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A historical review of counseling theory development in relation to definitions of free will and determinism. (Practice & Theory).

Because a sound theoretical base is essential to the meaningful practice of professional counseling (Bauman & Waldo, 1998; Ginter, 1996, Schwarzer, 1999), efforts to readdress theoretical issues and systemize inferences drawn from the mounting and often-conflicting professional database continue. Prefaced by the assumption that each counseling theory's philosophical position on the age-old free will versus determinism debate constitutes a primary component of meaningful analyses of that theory's empirical evidence as well as that theory's primary explanation of causal factors of human behavior (Goodman, 1998), the free will issue continues to be an important area of investigation and an indispensable component in theory development. Despite numerous investigations into free will/determinism issues within counseling, the concept of individual freedom or lack of individual freedom in relation to the etiology of human behavior continues to be an unsolved element (Pereboom, 1997; Slife & Fisher, 2000).

Recently, a number of researchers have readdressed the past free will/determinism impasse in attempts to synthesize theoretical inferences (Iturrate, 1977/1990; Nelson, 1991; Vetter, 1991). One of the issues under review concerns the meaning of free will itself (Sappington, 1990; Tinsley, 1993; Vollmer, 1995; Werbik, 1991; Williams, 1992). Traditionally, determinism has been clearly defined as the view "that the will is not free but determined by psychical or physical conditions" (Runes, 1962, p. 78), and, conversely, indeterminism has been straightforwardly defined as the theory that "volitional decisions are in certain cases independent of antecedent physiological and psychological causation" (p. 143). Definitions of free will, however, have been more ambiguous, with free will being defined in opposition to determinism, in that free will
   ascribes to the human will freedom in one or more of the following

   (A) The freedom of indeterminacy ... the will's alleged independence
       of antecedent psychological and physiological conditions;

   (B) The freedom of alternative choice ... the ability of the agent
       to choose among alternative possibilities of action; and

   (C) The freedom of self-determinism ... decision independent of
       external constraint but in accordance with the inner motives and
       goals of the actor. (Runes, 1962, p. 112)

It is perhaps worth noting that Runes's (1962) definition of indeterminism is synonymous with the definition of Free Will-A (indeterminacy), and that it is indeterminism that he defined as being opposite to determinism. Runes's Dictionary of Philosophy further defined a sense of freedom as "the subjective feeling of an agent either at the moment of decision or in retrospect that the decision is free, and that one might have chosen to decide differently" (p. 112).

Using Runes's (1962) definitions as identifiers, a review of the literature tracing the general trend and direction of psychological and counseling theory development in relation to free will and determinism is presented. The review focuses on literature within the frameworks of psychoanalysis, behaviorism, humanism, existentialism, and phenomenology and includes a section on constructivism, cognitive-moral developmentalism, chaos theory, and self-attribution.


The context of this review is unique in its use of definitions drawn from Runes's (1962) dictionary to organize the material. It traces counseling theory development based on various definitions applied to the terms freedom and free will. The intent is not to tell the whole story of counseling or to list all theorists, but to show the general direction of theory development in terms of positions taken on free will issues and to identify possible inconsistencies and theoretical gaps. Specifically, the question addressed in the literature search was Which Runes definition of determinism or free will is represented by the major theories of counseling and psychology?

Definitional Categories

Using Runes's (1962) definitions as theoretical markers, the general trends and direction of theories in relation to the concepts of free will and determinism are proposed to be as follows (in the order in which they were developed).

1. Theories of determinism. Psychology, conceived in the 1800s as a science by Wilhelm Wundt and others, presupposed natural order based on a system of metaphysical laws and necessity, universal causation and the possibility of total predictability, given knowledge of psychical and physical conditions (Burr & Goldinger, 1984). Therefore, the primary chronological placement of the emergence of theories characterized as deterministic seems logical. These included

* (a) psychoanalysis--biologic/psychic determinism (Freud, 1954) and later (b) behaviorism, learning theory--environmental determinism (Skinner, 1938; Watson, 1913; Wolpe, 1958).

