Prerequisite  for a Meaningful Freedom*

by Steve Andreas (formerly John O. Stevens)

“As a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower:
until at last he chooses nothing,but does only and wholly what he must do…”

—Ursula LeGuin

     It is clear from even a brief review of current writing on the subject that the problem of reconciling freedom with determinism is not yet settled. Some writers (Skinner, 1953) explicitly deny any possibility of freedom, while others (Immergluck, 1964; Rogers, 1965) refuse to give up the idea of freedom, but are unable to reconcile  it with determinism. The wide divergence of views is highlighted by a symposium (Hook, 1961) or a careful analysis of different arguments (Ofstad, 1961).

     The major focus of this paper is upon the phenomenon of self-reference, which occurs in the paradoxes of self-reference, as well as in ordinary statements such as this sentence. The sentence above contains two self-references and both are meaningful: a statement about the paper of which the sentence itself is a part, and a statement in the sentence pointing out the existence of the self-reference in the sentence.

     All knowledge and rational discussion is based ultimately upon self-referring epistemological justifications and upon the assumption of some degree of determinism. It is therefore necessary to examine the limitations of our tools of knowledge and analysis, and particularly the implications of the self-referring mathematical theorems of Godel, Tarski, Turing, and Church. I will show that the hypothesis of determinism is a useful superstition, and that hypotheses of indeterminism are empty of meaning, and cannot provide a basis for human freedom in any sense of the word.

     Self-reference is embodied in every purposive living system which uses information about itself and its surroundings in ways that maintain and enhance the living system. A living organism’s self-maintaining activities enable it to participate significantly in the determination of its own future state. Freedom is defined here as the ability of an organism to actualize the goals and purposes determined by, and inherent in, its structure. An organism is free to the extent that the consequences of its self-referring functioning result in the satisfaction of needs and goals. Human freedom is a consequence of man’s capacity to influence his own future in his favor, which is dependent upon the deterministic lawfulness of both his own functioning and his surroundings. I will show that this definition of freedom can encompass all experiences to which a person might apply the term “free” or “freedom.”

     The continuing controversy over this problem indicates that it is not a simple one; furthermore, I may use words imprecisely, and I hope the reader will heed Warren McCulloch’s plea: “Don’t bite my finger, look where I am pointing.”

Epistemological Self-reference

     Self-reference immediately brings to mind the self-referring paradoxes such as “this sentence is false,” or infinite regressions such as “the class of all classes.” *However, not all self-reference is paradoxical and not all self-reference leads to infinite regress, and I will return to the topic of meaningful self-reference shortly. The puzzle of the logical paradoxes is vastly overrated. A paradox is no more complex than a simple doorbell buzzer or oscillator. An oscillator is a system which has the characteristic that being in one state causes a change to occur which brings about another state and vice versa, so that the system continues to alternate between the two states. A paradox is simply a logical oscillator, and there is no reason to try to legislate it out of existence simply because we find it annoying and cannot yet find a meaningful use for it within contemporary logic.

     A stable oscillator is a system that uses the principle of negative feedback to maintain its own state within a certain range, and such negative feedback mechanisms are usefully embodied in all purposive living systems. The difficulty with paradox is that the range of its oscillation, truth to falsity, is so wide as to make it apparently meaningless. If the paradox’s range of oscillation could be reduced from assertions of “truth” to probability of truth, it might become meaningful and no longer “paradoxical.” This seems to agree with Popper’s (1962) statement that paradoxes are avoided when we realize our fundamental inability to assert that any statement is true or false:

     We can avoid paradoxes without using such drastic measures . . . [as strictly excluding all self-reference which] would exclude some very interesting uses of self-reference, especially Godel’s method of constructing self-referring statements, a method which has most important applications in my own field of interest, the theory of numbers. They are drastic, moreover, because we have learned from Tarski that in any consistent language–let us call it “L”–the predicates “true in L” and “false in L” cannot occur (as opposed to “meaningful in L,” and “meaningless in L” which may occur), and that without predicates such as these, paradoxes of the type of the Epimenides, or of Grelling’s paradox of the heterological adjectives, cannot be formulated. This hint turns out to be sufficient for the construction of formalized languages in which the paradoxes are avoided. (p. 310)

     On this basis, “paradoxical” statements would be more analogous to real oscillators. In direct current circuitry, electrical oscillators are useful only for ringing doorbells, but they are tremendously useful in electronics, which is based on alternating (oscillating) current. Perhaps paradoxical self-referring statements will have a fundamental role in the development of a probabilistic logic which avoids the illegitimate postulates of absolute truth and falsity.

