The Science (and Mystery) of Free Will: With Implications for Determinism, Morality and Law

Reference & EducationCollege & University

  • Author Robert Depaolo
  • Published March 26, 2024
  • Word count 1,713


This article discusses free will in the context of brain function and in particular, the internal language faculties discussed by Alexander Luria and others. The point is made that there is a middle ground explanation of what free will means and how that might pertain to the tenets of religion, law and scientific inquiry.

When it comes to free will and the behavioral science related to it, there exists a conundrum analogous to the one seen in the field of physics. Regarding the latter, conflict arises from the question of whether the natural world can best be described using the classical cause-effect deterministic model espoused by Einstein or the probabilistic/uncertain model typified by quantum mechanics. Regarding free will, it boils down to the question of whether human beings can act in accord with choices that are unaffected by natural or experiential causation or whether our behavior is determined by external factors. Are we part of the natural world, which one presumes is governed by cause-effect relationships or are we - as many religious and legal principles imply, separate from it?

This issue has implications for virtually all human endeavors. The idea of free will is a cornerstone of all religions, simply because all faiths include a moral system by which man is judged. One cannot be fairly judged unless acts of sin or virtue emanate from the intentions and choices of the actor. If outside factors cause behavior, no crime, sin or act of cruelty could be deemed wrongful. All sinners and criminals could claim "nature made them do it"

This principle is also a foundation of law. Commission of a crime involves intent. Commission of a tort (an unlawful act in a civil action) similarly requires that one intentionally or through foreseeable neglect act in a way that causes harm to another person or agency. Even ethical standards for professionals include the presumption of choice.

However, if the behavior of organisms falls into the deterministic category, and if one uses the tenets of science rater than faith or law to judge, then all behavior, good or bad, would have to be considered the result of external stimuli and experiences that are beyond the control of the individual.

This of course paints a rather bleak picture of human experience because it implies there are no good, evil, moral or immoral individuals; no such thing as sin, crime or conversely, good acts.

Despite the fact that all human social and moral systems operate according to the presumption of free will the question of whether it exists has been around for centuries. Plato addressed the topic in the Myth of Er section of his work, the Republic. Aristotle - as was his wont - parsed the subject by drawing a distinction between human dispositions and human actions. He wrote that the former was not a choice but that the latter was. In other words. We can't control how we feel but can control how we act.

Sigmund Freud was fairly adamant in his belief that humans do not have free will, and that what appears to be "choice", that is, behavior ostensibly unguided by overt antecedents, was actually driven by the unconscious.

Perhaps the most dogmatic statement about free will came from B.F. Skinner in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He offered a staunchly deterministic view of human behavior, encompassed in the phrase "behavior is a function of ts consequences." Skinner was challenged by various thinkers, particularly Ayn Rand who called his book (paraphrasing here) 'A Frankenstein tome stitched together with the nuts and bolts of fascism." In addition to such criticism his behavioral equation seemed a bit topsy-turvy because he reversed the timing on cause and effect by saying that an event that happens after a response caused the response. Even a liberal interpretation of this principle would require that an internal memory of a reward following the behavior was what really caused a repetition of the behavior - that memory. Not consequence was the causal element. And of course, memory is an internal - not environmental factor.

Skinner's model was radical. At the time of his most notable books and experiments there were two schools of thought regarding human behavior, One, the S-R model, held that human behavior was determined by stimulus conditions and reinforcement schedules following the behavior. The other model was the -S-O-R model which held that an intervening factor (the organism) did some processing of experience and that intervention or appraisal was the direct determinant of behavior. Skinner chose to omit even the 'S" or stimulus factor and decided the only important aspects of behavior was the response and the effect of the reinforcement on the response.

The question of free will persisted throughout the centuries without resolution, until a reasonable model including the "O" factor was presented (one that even Skinner acknowledged made sense). It was based on studies on human language and borrowed from scientific and clinical sources as disparate as Alexander Luria, Ivan Pavlov, Noam Chomsky, Richard Lazarus and Clark Hull. Without delving into too much detail on the work of each, the central theme of their studies and ideas focused on the notion of a mediating, internal language function that was covert, not fully grammatical but a kind of summary appraisal of experience likely emanating from the prefrontal cortex of the human brain.

