Determinism 10 – Is It Better To Believe That We Have Free Will?

[This is one of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first one is here.]

What then about the suggestion that it is better for people to believe that they have free will, even if we don’t know whether they do or don’t?

One such argument stems from studies that show that people might act in morally better ways if they believe that they are making the choices, and worse if they are made to believe that they don’t. In order to instil in people a greater scepticism about free will, researchers give them a passage from Francis Crick’s (the co-discoverer of DNA) book “The Astonishing Hypothesis” which says:

“‘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 behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons… although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.”

Or they ask them to think about sentences such as: “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”, or “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules”.

Another group of participants is given other ideas to ponder that are meant to be more conducive of re-inforcing beliefs in free will: “I have feelings of regret when I make bad decisions because I know that ultimately I am responsible for my actions,” or they are given texts that have nothing to do with free will.

The studies then contain a further element that looks at what happens with people who have been prompted in various ways with regard to free will.

Apparently, those who have been primed to become sceptical about free will are more likely to cheat in maths tests and less likely to help others than those who have been primed to believe in free will or who have had no prompts.

In one study, participants were asked, after reading Crick, to help prepare food for a taste test. Having become less inclined to believe in free will, they turned out to be more inclined to add chilli sauce to a meal for a stranger of whom they knew that he or she has indicated on a questionnaire that he or she doesn’t like hot foods!

Nonetheless I’m not sure that we should conclude that a belief in free will makes you morally better, or that a belief in determinism makes you worse.

The problem is that these people were primed to think in particular ways about free will and responsibility. And the studies did not look at other elements of the belief system that these people had in place. The passage from Crick quoted above for example doesn’t just aim to erode a belief in free will, it also wants to reduce our feelings and our sense of self to illusions based on purely material foundations. The sentences replace the world of human experience to the movement of molecules. They leave little place for the thought that human actions could be predetermined but still lead to responsibility. This is not the only way in which a lack of belief in free will can be construed.

The sentence quoted above that is used to prime people to believe in free will on the other hand is strong on “regrets” over “bad choices” and “responsibility.” In other words, it has a strong moral background built into it. I would say it is more about instilling a view of morality than one about free will.

Leaving to one side the problem about what kind of determinism and free will people are led to consider, the studies don’t look at (or don’t tell us) what the participants believed in addition to the stuff they were primed to. Someone who believes that his life is predetermined within a cold, vast, ultimately meaning- and purposeless universe is likely to act differently from someone who believes that her life is predetermined by a benign divinity who steers creation towards eternal bliss.

The fact that these people feel they can cheat more, be less helpful to others, or make food less palatable for strangers, should potentially lead us more to worry about the background morality of study participants – perhaps unleashed more if they are primed not to take their responsibility too seriously – than their beliefs in free will or determinism.


Determinism 9 – The Real Oedipus Complex: Moral Responsibility Without Free Will

[This post is a part of a series on determinism. The previous one is here. The first one of the series is here.]

If Dr. Freud hadn’t named his particular complex after him, Oedipus might have become famous for the way he exemplified the relationship of human beings with their predetermined lives rather than just for that matter of killing his father and marrying his mother.

For Oedipus the force of determinism is expressed by oracles. Even at the time of his birth, his father Laius receives the prophecy that he will die by the hands of the newborn son. And it is precisely because Laius aims to avoid that fate by having the baby killed that a course of events is set in train that leads to the fulfilment of that prophecy. The baby isn’t killed but abandoned in the mountains and adopted by a couple. He kills his father in a chance meeting, not knowing who he is, in an early example of road rage. And, of course, as presaged, he marries his mother, Jocasta, not knowing that she is his mother either. In the course of events he also becomes king of Thebes. The abandoned baby, Oedipus, grows up and goes through life like a human wrecking ball, or an avalanche wreaking havoc. The people of Thebes are suffering from the plague visited upon the city in punishment for the terrible deeds its king has committed. Jocasta ends up hanging herself and Oedipus, when it all comes to lights, puts his lights out, gouging out his eyes in self-punishment.

It is only then that Oedipus accepts his further oracle that he would die in a place consecrated to the Furies, and finally be a blessing, not a curse, to the land where his life ends.

One of the many points about the myth of Oedipus has been made by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes:

“The story of Oedipus is well known: Abandoned as an infant, he was taken to King Polybos, who raised him. One day when he was grown into a youth, he came upon a dignitary riding along a mountain path. A quarrel arose, and Oedipus killed the dignitary. Later he became the husband of Queen Jocasta and ruler of Thebes. Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilence. When Oedipus realised that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later, it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts wree therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortune (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hand of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe? (…)

But (…) whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool? (…)

Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realised what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by ‘not knowing,’ he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.”

The case Kundera makes is that a lack of knowledge concerning one’s actions does not absolve you from responsibility for them. The same case though can also be made about the freedom with which one chooses to perform one’s actions.

If anyone could have argued that he was not free to choose his actions, it was Oedipus. After all, his misdeeds – killing his father and marrying his mother – were predicted by a powerful oracle at birth. And despite actions taken to avoid them, they come to pass. But Oedipus recognises that it is he who has carried out the crimes, even if it was all predetermined and presaged.

Why did Oedipus feel that he needed to take responsibility for his actions even though they were foretold before he knew anything and all steps were taken to avoid them? The point is that it was still he, Oedipus as a person, who had done these acts and so they would be with him until atoned. As the king of Thebes he was in danger of continuing to bring the wrath of the Gods onto innocent citizens due to the person he had become. As the king of Thebes, he felt responsible for the welfare of his subjects. Oedipus’ strict self-punishment leads him to be redeemed, averts the plague from Thebes. Ultimately, having taken responsibility and accepted his predetermined fate, he is sought out as a person who could bring blessing to the land.

We have to make do without oracles, seers and divine punishments. Nonetheless, the things we do are strongly associated with us as individuals. If we harm others by acting on faulty reasons, we are the ones who hadn’t developed sufficient rationality to see the better reasons. We can be criticised for that and it can be hoped that we can correct and better ourselves. Taking responsibility for our actions, owning them, even if they were determined by factors outside ourselves, could be a first step to that kind of improvement and development of greater insight.

We stay responsible for the actions we take, even if we can point to factors that have caused us to take them. We took the actions that had that effect and by doing so set in train an other series of cause and effect. Being the cause of something just gives us responsibility for the impacts. There doesn’t need to be a further concept of moral responsibility that comes from having freely chosen to do it.