"Determinism, Freedom, and Awareness"

by Victor Daniels


The "freedom vs. determinism" controversy is a long-standing one among both philosophers and psychologists. Here a resolution to the problem is presented that is based on the simple and well-known statistical concept of "degrees of freedom." It is shown that in the larger gestalt of the situation, our consciousness and behavior are both determined in the ways that psychoanalysts and behaviorists have argued, and are free in the ways that existentialists and humanists have argued.  Gestalt therapy uses the tools of focused awareness to help people become aware of internal and external determining tendencies and, when they wish, increase their freedom of choice in situations where formerly they experienced little or none. 

"Is our behavior free, or is it determined? The question, typically posed in precisely this dualistic fashion, is a well-worn bone on which both philosophers and psychologists have gnawed for years, decades, centuries, even millennia. Here I will offer, I believe,  an elegant solution to the controversy. 


Psychoanalysts insist that that much of our behavior is determined by experiences of infancy and early childhood. Behaviorists maintain that most of what we do is controlled by the cues and reinforcers in our environment, which include the behavior of others. Existentialist philosophers and psychologists, and humanistic psychologists take precisely the opposite position, as in Jean-Paul Sartre's statement that even a man standing before a firing squad may choose to face death in a brave manner or a cowardly one, and in that sense is free. With such radically different points of view, how are we to tell who is right? 

Ironically, a definitive answer to this dilemma can, I believe,  be found not in the statements of either philosophers or psychologists  but rather in a simple equation known to every beginning statistics student.


The equation is simplicity itself: df = ( n-1). In words, "degrees of freedom equals n minus one, where n is the total number of possibilities in the situation--in this case the number of options that someone can perceive and carry out. When there is only one possibility, then n=1, and (n-1)=0. Since the number of degrees of freedom equals zero,  we can say that the person's behavior is totally determined. Driven by irresistible inner or outer forces, or both, or she has no freedom, no choice in the matter at hand.

If, however, someone perceives just two possible courses of action, which after all is a fairly common occurrence in the context of the human condition, then n=2 and (n-1) = 1.  The person has one degree of freedom.  But perhaps we have a person endowed with a remarkably flexible personality in a situation that offers a multitude of possibilities. Perhaps, indeed, Flexible Frances perceives a hundred possible actions among which she can choose. Then n=100, (n-1) = 99,  and Frances is considerably freer than most people most of the time. 


The obvious next questions are, "What are the implications of this startlingly simple formulation," and "What is its utility?" 

The fascinating implication is that the psychoanalysts, behaviorists, existentialists, and humanists are all entirely correct.  More than a little of our behavior is indeed determined early in life and reenacted again and again thereafter, often in the forms of complexes or neuroses which may seem compulsive in their character--the "unfinished business" that haunts us until we come to terms with it in therapy, counseling, or some other healing or transformative context--or until we die.  A good deal of our behavior is also fairly rigidly determined by environmental cues and reinforcers as simple as a red or green traffic light or a restroom sign that says "Men" or "Women," or as complex as the mixture of personalities in a given situation and the political or religious ideologies and agendas they espouse. Both Freud and Skinner were right.


On the other hand, as Soren Kierkegaard, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Rollo May, James Bugenthal, and Carl Rogers all emphasized,  in every moment we have  a chance to act differently than we have acted in similar situations in the past. And as yogis, Buddhist teachers, George Gurdjieff, and Fritz Perls and his compatriots pointed out, the more we cultivate our ability to notice what factors in our past or in our environment are influencing us at any given moment, and how we are responding to them either internally or externally, the better able we become to broaden the range of choices available to us. Personal freedom can be learned, developed, and cultivated.  In a Gestalt working session, a person may be asked to exaggerate some act in order to enhance her awareness of it, which in turn opens up the possibility of doing something else. She may be asked to stop doing something she has always done, in order to discover alternatives. She may experiment with acting in ways that had been forbidden, and hence were threatening and "off limits." She may let go of a facade and find her authentic self. And so on almost ad infinitum. 


So the larger Gestalt of the "freedom vs. determinism" issue is that the question cannot be answered abstractly except in such general terms as those offered just above. In real life it must always be answered concretely, in reference to a given person in a given situation. We can ask how many degrees of freedom that person has, what internal or external conditions are limiting him or her, and what he or she might do to open up a broader range of possibilities if that's desirable. So the next time you hear the tired old argument about whether our actions and consciousness are free or determined, just ask, "Whose?" "When?" "In what situation?" Then an answer becomes possible. And that answer can't be found by logic or argument, but only by examination of the particulars. 


e-mail: daniels@sonoma.edu

Victor Daniels is Professor of Psychology at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California 94928