The Situationist

Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2009

Free Will Debate Image

We recently posted the fascinating video debate between Situationist Contributor John Bargh and Roy Baumeister regarding the study, meaning, and implications of free will.  That debate (which took place at the at the annual convention of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology last February in Tampa) has led to an illuminating exchange between Bargh and Baumeister that we’ll post in  parts on The Situationist.  Below you will find the first two pieces of that post-convention exchange (the first by Baumeister and the second by Bargh).

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Roy Baumeister & Kathleen Vohs, “Determinism Is Not Just Causality” (from Cultural Animal):

The recent debate on free will at SPSP led to the realization that some of the ostensible disagreement, and perhaps most of the surplus emotion swept along with it, stemmed from misunderstandings. Many psychologists say it is important to uphold determinism – yet they do not really know what determinism is.

Determinism is more than belief in causality. The defining feature of determinism is a belief in the inevitability of causality. The essence of determinism is that everything that happens is the only thing that could possibly happen (given the past) under those circumstances. The category of the possible and the category of the actual are exactly the same. If you knew everything about the world today and knew all the causal principles, you could calculate everything in the future and the past with 100% accuracy. To a determinist, the universe is just grinding along as a giant machine with no uncertainty whatsoever. The future and the past are both set in stone, so to speak. Check any textbook or handbook of philosophy.

Many psychologists defend determinism thinking that they are defending the notion of causality itself. They think, science studies causes, and if we abandon causation, we cannot do science. But these fears are irrelevant. Everyone believes in causes. The important difference is between probabilistic causation and deterministic causation.

Determinism might or might not be correct. Determinism is impossible to prove or disprove. It directly contradicts the everyday experience of making choices and having multiple options, but everyday experience could be mistaken. In a similar vein, belief in divine or supernatural forces is possibly true, despite inconsistency with daily experience.

We wish, however, to point out some of the mental gymnastics one must go through in order to practice psychological science while maintaining faith in determinism. Let us return for a moment to choice, which has been an important topic of study in social psychology for decades. To a determinist, there is no such thing as actual choice, in the sense of having more than one possible option and making a selection that makes one option come true and makes the others cease to be possible. To a determinist, choice (in this sense) is an illusion, because only one outcome is possible all along. You subjectively believe you might choose A or B or C, but this belief stems from your ignorance. Causal processes are in motion outside of your awareness that will lead inevitably to make you choose B. There was never a chance that you would actually choose A or C. Your belief that A, B, and C are all possible is a mistake; only B is actually possible.

Statistical probability presents a difficult challenge to determinists. The notion of probability entails that different outcomes are possible, which violates the central point of determinism. To a determinist, there are no probabilities in reality. Again, the determinist must say that the seeming indeterminacy simply reflects our ignorance. For example, suppose that when you flip a coin, the outcome is 100% inevitable once the coin is spinning through the air, given the physics of angular momentum, distance to the ground, and so forth. You simply do not know whether it will be heads or tails, so it seems indeterminate to you. The uncertainty is only in your mind.

Notice, however, that this is not how we talk about statistics in our textbooks, courses, and journal articles. We discuss the probability of an event occurring (e.g., by chance), not the gaps in our knowledge. In determinism there is no such thing as chance. To be true to faith in determinism, it would be necessary to alter the way we think about and discuss probabilities and perhaps even to alter the way we use them. (We apologize to determinists for using the word “perhaps,” which is itself incompatible with determinism.)

Counterfactual thinking is also incompatible with determinism. It is silly to think “If I had not said those things, we could have avoided the argument” if everything that happened was inevitable. To a determinist, people may think such things, indeed cannot avoid thinking them. Technically, such thoughts might be regarded as sound arguments from false premises. What the person said caused the argument, and so if the person had said something different, the argument might not have happened – but the person could not possibly have said something different, so the entire counterfactual thought process is an idle exercise in futility.

Laypersons often confuse determinism with fatalism, but this is a mistake. Fatalism means that the outcome would have been the same regardless of what you did. To a determinist, the outcome stemmed from what you did, and if you had acted differently, the outcome would have been different. (But, again, you could not possibly have acted differently.)

Some researchers say psychologists should believe in determinism in order to be like so-called real scientists. We believe this is also mistaken. Many natural scientists see the physical world as probabilistic, not deterministic. Quantum indeterminacy would entail that determinism is wrong, by definition. Indeed, as far as we know, there is no proof that there is any deterministic causation anywhere, in the sense that any event is 100% inevitable. Obviously, some causal events have extremely high probabilities, having been demonstrated over and over. But there is no way of knowing whether it is merely well above 99% or it is actually 100%.