     As I mentioned above, not all self-reference leads to paradox or infinite regress, and a simple meaningful example is the sentence “this statement is true.” Another meaningful example is the preceding sentence which refers to itself indirectly by referring to a previous sentence (marked with an asterisk * above) which in turn refers to it. The self-reference in these examples corroborates and reinforces the statement itself, but obviously does not prove it. Self-reference, usually implicit or indirect, is very common, and when this self-reference is not recognized, it is often the source of meaningless circular “proofs.” This is particularly true in a discussion of determinism, since in any meaningful discussion a number of rules are assumed, including not only logic, grammar, etc., but also at least a limited determinism. I assume that the words I use will retain the same meaning after I have written them, that they will evoke essentially similar responses in the reader, that the chain of logical arguments will determine the proper and “true” conclusion, etc. In order to avoid the trap of attempting to prove our assumptions, it is necessary to examine and keep in mind some of the assumptions and limitations of the tools that we use to gain knowledge: logic, the scientific method, and our ultimate and omnipresent tool, the human brain. Logic, mathematics, and the scientific method have been enthroned in the past as absolute principles, but the far-reaching mathematical theorems of Godel and others have considerably diminished this absolutism. The following extensive quotation is from Bronowski’s (1966) excellent discussion of these explicitly self-referring theorems and their implications:

     [Godel’s] first theorem says that any logical system which is not excessively simple (that is, which at least includes ordinary arithmetic) can express true assertions which nevertheless cannot be deduced from its axioms. And the second theorem says that the axioms in such a system, with or without additional truths, cannot be shown in advance to be free from hidden contradictions. In short, a logical system which has any richness can never be complete, yet cannot be guaranteed to be consistent. . . . A. M. Turing in England and Alonzo Church in America showed that no mechanical procedure can be devised which could test every assertion in a logical system and in a finite number of steps demonstrate it to be either true or false. . . . Alfred Tarski in Poland proved an even deeper limitation of logic. Tarski showed that there can be no precise language which is universal; every formal language which is at least as rich as arithmetic contains meaningful sentences that cannot be asserted to be either true or false. . . .

     Such a system of axioms has always been thought to be the ideal model for which all science strives. Indeed, it could be said that theoretical science is the attempt to uncover an ultimate and comprehensive set of axioms (including mathematical rules) from which all the phenomena of the world could be shown to follow by deductive steps. But the results that I have quoted, and specifically the theorems of Godel and of Tarski, make it evident that this ideal is hopeless. For they show that every axiomatic system of any mathematical richness is subject to severe limitations, whose incidence cannot be foreseen and yet which cannot be circumvented. In the first place, not all sensible assertions in the language of the system can be deduced (or disproved) from the axioms: no set of axioms can be complete. And in the second place, an axiomatic system can never be guaranteed to be consistent: any day, some flagrant and irreconcilable contradiction may turn up in it. An axiomatic system cannot be made to generate a description of the world which matches it fully, point for point; at some points there will be holes which cannot be filled in by deduction, and at other points two opposite deductions may turn up.

     I hold, therefore, that the logical theorems reach decisively into the systemization of empirical science. It follows in my view that the unwritten aim that the physical sciences have set themselves since Isaac Newton’s time cannot be attained. The laws of nature cannot be formulated as an axiomatic, deductive, formal and unambiguous system which is also complete. And if at any stage in scientific discovery the laws of nature did seem to make a complete system, then we should have to conclude that we had not got them right. Nature cannot be represented in the form of what logicians now call a Turing machine-that is, a logical machine operating on a basic set of axioms by making formal deductions from them in an exact language. There is no perfect description conceivable, even in the abstract, in the form of an axiomatic and deductive system. Of course, we suppose nevertheless that nature does obey a set of laws of her own which are precise, complete and consistent. But if this is so, then their inner formulation must be of some kind quite different from any that we know; and at present, we have no idea how to conceive it. Any description in our present formalisms must be incomplete, not because of the obduracy of nature, but because of the limitation of language as we use it. And this limitation lies not in the human fallibility of language, but on the contrary in its logical insufficiency.

     This is a cardinal point: it is the language that we use in describing nature that imposes (by its arrangement of definitions and axioms) both the form and the limitations of the laws that we find. For example, it may be held that if we can remove the arithmetic from physics, we may yet get an axiomatic system which is complete and consistent. I do not share this view, but it is arguable; yet it does not seem to me to bear in fact on our present formulation of the laws of nature. On present evidence, we must conclude (in my view) that the human mind is constrained to conceive physical laws in arithmetical language: the whole numbers are literally an integral part of its conceptual apparatus. If this is so, then the mind cannot extricate the laws of nature from its own language; and we are not at all, as Leibnitz and others have thought, in a “pre-established harmony” with the language of nature. (pp. 3-5)

     There is massive evidence from joint efforts in neurophysiology, cybernetics, and mathematics (George, 1965; McCulloch, 1965; Miller, Galanter and Pribram, 1960) to corroborate the view that the functioning of the human brain can be characterized by the principles of logic and mathematics. On the psychological level the evidence is less complete, but also corroborative. Piaget’s extensive work (1954, 1957) has shown that the child’s sensory-motor and conceptual development can be understood using the mathematical concepts of sets, groups, and operations, and that a child’s “irrational” behavior can be understood as the result of incomplete or inappropriate application of rational principles. In addition, much psychopathology can be understood as the unfortunate consequence of deductions based upon incorrect or contradictory assumptions which the patient will not revise, or as the consequence of entrapment in paradoxical situations. (Watzlawick, 1964, 1967)

     If the human mind and brain do work according to the principles of logic and mathematics, then all the limitations discussed by Bronowski must apply to all human thought. Because of its logical insufficiency, thought can never be complete or consistent and it can never give us a complete or consistent picture of nature. If nature does obey a complete and consistent set of laws, it must be of a kind basically different from any we know, and fundamentally different from, and probably inaccessible to, human conceptual processes. “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” (Heisenberg, 1958, p. 58)

     I have said that the human nervous system obeys the principles of logic and mathematics, but it might be more legitimate to say the reverse, since the structures existed prior to the principles. This suggests that the fundamental principles and hypotheses of scientific knowledge are symbolic replicas of the functioning of the human nervous system. As such, they can be examined in perspective: not as absolute principles, but as adaptive strategies with a certain degree of success in dealing with nature. There is abundant evidence that the human brain is the product of a process of biological evolution in which genetic mechanisms determine structures which embody hypotheses about the organism’s surroundings. Those hypotheses that are not appropriate are discarded, while those that have some validity are retained and refined.

