Friday, August 29, 2008

Free will: Can you believe in it as a merely irrational preference?

Recently, readers have drawn my attention to this "Mind Matters" article in Scientific American: "Free Will versus the Programmed Brain" by Shaun Nichols (August 19, 2008), who asks, "If our actions are determined by prior events, then do we have a choice about anything—or any responsibility for what we do?"

He reminds us of the recent study by psychologists Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara who gave participants passages from Nobelist Francis Crick's popular science book, Astonishing Hypothesis:
Half of the participants got a passage saying that there is no such thing as free will. The passage begins as follows: “‘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.”

The passage then goes on to talk about the neural basis of decisions and claims that “…although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.”
The other participants got a passage on the importance of the study of consciousness that does not mention free will. All then filled out a survey on their own belief in free will. Now, as Nichols puts it, comes the "inspired" part of the study:
Participants were told to complete 20 arithmetic problems that would appear on the computer screen. But they were also told that when the question appeared, they needed to press the space bar, otherwise a computer glitch would make the answer appear on the screen, too. The participants were told that no one would know whether they pushed the space bar, but they were asked not to cheat.
And can you guess what happened? Yes, of course, those who had read the passage that denies the existence of free will cheated more often. And the less they believed in free will (based on their survey responses), the more likely they were to cheat.)

Nichols' essay then tackles the obvious implications of the study - that scientists who do not believe in free will are more likely to cheat. Of course he cannot acknowledge that, so he tries, not very successfully, to get around it by offering a study that shows that people who don't believe in free will nonetheless hold others accountable for their actions, suggesting
One way to interpret this finding is that if you come to believe in determinism, you won’t drop your moral attitudes. Rather, you’ll simply reverse your view that determinism rules out moral responsibility.
In other words, you will substitute an irrational basis for moral attitudes for a rational one. But then how likely are you to cling, under pressure, to the irrational basis and suffer its outcomes?

Traditional theists, by contrast, believe that the morally correct choice reflects God's intention for them. So when they freely make the morally correct choice, they become more of what God intends. Traditional Eastern thinkers are convinced that there is no free lunch in the universe. Therefore, morally bad choices create, by a sort of natural moral law (karma), future suffering. Both views assume the reality of the mind and of free will. But more to the point, both views make free will a rational assumption and not cheating a rational choice. That is the key difference between both views and materialist atheism.

Nichols concludes,
Many philosophers and scientists reject free will and, while there has been no systematic study of the matter, there’s currently little reason to think that the philosophers and scientists who reject free will are generally less morally upright than those who believe in it.
Actually, there is currently lots of reason for thinking that. The last century and a half has seen the rise of the most murderous regimes that have ever existed, based explicitly on materialist atheist propositions that rule out, among other things, free will. These regimes were often promoted by philosophers and scientists. No, they didn't do the dirty work - but they laid the groundwork.

Here's the Vohs and Schooler paper.

Other Mindful Hack stories on free will:

When did you really decide to adopt that puppy?

Free will: How can a guy who doesn't believe in free will take credit for writing a book? I mean ...

Belief in free will keeps us honest, study finds

Free will: It used to be all my mom's fault, but now it's all my brain's fault?

Atheist indoctrination requires discrediting free will?

Free won’t - one of the keys to free will?

Find all these and other Hack stories featuring free will here.