Free Will and Ethics

Earlier this week, I wondered if all of our new knowledge about the brain, which is too often presented in a lazy causal fashion - if x lights up, then we do y - might undermine our sense of self and self-control. I've since riffled through the literature and found some interesting and suggestive answers.

The first study was done by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler. The experiment itself was simple: a group of undergraduates was given two excerpts from Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis. The first excerpt espoused a fiercely deterministic and reductionist view of the brain:

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 second excerpt discussed consciousness but didn't mention free will. After reading these passages, the students were quizzed about their free-will beliefs, and given a seemingly unrelated activity that involved arithmetic problems. Here is Schooler describing the setup:

Participants were told that there was a glitch in the software program [that administered the test] and that after the problem was presented, they needed to press the space bar in order to prevent the computer from inadvertently giving them the answer before they had solved it themselves. Furthermore, participants were told that although the experimenter would not know whether they had pressed the space bar, they should try to solve the problems honestly on their own. In short, a failure to press the space bar enabled them to get the answer without solving it themselves, in effect, to cheat.

Clever, no? It turned out that students who had read the anti-free will quote were significantly more likely to cheat on the mental arithmetic test; their exposure to some basic scientific spin - your soul is a piece of meat - led to an increase in amorality. Of course, this is a relatively mild ethical lapse - as Schooler notes, "None of the participants exposed to the anti-free will message assaulted the experimenter or ran off with the payment kitty" - but it still demonstrates that even seemingly banal materialist concepts can alter our ethical behavior.

Another study, led by Roy Baumeister and colleagues, looked at how a "disbelief in free will" could increase aggression and reduce prosocial behavior. One group of students was told to read statements that were supposed to induce a feeling of determinism, such as: "'Ultimately, we are biological computers - designed by evolution, built through genetics, and programmed by the environment.'" The second group, in contrast, was given sentences designed to bolster a belief in free will: "I am able to override the genetic and environmental factors that sometimes influence my behavior." A third group - the controls - were given neutral statements.

The students were then given hypothetical scenarios in which they quizzed about their willingness to help others, such as giving money to a homeless person. You can probably guess the punchline: students who had read the anti-free will sentiments reported being significantly less likely to help out in. No differences were found on either helpfulness or belief in free will between the control and pro-free will participants, suggesting that our pre-existing views are generally pro-free will.

The second Baumeister experiment left the hypotheticals behind. The subjects were assessed for their belief in free will and then told about a fellow student whose parents had been killed in a car accident. This student was going to have to drop out of school unless she could find someone to help her out financially. The students were then given the opportunity to help her out. Sure enough, disbelief in free will was associated with a reduced willingness to help.

Lastly, students were given the opportunity to add varying amount of hot sauce to food that would be eaten by a student who didn't like spicy food. Not surprisingly, those who read the anti-free will statements added more hot sauce.

At the very least, free will is a useful illusion, leading us to be more prosocial and ethical. Because even if we are just "a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules," we're a vast assembly that feels like so much more. William James, as usual, said it best: "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."


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I think that there is too much focus on an either/or scenario. The brain is a very complex system and I think it might be better compared to as a probabilistic determinism. In other words, we are inclined to behave in certain ways as responses to stimuli. We have an inclination to believe we are free-independent entities because it serves us well the vast majority of the time.

Would you perhaps be more skeptical of a study that purported to demonstrate a link between belief (or lack of belief) in God and ethics?

And why do the prompts they selected to be representative of the hard deterministic view have to be so overbearingly negative in tone? All the hard determinists I know seem to be pretty happy, upbeat, and caring people. Maybe they should get to write the prompts next time.

It seems more likely to me that the hit to one's self-esteem by being told " are nothing but a...", would cause behavioral changes more than any philosophical position attached to those statements.

Very intriguing, thanks Jonah. I'm wondering though if these experiments really say much about how belief in free will affects moral behavior. Another interpretation is that we're simply prone to suggestion, and make small subconscious adjustments in our behavior when we read/hear about topics that have some 'loaded' associations (free will, race, gender,etc). If forced to listen to Glenn Beck every night(the horror!) I might deviate from my normal behaviors in subtle ways, despite the steadfastness of my social/political convictions.

It would be more interesting to do these studies in a longitudinal way where you actually ask people about their beliefs over time, try to change their beliefs (probably wouldn't fly in a human subjects protocol), and monitor changes in their behavior.

Thanks for the post - great food for thought!