     Since the human brain is a successful outcome of over a billion years of biological hypothesis testing, we can reasonably expect that logic is a successful tool for knowing and dealing with reality. However, if we examine other organisms we find that while each one embodies hypotheses about its surroundings, every one of these hypotheses is approximate and has only a limited application to particular domains, under particular circumstances, and often with only a small statistical advantage over the hypotheses embodied in other organisms. Since logic is a product of this same process, it would be unlikely, though possible, that it alone did not share these limitations. The following quotation is from Popper (1962), discussing the growth of scientific knowledge. Note that if “conjectures” is replaced by “genetically determined structures,” and “refutations” is replaced by “natural selection,” the quotation serves as an excellent characterization of biological evolution:

     The way in which knowledge progresses, and especially our scientific knowledge, is by unjustified (and unjustifiable) anticipations, by guesses, by tentative solutions to our problems, by conjectures. These conjectures are controlled by criticism; that is, by attempted refutations, which include severely critical tests. They may survive these tests, but they can never be positively justified: they can neither be established as certainly true nor even as “probable” (in the sense of the probability calculus). Criticism of our conjectures is of decisive importance: by bringing out our mistakes it makes us understand the difficulties of the problem which we are trying to solve. This is how we become better acquainted with our problem, and able to propose more mature solutions: the very refutation of a theory–that is, of any serious tentative solution to our problem–is always a step forward that takes us nearer to the truth. And this is how we can learn from our mistakes.

     As we learn from our mistakes our knowledge grows, even though we may never know–that is, know for certain. Since our knowledge can grow, there can be no reason here for despair of reason. And since we can never know for certain, there can be no authority here for any claim to authority, for conceit over our knowledge, or for smugness.

     Those among our theories which turn out to be highly resistant to criticism, and which appear to us at a certain moment of time to be better approximations to truth than other known theories, may be described, together with the reports of their tests, as “the science” of that time. Since none of them can be positively justified, it is essentially their critical and progressive character–the fact that we can argue about their claim to solve our problems better than their competitors–which constitutes the rationality of science. (p. vi)


     I have deliberately emphasized what is known about the inherent limitations of human knowledge because I want to point out the tentative nature of the conclusions in the second half of this paper, and because determinism is the one fundamental superstitious assumption underlying all human thought and knowledge. Bunge (1959) makes the following statement:

     What in contemporary science has taken the commanding place once held by the causal principle is the broader principle of determinacy, or of lawful production. The two components of this principle, under which the general law of causation is subsumed, are the genetic principle (Nothing springs out of nothing or goes into nothing) and the principle of lawfulness (Nothing unconditional, arbitrary, lawless occurs). The principle of determinacy just states that reality is not a chaotic aggregate of isolated, unconditioned, arbitrary events that pop up here and there without connection with anything else; it states that events are produced and conditioned in definite ways, though not necessarily in a causal manner; and it asserts that things, their properties, and the changes of properties exhibit intrinsic patterns (objective laws) that are invariant in some respects. (p. 351)

     Without this principle of determinacy, no knowledge of any kind is possible, only chaos. The principle of determinacy is the basic element of meaning, and a statement that does not assert some regularity is meaningless. In contrast, an assertion which is shown to be wrong is meaningful since it asserts the negation of a particular hypothetical regularity. Human beings and human thought are fundamentally deterministic; they embody descriptive or predictive statements about events which can be corroborated or refuted by experiment or by logical rules which also have their roots in the regularity of experience and embody deterministic assumptions. “Logic presents us with a skeletonized type of behavior suitable to be used in the presence of the permanent or the recurrent.” (Bridgman, 1959, p. 89) Deterministic hypotheses are useful, since they can be used to describe or explain a set of events and predict future events, and because they point out the means which we can use to alter future events.

     When we think of determinism, we inevitably think of simple causality and we also conceive of some simple causal model, such as the familiar analogy of the mechanical interaction of billiard balls, to help us understand it. Our conception of the ideal interaction of billiard balls is already a significant departure from reality because we deliberately ignore “negligible” variables, such as friction, air resistence, irregularities in the surface of the balls, etc. When we then apply our conception of this simplified model to other events which are incredibly more complex, there is a real danger that our models and concepts may mislead us, even when relevant data and formulas are rigorously defined and objectified. The basic difficulty is that the human mind cannot comprehend the consequences of the simultaneous interaction of more than two or three variables without some kind of crutch. We can easily understand two variables with the help of a line graph, and a three-dimensional model will display three, but in order to comprehend more variables we must rely on laborious mathematical analysis or computer simulation. In order to grasp reality the human mind must isolate a few variables and subject them to causal analysis. One of the reasons for the prodigious advance of scientific knowledge has been the development of rules and techniques for isolating systems, “controlling” variables which cannot be excluded from the system, and developing statistical methods and probabilistic hypotheses which deal with uncontrollable variables. However, complete isolation is an unobtainable ideal, and the causal principle often fails in open systems. Of course we always assume that other unknown causal variables operate when our predictions fail in open systems. The failure of the causal principle in any but artificially isolated systems indicates the limited application of the principle as a description of reality as a whole. Nevertheless, the causal principle is a subset of determinism or lawfulness, and determinism does not necessarily imply simple causation. I quote again from Bunge (1959):

