The theory of Free Will

A look at the influence of William James and the theory of Free Will


“My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” is a famous quote from 19th century American psychologist, William James (Goodwin 1999, p.155), but what is free will?


‘Free will’ is defined by Reber et al. (2009, p.310), ‘as a general term used to refer to a broad class of philosophical positions all of which have in common the assumption that to some degree or another behaviour is under control of the volition of an individual.’ In layman terms, free will is the ability for humans to make their own decisions. An example of this belief is that if someone commits a crime, this was the individual’s decision. This idea suggests that as humans we have ‘choice’, but not everyone agrees with this viewpoint.

If we don’t have free will, then why do we act the way we do? What is the basis for someone committing a crime? An alternative belief is that actions are determined, in that ‘our behaviour is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control’. (McLeod, 2019).


Determinism can create moral dilemmas. If human beings don’t have free will, then this could have consequences for society and the laws that govern us. If there is no free will, then there is no accountability, and if no accountability, how can anybody be held responsible for their actions? Adultery, violence, lies – are these all pre-determined and therefore out with the control of the action’s humans make?


Free will versus Determinism is a debate which dates back thousands of years and continues to be debated today. Free will is an important pillar of belief for many religious philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, dating back to the 13th century. Whilst modern psychology has its origins in Germany, it started to develop further in America in the 19th century. William James’ (America’s first major psychologist) ideas still have an influence today on modern psychology. In fact, Goodwin (2019, p.153) highlights that a poll taken in the early 20th century of psychologists being asked to rank their peers, it was William James that came first on all responses!


A philosopher at heart, and a reluctant psychologist by name, William James penned the ‘Principles of Psychology’ book – a publication which still has significant influence today. The theory of determinism caused much pain for James, ‘if freedom of choice is an illusion, then what is the basis for personal responsibility and morality?’ (Goodwin 1999, p.155). It was then, in 1870, when James decided that whether real or not, he would choose to believe in free will.


This lightbulb moment for James gave him the comfort to continue his work in a pragmatic way, which helped pave the way for the first uniquely American school of psychology, known as Functionalism, which ‘sought to understand the utility of consciousness’. (Benjamin 2007, p.85).


So, does free will exist or is it a conscious decision to believe in it? And what if someone’s belief in free will was predetermined? These questions can be answered with beliefs and well-presented arguments, but there is no absolute truth. What is true, is that these questions will continue to be debated for a long time to come.

Reference List

Benjamin, Jr., L. T. (2007). A Brief History of Modern Psychology. Blackwell Publishing

Goodwin, C. J. (1999). A History of Modern Psychology. Wiley

Mcleod, S. (2019). Free Will vs Determinism. https://www.simplypsychology.org/freewill-determinism.html

Reber, A. S. & Allen, R. & Reber, E. S. (2009). Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (4th ed.). Penguin.


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