In the 1800s, a philosophical, theoretical, and methodological "divide" between structuralism and functionalism had in part been created by William James's Principles of Psychology. His pragmatic inclusion of issues relating to the cognitive and emotional self made a major impact on theory development (Weiten, 2000).

Although Alfred Adler and Viktor Frankl, contemporaries of Freud, were among early teleological theorists who proposed self-deterministic paradigms, these explanations of freedom were either ahead of their time (Watts, 2000) or were overlooked. Consequently, phenomenology's general acceptance into counseling's philosophical foundations was delayed (Kern & Watts, 1993).

2. Theories of free will. Following the development of behaviorism in the 1950s, certain theorists reacted to mechanistic determinism, and theories began to emerge that held varying degrees of freedom. Using Runes's (1962) definitions as a basis for classification, there seemed to be

(a) no major Free Will-A theories claiming the possibility of freedom conceived as indeterminacy (Westcott, 1988), even though the concept of indeterminacy is at the heart of the free will/determinism dilemma (Double, 1997).

(Although the term indeterminacy has been used to describe teleological etiology [Goodman, 1998], evidence from this review indicates that based on Runes's definitions, teleology is more accurately categorized as self-determinism, softly nondeterministic. See 2c as follows for discussion.) But, there were theoretical discussions of

(b) humanism--proposing dualistic mind-body freedom, defined in agreement with the Free Will-B definition of freedom represented by an agent standing between alternative possibilities of action.

Yet, no major theory of psychology emerged from this particular strain of humanistic existentialism (williams, 1992). Ironically, counseling's and psychology's understanding of freedom was attributed to humanism per se and the dualistic concept of neutral agentive freedom as choice among alternatives. This apparent misattribution contributed to theoretical confusion concerning the meaning of freedom. Inquiry continued and led to a reemergence of

(c) humanistic, existential, teleological, phenomenology--maintaining a holistic being in process of becoming, with freedom defined in accordance with Free Will-C, as self-determinism (Adler, 1964; Ellis, 1957; Frankl, 1959; Glasser, 1967; Maslow, 1968; May, 1969; Rogers, 1961).

The literature seems to clearly show that major freedom-theorists were grounded in freedom defined as holistic self-determinism, rather than indeterminism, that is, in positions holding that freedom consists of decision independent of external constraint but in accordance with the inner premises, cognitions, motives, needs, and goals of the actor. On the basis of the definitions used in this study, Adler's (1964) holistic, goal-directed organism is clearly self-deterministic. Ellis's (1957) idea that all things are what they ought to be, given the circumstances and the person's belief system, and Glasser's (1967) idea that all behaviors are determined by the person's needs and represent the best decision that can be made at the time, both indicate theoretical underpinnings based on freedom conceived as holistic self-determinism, not essential indeterminism. Likewise, May's (1969) claim that humans are their choices and Rogers's (1961) belief that freedom is freedom to become oneself and to choose and will that which is also absolutely determined are clearly consistent with holistic self-determinism rather than true indeterminate free will.

Recent Attempts to Synthesize Interpretations of Data

Incompatibilism refers to the philosophical position that determinism and true, indeterminate free will, are not compatible. Hard determinists are incompatibilists who deny the existence of the type of free will that is necessary for moral responsibility to exist. This is important because the issue of moral responsibility is fundamental to the free will versus determinism problem (Double, 1997). Other incompatibilists, called "philosophical libertarians," do support the idea of responsible free will. Compatibilists, on the other hand, accept the logical contradiction of free will and determinism as a creative paradox.

Theories of Convergence and Compatibilism

During the last three decades, researchers have readdressed the theoretical problems associated with traditional understandings of free will and determinism and have proposed a number of syntheses and new conceptualizations of freedom. These meta-analytical proposals include work in the areas of psychoanalysis, behaviorism, humanism, and phenomenology.