     Strict and pure causation works nowhere and never. Causation works approximately in certain processes limited both in space and time–and, even so, only in particular respects. Causal hypotheses are no more (and no less) than rough, approximate, one-sided reconstructions of determination; they are often entirely dispensable, but they are sometimes adequate and indispensable. (p. 337)

     . . . Noncausal types of determination are shown to be somehow linked with causation. The overall trend discernable in recent science in connection with the general problem of determinism is not so much an increasing departure from causality as a progressive diversification of the types of determination, with correlative changes in the meaning and scope of the causal principle. (p. 346)

     The causal principle reflects or reconstructs only a few aspects of determination. Reality is much too rich to be compressible once and for all into a framework of categories elaborated during an early stage of rational knowledge which consequently cannot account for the whole variety of types of determination, the number of which is being increased by scientific research and by philosophical reflection upon it. (p. 352)

     This does not imply any kind of indeterminism. But it does assert that the causal principle is only one kind of determination, and that it would be reductionistic to use the causal model for the whole of determinism.

     Most scientific statements, particularly those that are most thoroughly corroborated, restrict themselves to asserting a determinism which is limited by certain conditions, domains, or applications. Moreover, the theorems of Godel, et. al. have shattered the expectation that eventually consistent and complete deterministic statements might be made about all events. Nevertheless, the success and growth of scientific knowledge suggests that perhaps all events are subject to deterministic laws, and that our basic implicit assumption of universal determinacy could be correct even though we could never prove it. Although it seems likely that our minds are fundamentally incapable of creating more than a first approximation to reality, universal determinism may be the best approximation that we can make.

Indeterministic Hypotheses

     All indeterministic hypotheses have in common the assertion that events exist which have deterministic effects but which do not have sufficient causes to explain these effects. A statement that nothing is presently known about a set of events does not preclude the subsequent development of deterministic hypotheses which may serve to describe them. But an hypothesis of indeterminism for the same set of events is a statement that, in principle, nothing can be known about them. An indeterministic hypothesis is both empty and useless since it tells us nothing, it cannot be corroborated, and it may prevent scientists from creating alternative deterministic hypotheses which might prove to be fruitful.

     One kind of indeterministic hypothesis is the assertion that there exists an unknowable transempirical agent which acts as a cause but is itself uncaused and which manifests itself irregularly. It is therefore inaccessible to lawful description and also inaccessible to refutation. Hypotheses of this kind include many religious and mystic assertions, which have had to steadily yield ground as useful deterministic hypotheses are advanced which explain and describe parts of their domain.

     Another kind of indeterministic hypothesis is the assertion of a physical indeterminacy (such as Heisenberg’s interpretation of quantum mechanics) which underlies the apparent lawfulness found in scientific description. This indeterminacy enters into the causation of events, particularly submiscroscopic events, making it impossible to describe them completely in a lawful way.

     Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has been reinterpreted by some physicists as being simply a statement of experimental error, which may be reduced by further advances in technique or by the creation of more complete explanatory hypotheses which describe “hidden” variables. Even if this kind of indeterminacy exists, it is extremely unlikely that it would be a factor in human behavior. There is abundant empirical evidence that the human organism embodies thousands of homeostatic mechanisms which counteract internal and external environmental fluctuations which are millions of times greater than the effects of Heisenberg indeterminacy. The effects of the death or spontaneous firing of neurons are hugely greater than such indeterminacy, yet neural nets are known to compute in ways that insure that such events do not alter the process or the result. Whether physical indeterminacy exists or not, the human organism is well protected against its effects.

     Often an attempt is made to “prove” that indeterminacy exists (using logical arguments which therefore embody deterministic assumptions!). This could only be done by exclusion if all the laws of nature and their domains were perfectly known. In view of the foregoing discussion of the inherent incompleteness and inconsistency of scientific knowledge, it is evident how impossible such a task would be.

     If we assume that an indeterministic hypothesis is true, what would the consequences be for human freedom? That would exempt at least some events from the strict determinism implied by scientific laws, and this exemption is often thought to provide a basis for human freedom, since a person’s choices and decisions would not be completely subject to the lawfulness and predictability of scientific description. But since he would then be subject to apparently random causes forever beyond his ability to know or predict, he would be less free, not more! We do sometimes intervene in known determined events in order to bring about desired consequences, which at least gives us the freedom to actualize our desires (even if both our desires and our actions are also thought to be determined). But we are completely powerless even to actualize ourselves when faced with unpredictability, whether due to lack of knowledge about lawful events or due to inherently indeterminate chaos. There are many meanings to the word freedom, but indeterminism negates all of them. We may strike out blindly or wait passively, but we cannot act intelligently in response to unpredictable events, and we certainly do not feel free when faced with unknowable chaos.

