An emergent tension at the interface between science and religion is how to deal with determinism because science often involves deterministic causal laws and religion involves agentic human experiences. Psychology would seem to be a discipline that can offer some insight into this tension because, as I show below, it deals with the same tension.

Martin and his colleagues begin Psychology and the Question of Agency by saying that “probably no concept is as central to psychology and its aspirations, yet as poorly articulated within psychology, as that of human agency.”J. Martin, J. Sugarman, and J. Thompson, Psychology and the Question of Agency (New York, NY: SUNY, 2003), 1. They note that psychology simultaneously pursues an agenda modeled after the hard science and so seeks determinist explanations for human phenomena. They were writing about determinism in psychology and raised one of the central tensions that runs throughout the history of psychology: an attempt to study humans in a determinist fashion while still enabling human agency. The contribution to the discussion of determinism is not in what psychologists claim about agency, but in the elitist way that they retain it for themselves as researchers while claiming humans are determinate phenomena.

Determinism Then and Now

Before elaborating my case, however, it is important to note how the discipline did not start from a coherent position on determinism. The tension between determinism and agency preoccupied William James.William James, The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983). Original publication: 1890. His foundational Principles of Psychology was the first textbook in psychology and he spent considerable time developing his account of human habits. Human habits emerge when any sequence of behavior tends to repeat itself in a way that is completely automatic. Whether through social training or genetic inheritance, James noticed that much of human psychology is determined. He struggled with his own conclusion, however, and noted in his writings on religion that there is frustration when scientists explain human phenomena like religious experience as no more than a “nothing-but.”William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Penguin, 1982). Original publication: 1902. Even in Principles, he writes about how humans are also marked by indeterminacy due to a conscious selecting agency.Today, psychology holds tightly to a form of determinism that comes from the natural sciences and much of this position has to do with the way psychology developed as a discipline. Another founder of psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, is credited with forming the first psychological laboratory that attempted to provide a determinate science uncovering the structure of experience. He also wrote in his Völkerpsychologie that there are aspects of human life that seem to escape deterministic naturalism.Wilhelm Wundt, Outlines of Psychology (St. Claires Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, 1902). Both founders seem to have initiated a discipline steeped in a tension: humans are both determined and agentic. They set the groundwork for a fractured discipline without resolution on the topic of agency.

Today, psychology holds tightly to a form of determinism that comes from the natural sciences and much of this position has to do with the way psychology developed as a discipline. North American psychology grasped tightly onto natural science that bypasses the more mysterious indeterminate questions of agency raised by James and Wundt. Behaviorist John Watson expressed frustration with what he thought of as introspective fantasy when it came to exploring the mind.See M. Hunt The Story of Psychology (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2007). This tradition was unashamedly deterministic and manifested in B. F. Skinner’s famous work that outlined the science of psychology as the study of the reward and punishment of behavior. His Beyond Freedom and Dignity specifically degraded notions like human agency, but his attempt at fictional writing produced a manifesto that signaled an important shift in the way that the discipline of psychology addressed determinist science and its tension with agency.B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1971). Walden Two was a fictional account of a commune that engineered humans on the basis of behaviorist principles.B. F. Skinner, Walden Two (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2005). Originally published: 1948. Behaviorism initiated psychology’s commitment to the determinism of naturalist hard sciences while granting the psychologists agency to use principles of behavior to manipulate and engineer the welfare of others. This set the template for modern psychology today that treats people as determinate phenomena while science offers agency for the privileged researcher.

Agency and Associations

Psychological science demonstrated its utility in World War II as a science that can be used to distinguish, rank, and select individuals. Managing the tension between determinism and agency through granting agency to the experts remained constant even through what came to be called theThe result was an expansion of how psychologists could consider humans determinate phenomena while themselves holding onto an exemption by claiming privilege from their position of expertise. “cognitive revolution.”B. Baars, The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 1986). Psychologists were discontent with the behaviorists who simply ruled mental activity as being out of bounds because it could not be strictly observed. Boden notes that the advent of computers in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s granted psychologists a way to reclaim some of the notions that were bypassed by behaviorists.M. Boden Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006). Computers operate on the basis of binary logic where programs were coded in terms of 0s and 1s, which helped psychologists because neurons generally function by a similar principle: a neuron either fires or doesn’t fire. Just like binary code stores programs in a computer, neurons store programs that amount to mind. Psychology shifted to study the mental operating principles and so recovered a way to study mental predicates with dignity. Psychology was still about deterministic laws but these laws were now approaching important topics traditionally connected to human agency. Notions like attitudes, will, desire, and so on became fair game for study and psychologists expanded their scope of expertise with regard to engineering human behavior. Bruner notes that the result was an expansion of how psychologists could consider humans determinate phenomena while themselves holding onto an exemption by claiming privilege from their position of expertise.J. Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

This approach is modified slightly by the development of psychology as a professional discipline that focused on its engagement less with scientists and more with popular culture.O. Madsen, The Therapeutic Turn (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014). Professional associations such as the American Psychological Association and its European counterparts began a campaign articulating what psychologists can do for society and the major contribution was the industry of psychological services, of which therapy became primary. Psychologists took the ethic of drawing on deterministic principles into therapy in order to help people. Cognitive-behavioral therapy that draws on the science of cognitive psychology birthed in the cognitive revolution is predicated on using scientific principles administered by psychologists who are the experts. Madsen notes that this turn further cemented the role of experts on others’ behavior even though it appeared to elevate the agency side of the agency-determinism tension.Ibid.