Psychoanalysis. Literature relating to psychoanalysis includes a proposal of a new formal science of psychoanalysis (Langs & Badalamenti, 1994) and a reexamination of Freudian concepts holding that the theoretical foundation of psychoanalysis is based somewhere between strict determinism and strict indeterminism (Iturrate, 1977/1990). Iturrate interpreted Freud's concept of freedom as merging with phenomenology and self-determinism, in that the goal of therapy is freedom for the client to fulfill a goal or role as meaning-giver.

Behaviorism and cognitive behaviorism. Literature relating to behaviorism includes studies by mentalists and cognitive-behaviorists of internal processes operative in determining behavior (Sperry, 1988), studies that address Skinner's defense of determinism versus his views of self-control (Epstein, 1997), and a reinterpretation of operant conditioning (Rockwall, 1994). Bandura's (1989) triadic reciprocal determinism combined environmental regulation, biological regulation, and self-regulation into a holistic system. Bandura denied a dualistic concept of human agency, opting for nonreductionism and the idea of freedom as cognitively based self-regulation. Other authors, such as Bargh and Ferguson (2000), presented the case that both behavioral science and cognitive science are based on a concept of the determinism and automaticity of higher mental processes.

Other approaches to questions concerning the meaning of freedom in relation to cognitive theory include a proposed integration of the forces of psychology, biology and physics (Goswami, 1995), which argued that "monistic idealism may provide better ontology for cognitive science" (p. 135). One study argued that individuals are in control of their actions by virtue of reflective consciousness, a primary awareness that gives control and renders freedom possible (Vollmer, 1995). The latter study eventually merges reflective conscious agency with what the person is, in a phenomenological and self-deterministic sense.

Within the cognitive-developmentalist tradition, Kohlberg (1958) is credited with providing a theoretical synthesis in which physiological and cognitive maturational determinants merge with social-environmental experience (Hayes, 1994). According to Hayes, this approach, currently referred to as structuralist, transactivist, or constructivist, united deterministic learning models with holistic self-determinism. Human development emerges as the living being intent on providing meaning to existence, and from this experiential process of becoming, behavior is emitted or elicited.

Constructivism. Scott, Kelly, and Tolbert (1995) compared constructivism and Adlerianism and concluded that the two approaches correspond on views of reality, determinism, and the centrality of the self. Like Adlerian thought, constructivism's view that people are doing their best--the only thing they can do (Kenny, 1997)--reflects a softly self-deterministic position, not indeterminate free will. Other researchers have proposed that constructivist paradigms are consistent with social and multicultural determinism (Schreiner & Lyddon, 1998).

Humanism. Literature relating to humanism includes a model claiming multiple determinants of behavior based on the assumption that the provision of choices allows freedom (Vexliard, 1986-1987), and studies addressing the incompatibility of freedom-as-choice and determinism (Werbik, 1991). In one study, Dorpat (1987), after acknowledging freedom-as-choice, then proposed that positive freedom (self-regulation, self-mastery, self-direction) in the sense of rational choice among competing alternatives is nothing more than part and parcel of consciousness and psychic function. Freedom as true choice seems to lose identity and merge with freedom as self-determinism. Again, no evidence of indeterminate free will is apparent.

Phenomenology. In addition to data mentioned earlier, phenomenological literature includes a reexamination of the concept of agency as not necessarily linked to causal necessity (Rychlak, 1994), and a proposal that freedom should be conceived as existing apart from indeterminate agency and choice (Williams, 1992). Williams argued that freedom consists of living truthfully in the world, and even though he claimed there is no human will, he argued that the illusion of free will needs to be retained for society to function.

Several studies described self-determinism and personal freedom in teleological fashion as a creative shift reacting to internal and external causal factors (Nelson, 1991; Saivaure & Auerbach, 1990; Vetter, 1991). Other process research includes studies proposing a synthesis called "creative cosmology," in which determinism intersects randomness in appointed time frames and creativity occurs (Peile & Acton, 1994). One study, said to be congruent with chaos theory and thermodynamics, proposed that normal development and psychopathology are both creative processes open to chance and choice (Sabelli & Carlson-Sabelli, 1991). In addition, Pragier and Faure-Pragier (1991) paradoxically argued for a "science of chaos" in which freedom is reconceptualized by incorporating the ideas of randomness and predictability into the core of determinism itself.