     Indeterminism also negates responsibility, since if one of my acts is indeterminate, then I cannot gain control over its causes, I cannot be responsible for its effects, and it would be equally absurd to suppose that any punishment or reeducation could have any corrective effect on future indeterminate acts. Responsibility and punishment are both based on the assumption that behavior is lawful and can be modified. Indeterminism replaces a reasonable tyrant which can be countered with its own weapons (knowledge and reason) with an unreasonable tyrant which can only be endured.

     Since indeterminism destroys freedom in any sense of the word, it seems reasonable to question the widespread assumption that freedom is incompatible with determinism. In the discussion that follows, the assumption will be made that the hypothesis of universal strict determinism is true: that all events are completely lawfully determined, and therefore that the state of the universe at any time is uniquely determined by preceding events. As discussed earlier, whether or not this hypothesis is true is probably undecidable, but it may still be instructive to explore its implications for freedom.

Self-referring Systems

     One of the strongest denials of freedom comes from Skinner (1953):

     The free inner man who is held responsible for the behavior of the external biological organism is only a prescientific substitute for the kinds of causes which one discovers in the course of a scientific analysis. All these alternative causes lie outside the individual. (p. 447)

     The “free inner man” may well be a prescientific substitute, but the last sentence implies that a man is no different from a rock, and I hope to show that some of Skinner’s “alternative causes” are internal characteristics unique to living systems. According to the theory of evolution, inanimate mechanical processes created living systems which were able to maintain and replicate themselves; they do this through mechanisms which are able to respond both to internal and external conditions in ways that maintain the system. Since this purposeful activity is sufficient to insure the continuance of the system, it is not necessary to impute any other fundamental purpose to living systems, although subsequent evolution and diversification created a multiplicity of biological forms and subsidiary purposes adapted to survival in different conditions. All living systems realize their purposes through self-regulatory feedback loops, some of which lie entirely within the organism, such as reflexes and internal homeostats, and some of which require interaction with the surroundings, such as in feeding behavior.

     All these self-regulatory mechanisms refer ultimately to the state of the organism, and the organism as a whole is a self-referring system. Many of these mechanisms also refer to the surroundings, but always in ways that are related to the fundamental goal of self-maintenance and self-regulation. We can conveniently distinguish three levels of self-reference in living organisms.

     1. At the lowest level are fixed mechanical reactions and primitive reflexes which are the direct result of genetically determined structures. These structures can only be modified significantly through the process of genetic variation and selection, and they are self-referring only through the self-maintaining consequences of their mechanical functioning.

     2. At the next level are those structures which are modifiable through experience and which can learn in purposive ways without a change in the genetic determinants. Except at the most primitive levels, the ability to learn is dependent upon structures that can obtain, process, and store information about the state of the system and its surroundings. Information about the internal state arouses and guides selective activity directed through the surroundings in order to optimize the internal state. This selective behavior embodies predictions about the most effective way to achieve the goals and purposes of the organism. Structures at this level are much more directly self-referring than those of level 1. The individual organism develops and adapts while preserving its individual integrity, and it does this much faster than the process of biological evolution could. Of course selection pressures will continue to favor genetic variations which enhance the ability to learn and these will further short-circuit the slow process of biological evolution.

     3. Human beings apparently represent the lowest rung of the third level, self-conscious intelligence. At this level there is not only direct awareness of the internal state and of the surroundings, but also awareness of awareness, which is directly self-referring. Man can not only learn and predict, he can learn and predict about his own knowledge and predictions. Knowledge can be significantly freed from its subjective bias, and its inherent limitations can be allowed for. Moreover, the principles of knowledge and feedback can be consciously and systematically applied to all events and embodied in machines and computers.

     At level 1, an organism is able to persist because its structures happen to adapt to the surroundings. At level 2, an organism persists because learning structures permit it to modify itself purposefully in response to its surroundings. At level 3, an organism can predict future events and either intervene in their determinants or prepare a response to them in advance of their occurrence. It can use the same process to predict the consequences of its own actions and devise ways of circumventing its own adaptive mechanisms from levels 1 and 2. For example, we can use conscious inhibition or chemical anesthesia to prevent the withdrawal reflex in order to permit corrective surgery, and we can go to a therapist when we have a psychological problem which we feel powerless to solve alone.


     I think it is clear that an organism of level 3 has a far greater ability to survive than those of lower levels, and by definition, organisms of any kind have a greater survival capacity than inanimate systems. We frequently apply the terms “free” and “freedom” (and exclusively apply “free will”) to ourselves on level 3, sometimes apply these terms to organisms on level 2, and only in a very restricted sense to level 1or to inanimate objects. This parallel is not coincidental. When we apply the term “freedom” to inanimate matter, what we assert is the absence of some (or any) kind of external constraint or interference. (Physicists speak of “degrees of freedom” of molecular vibration or the “mean free path” of a gas molecule). If we apply this same meaning of freedom to living systems, the meaning is considerably richer, since living systems have purposive self-regulatory systems that act as inner determinants, and “absence of constraint” becomes “ability to actualize goals and purposes.” Since at least some of an organism’s behavior is largely governed by inner determinants and not by environmental determinants, it is meaningful to say that an organism is more free than an inanimate object. Those living systems that are more complex and adaptable are better able to exploit a given situation in order to actualize their goals, and it is meaningful to say that such an organism is more free than a less adaptable one.

