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Do We Have Free Will?: A Critical Analysis

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

What Will I Be Analysing?

Sappington, A. A. 1990, ‘Recent psychological approaches to the free will versus determinism controversy’, The Psychological Bulletin, vol. 108, no. 1, pp.19-29.



This article examined scientific approaches taken during the 20th century to resolve the free will versus determinism debate. The author depicted the flaws, successes and differences between hard determinism, soft determinism, libertarianism, conscious choice, beliefs about conscious control, volitional behaviour, and actual personal control.


Written for the journal, The Psychological Bulletin, this article contributed to multiple academic fields, The Humanistic Psychological Movement and the free will versus determinism debate. This article falls under the academic fields of Free Will and Psychology in Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Neuroscience in Philosophy of Cognitive Science.

The Psychological Bulletin was a monthly peer-reviewed academic journal that published evaluative and integrative research reviews and interpretations of issues in psychology. This article was written when The American Psychological Association owned The Psychological Bulletin. The American Psychological Association was a major advocate for The Humanistic Psychology Movement, which emerged during the 1950s. Humanistic Psychology emerged as a reaction against the Behaviourist and Psychoanalytic movements. The role of Humanistic Psychology was to emphasise the role of the individual. The Humanistic Period advocated Libertarianism and Soft Deterministic positions on free will. Liberalists supported the philosophy that random events in a world with many possible futures makes free will possible. Soft Determinists believed humans make conscious choices but are shaped by external factors. Humanists normally rejected hard determinism, which rejected free will.


Influences of those factors were shown through Sappington’s article since most of the theories he reviewed suggested humans have personal agency. Sappington also contributed to The Psychological Bulletin by introducing the most balanced approach to free will that was published by the journal. Formerly published articles addressed free will from a theological perspective.

Sappington’s article didn’t introduce new information to the free will controversy or Humanistic Psychology, but it could be used for educational purposes. The way he compiled and criticised scientific approaches to the free will versus determinism debate into one article could serve as a guide to how it has evolved during the 20th century. The paper also showed how humanistic psychologists have approached this topic in favour of free will and soft determinism.

Additionally, this revealed the flaws in Humanistic psychology such as personal biases and the ambiguity of their observations and evidence. This could play a significant part in educating society and help individuals develop opinions about this debate.

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The article began with a summary of what was discussed in this article. It was followed by a few paragraphs that discussed the free will versus determinism controversy and how that has been approached throughout the 20th century. It was followed by the subheadings: “Hard Determinism”, “Soft Determinism” and “Libertarianism” (Sappington 1990, p.1). This was followed by minor subheadings: “Hard Determinism”, “Soft Determinism”, “Soft Determinism”, “Libertarianism” and “Scientific Theories of Free Will” (Sappington 1990, pp.1-2). The author then discussed the scientific theories and major approaches taken to address the controversy as highlighted by the subheadings: “Carl Rogers’ Two- Viewpoint Approach, Zavalloni’s Self-Reflection (feedback control)”, “Joseph Rychlak’s Theory of the Telosponse”, “Tageson’s Three-Dimensional Developmental Model”, “The “Mentalist” Paradigm and Supervenient Control”, “Human Agency and Bandura’s Social Cognitive Model”, “Chaos”, “Free Will and the Unpredictability of Behaviour”, “Empirical Data Relevant to Theories of Free Will”, “Stated Intentions”, “Purposive Systems: The Work of William Powers”, “Volitional and Nonvolitional Influences on behaviour: The Work of George Howard and Data on Beliefs About Personal Control” (Sappington 1990, p.2-26). The conclusion was split up under the subheadings: “Implications of Data on Beliefs About Personal Control”, “Implications of Data on Conscious Choice and Goals”, “The Success of Theories of Free Will”, “Free Will, Conscious Choice, Volitional Behaviour and Personal Control as Scientific Concepts”, and “The Role of Free Will in Scientific Theories” (Sappington 1990, pp.26-28). The conclusion summarised these areas and considered the implications and successes of those approaches and theories.