"choice v. the-devil-made-me-do-it" is a common, crude, cultural trope in the West. there should've been a test of new syntheses in compatibilism.

what if, say, the subjects had been fed a line that went something like, "free will is a healthy illusion," and were then tested for their support of extreme judicial punishment? or, "determinism is a simplistic truth," and were tested for support of ambitious social programs.

So did they correct for the religious beliefs of the subjects? The effect they describe matches what the theists say is the result of atheistic thinking. So I would expect atheists to not be affected but for theists to say the equivalent of f**k it.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

Great post! My thoughts are that a disbelief in free will allows for a dislocated sense of responsibility for actions. "Since I can't choose what I'm doing...I'm not responsible for what happens." I think Jeff D. was also alluding to this point.

Regardless, your writing on this subject is definitely some food for thought. Thanks!


My Blog:
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As most seem to be doing these days, the experimenters are taking advantage of our tendency to confuse the concept of free will as an alternate to determinism, with that of free will as limited by our perception of available choices. The experiments prove nothing other than that we can be manipulated and deceived as to both the choices available to us and the utility of each remaining option.

I donât understand why people always link "free will" to some moral behaviors, and try to prove that âfree will" believers may have less compassion morally. It is so ridiculous. I donât think those experiments demonstrate anything. Maybe, the experts need to conduct their experiments in a total dictatorship controlled environment, North Korea maybe, then, we may get the useful result how âfree willâ influences human behavior. To me, if you can make your own choice no matter to offer help or not, you already under the influence of âfree willâ.

Gordon B hit it on the head. Don't know the full extent of the passages, but the excerpt you gave certainly seems to be quite negative.
Also, I can begin to understand why some materialists feel less compelled to help out others if the action is not in their perceived self interest, but why would they go out of their way to be complete A-holes by adding more hot sauce???

Nice blog, BTW.

The thing that studies like these show is that people don't quite understand "free will" as defined by philosophers. What the people in these experiments are doing is acting under the belief that a lack of free will means that "my actions have no causal effect on the world", when it in fact means that "my actions are not under my control". Determinists are quite happy to think that their actions have an effect on the world, they just think the idea that we control our actions completely free from any genetic or environmental influences is illusory.

I think it's a residual Cartesian dualism that makes the average Joe think that a lack of free will means that their decisions have no effect on the - if they think that their mind is somehow separate from the material world, then it either has an effect on the world or it does not. But if you think that the mind is simply part of the material world, it's just part of the causal chain that leads things to happen - and so your decisions matter.

How is it that accepting that one is only a pack of neurons necessarily confirms the absence of free will? That we can reflect on ourselves, be aware of the circumstances we're in, consider the variety of options we might pursue at any given moment, and then act on whatever choice we make seems to suggest an abundance of free will. Wouldn't determinism dictate that no choice is our own -- a denial of observable reality?

It strikes me that the magic of the human mind is that, though it may be made of nuts and bolts, it has the capacity of self-reflection and evaluation and then the ability to carry out behavioral corrections as it sees fit -- much as other parts of the body detect injuries and take the steps needed to repair them. Why should the mind be any different? And even if biologically generated, and carried out in the context of the extrinsic world, isn't that free will?

It's important we assume our will is free regarding our own actions, and important to assume free will is a healthy illusion regarding the actions of others.

By Josh Martin (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

Actually, Tim (@10), I think the question is more Kantian. The question is how, under what is imagined to be a crude deterministic view, the phrase "my actions" even makes sense any more. Putting aside all the theist/atheist sensitivities Jonah's post seems to have provoked, I would suggest these studies are really about the way attribution works. If I attribute an act to a deterministically evoked substrate of neurons, blood, etc., then I can implicitly dissociate the action from "me" as a moral agent. Impulses I might normally feel guilty or hesitant about are now not "mine"-- they are the workings of a mechanism. Compare how treatments for addiction teach reframe impulses, thoughts, and behaviors addicts thought were totally "theirs" (as weak moral agents) as "the addiction talking." Changing frames of attribution toward a more deterministic view can be positive or negative-- it all depends on how it is done, in what context, for what purposes. No panties need get bunched over God, FSM, dictators, etc. They may, they just needn't.

It's always amazing to me that "thinking" can "feel" so much like conscious control of my mind - free will. I think that's because I'm not aware of the myriad emotional signals that my thinking induces. Also, I tend to forget that it was the emotional context of the moment - my brain noticing a survival opportunity or challenge where my intellect might be helpful - that engaged my "thinking" and directed it along certain tried and true paths among the neurons in my cortices.