The so-called “hidden variables” argument may paradoxically allow determinism to survive in psychology even if it becomes untenable in physics. Here is the issue. If we know everything (mass, velocity, etc.) about a tiny particle, we can predict with certainty where it will go. Every so often, empirical observation shows that it fails to go there. Is this because nature is indeterminate? Or is it because there are hidden variables affecting it, other than the variables we know?

In psychology it is easy to always assume hidden variables when a person’s behavior does not conform to predictions, because there are endless additional things that possibly could be known about someone. But with a tiny subatomic particle, there is not much else that could be known, and indeed the set of variables known to physics does not have any room for mysterious other variables.

In conclusion, we think it is possible to maintain a belief in determinism, but it should not be obligatory for psychologists. In fact, psychologists who retain a faith in determinism must keep this an abstract belief and violate it in practice: They must act as if people really make choices, as if multiple possibilities exist for future life, and as if statistical probabilities refer to different possible events. Determinism is not viable in practice but is an elegant theory that people may find appealing as an abstract article of faith. The main alternative to it is a probabilistic universe, in which multiple futures are really possible and causes operate by changing the odds that something will happen rather than guaranteeing it.

* * *

DeterminismJohn Bargh & Brian Earp, “The Will is Caused, not ‘Free'” (from The Natural Unconscious):

We welcome the opportunity to summarize our main points from the SPSP debate; first though we will respond to the additional arguments by Baumeister and Vohs in this issue concerning determinism and causality. We see no problem with the assertions that psychologists need not be strict determinists to practice their science, and that determinism and causality are not the same thing. However, neither of these points is relevant to the basic question of free will. The ‘free’ in free will means freedom from causation, either by external forces (in the political sense of the term) or internal ones (in the psychological sense); and in our view it is just as problematic to claim that the will is uncaused as it is to argue it is not determined.

Free will may be defined as an agent’s ability to act on the world by its own volition, independently of purely physical (as opposed to metaphysical) causes and prior states of the world. The folk notion of free will is laden with the concept of a soul, a non-physical, unfettered, internal source of choice-making-in other words, an uncaused causer. “The soul” may have gone out of fashion, and “the mind” taken over many of its functions and connotations, but the intuitive notion of free will has stayed much the same: there is something inside each of us that allows us to make “real” choices–choices that even an omnipotent being, one who knew every environmental influence, and every physical fact leading up to the choice-making event, could not foretell with perfect confidence and accuracy. Determinism, if it were true, would indeed rule out this sort of free will, or shunt it into the realm of total redundancy. But indeterminism (of whatever flavor) isn’t any kinder to the notion. Just because some event is not strictly determined by prior physical data doesn’t mean it is caused by a free will. It may be simply indeterminately, probabilistically, or (to whatever degree) “randomly” caused by prior physical data. (If one wishes nonetheless to use the existence of error variance as evidence for the existence of free will, we can only point out that our business as scientists is to strive to reduce this unexplained variance by replacing it with explanation. Calling it ‘free will’ and walking away satisfied rather misses the point.)

But let us assume that there is a free, internal source of control that guides our behavior and is ultimately responsible for ‘real’ choices. To attribute human behavior to this mystical source is to place one’s bets on an increasingly shrinking sphere. The project of social psychology, after all, has been to identify (a) external-to-the-individual causes of judgment, motivation, and behavior, such as situational influences, and (b) internal-to-the-individual causes, which research has shown increasingly to operate outside of awareness and conscious intention-not “freely chosen” in any sense of the term. Are there some human behaviors that are possible only if free will exists and is a true causal source of action? There may be. But let’s not give up on the search for non-mystical causes just yet.

This brings us to an area of agreement revealed in the debate: that a belief in free will is important for human strivings. People cherish their sense of control over the world and their own behavior. In the debate, we noted recent empirical articles by Vohs and by Baumeister showing negative consequences (cheating, aggression) of informing participants that free will does not exist. Our response to these ‘new’ articles is that our field revealed the existence of such positive illusions decades ago, and we already know how essential they are to normal functioning. Clearly it is motivating for each of us to believe we are better than average, that bad things happen to other people, not ourselves, and that we have free-agentic control over our own judgments and behavior — just as it is comforting to believe in a benevolent God and justice for all in an afterlife. But the benefits of believing in free will are irrelevant to the actual existence of free will. A positive illusion, no matter how functional and comforting, is still an illusion.

