Part 3: Philosophy of human psychology

This trail follows the general outline of the course PHI11PHP offered at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. See sources. Free Will and Determinism, The Self and Morality: Oakley (2001). The Problem of the Self: Vassilacopoulos (2001)

For an introduction to logic and arguments, see the logic page.

3.1 Free will and Determinism

Do we really choose our actions? What if you have been hypnotised, or you are a brain in a jar (e.g., The Matrix), or if your biology has been influenced to such a degree by evolution that you only act in concordance with your inherited traits; is it all just brain-chemistry, governed by physical laws; what when you discover, in retrospect, that the actions you thought were free at the time you enacted them, were really controlled by your upbringing, your life-situation and so on. Is there an interventionist God? Has Fate spun her web? Can the human sciences explain our actions, and hence show that  they were not free? (Can human behaviour be free and still predictable, somewhat in the same way that some mathematical functions are deterministic, yet unpredictable?) Is the brain a special kind of computer, in which mentality and intentionality are implemented?

All these questions pose serious threats to the notion of free will. But there is one more question, one that is far more serious, and which presumably has graver consequences than many of them: that of determinism.

"Determinism is the view that, for everything that happens, there is a condition or set of conditions which are causally sufficient for that thing happening." -Oakley (2001)

Determinism applies even if there is a "mind-substance", different from the physical stuff of our brain (and everything else). It seems to imply that there is no freedom for human beings (or for anything else, for that matter). The consequences of determinism seems grave. If no-one chooses freely, how can we blame, praise, or punish? How would you look upon another, who acted friendly towards you, if you knew that the person had no choice in the matter? And wouldn't you yourself feel trapped, knowing you could not control your actions (even though you had the feeling you could control your actions)? 

Some people believe determinism is compatible with free will. Compatibilism says that "if determinism is true, then we still can have free will". It does not commit itself to any of these views ("determinism is true", or "we have free will"), it only states that they are compatible. The view that both statements are true is called "soft determinism". The incompatibilist view is that both statements cannot be true; hence an incompatibilist would either be a hard determinist or a libertarian. Hard determinism is the view that determinism is true and that we do not have free will. The libertarian view is that we have free will, and as such, determinism must be false. Libertarians basically think we can tell that we have free will, just by introspecting at the time we make choices. There seems to be a private sphere in our introspection, in which we cannot make mistakes. For example, you cannot be wrong about the fact that you are in pain when you actually are in pain. Who can tell but you? Yet, we might lack the ability to introspect as to the causes of our sensation as they appear in our brains. If you are a smoker, you know that taking a cigarette gives you a kick, a pleasurable feeling, and no one can tell you that you do not. But can you tell that this pleasurable feeling is mediated by dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens? You certainly cannot.  

If, as the libertarian claims, our actions are not caused, then it might be argued that they are random. This brings us problems too. If my actions are truly uncaused, if they are random, then how am I free? If I just happen to kill you, then how can I be blamed? It was not caused by anything. The libertarian might answer that most events in the universe are probably determined, and some might be completely random. Still, some are neither, that is, human choices are neither caused nor random. There are causally necessary antecedents for these actions, but the sufficient ingredient is a reason, not a cause. (Q: Are reasons not causes?)

Compatibilism then, says that freedom and determinism can both be true. The crux is how we define 'freedom'. In any given situation, we could have acted differently from what we did, if we had had different desires, wishes, and so on (the Hume-Mills theory). Our actions are caused, but are free in the sense that, if things had been different, our actions would be different. This is certainly not what we usually mean by freedom, at least not if the desires and feelings are results of things that have happened to us (i.e., they are caused and determined).

3.2 The problem of the Self

In psychology, one usually separates the me from the I. The 'me' is basically the attributes and relations and abilities we ascribe to ourselves; e.g., I am a boy, I am a student, I am a son, I am sometimes nice, I am good at programming computers. The 'I', on the other hand, is what brings it all together, it is the entity(?) that feels and has perceptions, which remembers, and which thinks about itself in all these ways. It is the self. So what is this self? 

3.2.1 The empiricist: John Locke, a memory theory

A person is a thinking intelligent being, that has reasons and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places.

We are aware of being aware, hence we are not absorbed by the object of our awareness; we are also self-aware. In addition to this self-awareness, we need memory of our past, so that we can identify ourselves. There are two issues: 1) what makes one a person, and 2) what makes one the same person over time (Vassilacopoulos, 2001)

"Locke's approach is phenomenological -- it focuses on reflection on one's own consciousness or awareness of objects." -Vassilacopoulos (2001)

'Consciousness always accompanies thinking', this is what 'makes every one to be what he calls 'self"'. For a self to exist, we need both thinking and consciousness. Thinking refers to intentional states of awareness, i.e., thinking is about something

Memory ensures continuity. It is how we recognise ourselves. 

1 - does the theory allow for change?
2 - how are the memories synthesised in meaningful ways?
3 - can we distinguish between actual and false memories?
4 - Lock is supposing what he is defining: my personal identity is based upon my memories of myself at earlier times, but at these times I must already have been a person with an identity.
5 - what if two people had the exact same memories -- would they be the same person; or if the memories of your sister suddenly turned up in a swan, would that swan be your sister?

