Free Will and the Value of Self-Deception

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by Neil Godfrey

The paper of the day: “The Value of Believing in Free Will.” A scientific study that shows why many scientists and philosophers are reluctant to tell people they don’t have free will.

This is from the commonsenseatheism site, which many readers of this blog will already have seen, but for the others, it’s interesting reading. I think I can relate to its conclusions.

For those who don’t want to read the whole thing or want to test the water, some extracts:

The belief that one determines one’s own outcomes is strong and pervasive. In a massive survey of people in 36 countries, more than 70% agreed with the statement that their fate is in their own hands (International Social Survey Programme, 1998).

Yet the view from the scientific community is that behavior is caused by genes underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment (e.g., Bargh, in press; Crick, 1994; Pinker, 2002). There is reason to think that scientists’ sentiment is spreading to nonscientists. For example, the news magazine The Economist recently ran the headline, ‘‘Free to Choose? Modern Neuroscience Is Eroding the Idea of Free Will’’ (‘‘Free to Choose?’’ 2006). What would happen if people came to believe that their behavior is the inexorable product of a causal chain set into motion without their own volition? Would people carry on, selves and behavior unperturbed, or, as Sartre suggested, might the adoption of a deterministic worldview serve as an excuse for untoward behaviors?

That’s the opener. The conclusion . . . .

It is also crucial to emphasize that the findings reported here do not speak to the larger issue of whether free will actually exists. It is possible that free will is an illusion that nevertheless offers some functionality. It may be that a necessary cost of public awareness regarding the science of human behavior will be the dampening of certain beliefs about personal agency (Wegner, 2002). Conversely, it may prove possible to integrate a genuine sense of free will into scientific accounts of human behavior (see Baumeister, in press; Dennett, 2003; Kane, 1996; Volume 19—Number 1 53 Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler Shariff, Schooler, & Vohs, in press). Although the concept of free will remains scientifically in question, our results point to a significant value in believing that free will exists.

If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative. Ultimately, in order to oppose the unfavorable consequences of deterministic sentiments, the field must first develop a deeper understanding of why dismissing free will leads to amoral behavior. Does the belief that forces outside the self determine behavior drain the motivation to resist the temptation to cheat, inducing a ‘‘why bother?’’ mentality (cf. Baumeister & Vohs, 2007)? Much as thoughts of death and meaninglessness can induce existential angst that can lead to ignoble behaviors (e.g., Arndt, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1997; Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006), doubting one’s free will may undermine the sense of self as agent. Or, perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.

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14 thoughts on “Free Will and the Value of Self-Deception”

  1. That reference to Dennett 2003 is his book Freedom Evolves. Excellent reading if you’re interested in this stuff, and he goes pretty in depth into some of the issues that are just touched upon here.

    My take is that the persistent belief in some sort of causality-suspending “true” free will is a concommitant of the folk dualism that persists as the default self-model. As long as people cling to a dualistic conception of mind, they’re not likely en masse to adopt a deterministic self model wherein they “can’t help themselves.” We’re pretty much hard wired to view our own and others’ actions in terms of unfettered agency, and so I don’t think there’s any cause for worry. Not enough people think very deeply about such matters.

    However, my take is that free will is real enough in the sense that Dennett concludes it is. The way around this: “the view from the scientific community is that behavior is caused by genes underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment” is simply to understand that “you” are that: you are your “personality dispositions” and your “brain mechanisms,” dynamically interacting with “features of the environment.” And within those constraints, it’s still “you” who has to act, make a choice, decide. Free will exists right enough, but humans have no magical ability to overcome causality, and in retrospect it’s silly to think that we would have. (Actually, causality is what makes any kind of “free will” a coherent concept, but that’s a longer argument, and is taken on by Dennett in his book.)

    1. Yeah, got to say that since Dennett’s two books on the Free Will problem, it’s all over bar the shouting: compatibilism is the winner. The subtitle of one of his books “the varieties of free will worth wanting” says it all. Yes, there’s a rarified philosopher’s sense of “free will” which we can’t have if the world is deterministic, but it’s not a sense it’s worth worrying about not having – the sense of “free will” that’s worth having, and worth being bothered about, is the sense in which we, as physical entities, have to calculate and choose our path through life just like any intelligent (yet of course fully deterministic) robot would have to, in a time-pressured world with limited energy and limited information (i.e. lack of omniscience). Another way of saying what Dennett says is that determinism does not equal inevitability (which is the real boogeyman in most free will discussions), and that in fact “evitability” is precisely what grows with the complexity of deterministic organisms. Likely we are mostly deterministic with some aleatory elements, but none of that diminishes the validity of concepts like responsibility, punishment and reward, etc., etc., in the least.

  2. “Free will” and “the soul” are all useless carryovers from a time when the world was dominated by supernaturalism.

    Neither of these topics has any practical value. They are sort of the standard topics that not just supernaturalists, but also philosophers seem to feel obligated to have a position on. One day some philosopher will have the guts to respond when asked about their position on the soul with “my position on the soul? Probably the same as my position on Posiden”. These are topics that are useless, and are residue from a time when education was in effect an extension of The Church, and the few topics that universities offered were really spin offs of Church dogma.

    One day “Religion departments” will no longer exist. Folks that would currently occupy positions at religion departments will choose either to enter the church and be ministers or priests, OR they will choose to be academics, and they will enter a universities HISTORY department.

    There is no reason for religion departments to exist. A person is either promoting supernaturalism or history. So all religion departments should be rolled into history departments, and those that want to do supernaturalism can, as I said, enter one of the church missions.

