Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


50th Annual Convention; Philadelphia, PA; 2024

Event Details

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Panel #479
CE Offered: PSY
The Free Will -- Determinism Debate in Contemporary Science and Society: Analyses and Discussion of the Latest (Written) Words
Monday, May 27, 2024
12:00 PM–12:50 PM
Convention Center, 200 Level, 202 AB
Area: PCH/CSS; Domain: Theory
CE Instructor: Richard F. Rakos, Ph.D.
Chair: Traci M. Cihon (Behaviorists for Social Responsibility)
RICHARD F. RAKOS (Cleveland State University)
RUTH ANNE REHFELDT (The Chicago School)
PETER R. KILLEEN (Arizona State University)

For thousands of years philosophers and scientists have debated whether humans have free will – are the genuine authors of their actions – or whether their actions are determined by environmental factors (Kane, 2002). Both philosophers and scientists fall into one of three categories in these debates: hard determinists (incompatibalists, like Skinner [e.g., 1971]), soft determinists (compatibilists, who try to combine agency and determinism), and libertarian free willers (cf., Rakos, 2004). This debate has great social and cultural importance when we recognize that a libertarian notion of human agency is the “Core Conception” (Smilansky, 2002) – the underlying philosophical, religious, and legal tenet – upon which Western society rests (Kane, 2002). The case for determinism gained strength from the classic Libet et al. (1983) study that found the neurological onset of a motor response preceded conscious intention to act. Over the past 40 years, scientific investigation of this debate has continued with increased sophistication. Now, two hot-off-the press books by eminent scientists arrive at different conclusions: “Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will” by Robert M. Sapolsky and “Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will” by Kevin J. Mitchell. The arguments and conclusions advanced in the two books will be summarized, critiqued, compared, and discussed by the panelists and then the audience. The discussion will relate the two books to contemporary behavior analytic concepts like relational frame theory and contextual behavioral science (Fryling et al., 2020) and raise pressing social and cultural implications (e.g., artificial intelligence, promoting an equitable and sustainable world; cf., MacAskill, 2022). References Fryling, M., Rehfeldt, R. A., Tarbox, J., & Hayes, L. J. (Eds.). (2020). Applied behavior analysis of language and cognition: Core concepts and principles for practitioners. New Harbinger Publications. Kane, R. (Ed.) (2002). Free will. Oxford. Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. E., & Pearl, D. (1983). Time of conscious intention to actin relation to onset of cerebral activity [readiness potential]: The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 102(3), 192-224. MacAskill, W. (2022). What we owe the future. Basic Books. Mitchell, K. J. (2023). Free agents: How evolution gave us free will. Princeton University Press. Rakos, R. F. (2004). The belief in free will as a biological adaptation: Thinking inside and outside the behavior analytic box. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 2004(5), 95-103. Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. Bantam. Sapolsky, R. M. (2023). Determined: A science of life without free will. Penguin Press. Smilansky, S. (2002). Free will and illusion. Oxford University Press.

Instruction Level: Basic
Target Audience:


Learning Objectives: At the conclusion of the presentation, participants will be able to: (1) demonstrate understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the core scientific arguments advanced by each book in arriving at its conclusion about human agency. (2) compare and contrast contemporary implications of each book for critical cultural issues (e.g., global justice, artificial intelligence). (3) apply contemporary behavior analytic concepts to the arguments made in each book. (4) generalize the arguments in the two books to theoretical issues such as whether artificial superintelligence that surpasses human intelligence, and acts in its own interests, has agency.



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