Still, no indeterminate free will is apparent. In fact, Westcott (1988)--confusing indeterminate free will, which is not predictable, with the freedom of self-determinism, which is (given knowledge of antecedents)--said, with apparent contradiction, that because indeterminate free will is associated with the unpredictable and because free will behavior is often predictable, the "principle of indeterminacy has nothing to do with free will in human behavior" (p. 14). And again, Howard (1993) argued that free will is not the opposite of determinism and proposed a model of two "independent bipolar dimensions (determinism versus nondeterminism and self-determinism versus nonagentic mechanism)," which "seems to create the conceptual space for belief in both free will and determinism" (p. 116). Howard found that most professionals responding to the question "What is the opposite of determinism?" reported that free will is the opposite. Although Howard attempted to seriously address the meaning of the terms, he, too, sidestepped historical, philosophical definitions and eliminated indeterministic free will in favor of freedom conceived as self-determinism.

Addressing modern and postmodern paradigms of the free will and determinism dilemma, Slife and Fisher (2000) presented a view that sought to unite an existentially and experientially perceived concept of time with a softly deterministic conception of will as being linked to, but not determined by, a linearly perceived past. Presenting a nonlinear view of time as including the past, present, and future, these authors seem to have argued for holistic, goal-directed self-determinism, not indeterminate free will.

Counseling Theory and Spirituality

Recently, there has been a renewed discipline-wide interest in religion and spiritual issues that attempts to provide all-inclusive philosophical foundations. In one such article, "Jonathan Edwards and Determinism," Tweney (1997) argued for a systemic and dynamic account of the will that denies true indeterminate free will; and in another article, Barnes (2000) made a twenty-first century argument for Frankl's brand of existential freedom. Reflecting a more deterministic stance, researchers are also examining neurological causation in relation to religious experience (neurotheology).

Data Supporting Incompatibilism

Although the literature is replete with "compatibilistic" attempts at theoretical convergence, other articles challenge such compatibility (Richardson, 1997). In the Winter 2000 issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development, Hansen argued for the exclusive natures of psychoanalysis and humanism. In addition, Goodman (1998) challenged teleology's ability to solve the free will and determinism impasse, based on a contradictory assumption regarding rational premising.

Libertarianism, Existentialism and Indeterminate Free Will

James Royce (1988), discussing the misuse of the word will by many early psychologists, suggested eliminating the word from philosophical vocabularies in order to eliminate what he considered the absurd idea that free choice is an uncaused, indetermined, unmotivated act contrary to all the laws of science and common sense--that is, "some kind of supernatural, mysterious entity which like the deus ex machina of the old melodrama comes down out of nowhere in violation of all the laws of plausibility" (p. 378).

In contrast to attempts to eliminate the idea of free will, other recent attempts to define the meaning and scope of human freedom have emphasized the philosophical category of libertarianism. By saying that free will exists, libertarians hold that in some instances, humans make choices that are independent of antecedent causes. One study along these lines (Phillips, 1981) proposed evidence that Freud was libertarian rather than deterministic. Other data have suggested that libertarianism, interpreted in light of process thought, provides a more fruitful approach for empirical psychology than either hard or soft determinism (Viney & Crosby, 1994). (It would seem, however, that process thought and soft determinism are part and parcel of the same philosophical base.)

Although indeterminism is being seriously discussed among the disciples of counseling and psychology (Fogel, Lyra, & Valsiner, 1997), these attempts often revert to a discussion of self-determinism rather than true indeterminate free will. For example, Fogel et al., in Dynamics and Indeterminism in Developmental and Social Processes, defined their editorial methodology as indeterministic, a usage of the word that logically cannot refer to the type of moral responsibility that constitutes the core of the philosophical free will versus determinism problem (Double, 1997). Another example of proposed definitional confusion is Bakan's (1996) article, which argues for the idea of human origination and self-determinism in psychology but seems to adhere more closely to self-determinism as defined in the present review rather than to indeterministic free will. In addition, Smith (1993) argued for indeterminate personality development, but in another article, Smith (1991) identified the elements of the brain as self-organizing systems. Again, a self-organizing system is more in line with Runes's (1962) definition of self-determinism rather than with true indeterminism.

