Are we free to decide? Is our life determined?These are the questions that many thinkers and philosophers have asked themselves throughout history. Free will – and what its existence or absence would imply – was a burning philosophical subject throughout history: our subjective experience shows us this freedom of choice, while the study of the brain reveals many indications that a strong mechanical conditioning.
Determinism is a postulate based on the fact that all physical events are determined. In other words, everything flows from a chain of irremediable causes and consequences. We can find many types of determinism: religious, economic, genetic, etc. We will discuss in this article mechanical determinism.
Mechanical determinism is based on the idea that humans are machine-like. The brain would then be a tool capable of collecting a series of inputs, to process them and transform them into outputs. And free will is a simple illusion formed by ignoring the processes that take place between input and output.
In this article, we will explore two aspects that make it possible to understand mechanical determinism: we will first discuss the principles and reasons that lead us to think of a determinism;we will then discuss the paradox of the homunculus applied to free will.
Principles and reasons for thinking about mechanical determinism
Understanding the human mind as a machine is born from the computer metaphor of cognitive psychology.Cognitive psychology looks, through this metaphor, to the brain with an information processor and is based on the idea that all human behavior can be explained through a series of algorithms and mental processes. This is the reason why we started to equate the human brain with a Turing machine.
Although the computer metaphor has now become obsolete – with regard to the new connectionist models – it has still left us with an interesting reflection. The advance of psychology allows us to explain each day more processes and unravel more mysteries of the psyche. The behaviors that we once imposed on free will are now explained by a series of very precise processes.
This leads us to seriously question whether human behavior is nothing more than the answer to a chain of causes and consequences, or whether there really is a self in us who decides. Imagine that we are able to know all the variables that influence human behavior and how they influence, could we predict completely and without error the behavior of the individual (yours, mine)? The answer to this question seems to be "yes," but if that were the case, we would be denying the existence of free will since we would be able to determine the future.
In addition, somestudies on neuroscience show us that the brain makes decisions well before we are aware. These results lead us to question the why of consciousness. It is difficult nowadays to determine whether our mind is deterministic or not. Psychology, however, starts from the premise that behavior can be predicted with a certain level of error, so the postulate of determinism is very useful for research.
The paradox of the homunculus and free will
As a final reflection on determinism, we wanted to focus onthe paradox of the homunculus. The latter is presented as atheoretical incompatibility of psychology with the existence of free will. The presentation of a paradox can often help us to glimpse our mistakes and to establish new cognitive frameworks or theoretical perspectives.
The paradox of the homunculus is based on the following: Psychology considers that any behavior or mental process can be described and explained, while free will suggests that we have the freedom to choose only to decide. This would lead us to formulate the idea thatthere must be something that decidesin our brain ; what we will call homunculus, because it would be a kind of human, in us, who decides.
Now,if the homunculus is what gives us the freedom to choose, what gives free will to the latter?We could say that within this homunculus there is another homunculus that decides; but, if we explain it in this way, we fall into a paradoxical infinity of homunculi. We would assimilate the human spirit to Russian dolls.
Mechanical determinism presents a useful paradigm for interpreting psychological reality. In addition, it seems that the evidence we encounter, as well as the theoretical incompatibilities, lead us to follow their direction. We should not be too confident, the most likely being that the reality is much more complex and that it is not in any of the extremes (determinism and free will) that draw the continuum.