Does Belief in Free Will Make Us Better People?

Does Belief in Free Will Make Us Better People - 990x580Flickr Paul Burnett (CC)

Resolving what to think about free will is itself a choice. Like many other important decisions, there may be alternatives that are better or worse for each of us, but no single conclusion is necessarily appropriate for everyone.

Too often scholars treat the topic of free will as if there currently exists a single indisputably “correct” perspective. However, the sheer variety of accounts of whether and how our choices control our actions demonstrates that this issue is far from resolved.

Given this lack of consensus, each one of us is faced with deciding for ourselves where we stand on an issue that may have important consequences for how we lead our lives. Increasing evidence suggests that people’s views about free will bear on their pro-social behaviors, sense of personal control, and general well being. Indeed, while more research is needed, science will likely determine which beliefs about free will are maximally functional long before it discerns which beliefs are correct.

Initial evidence for the functionality of a belief in free will emerged from several studies by Kathleen Vohs and myself examining the impact of discouraging a belief in free will on individuals’ tendency to cheat. In one study, participants were presented with one of two essays by the Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA who later in his career studied the nature of consciousness. One of Crick’s essays (a fine example of the unwavering certitude of many scholars on this topic) directly undermined the notion that people posses free will stating:

“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…So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us, and we cannot change that. “

Crick’s other essay referred to consciousness but made no mention of whether or not people possess free will. Later, in what was framed as a different experiment, participants received a variety of questions including ones that asked about their belief in free will. They also received a computer based mental arithmetic task that they were advised included a programming error that would cause the answer to prematurely appear on the screen if they did not press the space bar. This meant that participants needed to press the space bar as soon as they finished seeing a problem to avoid cheating.

The results revealed that those presented with the anti-free will message were particularly likely to allow the computer to give them the answer, and this change in behavior was statistically mediated by a decreased belief in free will. In short, discouraging a belief in free will encouraged cheating.

A second study demonstrated a similar point. In this study, participants read statements that expressed either the view that free will does not exist, that it does exist, or that only mentioned ideas unrelated to free will. Later, they participated in a task in which they paid themselves for the number of problems they successfully completed. The results revealed that participants who were exposed to the anti-free will message were more likely to overpay themselves relative to the other conditions. Once again, discouraging a belief in free will encouraged cheating

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example, Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action.  In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Still other studies have investigated the relationship between people’s pre-existing beliefs about free will and their behavior and attitudes. Research by Stillman and colleagues found that believing in free will is associated with better career prospects and job performance.

Recently we found that a belief in free will is positively correlated with a host of positive attributes (including: self-control, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, mindfulness, and ambition) and negatively correlated with several less desirable traits (such as neuroticism and mind-wandering). Of course, we must be cautious in drawing causal inferences from correlational studies. Nevertheless, these findings are consistent with the view, more directly implicated by the experimental studies reviewed earlier, that a belief in free will affords some positive benefits.

Given these various lines of research, it might be tempting to conclude that a belief in free will makes us better people. However, I think such a blanket conclusion is misguided for a number of reasons.

First, the strengths of the relationships between belief in free will and the assorted positive traits and behaviors reviewed above, though observed in various labs and typically statistically significant, are generally relatively modest. Indeed, some studies have failed to find these relationships at all.

Second, although the bulk of studies investigating the issue have found positive benefits of a belief in free will, there is also evidence that a disbelief in free will has its advantages.  For example, a recent set of studies by Sharif and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduced people’s tendency to punish purely for the sake of vengeance.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, those who have concluded that a belief in free will is misguided would reasonably cringe at the notion that people who believe in a convenient fiction are “better” than those who have faced up to the reality of the situation.

Ultimately, whether or not a belief in free will affords positive benefits likely depends on a person’s idiosyncratic predispositions and understandings. For some, a belief in free will may offer a sense of personal control that enables them to behave in ways most consistent with their personal values. Those individuals whose pro-social behaviors are undermined by telling them that free will does not exist may fit in this camp.  For others, a dismissal of free will may have no negative consequences. Many people who have concluded that free will is an illusion nevertheless maintain the highest level of self-actualization and moral fortitude.

Furthermore, the apparent costs of dismissing a belief in free will may stem from an overly simplified understanding of the concept. People may assume that if one’s decisions are the product of an unending deterministic string of causes and effect, then they necessarily lack any genuine personal control. However, as noted below, many philosophers question the necessity of this assumption.