The Case for Free Will


The author wrote in the form of an article using formal language and spoke in third person most of the paper, however, Sappington occasionally used personal pronouns or indecisive language in some of the sections. The indecisiveness compromised the author’s clarity. The use of personal pronouns wasn’t recommended to use in academic writing but wasn’t uncommon. Nonetheless, Sappington’s article appropriately corresponded to the prevailing style used in this field. This was evident by how Sappington provided summaries on major scientific approaches to free will. The theories Sappington researched was divided into sections that made his article easy to navigate. Thus, the way Sappington presented his research made his article appropriate for his intended audience.

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The article’s central argument was that theories of free will could be compatible with the scientific tasks of prediction and control. Its secondary argument was that free will was not a scientific construct in the same sense as a conscious choice, thus the free will controversy cannot be settled scientifically (Sappington 1990, p.1).


To prove that theories of free will can be compatible with the scientific tasks of prediction and control, Sappington addressed theories and approaches that relied on qualitative data such as observations, theories, hypothesis, experiments that studied human behaviour and conscious choices, interviews, predictions. He also included quotes and explained how various philosophers from the Deterministic and Libertarian schools of thought interpret scientific data. The subjective nature of the article's evidence left it open to misinterpretation and observer bias. As demonstrated by Sappington’s treatment of Sperry’s article Psychology's Mentalist Paradigm and the Religion/Science Tension, qualitative research was easily manipulated it into suggesting what the researcher wished to prove (Sperry 1988, 19-29).

When Sappington’s summary of The Mentalist Paradigm and Supervenient Control and Sperry’s article was compared, it revealed Sappington either had manipulated the evidence to fit his view or misunderstood Sperry’s article (Sappington 1990, p.22). For example, Sappington stated, “One of the most articulate recent arguments for free will is that presented by R. W. Sperry (Sperry 1988, p.1988).” This statement was inaccurate considering Sperry concluded that, “… a shift in science to a different and more valid form of causal determinism equally applicable in all the sciences, not just psychology”, which highlighted his belief in causal determinism, not free will as Sappington suggested (Sperry 1988, p.607). The way Sappington didn’t mention how Sperry’s theory supported determinism suggested that the author manipulated the evidence to make free will seem more valid. The author would have benefitted from acknowledging the author’s stance. Alternate evidence that could have used was how Sperry claimed although our actions are determined, “… primarily by emergent cognitive, subjective intentions of the conscious/unconscious mind gives us, freedom to will our actions as we wish is real…” (Sperry 1988, p.610).

Considering Sappington concluded that the free will paradox could be solved by theology, it would have been beneficial to discuss Sperry’s claim, “this philosophy (macro-determinism) is based on the neutrality, credibility, and universality of science and is relatively open and non-exclusive; thus, it can be expressed as a natural common denominator of human belief and can be translated to merge with other belief systems, including antireligious ideologies such as communism or secular humanism” (Sperry 1988, p.612). Consequently, this suggested that either Sappington’s knowledge on Sperry’s article was limited, changed the meaning so it would suit his Humanistic Psychologist view or showed the underlying issue of how interpretative and subjective qualitative research could be. Regardless of the answer, the author’s treatment of the evidence in this section undercut Sappington’s reliability.

On the other hand, the author successfully addressed other theories such as “Human Agency and Bandura’s Social Cognitive Model” (Sappington 1990, p.22). Sappington extensively supported his claims with quotes from Bandura's article Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura 1889, 175-1184). Furthermore, he commented on Libertarians such as Rychlak who was suspicious about Bandura's claim that his approach proved free will. The way this effectively provided the reader with a balanced perspective on Bandura’s theory suggested that Sappington's research was reliable in some sections of his article. Nonetheless, Sappington claimed Bandura’s conclusion differed from mediation versions of cognitive theory because of its stress on proactive control. Accordingly, the author would have benefited from explaining proactive control and feedback control since Bandura claimed human self-motivation relied on both. For instance, the quote, “Human self-motivation… requires both proactive control and reactive or feedback control. People initially motivate themselves through proactive control by setting themselves valued challenging standards that create a state of disequilibrium and then mobilising their effort on the basis of anticipatory estimation of what it would take to accomplish them. Feedback control comes into play in subsequent adjustments of effort to achieve desired results” would have made a suitable substitute to some of the quotes Bandura included (Bandura 1989, p.1180).


