The compatibility for free will is determined for the two juxtaposed psychological philosophies of Freudian psychoanalysis and self-determination theory. The background of psychoanalysis is analyzed in relation to its roots in determinism. Self-determination theory is introduced as a reaction to psychoanalysis centered on the inclusion of free will. The ability to prove the presence of free will is defined as both the cause of motivation and the cause of decision-making. Psychoanalysis and self-determination are analyzed for the presence of these two aspects of proof for free will, and a suitable explanation is found for both within their own houses of thought. The concept of desire for free will is found to be possible whether free will exists or not, again within the context of psychoanalysis and self-determination theory separately. Psychoanalysis is found to be largely incompatible with free will while free will is found to be essential to self-determination theory.

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Free Will in Determinism and Self-Determination

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In psychology, there is one concept that everyone knows and yet no one understands: free will. As scientists and philosophers ponder whether or not we live in a deterministic universe, free will becomes a hotly debated topic. If every cause leads to a single effect, and if the entire history of the universe was determined the instant it formed, then free will is nothing but an illusion. If the future has yet to unravel and there is no knowing what comes next, then free will may have a place in the world’s formation. Freud’s psychoanalysis follows a deterministic approach but with many unanswered questions, while self-determination theory seeks to rewrite the place of free will in the world of psychology. Free will is a key piece of self-determination theory and generally cut out of psychoanalysis.

The birth of modern psychoanalysis came at a time of psychological reinvention which called the existence of free will into question. Freud’s education correlated historically with the Darwinian revolution, a time when neurology was just beginning to develop (Viney, 2016, p. 300). The initial development of this line of science appeared to reveal a simpler brain in which “no forces [other] than the common physical– chemical ones are active” (Viney, 2016, p. 300). At the time, the possibility seemed within reach to be able to understand and predict all of the thoughts that occur inside the human brain and all of the actions that stemmed from them. With the revelation that the drive for survival and human nature are inherently connected, the human brain appeared to be a solved puzzle in which only a few pieces needed to be set into place. According to Freud’s teacher, Wilhelm von Brücke, cause and effect are directly connected, meaning that how an individual will react to a stimulus is determined the moment the stimulus is introduced (Viney, 2016, p. 300). This is the background that Freud had when he first began his practice, drawing the assumption that there is a scientific explanation for every human action and reaction. The philosophy has little or no room for free will, which would be regarded as a wild card not controlled by stimuli.

Psychoanalysis works without using free will as a factor, instead seeing physical and instinctual need as the driving force of a person’s mental state. The works of psychoanalysts have found correlations between mental state and physical condition, even when the subject is not aware of their physical condition. For example, individuals with hypothyroid will still experience fatigue, coldness, and lack of energy even before the problem is diagnosed (Viney, 2016, p. 302). In his work, Freud identified the feeling of freedom as actually a feeling of intense compulsion (Viney, 2016, p. 302). In other words, according to his study, the times in which people feel that they are asserting themselves as individuals are the times in which they are being drawn the most strongly by mental forces outside their own control. Behind every act of selflessness, bravery, or any other complex emotion, he sees a network of instincts, habits, and unconscious desires. While this does seem to dismiss free will as a possibility, it simply means that he has dismissed one thing which people identify as free will. For example, the desire to stand up for the victim of abuse may not be free will, but the decision to actually stand up and do something may still be an act of free will. Freud is arguing that our wants and beliefs are outside of our control, but he is making no claims as to whether choosing to follow these wants and beliefs is, in fact, a choice. As Freud explains, “the ego is not master in its own house” (Viney, 2016, p. 301). This means that innate motives outside of the conscious mind’s control, things that a person’s body and mind will do without the consent of the ego.