Lazarus believed inserted between experience and emotion was something he called an "appraisal response." He believed it was not the external event that caused an emotional reaction (aside from atavistic fight-flight behavior). Rather, it was the intervening, subtle internal language response that cued the eventual emotional reaction, and while not unconscious in the Freudian sense the appraisal was not necessarily discernible to the actor. Pavlov similarly suggested this language response operated as an automatic reflex and was immediate and unnoticeable.

Pavlov and Luria - both renowned Russian physiologists, called this intervening language response the second signal system. Luria viewed language as having an internal para-communicative purpose devoted as much to self-regulation as communication. Meanwhile, Chomsky felt human language is instinctive, rather than being learned in its essence and Clark Hull studied a phenomenon he called fractional goal responses- which were partially inhibited but operative "mental rehearsals" that guide behavior in the absence of external cues and cause effect mechanisms.

B.F. Skinner came to accept that language could be an internal, intervening causative factor in behavior, and that human behavior did include a kind of self-deterministic free will, that could technically be assumed to bypass external influence.

Two factors came into play that created a snag in this interpretation. The first was that one could assume that since language is to an extent influenced by learning and social context it is not completely beyond external causation. The covert appraisals would have to derive from some sort of learning. (On the other hand, the internal reflex and instinctive features of language espoused by Pavlov and Chomsky seem to preserve the notion of free will)

A second snag was that since people vary in their expressive language capacities it would seem skill differentials would also show up in one's capacity to use appraisals, to self-regulate and to utilize intervening language mediation. Since in a scientific context those factors and skills are assumed to comprise free will then the capacity for free will must depend to an extent on language prowess.

According to that premise, free will would have to be considered greater for some than for others, which would imply that responsibility for one's actions also depended on those internal mediation language capacities. In other words some people might be so gifted linguistically that their internal mediation language skills would provide them with a greater degree of self-determination, giving them greater free will than those with lesser mediation ability. In that context free will (and all the moral, legal and religious principles attached to it) would have to be considered relative. That would have to be factored into concepts like guilt, innocence, criminal intent, virtuousness and so on. It would imply that responsibility for one's actions would have some sort of positive correlation with language ability and arguably with intelligence. The problem is that such a notion - though consistent with scientific inquiry would turn morality, law and religion upside down.

None of the ideas of Pavlov, Luria, Skinner or Lazarus have found their way into a courtroom, classroom, church, mosque or temple. On the other hand, the idea of differential morality based on language and the intellect was the first moral lesson imparted in the Bible. Adam and Eve were told remaining ignorant would equate with innocence whereas the quest for knowledge would lead to greater self awareness, greater moral responsibility and higher culpability regarding sinfulness. Pre-apple Adam and Eve did not have guilt because they were not ostensibly knowledgeable enough to be curious and make choices.

Still, for all the research and theory devoted to free will this writer is left with the unalterable impression that one can act in ways that have nothing to do with prior learning or external causation. At this moment a statement will be issued that has never been used, influenced, grammatized, taught or even contemplated by this writer - thus could not possibly have been caused by anything other than a vague self-prompt urging the writer to... "say something nonsensical." Elephant phonetic quantify in vivo aperture in purple absentia." There is no associative, grammatical, semantic or cognitive connection between those words, This writer could not have learned or been caused to say exactly those words. It would thus appear this writer utilized free will to make that statement. Curious - and not something either Skinner, Plato, Aristotle, Chomsky or Pavlov could explain.


Beliavsky, V. Free Will in Psychoanalysis. Springer Link. March 2020

Chomsky, N. (2006) Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press

Hull, C.L. (1943) Principles of Behavior New York Appleton-Century

Lazarus, R. Folk man, S. (1984) Stress, Appraisal and Coping New York. Springer Pub.

Luria, A. (1962) The Working Brain Basic Books

Luria, A. (1962) Higher Cortical Functions in Man, Moscow University Press

Skinner, B.F. (1948) Walden Two. New York MacMillan

Skinner, B.F. (1972) Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Vintage Books

Windhoek, G. (1990) The Second Signal System as Conceived by Pavlov and his Disciples Biological Science Oct-Dec. (4) 163-173

Robert DePaolo MS Clinical Psychology Retired practitioner in the fields of clinical, educational and neuropsychology, author of 8 books and many articles on science, religion, psychology and true crime

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