And we must caution against drawing conclusions from such research findings (implicitly or explicitly) that we should either (a) not make findings against the existence of free will known to the public or (b) stop doing such research altogether. The belief in personal free will is a deeply rooted aspect of human phenomenal experience, and is so powerful that even those who do not subscribe to it intellectually still feel it in their personal lives as much as everyone else. It is not uncommon for one’s first-person experience to be at odds with physical reality: 500 years after Copernicus we still see a morning sunrise, not the earth (and ourselves) tilting towards the sun, even though we know better scientifically. As Dan Wegner, Paul Bloom, Dan Dennett, and others have argued, there are strong natural supports for the belief in supernatural entities, just as there are for free will — and sunrises too, for that matter. And if, as countless recent surveys show, the prodigious evidence in favor of evolutionary theory accumulated over the past 150 years has done little to erode the popular belief in a creator-god, then we can rest assured that the relatively nascent research on unconscious causes of motivation, judgment, and behavior will not result in anarchy or the collapse of social norms and moral behavior.

We should also not forget past social psychological research demonstrating that the belief in personal free will is selective: people routinely make self-serving attributions about the causes of their behavior. We take credit for the positive things we do (free will), but not for our misdeeds and failures ( “I had no choice”, “I was abused as a child”, “I was angry”). This suggests to us that much of the emotion surrounding the issue of free will is not about freedom per se but about self-esteem maintenance. We take personal pride in our ancestors, our blue eyes or rich brown skin, our height or birthday or name (as in the name-letter effect)-none of which we chose or had any control over. Accordingly, we analyzed hundreds of individuals’ spontaneous self-descriptions, and indeed 34% of their first-to-mind completions to the stem “I am _____” were such non-chosen aspects of self. It seems that people do not possess a consistent belief in free will so much as they strongly wish to take credit for the good things they are and do (regardless of whether they caused them), and to distance themselves from the bad things (even if they caused them). Evidently, the belief in free will is not principled, but socially strategic in nature.

So what, then, if one’s will is not ‘free’ of internal causation? It is still your will and my will and each is unique: a confluence of genetic heritage, early absorption of local cultural norms and values, and particular individual life experiences. After all, one can claim personal ownership of one’s will just as much as one claims ownership of one’s name, eye color, and birthday, and be as proud of one’s will and its products as one is proud of the exploits of great-great-Grandma the pioneer, even though one’s ‘free will’ played no role in any of these.

* * *

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”Interview of Eric Kandel,” and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

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9 Responses to “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II”

  1. NP said

    I can’t help but find Bargh and Earp’s account more convincing. If we accept the discoveries of quantum mechanics, I don’t see how we can consider the world deterministic. But at the same time, I don’t think that means there is such a thing as free will. So I guess I would consider myself a causalist non-determinist, which I believe is Bargh and Earp’s position as well. That being said, I don’t see any evidence for randomness or chance outside of quantum uncertainty.

    Thus, I’m not sure I get the importance of Baumeister and Vohs’ point that scientists are wrong in talking about the “chances” that some event happens. At least when I learned statistics at Stanford, it was always understood that the “error” term represented hidden or unknown variables, not some mystical “chance” or “probability” force. True, language may not always represent it this way, even in highly technical journals, but I’m pretty sure the theory behind it is largely understood by everyone involved to involve hidden variables.

  2. A said

    Who are these people? Go back to the 1800’s when people actually had “wills” that could or could not be “free”… You might as well be debating about the salvation of christian souls. Common people! Why don’t you spend some time thinking about how we can achieve social justice…

  3. NP said

    A, I think this discussion has more to do with social justice than you realize.

  4. Carl Shulman said

    “If we accept the discoveries of quantum mechanics, I don’t see how we can consider the world deterministic.”

    Easily?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-worlds_interpretation

    Here’s a nice blog explanation:

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/r5/the_quantum_physics_sequence/

    Also, Baumeister and Vohs are wrong about counterfactual reasoning being incompatible with determinism. See Judea Pearl’s work:

    http://bayes.cs.ucla.edu/IJCAI99/ijcai-99.pdf

  5. [...] Situationist posts, see “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate — Part I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The [...]

  6. [...] here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Your Brain and Morality,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – [...]

  7. [...] Dennett on our Interior Situation,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of [...]

  8. Doly said

    This whole debate assumes that “causality” has a simple meaning. As soon as you think about it, it becomes clear that it isn’t that simple. In its basic, deterministic meaning, it means “every time that A happens, B happens after that”. Nondeterministic causality is “when A happens, outcomes B1, B2, etc. happen with probabilities P1, P2, etc.” That’s all well and good when the chain of causation is short. When you have a long chain of causation, with a few nondeterministic causes thrown in, it all becomes “When A happens, it’s impossible to tell if or how the outcome after this long chain will be affected.” I see very little difference between that, and saying that the outcome is uncaused. Knowing that the brain is an incredibly complex system and the chains of causation must be really long and complex, the surprising thing is that sometimes, we can still say something useful and valid about the possible outcomes of A.

  9. Reblogged this on Naive Scientist and commented:
    Give it to psychologists to be the best philosophers.

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