A Historical Overview and Contemporary Expansion of Psychological Theories of Determinism, Probabilistic Causality, Indeterminate Free Will, and Moral and Legal Responsibility

By Wilks, Duffy; Ratheal, Juli D'Ann | Counseling and Values, January 2009 | Go to article overview

A Historical Overview and Contemporary Expansion of Psychological Theories of Determinism, Probabilistic Causality, Indeterminate Free Will, and Moral and Legal Responsibility


Wilks, Duffy, Ratheal, Juli D'Ann, Counseling and Values


The authors provide a historical overview of the development of contemporary theories of counseling and psychology in relation to determinism, probabilistic causality, indeterminate free will, and moral and legal responsibility. They propose a unique model of behavioral causality that incorporates a theory of indeterminate free will, a concept traditionally assumed to exist by the U.S. legal system, but rejected in counseling theory.

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Indeterminatefree will, defined by Runes (1962) as "the will's alleged independence of antecedent psychological and physiological conditions (p. 112) is a construct that, to date, has not found a sound theoretical home in the counseling and psychology fields (Sundberg, Winebarger, & Taplin, 2002; Wilks, 2003). Although there is general consensus that people have a belief in personal free will and that people should be encouraged to accept responsibility for their choices, scientific perspectives embedded in counseling and psychology clearly reject indeterminate free will as a cause of behavior (Morganstein, 1974; Phemister, 2001; Royce, 1988; Westcott, 1988).

Furthermore, a fundamental philosophical dichotomy has long since been acknowledged between the causal philosophy of contemporary psychological theory and the behavioral causal assumptions of law (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1997). "Perhaps the most obvious philosophical difference between the law and the behavioral sciences is that the former is predicated on the assumption of free will whereas the sciences are generally solidly deterministic" (Melton et al., 1997, p. 8).

Addressing the limitations of determinist causal explanations of behavior in relation to legal responsibility in The Handbook of Forensic Psychology, Hess and Weiner (1999) stated,

   From a legal perspective, one cannot be held accountable for a
   cause beyond one's control. A biologically based failing or a
   social learning regimen that compromised the individual's ability
   to control his or her own decision making would be deterministic in
   the sense that free will could not be exercised and individual
   legal responsibility would be negated ... Lawyers and the laity
   share the assumption that people exercise free will. (p. 39)

Based on the assumption that determining moral and legal responsibility constitutes a problematic core of the free will-determinism dilemma (Double, 1997), in this article, the gap between psychological and legal perspectives on free will and responsibility is addressed by proposing an expansion of behavioral causal factors in counseling theory. To accomplish this task, the concept of determinism is revisited, probabilistic causation in relation to self-determinism is reexamined, and a model of behavioral causality that includes the construct of indeterminate free will is presented.

Definitional Foundations

The operational definitions of determinism, indeterminacy, and free will that formed the basis for analyses of behavioral causality were drawn from Runes's (1962) Dictionary of Philosophy. In this reference work, determinism is defined as the view "that the will is not free but determined by psychical or physical conditions" (Runes, 1962, p. 78) and indeterminism as the theory that "volitional decisions are in certain cases independent of antecedent physiological and psychological causation" (Runes, 1962, p. 143). Runes's (1962) definition of free will makes a distinction between the freedom of indeterminacy, which is defined almost exactly as indeterminism, itself, and the freedom of self-determinism:

   The freedom of indeterminacy ... the will's alleged independence of
   antecedent psychological and physiological conditions; ... The
   freedom of self-determinism ... decision independent of external
   constraint but in accordance with the inner motives and goals of
   the actor. (p. 112)

In the following sections, a brief historical review of causal theory in counseling and psychology is presented, including the concepts of determinism, probabilistic causality, and indeterminism. …

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