And I never notice at that moment that those signals from my thinking and from many other more primitive non-conscious sources mediate and produce whatever behavior I may or may not undertake as a result. But it's only the "thinking" part that I am ever aware of - because thinking is a product of and made possible by - conscious awareness.

But, it still seems so clearly that that's all that's going on. I suspect that's what creates the illusion that "my self" is in control of it all. There's nothing more interesting than the human mind contemplating its own nature, especially my own.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

A lot of Buddhist ethics arise from the concept of no intrinsic self
independent of causes (they'd say karma), but behaving ethically in a non self-centered way is necessary to realize that.

By David Kerlick (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

If one doesn't believe in free will then that very disbelief must itself be pre-determined and inescapable... in which case it is a meaningless belief.

In his Psychology Today blog, psychologist John Bargh mentions that Jonathan Schooler, who brought us the study on free will and cheating, also found in other research that âtelling experimental participants that free will did not exist caused those participants to be more forgiving towards the transgressions of others.â As far as I know there have been no press releases or news stories about this, too bad. We shouldn't assume that belief in free will is a necessary illusion, all things considered. We might actually be better off without it, as Barg himself suggests.

To accept or decide not to believe in free will does little or nothing to relieve one of the effects of what would then be the predetermined consequences of your actions.

Really interesting post. Thank you. Would love to see a comparison of people who had just completed a Myers Briggs test with those who hadn't had their personality reduced to letters that they believe prescribe their behaviour in any given situation.

A belief in free will entails accountability.

If every action is predetermined by forces beyond one's self will (i.e. in the absence of free will), accountability is rendered null and void.

All bets are off. ;-)

What I would find more interesting would be a test on these same individuals two weeks later with no additional experimenter intervention. To what degree would individuals who had been biased previously towards one view or another, still hold that belief after two weeks of sleep, work, eating, and general social interaction?

Thanks for this - helps achieve some balance, for the brain is like the universe, and the neuroscientist tries to explain the brain like the physicist tries to explain the universe, and the result is some awareness that thereâs still much we donât know. The stuff we don't know, I call it the dark matter of the brain.

I really wish they would have used religion. Some Christian sects are very deterministic -- you're in the book or not. Others are very free-will oriented.

Using a non-religious questioning format will almost certainly be used against the non-religious as a way to paint them (and evolution) as evil.

Let's hope the world realizes that the problem does not focus on giving money to the poors, although that is very important too, but priority is given oxygen to asthmatics as they suffocate every day, and as its number is increasing daily in all worldwide locations. The most important thing is to evacuate the carbon dioxide and poison in the air. If I understand correctly, if our amigdala is exposed to carbon dioxide we become cowards and in these conditions we continue poisoning our air and doing a lot of nasty things. For me the first thing is the air and free will and the second thing is money and skepticism.

Bah. If I accept the methodology and observations of the experimenters, then it shows that human thought and action is influenced by reading them statements about ideas that they may or may not even believe. So, free will or no free will, they're arguing that there's a deterministic mechanism for externally affecting behavior.

Those who want to believe in free will will never be convinced by the evidence of neurology, although they should be convinced. I don't know why that's the case: perhaps its a different notion of free will. For example, to the neurophysiologist, the brain is so complex that nobody can actually trace everything involved in a single decision. Even if its completely deterministic, there is so much that can interfere - an externally imposed time limit, for example, or sensory input that push your decision-making in one direction over another. Of course, there is always, fundamentally, freedom available to any individual: you can always make a decision based on the flip of a coin. So even if brains are deterministic, our world and lives are clearly not fully determined.

By TJ Parker (not verified) on 20 Dec 2009 #permalink

Following WForward (@11), I don't see that the Crick materialistic reductionism quote says anything at all about free will other than, if it exists at all, it's the result of the interactions of a bunch cells. The question would then be, "Can those enormously complex and still poorly understood interactions give rise to what looks and feels like free will?" The answer to that is very much TBD, although experience indicates that it's likely to be, "Yes, they can."

Put another way, how would the statement "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 immaterial, supernatural soul-stuff" imply the existence or non-existence of free will? Wouldn't the basic question be the same as above?

All excellent comments to an excellent post.

I'm often struck by how the disbelief in contra-causal free will seems to square up nicely with the sentiment of so many religious moral traditions. That is, "I am an agent of God, thus through Him I do my good work (while through the Devil I do evil). Your choices are simply the activations of (preordained?) Divine agency"

Of course this is an interpretation - but many for many pre-Cartesian traditions this is indeed the emphasis. You are an agent of the Almighty.

