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.


I'd love to know what you think about this!