Modern psychology is not exempt from the confines of naturalism; it is embedded within the Western academic culture, and it often explicitly sets the foundation for all our theories. As physics, chemistry and biology experienced an almost exponential growth in knowledge post-Enlightenment, so has our dependency on their approach to fact-finding. Thus, the dominance of naturalism is ultimately the result of its success with the natural sciences. Robert T. Pennock, a committed naturalist, once gave expert testimony in a trial that sought to determine if intelligent design is science, to which he responded that it “violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation.” This short statement alone introduces two important elements of scientific determinism: 1) the “ground rules” of science today are set by determinism and 2) supernatural causation presents a disassociation between cause and effect - implying an unknown variable at play - which is unacceptable. Both of these elements combined provide the core definition of scientific determinism throughout this article. By demonstrating how scientific determinism negates the possibility of free will, we will unravel its consequences on modern psychology.
Free will in modern psychology
The naturalistic outlook of human beings may be older than the theory of evolution; however, it was hardly acclaimed until the advent of evolutionism. Charles Darwin had but one book with him as he ventured off towards the Galapagos Islands: Charles Lyell’s “The Principles of Geology.” In it, the history of the earth is recounted as a gradual process of changes – evolution. Darwin, fascinated by Lyell’s theory, seemed to have found a similar process occurring in the finches that occupy the islands. Essentially, Darwin transposed the development of inanimate landscapes upon living organisms; what must be the result of deterministic causality in our surroundings must be the same within the creatures that inhabit them. Thus, from that point onwards, Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species” has become an almost biblical canon towards codifying human thought and behaviors within a framework of deterministic cause and effect; much the same way geologists investigate rocks and rivers.
Thus, one of the great intellectual debates of the 20th century within psychology and philosophy concerned itself with the age-old question: to which extent does determinism play a role in the complex mental processes of human beings i.e. our thoughts, choices and intentions? Long ago, free will was an assurance nobody would dare question; today, on the other hand, it’s a folk belief with little to no dialogue within the academic community. Indeed, as the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience continue to flourish, most studies address human behavior as entirely a function of nature (i.e genetics) and nurture (i.e. environment). In other words, the predominant worldview is that an individual’s actions can be predicted with (near-) perfect accuracy if all the variables within and around them are accounted for. John Bargh, a cognitive psychologist, is an example of how 21st century scientists are beginning to invoke their disciplines to uncover the essentials of what makes us human. Bargh hypothesizes that internal processes (i.e. thoughts, intentions, etc.) must also somehow be controlled, and thus just as determined as automatic processes (i.e. reactions and reflexes). Thus, he conducted several experiments in which he primed certain trait constructs within individuals. In one study, for example, he incorporated a “rude condition” in which he had participants exposed to words revolving around the concept of rudeness. His results showed that participants primed with rudeness significantly interrupted the experimenter more quickly and frequently than did participants primed with polite-related words (by 60%, to be more specific; Bargh, Chen & Burrows, 1996). Bargh and his colleagues concluded that automatic processes deterministically govern all aspects of behavior, even courteous demeanor, depending on the circumstances of our nature and environment.
This article is by no means a critical analysis of Bargh’s results; his example was merely an attempt to showcase the dominant framework with which many psychologists operate – people's actions are predetermined, let’s figure out how. But rather than just posting his results and moving on, the following are just a few critical points for the sake of intellectual scrutiny. First of all, Bargh suggested that rude behavior, as well as all behavior in general, is implicitly directed by our past experiences. Yet, his results did not reveal complete causation; 40% of individuals in the rude condition did not behave as expected. His explanation for this deficiency is very simple: the variables in social life are many and diverse. Immediate contacts, social groups and whether or not one has a close relationship have all been found to effect automatic processes; it is impossible to have full experimental control over all variables. He argues that determining all environmental stimuli of a human being is not as feasible as other sciences, such as physics; hence one must assume that unpredicted behavior is governed by unknown primes (notice how he describes human behavior as just another science like physics, this will be touched upon later). Ironically, Bargh in his assertion of naturalistic determinism defied the golden rule of scientific research design: falsifiability. Falsifiability is the logical prospect that an assertion can be proven false by an observation. That something is falsifiable does not necessarily mean it is false; rather, that it can be shown to be false by experiment. Obviously, suggesting all behavior is pre-determined is a bold assumption; the only way to argue that a given behavior is not determined is by demonstrating its lack of determinism; unfortunately, proving that something does not exist is impossible, rendering Bargh’s claim un-falsifiable. Nevertheless, because ‘man is predetermined’ is tantamount to all research within modern psychology, the fallacy of the argument is often overlooked. For anyone interested, Amedeo Giorgi provides an enlightening analysis as to how modern sciences have failed to truly investigate human phenomena, likening the leading research paradigms on humanity to drinking soup with a fork – try as you might, you’ll always miss out on the essence.
Free will and Islam
Let’s start by making one thing clear: the Islamic worldview of what makes us human hinges entirely upon free will. Period. To deny our existential capacity ‘to choose’ poses a serious threat to the notion of accountability, and significantly, the purpose of our existence. It’s the defining factor which separates us from animals and angels.
Having said that, the question of free will among Muslims has become a topic worthy of discussion, considering how ‘free will’ seemingly conflicts with the predominant ‘scientific’ deterministic worldview. Few dare question the leading paradigm despite its obvious incompatibility with free will, and I can think of one significant reason why that’s the case; as the famous saying goes, “I don’t know who discovered water, but it certainly wasn’t the fish.” In other words, we are currently so embedded within the deterministic framework, we’re unable to see it for what it truly is. As such, I’ve met many Muslims who readily preach the same ideas presented by Bargh above; not that his results are somehow wrong, but rather we are quick to agree with his interpretations which completely and utterly dismisses our free will.
Thus we must always remember that our humanity is intimately linked to our agency - dismissing the latter degrades the former. This is noteworthy for two reasons, one religious and one not. The religious reason is simple; to become entrenched within a deterministic framework is a very convenient method of displacing responsibility. To give an example, when discussing with a brother some of the self-destructive choices he has taken recently, his main line of argumentation was that it wasn’t his fault – it was that of his parents and his environment. “If my parents/environment would have been [insert variable], I would have turned out much better” is a clear indication of a deterministic framework, readily dismissing the choices one takes which result in awful predicaments. Naturally, in front of God, we’ll be asked about our choices, and not our family history. The second reason is identical to the first, but its formulation can be found among many Western philosophers and psychologists: personal change and development can only begin by accepting that we choose (free will), and that we are responsible for our choices. I’ve written an entire article on this topic (The significance of choice), so please consult that article for more information.
Clearly, this subject is too large to tackle in one article, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. In the future inshAllah, I’d like to discuss how one of our main disagreements with the theory of evolution isn’t necessarily the process of natural selection (humanity notwithstanding), but rather its deterministic foundations which leave absolutely no room for free will to arise.