Sigmund Freud, Determinism and Free Will

Sigmund Freud is considered as the founder of the psychoanalytic tradition in the field of psychology. As an emerging science during his time, psychological theories had been developed from various philosophical schools of thought. Psychology thus, may appropriately be considered as a brainchild of philosophy. Due to the aforementioned reasons, psychology inherited characteristics that are constitutive of what philosophy and the philosophical enterprise are. Psychology inherited among many other things, the characteristic of being both metaphysical and speculative; approaches that are distinctly attributed to the method of doing philosophy.

The status of the Nineteenth Century science however, proved to be crucial in the development of Freud’s own thought. As a thinker, Freud’s contributions focused on the core notions of the “mind, its tripartite structure” and the theory of the “unconscious”. Influenced by Helmholtz’s discovery of the “principle of conservation of energy”, the formulation of which is that in any given physical system, the total amount of energy is always constant, and Ernst Brucke’s idea that living organisms such as human beings, by virtue of being energy-systems are not excluded from the application of the aforementioned principle, Freud was able to develop his theories of the mind and the unconscious with the contention that he has found a way of going about psychology “scientifically”.

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What is Freud’s theory of the mind and its tripartite structure? It is interesting to take note of the fact that the tripartite view with regards to the soul is a view held by people even in the ancient times. As a matter of fact, the Greek philosopher Plato had the same view albeit, there are nuances that must be considered in this interpretation. In his book Ten Theories of Human Nature, Stevenson claims that there are certain “parallelisms” with regards to Plato’s account of the soul to Freud’s theory of the human psyche. Stevenson writes: “The Id, like Plato’s Appetite, is made up of the instinctual drives that seek immediate satisfaction; the Ego is not exactly parallel to Plato’s Reason, but it does have the function of dealing with the real world and mediating in the relationship of the world and the Id; the Superego contains the conscience and the social models absorbed as a child” (Stevenson 74).

On a deeper analysis, we can plausibly contend that Freud’s division of the human psyche into the Id, Ego and the Superego is in itself a division that is highly “metaphysical” which stands in direct opposition to one that is “empirical”. However, what is exceptionally brilliant in Freud is the fact that he was able to make his metaphysical assumptions to have a strong hold and to bear an imprint in the minds of the scientists thereby, consequently leading to the idea that his theory of the mind can be understood within the schema of scientific inquiry.

The universe is a machine. This metaphor is actually an attempt to explain phenomena by positing different kinds of laws that govern the universe. The universe and the bodies within it are governed by physical and mechanical laws, for instance. A more thought-provoking aspect of this metaphor however, has something to do with the fundamental questions regarding the issues regarding “determinism” and the concept of “free will”. The mechanistic model of the universe and the formulations in and through which we appropriate and understand phenomena for ourselves depicts a scenario that everything in the universe is determined including thinking and behavior of human beings. Thinking is in itself a mechanistic procedure which can be explained by the firing of neurons in the brain and by taking into consideration the psychological or mental states that a person has. As Freud sees it, it makes sense to say that a person’s action is for instance, determined and is caused by pre-existing psychological or mental states.

The valuable contribution then of Freud is the fact that he was able to integrate his theory of the mind into the schema of science. He also made extensive use of the concept of “causality”. Causality, as a scientific principle may be defined as “the operation of cause and effect”. Causes and effects are important categories or markers in scientific inquiry. In psychoanalysis for instance, the primordial assumption is that certain neuroses or abnormal behaviors are caused by “repressed” psychological or mental states. Freud, to be more particular, traces the causes of these neuroses or abnormal behaviors to “traumatic experiences” that a particular person has experienced in his or her past life. These things might be concealed from the individual, meaning, the individual does not have the knowledge that he or she has had such traumatic experiences or that he or she has had repressed emotions. The person may also not be aware that of a “thought” or a “desire” that has long been there, that has long been present in his or her psyche.

This brings us to Freud’s theory of the “unconscious”. What is the unconscious? The theory of the unconscious is also a theory patterned from the schema of science and hence, is also characterized as strictly deterministic. When we speak of the mind, we have the tendency to assume that what we are talking about is that which we use when we think of our thoughts. We assume that there are only “conscious mental states” and “conscious mental processes” and we identify them with the “mind”. Freud sees it in a different way. The usual analogy used to explain this is the analogy between the mind and an iceberg. The mind is like an iceberg; it has parts that can be seen and parts that cannot be seen. The mind or the human psyche, for Freud has two parts; the conscious and the unconscious.

On a personal note, the strength of Freud’s theory of the mind and the unconscious is the fact that they are deterministic. This puts them at par with the other sciences albeit we must take into consideration that the object of study of the empirical sciences is different from the object of study of the social sciences such as psychology. Freud’s groundwork on psychology and his attempt to integrate it with the methodology of science paved the way for doing psychology scientifically. Succeeding psychologists have benefited enormously from the scientific way of doing psychology nowadays. Persons afflicted with psychological disorders are now assured of a better and more humane treatment. Aside from these, Freud’s theory illuminates some of the dark areas of our being human. One such example is our tendency to bury deep in our minds certain desires, things or dreams that we want to pursue because most of us are afraid to take risks. Freud makes us see that no matter how much we try to bury these things deep in our minds, they will creep out eventually and will make manifest on us in different ways. There is no escape from these desires.

However, the implications of the theory are disturbing. As stated on the earlier part of this essay, the theory, being based on the scientific model, leads to the idea that everything is determined, that everything is governed by the same scientific and mechanistic laws. This idea also breeds another idea; that human actions, the basis of which is capacity for thought, is determined. Human beings are not free as most of us would like to believe. What we call freedom is merely illusory. In the same vein, what we call free will is also an illusion; a figment of the imagination, a mere hope that is divorced from reality.

Philosophy, as I see it, is all about setting the limits. It is about “being in control”. This may be observed even in the ancient Greeks’ treatment of philosophy and rationality. The entity that sets the limits, that which is in control is none other than the faculty of reason. Due to this, it is indeed difficult to accept that what Freud says is true. The mere presence of unconscious mental states and mental processes suggest that there are considerably significant aspects of our lives, behaviors and thoughts that are unknown and hidden to us. The source of the “uneasiness” as I reckon it is the fact that if the theory is true, then there are things about ourselves and about our actions that are beyond our control.