     The definition of freedom that emerges from this examination of living systems is that Freedom is the ability of an organism to actualize the goals and purposes determined by, and inherent in, its structure. Freedom is self-determination–not a violation of lawful behavior, but a type of it. Kaplan (1964) makes a similar statement: “A free choice is not uncaused, but one whose causes include in significant measure the aspirations and knowledge of the man who is choosing.” This freedom is based upon our ability to maintain and actualize ourselves through lawful deterministic mechanisms and the ability of these mechanisms to exploit the lawfulness and regularity of our surroundings to our advantage. Compared to some of the claims of “free will,” this is a limited freedom indeed, yet even this minimal freedom is absolutely dependent upon determinism, and no additional freedom is implied or suggested by the study of living systems.

     There are many aspects and meanings of freedom, and there will be many objections to this definition of freedom. Each will be discussed in turn and tested for congruence with the definition that I have given above. Despite its apparent simplicity it is able to integrate most, if not all, of the meanings of freedom and resolve the objections to it.

Internal Determinism

     One of the most frequent objections to this definition of freedom is that it simply replaces an external determinism with an internal one, and we are not free to either choose or want what we do not want. The desire to be able to desire what one does not desire is simply self-contradictory, and this objection becomes meaningful only in the context of a conflict between different desires. For example, when a person says that he wishes that his desire for slenderness were greater than his desire for ice cream, what he really means is either: 1. He wishes to find an effective way of modifying his behavior in accordance with the magnitude of his desires, or 2. He wants the listener to accept him in spite of the obesity that results from his continued greater desire for ice cream, or 3. He wishes that the world were so simple that no such decisions were necessary. Deterministic knowledge provides the means toward effective solutions which will free the person from the conflict. In this example, either self-modification through therapy, or world modification through creation of low-calorie ice cream, effectively reconciles the two conflicting desires.


     Conditioning is often described in terms of an external agent manipulating the organism through reinforcement. But it is equally valid to say that the organism modifies its own behavior in order to exploit the reinforcing aspects of its surroundings. The crucial question is: Whose goals are ultimately being served by the conditioning? No one dislikes being conditioned as long as the benefits exceed the inconveniences. People voluntarily submit to conditioning and eagerly condition themselves in the pursuit of goals. What we dislike about conditioning is the possibility that someone else will condition us in ways that ultimately satisfy their goals to the detriment of our own. This is an everyday social reality and the only defense against it is the same deterministic knowledge that establishes freedom. If I know that I am being conditioned, I become free to resist it when I foresee undesirable consequences. My knowledge that this is true will motivate me to increase my knowledge, in order to further protect and increase my freedom.

     If we are interested in protecting others from Machiavellian conditioning, we can carefully inform them of its dangers. In addition, we can deliberately reinforce a person when he behaves in response to internal determinants and physical reality, and not reinforce him when he responds only to social events. This will decrease his dependence upon external opinion and increase his dependence upon internal motives and upon objective reality as valid determinants of behavior. The result will be someone who is relatively independent of social reinforcement, in touch with his own motives and with physical reality, and consequently well able to satisfy his own needs.


     The subjective experience of choice, particularly deliberative choice, is based upon two conditions: A belief that the consequences of the alternatives are important to the chooser, and a realization that the chooser’s knowledge is too incomplete to clearly specify which alternative is preferable. Someone with nearly complete knowledge would seldom be aware of a choice, since in most cases he would know immediately which alternatives were relevant to his purposes, and which of the alternatives was preferable. I am not ordinarily aware of “choosing” where to put my feet when walking, since my knowledge is usually complete enough to leave the placement of my feet to non-conscious computation. A near-omniscient man would only be aware of choice in cases where his knowledge was incomplete or inconsistent. And in this case he would wish that his knowledge could be increased so that this choice too would vanish and be replaced by behavior that was fully determined by its known preferable consequences!

     Thus choice diminishes as freedom increases, which seems contrary to most discussions of freedom in which choice plays a fundamental role. The more usual definition of choice may be paraphrased as “the existence of many alternatives, any of which the person could realistically select.” However, if we assume the hypothesis of universal strict determinism, all of these “alternatives” but one are fictitious, since every choice is actually completely determined by the person’s purposes, his knowledge of the characteristics of the alternatives, accidents, past conditioning, etc. It is thus unrealistic to say that the person “could” have selected one of the other alternatives, unless we hypothesize that a change “could” have been made in the determinants of the person’s decision. In order to do this, still earlier determinants would have to be changed, so this clearly leads to infinite regress.

     Even though we assert that a particular one of a given set of “alternatives” will be chosen by a particular person in a particular situation, it is meaningful to say that a wider range of alternatives provides a basis for freedom. A narrow range of alternatives may prevent the person from being able to make a favorable choice which a wider range would permit. In both cases the choice would be fully determined, but in one case the determinants are so restrictive that none of the person’s repertoire of behavior is effective. “Freedom of choice” only means that the situation was such that the individual himself was a significant determinant of the choice, not that he could have chosen otherwise than he did. This confusion is the basis for many misguided and self-contradictory attempts to establish freedom based on indeterminism.