Now, say for a minute we simply substitute God for scientific materialism... Voila! "You are an agent of nature. Both your Good and Bad are manifestations of genetic and cultural evolution. Your choices are simply the activation of (determined?) natural agency".

I think religions evolved this construct as an insight into human behavior. We are silly animals. We do silly things. There is right and wrong: we desire what is "right", not what is "wrong". Yet we are HUMAN. We are frail and subject to forces beyond our control.

This tradition of religious interpretation is one of forgiveness, and a central narrative. In Hinduism it embodies the notion of Karma and reincarnation. In Christianity it embodies the redemption of Jesus' crucifixion. You are "free" to make any choice: but whatever you do will be ultimately determined by a grand play of Good vs. Evil.

And thus, if we simply replace the religious narrative with that of scientific materialism - nondogmatic and evidence-based as it is - we get the same ultimate insight: we are helpless to the greater forces at work; we are agents to its design. Fortunately for us, we are fancy humans with amazing brains that can do algebra and write poetry - nay, isn't our REAL luxury the ability to cure disease and defend against predators?

So our forefathers were on to something. They sensed it intuitively. They saw it when they played with their children; when they welcomed the grumpy neighbor in for tea; when they experienced the transcendent bliss of "letting bygones be bygones"; when they found humility. They just lacked a scientific means to place it in its true context. They were forced to invent a primitive scaffolding.

My naturalist outlook reminds me to be kind and patient, selfless and brave. It reminds me that I am merely a human caught up in a fantastic swirl of causal events. My choices and actions are nothing but manifestations of all that has come before. I do good because I was meant to do good.

If I were to choose differently it would be a lie - and yet one that I was meant to tell myself! But I do not. Nor do I stab myself with a knife. Why would I, as I do not desire pain. And as I am able to perform the mental geometry required to create a model of myself in others, neither do I stab them. I was created to seek out symmetry and harmony. And so I yearn for truth and justice. I vote accordingly. I speak accordingly. I think accordingly. I was determined to.

I'm writing my honors thesis in Philosophy at Wesleyan University on exactly this topic (using the exact same Crick quote actually). I am a neuroscientist as well and hope to pursue and MD/PHD after I graduate. If you'd like to read my extended (>150 pages) opinion, e-mail me and I'll send you a copy. The title is Neuroscience and Ethics.

Suppose the researchers had instead read a quote from someone like Marc Hauser who believes that morality is hard-wired into the human brain. I am guessing the subjects would have behaved more ethically.

I have observed that people who argue for the importance of belief in free often tend to assume that the material body and brain are totally amoral until an alleged non-material soul enters the picture.

By Eduardo Montez (not verified) on 20 Dec 2009 #permalink

I think that the debate about "Free Will" versus "No Free Will" is something of a false dichotomy. Instead I feel that replacing this debate with the question; to what extent are human beings capable of self control or willpower is a better way of considering the problem.

One of the things that distinguishes human beings from animals is our ability to control our behaviour, in order to achieve a more pro-social outcome. What I mean by this is that we are capable of inhibiting our more selfish desires in order to achieve a more desirable (and normally social) outcome in the long term.

This is what most people think of when they consider "free will", i.e. the ability to control oneself, even if sometimes its not easy. People talk of losing their temper, and are familiar that they are not always in control (when drunk for example).

This common sense approach is similar to the Freudian idea of the Id (our basic and animal desires) being in conflict with the SuperEgo (our sense of conscience and moral/social laws). These two forces were stated by Freud to be in conflict, sometimes the SuperEgo wins and other times the Id wins, i.e. there is no "Free" will but rather a balance of forces. When the Superego wins we consider ourselves to be in control.

Similarly, in neuropsychology we are aware of the role of frontal lobe brain areas (especially the Orbitofrontal cortex) which are involved in self control and behavioural inhibition. Patients with damage to these areas can seem incapable of inhibiting their more basic desires, which can result in innapropriate social behaviour, aggression, or sexual behaviour. In Freudian terms it is as though the SuperEgo has been destroyed and the Id is running rampant.

Here's where I think this fits into the "Free Will" studies above. Both the SuperEgo and the Orbitofrontal Cortex are associated with guilt. If people inhibit themselves because they would feel guilty otherwise, then this is a good explanation for how people percieve themselves as having self control. If however, you persuade people that they do not have any "free will" then you reduce any potential feelings of guilt in those persons, which might make them go with their more basic desires (e.g. take the money, cheat on the test etc...) by freeing them of any nagging sense of personal responsibility.

