“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling, I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism…nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”
The above quote, from the Thomas Harris novel, is an evil but brilliant man’s rejoinder to what has become a common excuse: Someone accused of a crime denies responsibility because it was “beyond his control.” The claim might be that the person suffers from an addiction (drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, tobacco), was abused as a child, suffers from urban rage, is a battered spouse, or ate too many Twinkies. Whatever the reason, if free will can be denied, personal responsibility is easy to dismiss. The concept of sin can be replaced with the claim of addiction.
Having spent the last twelve years of my life on a college campus, I have seen far too many students who are convinced that there is no free will. This frequently comes up in criminal law classes, because if behavior is no more than a reflex shaped by outside forces, how can a legal system make valid judgments about personal behavior? Those involved in Catholic apologetics need to be able to answer similar questions, particularly when their children study psychological theories in school.
Unlike some religious criticisms of psychological science, this article, I hope, is respectful of the field. This is particularly important to college students who may see this dispute as being between science and religion. It is not. Catholic teaching is in accord with scientific findings, once those findings are correctly understood.
The American legal system was built upon the Judeo-Christian view that human beings have free will and are able to control their behavior. Thus, wrongdoers are punished and people are held accountable for their actions. When the ability to control behavior is found to be lacking, legal doctrines limit accountability. After all, free will—and thus the ability to decide to act a certain way—is an essential prerequisite to personal responsibility.
When it comes to the legitimacy of moral judgments, the free will issue raises serious questions for both religious and secular institutions. The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia introduces the issue as follows: “The question of free will . . . ranks amongst the three or four most important philosophical problems of all time. It ramifies into ethics, theology, metaphysics, and psychology. . . . On the one hand, does man possess genuine moral freedom, power of real choice, true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail within his mind, to modify and mold his own character? Or, on the other, are man’s thoughts and volitions, his character and external actions, all merely the inevitable outcome of his circumstances?”
If human behavior reflects nothing more than the totality of outside influences, how can people be held accountable by the legal system, the Church, or even God? Augustine said, “Every sin is voluntary” ( De Vera Relig. 14). The corollary, expressed by John Damascene in the eighth century, is that “the involuntary act deserves pardon” ( De Fide Orth. 2:24).
The Catholic Church, of course, teaches that people do have free will. “The just man is worthy of praise for his honest deeds, since it was in his free choice that he did not transgress the will of God,” explained Tatian the Syrian in A.D. 170 ( Address to the Greeks 7). Almost two and a half centuries later, Augustine wrote, “God’s precepts themselves would be of no use to a man unless he had free choice of will, so that by performing them he might obtain the promised rewards. For they are given that no one might be able to plead the excuse of ignorance, as the Lord says concerning the Jews in the gospel: ‘If I had not come and spoken unto them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin’” ( On Grace and Free Will 2:5).
The view of humans as having free will has for most of this century been under attack. Modern psychology has developed a model of human behavior that disregards free will and instead focuses on external influences. This model has had an impact on philosophy and legal theory. One of America’s leading legal philosophers, James Q. Wilson, recently wrote: “There is no reason to think . . . that intentional thought and social behavior” are “any less caused [by outside influences] than the patellar reflex.”
Either the Church has it right or these social scientists do. People are either able to choose between right and wrong—and therefore they are responsible for their actions—or they lack that ability and should be excused. We are, of course, talking about a typical, responsible person. The Church, like civil authorities, has long recognized that a person suffering from insanity or other infirmities may lack the ability to choose between right and wrong.
But when one examines the historical development of modern human behavior theories, it becomes clear that early psychologists left their theory open to error. That error corrupted scientific tests early in this century, and findings from those corrupted tests have had a continuing effect on psychological theory. Once the theoretical errors are accounted for, scientific findings can be re-evaluated, and the case for human free will becomes much stronger. In fact, the newest scientific findings strongly support the Church’s traditional position on human capacity and free will.
A History of Causation
Social scientists try to understand human behavior in the same way that physicists try to understand the physical world. They develop a theory and then put it to a test. If the theory holds up, it becomes established as doctrine. If it fails, a new theory must be found and tested.
In ancient Greece, Aristotle established a theory that shaped all subsequent physical and social science. He used four “causes”—material, efficient, formal, and final—to explain both physical reactions and human behavior. According to Aristotle, these four causes influence everything from raindrops to people. While we will not necessarily use the terms the way Aritsotle did, they can provide a useful way of thinking about human behavior.