     We are not inevitably led to an infinite regress if we postulate that we actively intervene in future events that concern us, through our actions in the present. Because of our deterministic knowledge, we extrapolate into the future and sometimes predict undesirable consequences. When we understand these processes fully enough, we often see points where we can intervene as an added determinant to modify these undesirable consequences, and since this result is congruent with our determined desires we intervene. There is no contradiction in asserting that this kind of process is also strictly determined, and it is perfectly consistent with the definition of freedom as an organism’s ability to achieve goals. Other than the inherent limitations of the knowledge upon which this freedom is based, there are no apparent limits to this power to achieve goals. Even with our limited knowledge, we continue to find surprisingly effective ways of accomplishing what previously seemed to be “forbidden by the laws of nature.”


     One objection to this definition of freedom is that it implies fatalism, since it does indeed entail that the state of the universe at any time is uniquely and strictly determined. The crucial point is that human beings are vital and significant determinants of this future state.

     Our self-referring, self-conscious intelligence continually predicts events. We happily await desirable predictions or seek interventions which will hasten their arrival, and we actively seek interventions which will modify undesirable predictions and then make predictions about these interventions. This process of successive reflection is not necessarily an infinite regression, as asserted by MacKay (1960) for the reasons given in the section of this paper on self-reference. We simply continue the process until we are satisfied with the implications of the nth prediction, or until we become exhausted and turn our attention to other matters. Infinite regress could only occur if we made the unwarranted assumption that the nth prediction would always be self-invalidating, which in this context means that it has unacceptably undesirable consequences for the person.

     The magnitude of our participation as a determinant of our own future is obvious from contemporary human events. All our efforts–government, engineering, agriculture, medicine, psychology, etc., are attempts to control and stabilize the determinants of our surroundings and the determinants of our own internal functioning. Indeed, many wish that this participation were less ubiquitous, since much of it seems likely to have undesirable consequences for mankind. This can be understood as the short-sighted result of incomplete knowledge and incomplete prediction. We can reasonably expect that we will eventually remedy these errors if we work hard enough at correcting them.

     If this is fatalism, it is a strange kind of fatalism, for it asserts that the individual plays a significant part as a determinant in his own future, and it sets few limits on the extent of this participation. In addition, it asserts the strong probability that the outcome of this participation will be favorable, to the extent that it is based on rational deterministic knowledge.


     Earlier I showed that saying that a past event “could have been different” led to infinite regress, since it necessitated changing prior events which could only be affected by changing even earlier events, etc. If the past could not be different from what it was, then a man cannot have acted differently from the way he did, and the concept of responsibility must be meaningless when applied to the past.

     But responsibility is not meaningless when applied to future events, and it is based on the real self-reflective ability to predict future events and intervene in them. Human beings are able to respond to events in advance, and it is this “response-ability” that we call responsibility. Responsibility is the realization that our behavior is one of the important determinants of our own future and hence we are in part responsible for our behavior and its consequences. This realization itself acts as a determinant of our behavior, causing us to increase our efforts to know and predict in order to avoid the unpleasant consequences of error or inaction. This meaning of responsibility asserts that reality itself will reward the responsible individual and punish the irresponsible one. Charles Bray lucidly stated the essential characteristics of responsibility more than a century ago:

     All true responsibility must have reference to the future, never, as is commonly supposed, to the past. . . . This view involves a much stricter responsibility than the common one, for we are thus accountable. . . . [whether our act] proceeds from our ignorance, our conviction, or our feelings; whether our actions be voluntary or involuntary, or proceed from free will or necessity. (1841, pp. 39-41)

     We are responsible for the consequences of our acts and we are equally responsible for the consequences of not acting. Although we areresponsible for the consequences of our behavior, we must always choose without complete knowledge of the consequences, and with the knowledge that to refuse to choose is also a choice. This is what is meant by saying that “man is condemned to be free;” and the realization that because of incomplete knowledge one may make a choice which has harmful consequences is called existential anxiety. Mental illness can be defined (Termerlin, 1963) as a futile attempt to evade the responsibility of choosing and acting in spite of this existential anxiety.

     Glasser, in his excellent book Reality Therapy (1965) writes: “Responsibility, a concept basic to Reality Therapy, is here defined as the ability to fulfill one’s needs and to do so in a way that does not deprive others of the ability to fulfill their needs.” (p. 31) The last portion of this definition follows from the understanding that in order to satisfy his own needs, a human being must be involved with other human beings. Glasser’s definition of responsibility is essentially identical to the definition of freedom as the ability to actualize inherent purposes and goals. Freedom and responsibility are two fundamentally inseparable aspects of behavior.


