The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility. According to those who believe that free will and determinism are incompatible…it would mean that people are no more responsible for their actions than asteroids or planets. Anything would go
–Dennis Overbye, The New York Times (2007)
During the past few years the popular press has become increasingly interested in free will, agency, and responsibility, with stories appearing in mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, The Economist, Forbes Magazine, Wired, and FOX News. As psychologists continue to demystify the mind by uncovering the mechanisms that undergird human behavior, what was once an issue that fell mostly under the purview of philosophers and theologians has started to pique the curiosity of the public more generally. This interest is quite understandable. If free will provides the foundation for our traditional moral beliefs and practices, and its existence is incompatible with the gathering data from the so-called “sciences of the mind,” then free will isn’t just a topic fit for philosophers—it is a psychological, sociological, cultural, and policy issue as well. To the extent that scientific advancements undermine or threaten our traditional views about human agency, we ought to carefully consider what impact this might have on our moral and legal practices.
To get a sense for why some philosophers and psychologists are anxious when it comes to folk beliefs about free will and moral responsibility, consider the following extended quote from Francis Cricks’ The Amazing Hypothesis:
“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.
Most religions hold that some kind of spirit exists that persists after one’s bodily death and, to some degree, embodies the essence of that human being. Religions may not have all the same beliefs, but they do have a broad agreement that people have souls.
Yet the common belief of today has a totally different view. It is inclined to believe that the idea of a soul, distinct from the body and not subject to our known scientific laws, is a myth. It is quite understandable how this myth arose without today’s scientific knowledge of nature of matter and radiation, and of biological evolution. Such myths, of having a soul, seem only too plausible. For example, four thousand years ago almost everyone believed the earth was flat. Only with modern science has it occurred to us that in fact the earth is round.
From modern science we now know that all living things, from bacteria to ourselves, are closely related at the biochemical level. We now know that many species of plants and animals have evolved over time. We can watch the basic processes of evolution happening today, both in the field and in our test tubes and therefore, there is no need for the religious concept of a soul to explain the behavior of humans and other animals. In addition to scientists, many educated people also share the belief that the soul is a metaphor and that there is no personal life either before conception or after death.
Most people take free will for granted, since they feel that usually they are free to act as they please. Three assumptions can be made about free will. The first assumption is that part of one’s brain is concerned with making plans for future actions, without necessarily carrying them out. The second assumption is that one is not conscious of the “computations” done by this part of the brain but only of the “decisions” it makes – that is, its plans, depending of course on its current inputs from other parts of the brain. The third assumption is that the decision to act on one’s plan or another is also subject to the same limitations in that one has immediate recall of what is decided, but not of the computations that went into the decision.
So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that. The actual cause of the decision may be clear cut or it may be determined by chaos, that is, a very small perturbation may make a big difference to the end result. This would give the appearance of the Will being “free” since it would make the outcome essentially unpredictable. Of course, conscious activities may also influence the decision mechanism.
One’s self can attempt to explain why it made a certain choice. Sometimes we may reach the correct conclusion. At other times, we will either not know or, more likely, will confabulate, because there is no conscious knowledge of the ‘reason’ for the choice. This implies that there must be a mechanism for confabulation, meaning that given a certain amount of evidence, which may or may not be misleading, part of the brain will jump to the simplest conclusion.
Having just read Crick’s deflationary remarks about free will, do you think you would be more likely to cheat if you were given the opportunity? The obvious answer is “No, of course not”! However, the results from a series of recent studies by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler suggest that things are less obvious than they seem.
For instance, in a recent paper entitled “The Value of Believing in Free Will,” Vohs and Schooler suggest that when people are induced to disbelieve in free will and believe in determinism—as the result of reading the aforementioned passage from Crick—they are more likely to cheat shortly thereafter. Here is the abstract:
Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.
In light of the results from these two studies, Vohs and Schooler conclude that ‘the fact that brief exposure to a message asserting that there is no such thing as free will can increase both passive and active cheating raises the concern that advocating a deterministic worldview could undermine moral behavior’ (Vohs & Schooler 2008: 53).
If we assume for the sake of argument that being induced to disbelieve in free will is what is really driving the results of their studies—and I am unconvinced that it is, but that is a story for another day—then we are faced with the interesting question of what philosophers and psychologists who work on free will ought to do in light of these findings. For free will skeptics, the stakes are particularly high. After all, ought one to be advocating for the so-called “death of free will” if doing so might make it more likely that people will cheat or steal?