    It is time to start to fundamentally understand and address how much of even modern academic study is really the promotion of supernaturalism, or at least an attempt to promote that there is some kind of importance in supernaturalism. Hopefully one day this will change.

    And discussions about “the soul”, “free will”, and other nonsense will simply no longer happen.


  3. Of course we have free will.

    We decide what what we want to do.

    This only contradicts the claim that the state of the universe determines what we do, if you believe that we are not part of the universe.

    ‘What would happen if people came to believe that their behavior is the inexorable product of a causal chain set into motion without their own volition? ‘

    Well it is set into motion by our own volition.

    How can it not be?

    We control what we do, even more surely than a plane is controlled by the auto-pilot.

    You don’t need ‘free will’ or even ‘volition’ for something to control something else.

  4. Most people today who have studied human behavior believe humans learn all of their behaviors. Humans unlike any other animals, can communicate abstract concepts. It is these concepts that have lead humans down the road of conflicts. Human’s greatest enemy is the conflicts they create, in they’re own mind? Black and White thinking, as we call it, is the back bone of all moral and ethical thinking. The belief in “right” and “wrong”, in “good” and “evil”, in “superior” and “inferior” all lead to the belief that “those people need to be punished”.

    The police beat Rodney King because they believed he had done “wrong” and needed to be “punished“?

    Timothy McVay bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City because he believed the Fed’s had done “wrong” and needed to be “punished“?

    Alquida attack the U.S.A. on 9/11 because they believed the U.S.A. had done “wrong” and needed to be “Punished”?

    Serial Killers attack prostitutes because they believe prostitution is “wrong” and prostitutes need to be “punished”, even eliminated?

    Hitler believe the Jew’s were the cause of all that was “Evil” with the world and not only needed to be “punished” but needed to be “eliminated“.

    If you believe you’re superior in power, in wisdom, and need to correct others, you will. It does not matter if you truly know what your talking about.

    As for free will in today’s individuals, it appears we have beet raised to believe in right and wrong and with an understanding, those who don’t do as we believe is right, need to be punished. This is and always has been the source of guilt and shame. If you live with guilt and/or shame, you do not have free will.

    Any intelligent individual understands that if you hurt someone, they in return will want to hurt you. Sometimes it maybe unavoidable, but extreme caution should be used. Reciprocity should always be the light to our behavior, not morals or ethics.

      1. Yes Chimps and other animals are warlike. So what’s you’re point? Warlike does not mean they know or believe in good and evil. It seems to be your judgment, not facts, that make you think that their behavior is based on good and evil. Free Will means the ability to act or make choices as a free and autonomous being and not solely as a result of compulsion or predestination. I say that domestication of all animals including humans, destroys Free Will. Probably not completely.

      2. My point is to question the idea that it is the sense of good and evil that is at the root of conflict. It is certainly part of the expression of it among humans, but whatever the root of conflict it seems to be something shared by human and nonhuman animals. Is not this (whatever this “root cause” is) something we share along with other physical and behavioral traits as evolutionary cousins?

    1. Yes we do share some physical and behavioral traits with all animals. All animals are born with an ID, in lower forms of animals these behaviors or instincts which are hardwired, but in higher forms these instincts can be over ridden. In human they are sometimes called an evolutionary desire to live. Higher forms of animals have and EGO, this is the part of the brain that learns to do things through emulation. Yes we share these behavioral traits with all higher forms of animals.

      It is still unclear if other animals have a SUPER EGO. Baboons seam to show some ability to think in abstracts, but clearly humans are the only animal that are capable of communicating abstract concepts. It is these abstract concepts that I believe create unnecessary conflicts which motivates humans to be more aggressive and violent.

      These conflicts happen not just with each other, but we also internalize these conflicts in our own minds. A conflict between the ID and the SUPER EGO. It is the ID that gives us free will, it is the SUPER EGO that tells us we should not do this because it is wrong. Even when we know it’s in our best interest.

      Example: If someone is very hungry, they may know it wrong to steal, but their ID tells them, they need to eat.

      To me true free will is not only they right to think, but also the right to act. If an individual must be obedient to another man, group or ideology, to me he is nothing but a slave.

  5. Anyone who even questions whether free will exists is an absolutely hopeless submoron. There is no way that we could not have free will. An atheist who believes in determinism is an even bigger imbecile than a theist who does, since there is no way the whole freaking universe could be deterministic without a malevolent deity (i.e. Calvin’s demon-god) controlling everything. A rational atheist would realize that determinism requires a god. A rational theist would ask himself why God would want to create a universe in which he micromanages everything (how boring) and would reject the idea. Only childmolestors, murderers and such-like will believe in any form of determinism, PERIOD.

  6. “Although the concept of free will remains scientifically in question, our results point to a significant value in believing that free will exists.”

    If you don’t have free will, how the hell will you decide to believe or not beleive in free will? This writer is so stupid he doesn’t even understand that the concept of not having free will but telling everyone they do in order to make them choose to do better is contradictory. He’s an idiot as is everyone who denies free will. But more than that he is evil as is everyone who denies free will for it is only as an excuse to commit crimes against humanity that they deny their responsibility for their actions and blame them on a malevolent deity or an irrational process.

  7. Of course, we have the free will to do what we want, but we don’t have the free will to want what we want. I believe Schooler and Vohs are talking about contra-causal or libertarian free will not the compatibilist version. For a great resource on free will from a naturalist perspective go here: http://web.archive.org/web/20150819201628/http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm. He addresses Schooler and Vohs’ research here: http://centerfornaturalism.blogspot.com/2009/07/freedom-from-free-will.html

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