Material causation relates to the composition of the object. A rubber ball will bounce in a way that a steel ball will not. In humans, physical conditions such as age, strength, conditioning, and disease help define physical ability. A physically gifted person is capable of doing things that amaze others, while a person with physical disabilities may struggle with tasks that others find simple.
Efficient causation refers to an external force on the object in question. The patellar reflex is the result of this kind of a cause: A properly placed strike on a knee will cause a person’s leg to “jump.” Similarly, when a cue ball strikes another pool ball, it is an efficient cause of the second ball’s movement. Most modern theories of psychology rely on efficient causation (in combination with material causation) to explain human behavior. This is where the arguments come from that childhood abuse, urban rage, or too much junk food can lead to inappropriate behavior.
Formal causation may be described as essential patterns and shapes that enable things to occur one way rather than another. For instance, the software program of a computer has certain patterns that determine how the computer will organize, analyze, and present data. In terms of human behavior, we might conceive of formal causation as reflected in the custom of driving on one side of the road or using a door (instead crawling out a window) to exit a building. These external patterns or customs shape a good deal of human behavior.
Final causation describes when a certain course of action is undertaken for a purpose or reason. Aristotle wrote that trees have leaves “for the purpose of” shading fruit, and bones exist “for the purpose of” supporting flesh. In terms of human behavior, we may say final causation is the self-determination associated with intelligence or free will. Since a person is considered to be culpable only when he exercises his free will to do a bad thing, final causation is a basic consideration in all moral judgments. Final causation is certainly an important part of the Catholic understanding of human behavior, but it is no longer accepted as an important influence on behavior in most psychological circles.
The Demise of Final Causation
A final-cause or free-will explanation of human behavior was common in science from Aristotle’s time until it began to fall from grace in the sixteenth century. The issue surfaced with Galileo’s notorious clash with the Church. The Church used what was essentially a final-cause explanation for the arrangement of the universe: The earth was at the center of the solar system because God wanted it there. When Galileo’s science indicated that the sun was at the center of the solar system, it was more than a challenge to Church teaching—it was a blow to the use of final-cause description in physical science.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626) questioned the use of final causation to describe natural and scientific phenomena. Whereas Aristotle had argued that each type of cause influenced to some degree allevents in nature, Bacon argued that it was bad science to explain that trees have leaves “for the sake of” shading fruit or that bones “intend” to support flesh. Material and efficient causes were sufficient to describe such matters; final causation added nothing to the explanation.
It is important to note that the “Baconian criticism” applied only to physical (non-human) matters. Bacon acknowledged that a description of human behavior required the use of final-cause terminology. Final causation rests upon an intelligence that might not exist in a tree or a raindrop but that can and does influence human behavior. Only with regard to the study of physics, where there is no intelligence in the subject being studied, did Bacon argue that scientists should explain natural processes without formal and final causation. Later scientists, unfortunately, did not acknowledge this limitation.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) developed a theory of science that fell in line with Bacon’s arguments. Newtonian science posited that if the precise location of all particles were known, and if all outside influences were known and measured, then, because of the efficient-cause nature of reality, one could accurately predict the way that everything would unfold in the future. Like balls on a pool table, everything simply reacted to outside forces. In the Newtonian universe (which again was limited to mechanical physics, not intelligent behavior), there was no room for final-cause determinism.
The “clockwork universe” theory seemed to fit with scientific discoveries of Newton’s era. Chemistry was becoming uniform, and with each new experiment, the case for efficient-cause determinism was strengthened. Certain chemicals, mixed in precise measures, always rendered the same result. Objects reacted to gravity in predictable ways. A given force, applied to a stationary object, would always move that object the same distance. In short, material and efficient causation seemed to explain just about everything that could be tested. Remember, though, that the scientific tests of that time focused on physical objects, not human or animal behavior.
The Newtonian Basis of Modern Psychology
Psychology emerged as a science in the late nineteenth century, during the heyday of Newtonian science. Renowned physicist Herman von Holmholtz helped shape early psychological theory, arguing that human behavior was limited by the same physical laws that other natural structures obey. In other words, he said, human behavior should be studied and understood in the same way that chemistry and physics were studied and understood.
