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Mind & Brain

Why Believing in Free Will Is More Important Than Knowing We Have It

At some point in life, you’ve probably asked yourself how in-control of your own actions you are. Could you have stopped yourself from eating that extra morsel? In other words, do you have free will?
Young woman with outstretched arms enjoys the sun, fresh air and freedom. (Getty Images)

At some point in life, you’ve probably asked yourself how in-control of your own actions you are. Could you have stopped yourself from eating that extra morsel? In other words, do you have free will?

This question is a biggie, and any answer only brings up more questions. If we are free, we must decide what to do with that freedom. If we are not, we must live with that too. Less often considered, however, is why might we need free will, or at least the belief that we have it.

While plenty of people suppose that we don’t have free will of any kind, the world functions in a way that supposes that we do. Free will allows us to easily bestow “moral responsibility” on people. It’s easier to understand how concepts like “praise” or “blame” attach to actions people take if we assume they choose to take them. But if we don’t have free will, or don’t suppose we do, then can we really give praise or blame?

Some neuroscientists, like Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, think we can have moral responsibility without an absolute free will. They argue that our physical brains have a great effect on our actions, and that our responsibility for them must be considered on a case by case basis, while still allowing us some responsibility. While others, like compatibilist Daniel Dennett, say these questions miss the point and are not worth asking.

The idea put forth by the neuroscientists has been tested, sort of. American lawyer Clarence Darrow once made a similar argument in court, saying that two confessed murders were not morally responsible for their actions on the grounds that they “were decidedly deficient in emotion” due to circumstances beyond their control. The two murders got life in prison as opposed to the death penalty.

However, trying to tell a policeman that you were causally determined to go twice the speed limit in a construction zone is only going to end in a ticket. Legally and morally, we presume that you were free to make another choice in every instance, even if you really couldn’t.

But, this is all hypothetical, what about real examples of what happens when people act on the idea they have no choice?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett relates a story about what happens when you hint to people that they might not have moral responsibility because they lack free will. 

“Vohs and Schooler in an important paper which has been replicated in several different ways set up an experiment really to test this with college students who were given two texts to read. One was a text—they were both from Francis Crick’s book, The Astonishing Hypothesis. And one was not about free will and the other was about free will and basically it said free will is an illusion. All your decisions are actually determined by causes that neuroscience is investigating.  You don’t have free will, that’s just an illusion.

All right, so we have two groups. The group that read that passage and the group that read another passage from that book of the same length. After they’ve read the passage  they’re given a puzzle to solve where they can earn some money by solving it. And the experimenters cleverly made the puzzle slightly defective so there was a way of cheating on the puzzle that was, oops, inadvertently revealed to the subjects. And, guess what, the subjects who read the passage where Crick says free will is an illusion cheated at a much higher rate than the other ones.  In other words, just reading that passage did have the effect of making them less concerned about the implications of their action. They became—were negligent or worse in their own decision making. I think that’s an important and sobering thought.”

Now, it is possible that we lack free will and the scientists just happened to place most of the people who were predestined not to cheat in the control group. But this seems unlikely.

The idea that we lack free will can affect the actions we take, freely chosen or not. If neuroscience disproves free will, will we have to make it the next noble lie?  


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