Existentialism has recently been proposed to be a sound theoretical base for the practice of professional counseling (Ginter, 1996). However, often "theoretical base" seems to be attributed to self-deterministic theorists, such as May and Frankl (Bauman & Waldo, 1998), rather than to a premise of true indeterminate free will. Problematic definitional issues seem to abound. For instance, Epp (1998) listed Binswanger, Boss, Buber, Frankl, and Tillich as existentialists (all self-determinists according to Runes's, 1962, definitions); however, Epp also listed Jean Paul Sartre as an existentialist, which was true, but Sartre was hardly a positive, theistic, being-in-becoming existential self-determinist such as Frankl or Tillich.

Sense of Freedom, Self-Attribution, and Moral Responsibility

Although in the literature reviewed to this point there seems to be no sign of a comprehensive theory supporting indeterminate free will, there has been general agreement in counseling and psychology that people do have a sense of freedom (Dorpat, 1987; Nelson, 1991; Williams, 1992). This review now presents data from that area of research.

A person's sense of freedom is defined as the subjective feeling of an agent, either at the moment of decision or in retrospect, that his or her decision is free and that he or she might have chosen to decide differently. Some theorists have suggested that the sense of freedom is nothing more than necessary illusion (Immergluck, 1964; Smilansky, 1990). Others have maintained that the sense is empirical evidence of actual ontological free will (Runes, 1962) or, at least, that humans have "an immediate powerful, common sense intuition that they are free and that while such an intuition could be false, it puts the burden of proving that it is so on the determinists" (Burr & Goldinger, 1984, p. 20).

Researchers in the area of the sense of freedom (perceived freedom) have not been concerned primarily with the question of whether or not people really are free (Wicklund, 1974), but rather with the "empirical truth" that people do have a subjective sense of, expectation of, or belief in specific or global freedom (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Brehm, 1966; Marks, 1998; Rotter, 1966). These researchers have claimed that the answer to whether or not people are actually free does not have to be established before research into perceptions of freedom can be conducted. In perceived freedom research, freedom is often conceived as a choice among alternative courses of action in the context of some type of self-determinism or self-regulation and is operationally defined in terms of perceptions of responsibility based on attributions of causality in relation to credit and blame (Williams, 1992).

One such study, conducted by Lamb, Lalljee, and Jaspars (1985), produced paradoxical findings on the questions of perceived freedom, personal responsibility, and causal self-attribution of moral issues. In the study, internals, who were expected to report self-attribution perceptions of causality, did not make such attributions. Rather, internals were more likely to view moral behavior as elicited and determined, whereas externals, who were expected to attribute causality to external factors, were more likely to view moral behavior as emanating from the person. These unexpected results were discussed by the authors in view of classical determinism and free will, and their conclusions seemed to have arrived at the age-old impasse--either one has to accept the mutually exclusive nature of true free will and determinism and opt for one or the other, or opt for a compatibilist position that accepts the contradiction of free will and determinism as a creative paradox.

The relevance of Lamb et al.'s (1985) study to this review is the finding that both internal and external attributional actors identified a type of determinism, not free will, as the cause of moral behavior. One described the behavior as being elicited, whereas the other described the behavior as emanating or being emitted. Both elicitation (as a drawing out of what is there) and emitting or emanating (creatively sending out and giving voice to what is there, or flowing out) are consistent with a process of holistic self-determinism rather than true indeterministic free will. This finding is consistent with Wilks's (1995) study, in which participants identified self-determinism, operationally defined in terms of perceived credit, as the cause of moral behaviors, yet the author identified indeterminate free will, operationally defined in terms of perceived blame, as the cause of immoral behavior.