John B. Watson, generally regarded as the founder of behaviorism (psychology’s predominant school), proposed a theory of “man as an assembled organic machine ready to run.” A machine, of course, operates through material causation (what it is made of) and efficient causation (the forces that drive it), without any ability to “decide” what to do. Similarly, Watson believed that human behavior was simply a matter of people responding to their environment. He wanted psychologists to describe that behavior without resorting to “unscientific” concepts such as human intelligence or final-cause determinism. That is why behaviorists look to the environment to find external “causes” of behavior, and they reject “speculations” about will and intelligence.
Since outside influences are far easier to observe and quantify than internal decisions, early psychologists were encouraged in this direction, and it was almost inevitable that psychology would develop a mechanistic theory of human behavior. B. F. Skinner, perhaps the most famous behaviorist of all time, argued that this reflected a “hard science” approach that helped legitimize the field of psychology. It also put behaviorism in line with Newtonian science. (Even Sigmund Freud seems to have adapted his theories to meet the expectation of his Newtonian colleagues.) One can find theories of behavior that represent the entire gamut of determinism. The dominant psychological theories, however, see human behavior as being primarily shaped by outside forces.
The Problem with Newtonian Science in Psychology
A host of empirical studies were done over the first half of the twentieth century in which animals performed relatively simple tasks that lent themselves to efficient-cause description and analysis. The animals were denied food or water for considerable periods of time, then placed in mazes to see how quickly they could navigate the mazes to reach a reward of food or drink. The examiners found that the animals’ performance improved with repeated trials. This was taken as proof that learning was merely a question of repeated responses, encouraged in some cases by a reward. The animals were said to have been “conditioned” to respond to external stimuli—like a killer whale performing for a reward of fish—and the consensus seemed to be that behavior was exclusively a matter of efficient causation.
When the succeeding generation of behaviorists began administering experimental tasks to human beings, the theory did not change. Human behavior was explained in terms of conditioning and responses to external influences. The subject’s point of view was ignored, as if he or she lacked the capacity to influence what took place. This kept the concept of human behavior trapped within a mechanistic paradigm, even though there were many reasons this assumption was suspect.
When human beings are being studied, they can be interviewed, permitting the scientist to evaluate the experiment from the subject’s point of view. In the vast majority of cases where the interviews have taken place, the scientists have found that the subject’s responses did not reflect true “conditioning.” Instead, the responses were actually cooperative ventures in which the person being “conditioned” understood what was taking place and willingly complied with the examiner’s expectations.
Subjects of operant-conditioning tests are routinely able to verbalize that: “Every time I say this one type of word [e.g., an adjective or a plural noun] the experimenter says, ‘Mmm hmm,’ so I figured that must be what I should keep saying.” Or, in a classical-conditioning experiment in which eye blinks are “conditioned” to a flashing light, the person may observe: “Every time that light flashes, a puff of air is blown into my eye, making me blink.” These subjects figure out the test and, even though they could negate the process (as some do), they usually go along with experimental demands. If the subject lacks awareness of the test (if he never “catches on”), it is very difficult, if not impossible, to condition behavior. The obvious conclusion it that the subject’s intelligence plays a crucial role in the process.
With these findings on awareness, it becomes difficult to continue characterizing conditioning as a matter of efficient causation. When participants are conscious of what is going on and they make decisions as to whether they want to cooperate with the experimental instructions, their behavior can only be explained by using the terminology of final causation. Human intelligence, or free will, must be put back into the equation in order to explain the behavior. In other words, the psychological theory needs to change.
The theory underlying behavioristic psychology is flawed. Because of this flaw, the science of psychology has turned away from notions of free will and human responsibility. As modern science discovers problems with Newtonian science at the sub-atomic level and new evidence reveals the flaws in psychological theory, the legitimacy of this predominant view of human nature is called into serious question.
Whether it is referred to as free will, human intelligence, final causation or (as many psychologists say) agency, the internal decisions that humans make are part—and usually the biggest part—of the reasons for their behavior. In other words, although there are many influences on human behavior, and in a few cases people are left with little choice, free will exists. External forces may influence human behavior, but behavior is not a reflex. In most cases, people are responsible for their actions. As is always the case, traditional Church teaching is sound, and the social science that seems to indicate otherwise turns out to be fundamentally flawed.
Written By: Ronald Rychlak