Of course, it is perfectly arguable that the workings of the Orbitofrontal cortex are deterministic, and that the sense of guilt/responsibility/self control is ALSO determined. However, processes in nature which are essentially unpredictable (such as various quantum effects) suggest to me that we do not live in a predictably deterministic universe either.

Hence I feel it is better to think of a balance of forces in the human mind (SuperEgo vs Id, or Frontal Lobe areas vs subcortical areas) rather than a false dichotomy of totally free will versus totally deterministic universe. I believe we have partial self control or a limited willpower, but am prepared to review that belief in the presence of better scientific evidence.

@Efrain - Please could you email me your thesis on Free Will? I could not get your email address from your post, but mine should be visible for you.

@Jonah - I don't know if you ever have guest postings on your blog, but I could write a brief article on this topic going into much greater detail on this topic from a neuropsychology perspective if you'd like? I'm in the process of getting an article published on something similar in my college journal at present.

What do you think about the related quarrel about opinion and reason?
I see parallels in psychological literature that suggests that our opinions are kept intact and just entrenched by thinking about them (the Harvard/Princeton football game study is a classic example of this: students form both schools watched a particularly dirty football game and counted fouls, both tallying the other team as committing more) and the classic "free will" idea that we rationally change our opinions. In both cases, psycho/neurological literature suggests that our behavior is not as "free will-y" as we tend to think, but there is still this conscious brain thing we have going for us that complicates it a bit...
I just posted a set of ideas (reason and opinion on my blog ( if you think it's interesting. Great consideration of this topic, Mr. Lehrer.

Tom Michael, Did I noticed some allusions to Phineas Gage in your post above? I assume you've read Damasio. I have learned much of value from his studies and papers. One idea that I have come upon from that reading is that brains produce many signals every moment that attempt to direct behavior - and occasionally, when the aggregate of those signals get strong enough they succeed. The frontal lobe is the source of social concerns such as guilt, approval of others, etc. and that seems to be a very strong source of signals in many humans. In that particular sense I think Freud's views do line up with modern neuroscience.

The other interesting concept that is well worth considering is Damasio's distinction between emotion and feeling - emotion being the non-conscious flow of those behavior mediating signals and feeling being our conscious (human) awareness of their somatic effects. Of course, most people use emotion for feeling and that creates much confusion in these discussions.

These concepts seem to reduce the question of free-will to just an interesting puzzle of which brain sources are producing the strongest signals at any moment. Of course, since those signals flow non-consciously it seems as if what we are "thinking about" at the moment is all that's going on. And we'll stick to that even when we obviously exhibit behavior that is the exact opposite of what we may "know" is the right thing to do. It makes us think we are being rational - when really we are using our reason to justify behavior that stronger sources in our brain have already directed is to do.

I know I should study for that test but I really feel like going to the beach today . . Should I do it? . . I need a day off . . I've been studying so hard lately my brain is getting over-loaded . . I'll be better off scholastically in the long run if I take a day off . . where is that surfboard? . . etc.


By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink

In the end I suspect that the person who makes the better predictions will be the one who feels he is free to make them, as opposed to the one who believes the effects of his decisions will have in any case been determined in advance.

I think the free will problem boils down to whether we demand responsibility for our choices or prefer to live by excuses. The problem is amplified when versions of hard determinism becomes culturally entrenched, whether via supernatural/religious thinking, or extreme flavors of materialist ideologies. Determinism often serves to justify organized brutality on a vast scale. In my view, this is a strong reason to be wary of meme theory.

See my paper on freedom as a supreme human interest (Deriving Common Interests from Animal Origins) at

@Ray in Seattle - Yes, I am familiar with Phineas Gage and also much of the work of Damasio's research group. I'm currently trying to complete my PhD in Neuropsychology and its focus is on how frontal lobe brain injuries effect both the brain injured person and their relatives in terms of stress. Being critical for self control and executive function, I feel that studying the frontal lobes and individuals with damage/deficiencies to them is essential in any discussion on "Free Will". I have been fortunate enough to work with many individuals with acquired brain injuries, frontal or otherwise, and so am familiar with the effects in "real life" as well as in the textbooks.