While he sought to develop a rational psychology with no loose ends, Freud failed to find physical explanations for any form of abnormal psychology. Throughout his life’s work, Freud was unable to identify any type identities, or observable bodily functions and characteristics, pertaining to mental conditions such as depression, hysterical paralysis, anxiety, or compulsive behaviors (Viney, 2016, p. 303). After years with no breakthroughs, he eventually suggested that perhaps conscious experience can have a place as a factor in psychoanalysis, as certain things cannot be accounted for without it (Viney, 2016, p. 303). In addition, Freud, himself, admonished that the mental condition referred to as hysteria behaves “as if there were no such thing as anatomy of the brain” (Viney, 2016, p. 304). This lack of discovered connection does not mean that it is impossible to measure, identify, and account for mental conditions down the road. In fact, psychoanalysis is still a developing field and scientists are still discovering new neurological symptoms of mental conditions. However, until these conditions can be identified and managed without verbal input from the patient, the placeholder is asking the patient to describe their own experience as best they can. Freud was never successful in finding scientific explanations for abnormal psychology, and was forced to tie loose ends with what patients were able to describe.

Self-determination theory seeks to tie the loose ends left behind by psychoanalysis. The older philosophy comes from a position of cause and effect, a perspective in which the brain is a machine that acts and reacts according to its biological programming. Self-determination theory sees the brain as more dynamic, a structure that is mysterious and complex enough to house a strange something called consciousness. The theory sees this consciousness as the thing in control. The theory suggests that the reason no explanation has been found for mental illness is that a person’s mental health is not governed by the body but by the living mind and all that has happened to it. Self-determination introduces a new dynamic of causation in which the thinking, feeling something that is consciousness is truly empowered to make decisions.

In order to determine how different philosophies on the inner workings of the brain work with the concept of free will, it is first necessary to define free will, itself. As free will is an abstract concept, there are multiple ways in which the existence of free will may be proven or disproven. One potential source of proof on the existence of free will is whether or not a person’s consciousness is the source of a decision (Fischer, 2007, p. 1). This means that in a deterministic setting, the body will subconsciously send the signal to yell and then the conscious mind will rationalize the decision after the fact. Conversely, in a setting with free will, the body may experience stimuli which make a person want to yell, but the conscious mind will ultimately make the decision to yell. A second means of detecting the existence of free will is to determine whether there is more than one possible outcome from an instance of decision-making (Fischer, 2007, p. 1). In other words, if the same moment is replayed over and over, the individual in question will either decide different things or will do the same thing over and over. If someone is able to choose to do different things under the exact same circumstances, then free will arguably exists. In terms of psychoanalysis and self-determination theory, both parameters of free will are valid ways to determine whether free will has a place in the equation or not.

As the first means of detecting free will, the question of where the root of motive originates may help to determine the compatibility of free will with either psychoanalysis or self-determination theory. In the context of self-determination theory, motive is influenced by needs rather than being caused by them because people continue to desire personal growth, enrichment, and discovery even when all of their physical needs are met (Deci, 2000, p. 230). It follows that when a need becomes more pressing, a person will no longer prioritize their own personal interests and instead seek to satisfy whatever instinctual urge is not being met. In contrast, Freud’s movement was heavily influenced by Darwin and sees a level of physiological need that does not necessarily go away when a person is well fed and socially supported, given that survival is for the fittest and not the relatively fit (Viney, 2016, p. 300). In the context of self-determination theory, motive ultimately comes from the preferences of the conscious mind, impacted by the urge of nature. Under Freud’s approach, motive comes from physiological need first and foremost, taking the power out of the hands of the conscious mind. In terms of motive, there is no place for free will within Freud’s psychoanalysis, yet self-determination theory places free will first and foremost as the creator of motivation.

