted the philosophy of determinism. Determinism is the idea that “for every thing that ever happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen.”2 Hergenhahn claims that “all sciences assume determinism.”2

Many scientists and philosophers have applied the philosophy of determinism to the study of human behavior, and in doing so have almost unanimously concluded that free will is illusory. James Jeans, a philosopher of science, explains:

We have seen how the materialists interpreted thought and emotion as mechanical activities of the brain and body respectively, and imagined that if all the physical and chemical changes in a brain and body could be traced out, it would be possible, at least in principle, to deduce all the mental and emotional experiences of the associated mind. Thus, if material changes were bound by a causal chain, mental and emotional experiences would also be so bound, and there could be no room left for free-will.3

For example, B. F. Skinner, a famous behavioral scientist, claimed, “The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application scientific method to the study of human behavior.”4 B. F. Skinner was far from alone in this assumption. Bertrand Russell made a similar claim:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; … —all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand.4

A historian of science named William Provine recently said:

Human beings are marvelously complex machines. The individual human becomes an ethical person by means of only two mechanisms: deterministic heredity interacting with deterministic environmental influences.4

It seems clear that the application of determinism to human behavior leads scientists to believe that human agency is not real. As C. S. Lewis observed,

No thoroughgoing Naturalist believes in free will: for free will would mean that human beings have the power of independent action, the power of doing something more or other than what was involved by the total series of events.5

We as Latter-day Saints have a strong belief in human agency. We do not believe that our actions are determined by natural law. We believe we can act on our own accord rather than being determined by our past. Therefore, even though the assumptions of the natural sciences have been useful in studying the natural world, we should be aware of their limitations in explaining human behavior. Normally, we have few moral qualms about making the assumption that the natural world can be described and predicted by natural law because we rarely think of inanimate objects acting on their own accord. The implementation of this assumption, however, in the field of psychology makes difficult any meaningful discussion of agentic human behavior, which is a doctrine crucial to our religion.

This assumption appears to hold true in most scientific observations, and has allowed us to make great advancements in the fields of physics, chemistry, and engineering, although recent research in quantum mechanics has challenged this assumption when applied to a microscopic level. However, the assumption that we, as human beings, operate as an exception to the general rules of the universe is a very unsettling idea. Perhaps we should reconsider the philosophy of determinism in all of the natural sciences, not just the behavioral sciences. Daniel Robinson quotes Voltaire, who made an insightful observation about the idea that humans are the “exception” to the general assumptions of the natural sciences:

[I]t would be very singular indeed that all nature, all the planets, should obey eternal laws, and that there should be a little animal, five feet high, who, in contempt of these laws, could act as he pleased, solely according to his caprice.6

1. George Kelly, A Theory of Personality: A Psychology of Personal Constructs (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1963), p. 5.
2. B. R. Hergenhahn, An Introduction to the History of Psychology (Belmount: Wadsworth, 2005), p. 7.
3. Sir James Jeans, Physics and Philosophy (Cambridge University, 1948 )
4. David Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism (New York: SUNY, 2000), p. 30-32.
5. C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1947), p. 8.
6. Daniel Robinson, An Intellectual History of Psychology (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1995), p. 237.


  1. I’ve come to realize that everything I’ve done was part of my parents elaborate plan to prepare me to do the best I can in this world. Unfortunately, I have no motivation to be a part of a government experiment we call life. Free will is a subject for skeptics and hippies, but I’m not giving up. In hopes that there is something bigger at work, I will lead my life the way I want to, not the way “they” want me to. Let’s hope more of our youth seize this opportunity.

  2. I like the article. However,the interesting question is how much freedom of will do we really have. I dont believe we can dismissed determinism so easily, even when speaking of determinism in science and psychology. By the way, what type of determinism are you refering to? It is not clear what branch of determinism you have taken up. I believe that there are deep dilemmas that are not so easily resolved.

  3. I am referring to mechanical or necessary determinism; the kind we think of when billiard balls collide with each other. In essence, the determinism I don’t believe in is the kind that says that events as they happen follow inevitably from their preceding material conditions.

    In the end, you may be right that the determinism/free will debate is not easily resolved—in fact, I suspect impossible to resolve—as the terms are traditionally defined. I’ll address the subject in a future post.

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