I think the largest problem in the Free Will argument is one of definition. If we define free will as the ability to choose and control our actions, or to prevent ourselves from doing something hasty or unwise, instead doing something that is in our long term interest, then this "Free Will" (or perhaps willpower would be a better term) is clearly a function of Executive Function/Frontal Lobe areas. Conversely, and perhaps the best way to illustrate this scientifically, a person with frontal lobe brain injuries may have extreme difficulty in controlling their behaviour in this way. From a common sense approach, this IS what most people I have talked to think of as being "Free Will".

However, if you define "Free Will" as the ability to choose ones own actions, totally free from outside contraints, or even the workings of ones own brain (a dualist approach) then clearly neuroscience/neurology/neuropsychology has near enough disproven this concept of "Free Will". The fact that the brain requires frontal lobe structures to control the subcortical structures involved in survival type emotions is evidence enough for this.

However, the fact that we require working brain areas as a physical substrate of our conscious self control does not mean that we do not have conscious self control! To argue otherwise flies in the face of our common sense personal experience (well, I can only argue from my own perspective there).

Hence I prefer to think of a limited capacity for willpower in terms of self control. I am not free to make decisions independently from the workings of my brain and environmental interaction, but I do have personal responsibility because I am in control of my actions (most of the time, states such as extreme drunkeness and anger aside).

The study described in Jonah's article above suggests that there is no "Free Will" but that people's belief in "Free Will" causes them to control their actions to a greater or lesser extent. If people feel they are not responsible for their actions they will be less likely to control themselves in socially acceptable ways. It makes no difference if that self control is actually "free" or not.

With regard to Jonah's opening paragraph about how psychology and neuroscience are associated in a very lazy way (area X lights up with behaviour Y, so clearly X causes Y...).

This is the great thing about working in Neuropsychology, because the unfortunate brain injured person has had area X destroyed, we are able to tell with some precision if area X is critical or not to behaviour Y. We do this by dissociation rather than association (i.e. damage to area X is associated with a lack of behaviour Y). There is also double dissociation, which allows us to determine yet more precisely which areas are critical to certain behaviours, through a process of elimination, although dissociations only ever allow us to determine which areas are critical, i.e. they can be necessary but not sufficient for a given behaviour. In terms of the frontal lobes and self control/executive function, a number of double dissociation method papers are giving us unprecidented detail into how self control/executive function is fractionated.

Baumeister, whom Jonah has quoted above, has also done studies suggesting that people's self control diminishes as their blood sugar diminshes, and that this can be restored by giving people a sugary drink. He and colleagues have also shown that if a person controls themselves for one part of the day, they are more likely to have a lapse of self control later (participants were asked not to laugh at a funny movie, and then later told not to eat too many cookies. The non laughter participants ate more than the participants who had no instructions about laughing).

So really, I think we need to move on from the "Free Will" argument. It is very important to recognise that many people have a folk psychology confusion of "Free Will" and Self Control, which means that a belief in free will may be important in terms of inhibition of aggression and pro-social behaviour. However, this does not mean that total "free will" in the sense of being able to choose your actions independently of your brain or environment exist.

In terms of self control though, there are brain areas (which require normal human socialisation to develop) which are critical to our self control, which mean we are responsible for our actions. The trickier part is if we have to argue in a law court whether a person has self control (as this would be critical for responsibility). Both frontal lobe brain injury and childhood neglect/abuse are strongly associated with a lack of self control, but exactly where the cut-offs lay is a very difficult topic known as neuroethics...

Tom Michael, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. They give me a lot to think about - but the law/responsibility comment above really hit me. One thought I had on that is that from society's standpoint the goal is not to punish (or should not be) but to prevent further crimes. In that case . .

a) keeping a person separated from society certainly will prevent further crimes as long as they are incarcerated no matter what corrective effect that might have on their future behavior - thereby serving society's goals.

b) even for a criminal who may not be "responsible" in the legal sense - society may still benefit from their incarceration - at least to the extent that they can feel the loss of freedom of movement and association as stressful or painful and understand that it was the result of their action. Such training works for dogs and other animals who have no ability to reason at all.

So, from a practical standpoint, perhaps the question to ask in such cases is not if the punishment is fair considering diminished (reasoning) capacity, but will it result in less danger to society at large.

I'm not advocating for this view - just revealing where your comment led this liberal - to my chagrin.

Happy holidays to all!

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 24 Dec 2009 #permalink

Article isn't clear. The absence of mentioning free will doesn't mean the message is anti-free will. There was no discussion of the intent and feeling of the students who 'cheated'.. did they act unethically or perhaps out of anger to demonstrate they exist (which is done by exerting one's free will).