When you come into the presence of an object you discover it, but when you are present to yourself you create the self in the act of self-presence. This view hinders the otherwise inevitable infinite regression with the self as both a subject and an object (I am aware of myself being aware of myself being aware of myself...) 

The theory lacks an account of the future. We need to be able to imagine ourselves in the future. 

3.2.2 The existentialist: Jean-Paul Sartre

That it is, how it is, what it is. 

The that-ness is its existence, that something exist. How it is is its relationship to the what-ness. For natural things and human-made objects, essence precedes existence. The idea of a paper-cutter precedes the actualisation of any paper-cutter. For man, existence precedes essence. We are before we become something. What we are is never static, but changes as we project ourselves into the future and makes choices. By making choices we attach value to our attitudes. The conscious subject is, in Sartre's terms, a being-for-itself. The unconscious object is a being-in-itself.


Being-for-itself Being-in-itself
(conscious subject) (non-conscious subject)
free not free
responsible for itself not responsible
without a determinate essence with an essence
not caused or determined caused
not fixed fixed
incomplete complete

 Source: Vassilacopoulos, 2001, p. 41.

If one must choose ones essence (freedom cannot be chosen, we must be free), then if I have not yet chosen (but I will, for I must), then I am what I am not. And if I have made my choice but not yet pursued it, then I am also what I am not. This non-being pushes us towards the future. What defines the self is its ability to choose, to open itself to the future. 

By choosing freely you are responsible for your choices; you demonstrate the possibility of your choice by making it. Choices are about attitudes, and attitudes are what gives the world value, so when choosing you are responsible for the whole world. What would happen if everybody choose the way you do? Your choice is projected as a universal choice, you are a "law-maker". This should lead you to feel anguish.

1. freedom in Sartre's terms is impossible (i.e., we cannot realise that freedom), we cannot choose, but only throw ourselves into on of the possibilities
2. even if choosing was possible it would be meaningless; committing yourself to a choice implies other choices, but each choice must be taken from zero.
3. do we need others to choose in the same way to recognise us as free beings? Then exercising that freedom is impossible as people make different choices.
4. I other humans do not recognise my choices, I might see them as enemies

3.2.3 The communitarian: Alasdair MacIntyre

What makes life intelligible is being a character in a life story. The story's plot gives life unity and coherence. 

Think about this: The only thing that can happen in the world is movement of stuff. You move yourself (from home to university, for example); to talk you move your tongue and the other parts of the speech-organs (which move air to make sound, and sound is movement); to kill someone is to move something into their system (a knife, a poison); to drink water is to move it into the body; to make love is movement; even thinking is movement of electrons and chemicals in the brain. MacIntyre says that to identify human behaviour we need to take account of intensions, beliefs, and settings. Without these, everything is just physical movements without meaning.

If we make a sharp distinction between the subject and his/her roles (like Sartre), then the idea of the unity of human life becomes invisible. To make a life meaningful, we have to consider the setting in which it is lived, and the person's relations to other people (with other, interconnected stories). The background concept, the story, provides the concept of a unity of character. By telling our stories we become self-interpreting. Our actions are given meaning when told as a story. By generating this meaning through our storytelling, we construct our identities. The self is both a participant and an observer. We are all co-authors of our own life story. Others are important in our lives in two ways: 1) they impute on us roles and relationships, and 2) they can ask us to explain ourselves (why did you do that?) In the same way, you can ask others for an account of why they behave as they do, and hence, be part of their stories. 

1. post-modernistic objection: we can be incoherent, non-rational, and the self might be fragmented.
2. Sartre: The narrative can only be understood retrospectively. Accidents and uforseeable things happen.
3. it might be said that in the Western world, we have lost the ability to generate collective stories, and we have lost the ones we had.

3.3 Morality

3.3.1 Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill (1863), ch. 2, from [Swedish] 

One should maximise happiness for the greatest number of people. (This includes reducing unhappiness.) This is the one and only principle. The only thing that is intrinsically valuable is happiness. Utilitarianism does not say anything about what else is right or wrong, it does not, for example, say that it is wrong to kill someone. It is only wrong if it decreases the total happiness in the world.

An example that is sometimes used to show where utilitarianism runs into problems is "the spare-part human". If we take one healthy human and kill him or her, and then gives the organs to people who need them, we will probably increase the "total amount of happiness". Yet, most of us believe this is not something one should do.  

Another problem for utilitarianism is "how do you measure pleasure and pain?". Some have tried to answer, see for example Value of a Lot of Pleasure or Pain, how to be Measured and Mathematics for Ethics, based on the works by Bentham.

3.3.2 Psychological egoism

Psychological egoism is a theory about what motivates us; it is not a normative theory, it does not tell us what we should do. It states that everything we do we do for our own good. All benevolence is hypocrisy.  

As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, "David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Appendix II-Of Self Love) offers six rebuttals of psychological egoism".

3.3.3 Ethical egoism and hedonism

Real life hedonists: BLTC, hedonists for paradise-engineering. How to implement heaven using molecular biology.

3.3.4 Self respect

3.4 Explaining human behaviour


An extended and annotated version of this document can be found at the the Dierkes / Faber Family Home page (pdf).


Psychology Index




Daniel C. Dennett's homepage.

Theory of Mind for a Robot (ps) at the MIT Humanoid Robotics group.

Publication from the Cog project.



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