All the evidence used in this article played a relevant role in demonstrating Sappington’s argument, “… theories of free will can be compatible with the scientific tasks of prediction and control” (Sappington 1990, p.1). All the articles, approaches and observations he summarised played a role in demonstrating how scientists have approached the free will controversy.

The evidence Sappington presented was useful to the field for multiple reasons. The evidence itself and Sappington’s analysis demonstrated the advantages and disadvantages of qualitative research. For example, Sappington claimed that Sperry’s article supported free will although Sperry’s claimed it supported determinism (Sappington 1990, p.22). That suggested the data produced by qualitative research could be shaped by the researcher’s bias. The biases presented in the article also allowed those who study the historiography of psychology to see how humanistic psychologists have approached this debate in the 1990s. Additionally, his inclusion of quotes presented how professionals amongst different fields reacted to the presented theories. This demonstrated how philosophers, historians, psychologists, determinists, libertarians and neurobiologists collaborate to solve different controversies. This also suggested that free will was a debate that was explored in different professions. The way all of this was summarised in a single article made it suitable to be used for educational purposes. On the other hand, the article didn’t introduce new information towards the debate and drew unoriginal conclusions from the explored content. This renders the article's influence as insignificant towards the free will debate. Thus, the presented evidence was useful for educational reasons but it didn’t have a substantial impact on the psychological landscape.


The article’s issues with reliability severely compromised the impact this article could have over the free will versus determinism debate. Sappington’s evidence suggested that his personal bias had shaped the results in his article. This was clear by how he falsely claimed that Sperry’s research supported free will (Sappington 1990, p.22). Sappington’s claim spread false information about Sperry’s article (Sperry 1988). Additionally, most of the explored approaches supported liberalism and soft determinism views on free will. Only “Carl Roger’s Viewpoint Approach” was used to support hard determinism” (Sappington 1990, pp.20-21). The only use of statistical evidence was used to support the “Volitional and Nonvolitional influences on Behaviour: The work of George Howard section” (Sappington 1990, p.25). Considering that section supported soft determinism, this suggested the author favoured this position. Since Humanism focused on individual freedom, Sappington’s use of evidence suggested that his research was shaped by humanistic values.

Additionally, contradictory claims were made in Sappington’s article. For instance, it concludes that theology could solve the free will versus determinism debate without evidence throughout the article to build up to that conclusion (Sappington 1990, p.28). This made his conclusion unjustified and contradictory since the article didn’t mention theology until the conclusion. Consequently, the author’s treatment of his evidence undermined the reliability of his article, nonetheless his article was useful for educational purposes.


The conclusion was split up under the subheadings: “Implications of Data on Beliefs About Personal Control”, “Implications of Data on Conscious Choice and Goals”, “The Success of Theories of Free Will”, “Free Will, Conscious Choice, Volitional Behaviour and Personal Control as Scientific Concepts”, and “The Role of Free Will in Scientific Theories” (Sappington 1990, pp.26-28). The conclusion summarised those areas and considered the implications and successes of these approaches and theories. It ended by concluding that free will versus determinism issues is unlikely to be resolved with scientific data but can probably be solved by psychology or theology (Sappington 1990, p.28).

Reference List

Bandura, A. 1989, ‘Human agency in social cognitive theory’, The American Psychologist, vol. 44, no.1, pp. 175-1184.

Sappington, A. A. 1990, ‘Recent psychological approaches to the free will versus determinism controversy’, The Psychological Bulletin, vol. 108, no. 1, pp.19-29.

Sperry, R.W. 1988, ‘Psychology's mentalist paradigm and the religion/science tension’, The American psychologist, vol. 43, no.8, pp.19-29.

© 2017 Simran Singh

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