@Efrain - Would you please email me a copy of your thesis on Free Will? Thank you.

@Jonah - Thank you for this post. I am writing about John Duns Scotus and his understanding of free will.

Interesting discussion about some interesting studies. Readers may be interested in a paper (forthcoming in Neuroethics) that I've written on these issues:

@Ray from Seattle - Glad you found my comments interesting. Your comment about conditioning people as we are able to do with dogs is interesting, as one of my supervisors uses principles of positive (reward) and negative (punishment) conditioning with clients of his who have neurobehavioural difficulties due to frontal lobe brain injuries (when conscious control might be asking a bit much of them). This is in a 100 bed locked hospital, as some of these people can occasionally be uncontrollable or violent due to their brain injuries.

@Eddy Nahmias - Brilliant article! Your distinction between Libertarian Powers (LP) and Causal Powers (CP) are exactly the point I am making when I suggest that "Free Will" (or LP) does not exist, but that a limited capacity for willpower/self-control (or CP) does exist. Are you intending to have a chapter on neuropsychology in your book? I think neuropsychology has more powerful evidence with frontal lobe/dysexecutive brain injury than neuroscience imaging studies at present.

Perhaps the results are because we participate in a society in which individuals are not prepared adequately to act morally when they understand that they either do not have a sould, or may not have free will?

By Dan Deans (not verified) on 28 Dec 2009 #permalink

I don't quite buy into the LP versus CP dichotomy as properly explaining the differences in our approaches to the "free will" problem. I'd argue the differences lie in the various ways we have learned to interpret nature's apparent intentions.
And I'd argue that the analytical processes of our brains' predictive functions are thus not based on the premise of a primarily deterministic nature, but rather on a determinant or decisive one.
We unconsciously assume that nature has a plan, as well as that nature's actions are not only intentional but can be at times directed toward us in particular - and that these intentions in general are evidence of the particular plan that nature has made or has had made for it. So it's not that we feel events are predetermined so much as we feel events are part of nature's planning. The difference here is this - that we feel ourselves as part of this process, in which we are expected to react to nature's probes in ways that will then allow or even require nature to revise its plans for us, either collectively or as individuals, accordingly.

Excellent comments, all!

As some kind of a neurolinguist, my concern with the direction of the research Josh presents is that its premises are pre-Cajal: Beneath almost all such discussions of "free will" lurks the assumption that individual behavioral units must be anatomically connected in order to function as an organism. Conversely some analyses posit that the only organisms worthy of study are those that are anatomically isolable. But both arguments are just two sides of the same reductionist coin. It's as if verbaltransmitters don't exist to bind our minds and shape the behavior of our political and ecological body.

Two notes that may be worth thinking about.

1. John-Dylan Haynes, et al. have done some interesting neuroscientific research that has implications for the free will debate. (Brief summary here: )

2. I've become interested in arguments that suggest lack of belief in free will causes one to act less moral. Two quick thoughts about this, however: (i) doesn't an argument that says that one's lack of belief in free will causes one to act less moral seem to imply that one's will is weak in the first place - regardless of whether it is free? And (ii) what about students in Eastern culture - wherein many tend *not* to believe in free will (at least not in the way Westerners do) in the first place? Many schools of Buddhism don't accept free will, but focus rather on consequences of actions (karma), etc. I wonder if such studies/results merely reflect a cultural flaw, rather than an individual's behavioral flaw (if one does want to argue that such an outcome is a flaw, that is)?

Either way, interesting discussion so far.

By Jorgen Hansen (not verified) on 30 Dec 2009 #permalink

There's nothing more interesting than the human mind contemplating its own nature. Thanks to Jonah for providing the canvas and to all who join in here for your thoughtful ideas on this topic. Here are some more of mine for your New Year's Eve entertainment.

The arguments about free will - pro and con - depend on a view of human nature that sees conscious cognition as the idealized director human of behavior. This view is so pervasive that it constitutes a paradigm within which we view human nature. Free will then, is construed as a moral resource that we can call upon when facing a behavior decision. When we do that we are enabled to follow behavior that our "thinking" reveals to us as correct or moral. Otherwise, we may follow our more primitive emotional urges if we don't think about our actions. I disagree with this paradigm.