     Since man does participate as a determinant in our own future, it is not valid to say, as many neurotics do, “Since everything is determined, there is nothing that I can do.” To say this is to deny the inner determinants of behavior, on the grounds that all things are determined, which is contradictory. Thus, while determinism is often used as an excuse for doing nothing, determinism actually provides the basis for the power of the individual to influence his own future. The fundamental goal of therapy is to help a client realize that although his past behavior was determined, his knowledge of those determinants and his knowledge of the ineffective, self-defeating nature of his present behavior are also determinants which give the patient the power to change. The actual creation of this understanding in a client is a practical matter that may be achieved in many ways, each of which may require specific prerequisites. Since it takes work to change habits, and neurotic behavior has adaptive aspects, particularly in manipulating other people, the client may not want to change even when he realizes that it is possible. This implicit decision can also be pointed out, and the reasons for it can be discussed and often modified.

     The fundamental thesis of this paper is that the freedom to act and change in purposeful ways is real, and is based on deterministic knowledge. The most gratifying confirmation of this thesis is the widespread finding that simply stating it to a person in unequivocal terms often results in significant therapeutic progress. Drug addicts have a notoriously poor prognosis, yet Synanon (Yablonsky, 1965) has had considerable success through a massive direct application of this thesis. Each member is vividly and continually reminded that addictive behavior is stupid and self-destructive. Older members concretely demonstrate that change is possible and desirable, the Synanon “games” effectively prevent evasion of these truths, and they help members to change in specific ways. Chronic psychotics also have a very bad prognosis, yet Glasser (1965) gives a vivid and convincing account of the transformation of a chronic ward after it was simply made clear to the patients that they were capable of responsible, self-directed behavior and that irresponsible and manipulative behavior would not be tolerated.

     The manipulative and evasive nature of neurotic behavior has long been recognized, as well as the therapeutic consequence of refusing to be manipulated (provided the patient cannot or will not escape this confrontation). Studies like Glasser’s and many others, particularly those of the Mental Research Institute (Haley, 1963; Watzlawick, 1964) emphasize the adaptiveness of the strategy of being psychotic and irresponsible. Despite its obvious disadvantages, being “crazy” is sensible when a person is trapped in a situation in which rational behavior is punished, but crazy behavior is excused. The problem is not to try to change the patient’s blood chemistry or probe into his past, but simply to convey to him that the rules have changed, and that the new rules are better and well worth the difficulties of learning them.

     Another confirmation is the finding (Gatch and Termerlin, 1965) that Existential Therapists and Freudian Analysts behave similarly despite their apparently opposing theoretical views of freedom. Both consider the past to be fully determined, and both assert to the patient that he is free to choose in the future. That this kind of freedom is based on knowledge of determinants was shown by a study (Rogers, Kell and McNeil, 1948) which found that the degree of realistic understanding of themselves and their environment possessed by delinquents was by far the best predictor of later healthy adjustment, despite other contraindications. This thesis has long been explicit in Rogers’ orientation and implicit in his technique, which emphatically states that the individual is free to decide and choose. “We have established by external control, conditions which we predict will be followed by internal control by the individual, in pursuit of internally chosen goals (1961, p. 397).”

Spontaneity and Health

     Belief in an indeterministic basis of freedom implies that spontaneity and creativity must be random events, while actually they are expressions of highly complex, responsive, adaptive behavior. Although such behavior may be free of the determinants of social or cognitive rules, if it is really spontaneous or creative it must be determined by, and appropriate to, the demands and criteria implicit in the materials and their context. This kind of behavior is dependent upon sensitivity to the characteristics of the situation and the ability to flexibly rearrange them in order to serve the creator’s purposes. Since such healthy integrated behavior is more complexly determined, it is more variable and less predictable or manipulable than rigid, unhealthy behavior. Healthy behavior has much in common with that of the Zen Master who always acts in response to all aspects of the present. Because he acts in accord with the nature of events, he knows when and how to act or not act, and his behavior displays the effortless “going with the grain” exemplified by ju jitsu, “the yielding art” which responds to an attack with a minimum effort applied in the simplest way. The healthy human being is neither a pawn of external forces nor a totally independent agent, but a significant, self-conscious participant in the determination of events.

     Although the basis of this paper is a mechanical determinism, the knowledge that I am a knowing, thinking, feeling, acting participant in a cosmic scheme about which I know little brings me close to a mystic position that many might call religious. I am freed from senseless regret over the past which could not have been otherwise, and I am free to act in the present for the sake of the future. When I see a silver tree, quivering in breeze and sunlight, it is not less beautiful for my knowledge of energy, enzymes and evolution. My delight is augmented by my pleasure in the reflection that my knowledge, my pleasure, and my reflection are also products of self-referring deterministic forces. The tree is still beautiful, and I still enjoy the taste of chocolate cake.

     Even if the hypothesis of universal strict determinism is not valid, we can only gain by attempting to broaden our knowledge of those events which can be described by deterministic laws, and applying those laws to improve our condition. In regards to lawful events, at least, freedom is gained by “The recognition of lawfulness and the consequent application of this knowledge of laws to the attainment of control over the environment and over ourselves. . . . The control of bondage rather than its impossible absence, the conscious mastering of determination rather than the unawareness of it, or the illusory escape from laws.” (Bunge, 1959, p. 182)

     “The truth shall make you free.”

     Note: (2003) In the 35 years since this article was written, it has been largely ignored, just as Charles Bray’s very similar arguments, published in 1841 (160 years ago) has been ignored. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles continue to be published which contain the same kind of epistemological errors described here.


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* This article was originally published in the Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. VII, No. 3, Fall, 1967