As the second means of detecting free will, whether or not the same scenario will result in the same decision may also show whether free will has a place in psychoanalysis or self-determination theory. Psychoanalytic work suggests plainly that in one given situation, the result will always be the same. It is the fundamental belief of Freud, whether he was able to isolate an explanation for each phenomenon or not. As Freud points out in his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, it is impossible to spit out a random name or number, and that the name or number that person will say, intended to be at random, will be rooted in associations and memories (Viney, 2016, p. 301). As much as the human mind may try to produce something at random, it is simply impossible. This explanation coincides well with the foundation of psychoanalysis, but it can also be looked at another way. While it is true that the brain is not constructed to come up with random ideas, the ideas that people do have is still founded in their beliefs and experiences, which self-determination theory finds to be the territory of the conscious self, not the physical workings of the brain. There is also no reason to assume that a person would always come up with the same name or number in the exact same situation, as this situation remains an imaginary exercise rather than a testable experiment. Both psychoanalysis and self-determination theory have their own understandings of how the same theoretical experiment may play out, both proving within their own isolated logic whether or not free will exists.

Whether or not free will exists, there is evidence that people desire to believe they have free will, which is supported by both psychoanalysis and self-determination theory. This phenomenon has been recorded in a growing collection of studies which indicate that monetary compensation for an activity actually makes people enjoy it less (Deci, 2000, p. 234). While a variety of explanations has been offered, self-determination theory suggests that a person no longer feels as if their own wants and interests were not what led them to engage in the activity, meaning they no longer feel they were operating on intrinsic motivation, making the activity less worthwhile to them on a personal level (Deci, 2000, p. 234). Although this discovery was first made long after Freud’s passing, it would be interesting to learn what rationale he might ascribe to this phenomenon. Freud did, however, recognize the human desire to believe in free will. In 1901, Freud addressed the desire for free will simply by saying, “Like every normal feeling, it must have something to warrant it” (Viney, 2016), p. 302). He may have been suggesting that there is an evolutionary imperative to believe in free will, causing the need for self-assertion to be one of many intrinsic motives over which people have no control. Whether or not free will exists, psychoanalysis and self-determination theory both agree that there is a reason that people value the concept.

One significant restraint to including the possibility of free will in a work of psychoanalysis stems from adherence to the scientific method. The basic structure of a scientific experiment is to pinpoint one cause and one effect and to keep all other factors the same. In a successful experiment, the cause will either have the predicted effect or it will not. If the cause appears to create a wide variety of effects, the entire experiment is determined to be flawed and the results will be considered invalid. In Freud’s own words, not following the trail of cause and effect would be to “throw overboard the whole Weltanschauung of science” (Viney, 2016, p. 301). In the world of psychoanalysis, it is difficult or maybe even impossible to draw any information from an experiment with an unexpected variety of results. What this means for the concept of free will is tricky to say. One thing that it says for certain is that free will is difficult to account for in an experiment, and it is more productive to design an experiment that cuts free will out as a factor. Another potential truth that can be discerned is that free will is an imaginary concept as it does not correspond with cause and effect. In other words, whether or not free will exists, it cannot be readily explored through psychoanalysis.

Due also to the constrains of the scientific method, self-determination theory also cannot prove or disprove free will, but can instead provide philosophical context for places in which we may be observing free will. Self-determination theory defines needs as biological necessities, things which may develop into motives in the context of individual preferences and beliefs (Deci, 2000, p. 229). What sets self-determination theory apart from Freud’s psychoanalysis is the notion that needs inspire motives rather than driving them. Experiments may suggest that need informs desire or that desire forms need, but the chicken and egg in this situation are difficult to differentiate from each other. The same difficulties arise from the scientific method in which the introduction of free will as a factor makes the results too jumbled and mismatched to provide viable information. The difficulty of using the scientific method to measure and detect free will is why while self-determination theory is based on the notion that a person’s conscious mind is calling the shots, it is a long way from proving the concept.

Coming from a time when scientific philosophy was deterministic, psychoanalysis leaves no room for free will. The young philosophy was unable to produce explanations for certain phenomena during Freud’s time, but Freud still insisted that the body is in control, not consciousness. Self-determination theory formed as a reaction to psychoanalysis, creating a place for free will in the vocabulary of a psychologist. Both philosophies provide their own theoretical explanations on where motive comes from and how decisions are formed, finding means for the brain to work with or without free will, but neither philosophy can provide the evidence to prove or disprove the concept.