Think Free

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choose determinism

choose determinism by alyceobvious via Flickr

Fatalism (also called determinism) is the philosophical and religious belief that life (and by implication history) is strictly predetermined or unalterable, governed by the laws of necessity. There’s no room for free will here. All apparent choices are perceived as resulting from past influences.

Some who believe in the illusion of free will argue that fatalism and the belief in free will are the same. The argument goes as follows:

Most theologians will tell you that you are free to choose but God knows in advance how you are going to choose. That means that you may believe you’re choosing but your’re really not. Why? Well, because God created you in the first place, knowing, all along, how you’d make your choices in life.

So where’s the free will? critics of the belief in free will will ask.

Defenders of the belief in free will usually reply as follows, appealing to ethics:

God made human beings free, otherwise they would be of no value. The presence of evil in the world enables us to learn why it’s good to choose the Good and shun the bad. If we didn’t have free will, we’d be no better than mindless machines.¹ And God, being Good, made us better than machines. That is, God made us free.

I might add to this debate that the fatalist critique about God creating us in the first place is an argument bound up in the human idea of linear time. The Swiss psychiatrist and thinker Carl Jung falls into this trap when talking about God in his Answer to Job. Jung is not strictly a fatalist but his many comments about God complicate his outlook. Sometimes he seems like an innovative Christian. Other times he comes off like a New Age pantheist. And when talking about being inconsistent, he simply asks, “who isn’t inconsistent?”

I mention Jung’s approach because it highlights the difference between those who have it all figured out by an official church teaching vs. those who want to figure things out for themselves. That is, Jung illustrates the difference between the passive acceptance of dogma² vs. individual investigation. Interestingly enough, each camp tends to demonize the other.

¹ This argument is now complicated by the fact that some software can appear to learn and “choose” new routines. See

² This in contrast to those who say they accept dogma after much thought and experience, all of which, they say, supports the dogma. An example here would be someone who believes they receive a revelation about the Christian Trinity. Also, some say that the belief in a dogma is a “divine gift” (without the need for a great revelation), so this debate can get complicated.

Related Posts » Determinism, Epicureanism, Providence, Soteriology, Teleology, Theodicy

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Watson, J. B.

Watson, J. B. (John Broadus, 1878-1958 )

American psychologist who developed the work of the influential Russian Pavlov and others to establish the school of Behaviorism.

Watson has been roundly criticized by depth psychologists, writers and theologians, alike, but we must remember that he was reacting to the introspective (and arguably unscientific) psychoanalysis of his time.

Watson believed that given the right conditions, a person could become almost anything. That is, he emphasized observable environmental factors and apparently related behavior.

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.

John B. Watson, Behaviorism (revised) University of Chicago Press, 1930, p. 82

This view dominated American psychology into the 1950s until modern genetics and other, philosophical and theologically-based arguments threw Watson’s one-sided theory into question.

But it’s clear that nurture – as opposed to nature or spirit – remains an important factor in human development.

And the above shows that Watson was being scientific by stating that he was extrapolating from observation.

In other words, he wasn’t completely wrong. However, most find distasteful his entire disregard for the ideas of inherited traits, mind (i.e. subjectivity), free will, grace and animal rights–although not everyone necessarily dislikes his work for all of these perceived deficiencies.

The following from Aldous Huxley illustrates the, perhaps, general dislike for Watson among those who champion and regard themselves as belonging to the literary establishment.

For practical or theoretical reasons, dictators, Organization Men and certain scientists are anxious to reduce the maddening diversity of men’s natures to some kind of manageable uniformity. In the first flush of his Behaviouristic fervour, J.B. Watson roundly declared that he could find “no support for hereditary patterns of behaviour, nor for special abilities (music, art, etc.) which are supposed to run in families.” And even today we find a distinguished psychologist, Professor B.F. Skinner of Harvard, insisting that, “as scientific explanation becomes more and more comprehensive, the contribution which may be claimed by the individual himself appears to approach zero. Man’s vaunted creative powers, his achievements in art, science and morals, his capacity to choose and our right to hold him responsible for the consequences of his choice – none of these is conspicuous in the new scientific self-portrait.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, 1958, cited by Brad in “The Long Dark Night of Behaviorism” at Psych 101 REVISITED »

Watson’s academic career came to a standstill when it was made known that he was having an affair with one of his students, Rosalie Rayner.

Not surprisingly, he went into and excelled in advertising.

Watson has been lampooned for raising his children according to a strict, authoritarian schedule devoid of affection as if they were lab rats.

To add to his notoriety, his son William committed suicide at age 40.

But as any good scientist will note, this tragic event cannot be directly attributed to upbringing. The two factors of William’s unusual upbringing and his suicide may only be said to exist in a correlational relationship, not necessarily a causal one.

Before Watson’s own death he destroyed a significant amount of personal notes and letters, making historical reconstruction of this pivotal and provocative thinker somewhat difficult.

Add to this, report errors, suggest edits or voice your opinion by posting a comment


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