We seldom think about our behavior before choosing it but when we do the thinking is itself the result of emotional forces. Based on past experience those forces may cause us to think about the probability and severity of negative consequences. The fear of those become additional emotional forces to be aggregated. Whatever the summation derived from this iterative process - that's what we'll do.

We mostly use thinking to form justifications or mitigating explanations for our own emotionally-driven behavior. The difference between acting morally or not in a given situation is simply which behavior - after we may think about it a bit - our mind predicts will provide the greatest net emotional payoff. Our behavior will follow.

We want to believe in free will then for practical reasons - we sometimes need an excuse or explanation for what we did or want to do. But also, for egotistical reasons - we like to see ourselves as special (better) when compared to non-thinking animals but also compared to lesser humans (as more moral). Free will feels like thinking but its really just predicting the future emotional consequences of our actions and choosing the optimal payoff. It's what all brained animals do.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 31 Dec 2009 #permalink

Yes, but to the extent that any animal can be said to have a rational component to its cognitive system, its emotional brain will turn to that component for "predictive" assistance - and to the extent that "rational" analysis turns to the functional culture from which it derives its "learning," the determinative nature of that culture will have an effect on the emotions. And these emotions, as the final arbiter of choice and action, will in some sense have taken the measure of its "freedom" into account.
And there are different varieties of "determinative" algorithms operating in any biological system that direct interaction among individual entities as a "cultural" force. Quorum sensing for example is to some extent "taught" by the particular bacterial culture extant to its group survival.

@royniles, As for culturally derived emotional forces, I think of those as beliefs, which I define as the association of behavior candidates, brought forth by some environmental event or perception - with behavior-mediating emotional forces - an association that we "learned" from our culture. (i.e. not instincts or pre-dispositions).

I see these "beliefs" as common in most complex animals such as mammals. These are primary sources of emotional forces for directing behavior. Even my cat's mind is full of them. For example, she learned from her culture, which includes me, that standing near her dish and whining a bit will result in cat food being deposited in it. Just as I "believe" that filling her dish will result in an emotional payoff for me - the whining stops and I feel a satisfaction that I'm being a good provider for my cat - at least partially because my culture values kindness to pets - and it feels good to behave consistently with my culture's values.

In both cases our behavior is the result of these acquired beliefs and requires no conscious consideration. I assume she first arrived at her belief by chance and repetition and did not reason it out. Nor does she access it consciously because she can't. I might have reasoned it out the first time or two but now I don't think about it either. I just "believe" that such whining requires my "filling the cat dish" and will produce a net increase in my emotional well-being - and I can decide to do it while I'm thinking about something else, like your comment.

I know you are offering at least a partial contra-view because you start with "Yes, but . . ". I've reread your comment a few times and have filled my cat's dish which usually helps me focus but I'm still a bit confused as to what we might disagree about. I think the gist is somewhere in your sentence, "And these emotions, as the final arbiter of choice and action, will in some sense have taken the measure of its "freedom" into account."

I like the the part about emotions as the final arbiter of choice but . . are you advocating for the existence of "freedom" here as a form of human "free will" - that produces behavior-mediating emotional forces that are not available to non-conscious animals? I hope you can see my confusion. Any clarification or fuller explanation will be appreciated.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 31 Dec 2009 #permalink

Basically I'm arguing that the freedom each individual or group of individuals has to make decisions, consciously or just through some primordial sense of awareness, is limited by the scope of optional choices available to it through both its heritable strategies and those learned through the immediacy of its experiences.
So when I said "but," that was in reference to what I regard as fact that all life forms have considerations that equate to "freedom of will" to take action built into their functional apparatus, whether they can in any sense conceive of the nature of choice and freedom or not. And this is not limited to what we regard as brained animals. Some or perhaps most single celled organisms have no discernible "brain" area, yet calculate, learn and choose - such learning as a group being necessary for acquiring resistance to antibiotics as one example.

I Might add that all of these organisms, including ourselves, tend to operate as if they are a part of whatever plan nature is operating from at that moment. However, it's likely only the humans that contemplate whether we can willfully change the plan counter to whatever "will" we conceive to be the extension of some natural purpose.

Hi royniles, I think now you are speaking of the "freedom" that all we animals have to choose behavior from our genotypal possibilities as circumstances arise. If so, I fully concur. And it is remarkable that we human animals can sit back and contemplate our good fortune - and give credit to all sorts of imaginary forces. Cheers

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

Ray, Yes, and I also subscribe to the theory that all life forms react as if nature's forces were potentially aimed at them, the purposes for which the organism had fashioned its
programming to be wary of.

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