Evolutionary Determinism

Within the last decade, Buss's (1995) deterministic paradigm, based on human evolution, has received attention and has been introduced into educational texts. In one article, Rozin (2000) discussed the limitations and potentialities of a Darwinian perspective in reference to behavior, culture, and mind.

Also, advances in gene mapping have increased interest in the relationship between a person's genetic makeup and responsibility for personal behaviors. In one such study, Alper (1998) addressed the relationships between genes, free will, and criminal responsibility, with the intent to show that genetic explanations of behavior are "no more determinative than are environmental ones in explaining or excusing criminal behavior" (p. 1599). Findings of another study, Looren de Jong's (2000) "Genetic Determinism: How Not to Interpret Behavioral Genetics," are implied by the article title.


Findings of this review suggest the following. First, some degree of theoretical synthesis has been achieved by a number of theorists and researchers, which incorporates three types of causality--biological, environmental, and self--into the holistic, self-deterministic process (i.e., Adler, Bandura, Rychlak, constructivism). The reviewed literature indicates that in efforts to provide a comprehensive synthesis of counseling and psychological concepts, theorists have merged the definitions of freedom as choice and freedom as self-determinism, into a holistic phenomenological ground, with goal-directed or need-fulfilling behavior always acting in accordance with some aspect of the self or cognitive self-regulator. Second, no grand theory of counseling has solved the freewill-determinism problem, thereby solving issues of personal moral responsibility. Third, there is no evidence of a comprehensive theory of counseling that holds to a view of indeterminate free will. This conclusion is further supported by such quotations as the following:
   To assume ... complete freedom of choice is an absurdity, because
   this would imply estrangement from one's self, or at least an
   individual unconscious of his own motivations and goals. Even if
   such a mode of existence were possible, I doubt whether such an
   individual would help society. (Morganstein, 1974, p. 573)

   Certainly no one claims that our decision-processes are entirely
   autonomous of the evidence brought to bear on them, nor independent
   of our own past history of decision making, nor of our values, nor
   of coercions which might be part of the evidence. If decisions were
   entirely willful, that is, independent of all prior conditions,
   behavior would surely be entirely unpredictable, even chaoS-behavior
   wouldn't make any sense. So the connections between ... determinants
   ... and consequents cannot be denied. (Westcott, 1988, p. 18)

Fourth, people do, nevertheless, have a sense of true indeterminate free will, as well as perceptions of holistic self-determinism (Williams, 1992). Fifth, evidence has not been conclusive concerning perceived causes of moral and immoral behaviors, findings that are problematic because the philosophical debate concerning moral responsibility for one's behavior is fundamentally grounded in the idea of free will (Double, 1997).


The subject of human free will continues to be raised by each new generation of thinkers. In the words of one theorist,
   The arguments mounted so far concerning the reality of freewill--are
   concerned with exactly that: reality of freewill.... They are
   trying to get at ultimate truth, and they beg the question as to
   whether there is one truth or alternative truths. Clearly, there is
   one truth concerning freewill: either it is or it isn't. (Westcott,
   1988, p. 18)

Do humans have indeterminate free will or not? The question begs philosophical, theoretical, and practical consistency. To date, "a solution to the problem of free will in a deterministic science eludes even the greatest thinkers" (Goodman, 1998, p. 160). Nevertheless, recent findings indicate a need to reexamine the construct validity of indeterminate free will. The importance of such research cannot be overstated, because assumptions regarding causes of human behavior are fundamentally related to the practice of counseling. Only when practice is consistent with theory, and theory is consistent with experience, can counseling professionals be confident in their endeavors. Readdressing philosophical assumptions regarding free will may provide a much-needed stepping stone in the direction of that illusive comprehensive theory.


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Duffy Wilks, Social Science Department, Western Texas College, Snyder. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Duffy Wilks, e-mail:
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Author:Wilks, Duffy
Publication:Journal of Counseling and Development
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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