Humanism, Neuroscience, and Social Constructionists

The growth of psychotherapy and humanism, however, would seem to contradict my claims, because these approaches represented a tremendous shift away from determinism. This return to agency reached a pinnacle with the emergence of Humanistic Psychology touted by authors such as Carl Rogers, who argued that the sole job of a therapist was to facilitate client agency.Carl Rogers, A Way of Being (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1980). Abraham Maslow took the discussion even further by spelling out how meeting the basicDespite the Humanist Movement’s attempt to escape determinism, scientific psychology still holds tremendous influence and continues to privilege the researchers in an elitist manner. needs can allow for higher order needs to be met and eventually humans can be “self-actualized” in the sense that they can freely choose to follow their true selves, i.e., live in a state of pure undetermined agency.Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Floyd, VA: Sublime books, 2014). Maslow recognized that the deterministic quality of the natural sciences undermines human agency and, in his work on religion, argued for a redefinition of science that included spiritual values.Abraham Maslow Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences (New York, NY: Penguin, 1994).

Despite the Humanist Movement’s attempt to escape determinism, scientific psychology still holds tremendous influence and continues to privilege the researchers in an elitist manner. The tension between agency and determinism continues to be seemingly resolved by granting researchers agency over the determined masses. In social psychology, for example, the tension between determinism and agency emerges. Researchers in the social psychology of prejudice and discrimination point out, for example, that humans seem to have deterministic mental processes that cause one to favor one’s ingroup over other groups.E.g., M. Sherif, O. Harvey, and B. White, The Robber’s Cave Experiment (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988). A famous study by Bargh et al. demonstrated the effect of priming where just unscrambling mixed up sentences related to a geriatric population unconsciously influenced participants to walk slower.J. Bargh, M. Chen, and L. Burrows, “Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71 (1998), 230-244. This work led to the claim that much of our behavior is automatic and determined in subconscious programming. Researchers point out that humans can still activate agentic control over their own prejudiced tendencies, but the research overwhelmingly focusses on determinate approaches to humans that researchers can escape because they are enlightened. A theory of human agency has not really emerged in social psychology.

Cognitive psychology and related fields of neuroscience appear to display the same pattern. For example, in the cognitive science of religion, researchers write about the subconscious mental processes that determine the retention and transmission of religious concepts. This approach argues that the human mind operates on the basis of a massive number of mental programs. A religious concept is retained if it is minimally counterintuitive in the sense that it generally fits what our mental programs are habituated to process but violates one or two expectations.J. Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011). The degree of counterintuitive properties determines if a religious concept is retained. This work also draws on Kahneman’s notion of “System One” and “System Two” classification of mental processes that raises the possibility of agency. System one thinking denotes the immediate mental processes that are subconscious and determinate.D. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York, NY: Anchor, 2013). This fast heuristic mode of automaticity is contrasted to system two thinking that denotes conscious agentic thinking. These sorts of ideas have led authors to claim that religious thinking happens when we only engage automatic deterministic programs and such thinking is suppressed when we engage in careful reflective thoughts like those of scientists.W. Gervais and A. Norenzayan, “Analytic Thinking Promotes Disbelief,” Science, 336 (2012), 493-496. Evolutionary psychologists have taken the controversial position that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.”J. Tooby and L. Cosmides, “The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” in J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby (eds.) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 19–136.. This approach says that we have many deterministic mental operations that evolved during the Pleistocene era to solve problems of that era. What we think are indicators of human agency are actually epiphenomena of this Stone Age cognitive processes. Regardless, the tension between determinism and agency is seemingly resolved by pointing out that scientists are the enlightened ones that can activate agentic control.

What does this pattern mean in terms of addressing determinism? There are researchers who would call themselves cultural psychologists or social constructionists that sometimes take extreme positions for human agency by critiquing the attempts at scientific praxis in psychology.R. Shweder, Thinking through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). For example, Gergen and the social constructionists eschewed the determinism in natural science to support the claim that humans actively constitute what they know about psychology.K. Gergen, “Agency: Social Construction and Relational Action,” Theory and Psychology, 9.1 (1999), 113–115. Such authors have attempted to call for sophisticated forms of science that are rigorous yet do not rely on positivist forms of determinism. They point to this pattern in psychology as a cautionary story of how scientific hubris can cause researchers to bypass human phenomena when too much faith is placed in determinism. This work inspires a call for indeterminate sciences that can adequately handle the way that knowledge claims can be grounded in a milieu and so avoid the mistakes that well-meaning sciences have made in the past (e.g. eugenics programs, colonial systems). It is easy to advocate for a determinist view of the universe when one is lucky enough to be exempt from determinist laws. The forgoing raises a challenge to grapple with how agency is addressed with an eye to critical self-reflexivity.