Personally, I find all three of the major conceptualizations of free will lacking, which contributes to my belief that neither logic nor science currently requires me to abandon a concept that I find quite useful. (Read more.)

Hard determinism’s assumption, as endorsed by Crick, that free will is an illusion, seems the most straightforward way of reconciling the experience of free will with current scientific views of cause and effect. However, there is much we still do not understand about the underpinnings of science, and a complete absence of free will is very difficult to square with the seemingly self-evident experience of personal control.

Compatibilism ’s assumption (alluded to just above) that genuine free will can exist in an entirely deterministic universe is by far the most popular view among modern philosophers. However, it is very difficult for me to gain an intuitive understanding of how our decisions can be in any real sense free if they are the unavoidable consequence of deterministic and potentially random processes.

The Libertarian view that conscious intent somehow transcends the causal chain of physical events most closely resonates with my personal experience, but it is difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to imagine how this might happen.

The lack of a fully satisfying conceptualization of free will leads me to conclude that all three major views are contenders, but I yearn for the formulation of other accounts that could be more readily reconciled with both logic and experience.

Given this quandary, each of us is faced with deciding the matter for ourselves. The conclusion we draw will depend on our personal predispositions and for many be informed by logic and scientific evidence.

Yet as William James observed in making the case for pragmatism, when an idea cannot be evaluated on reason alone, it may be appropriate to:

“Grant an idea or belief to be true,” and ask “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

For myself, the functionality of a belief in free will, both as revealed by research and through personal experience, contributes to its appeal.  Free will from my perspective is like sailing a ship; we are buffeted by innumerable forces out of our control and will inevitably get somewhere regardless of what we do. However, if we take the helm we are more likely to end up where we want to go.

For some, though clearly not all, the belief in free will may be bolstered by an appreciation of its value in helping us steward our lives.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think it is appropriate to encourage people to consider the practical value of a belief in free will in deciding whether or not they think it exists?
  2. What might be some of the other costs or benefits to a belief in free will?
  3. What are some of the potential mechanisms by which a belief in free will may influence behavior?

Discussion Summary


My essay on whether believing in free will makes us better people opened with the observation that free will is a topic on which there is little consensus. The discussion clearly bore out this assertion. Some agreed with my claim that the utility of the belief in free will was a reasonable consideration in deciding whether to believe in it. Arguments along these lines included observations that the belief in free will advances the purposes of culture, encourages people to make choices that aid in healing, and eliminates the mental burden that would otherwise occur if one had to try to remember that free will is merely an illusion. Others were skeptical of whether the value of a belief in free will in anyway justifies its adoption. Still others argued that it was the experience and not the value of believing free will that determines whether or not people endorse it.

Comments about the relative merits of libertarian, compatibilist, and hard determinism accounts of free will were equally disparate. Some made passionate claims that free will transcends deterministic forces, arguing that it may represent an intrinsic property of the universe, or an emergent capacity that arises with the onset of conscious beings. Others rejected free will entirely, asserting that it is inconsistent with the causal laws of nature. Still others defended the view that free will and determinism are compatible so long as the definition of free will is adequately constrained.

The striking divergence of views elicited by my essay raises two central questions: 1) Why when faced with the same evidence do people come to such disparate conclusions on the topic of free will? 2) If consensus on a fundamental metaphysical question is truly lacking, is it reasonable to draw on pragmatic considerations in deciding whether to adopt a view? Both of these questions would warrant full-fledged essays, but allow me to at least briefly comment on each.

Why are there such disparate views about free will? There are of course many prosaic explanations for why there is so much disagreement about free will. As with other controversial topics, cultural and family values, education, media exposure, and pivotal life experiences may all contribute. Intriguingly, it is also possible that differences in how we experience the world may play a role. For example, a study by Aarts and Kees van den Bos examined the relationship between belief in free will and distortions in the perception of the onset of events that follow a deliberate action. On some trials, participants pressed a button that after a brief delay elicited a tone. On other trials, they simply heard a tone at random times. In both cases, participants simultaneously watched a clock and reported the precise time at which the tone went off. As is typically observed with this paradigm, all participants showed anticipatory priming, that is they estimated the tone as going off sooner if it was initiated by their own button press, relative to when it occurred randomly. But strikingly this distortion was markedly greater for those who believed in free will relative to those who did not. This finding suggests that people who believe in free will may experience a stronger association between their actions and the events that follow them. In short, differences in how we experience the world may color our views about free will.

Is it reasonable to consider the functionality of a belief in determining whether to adopt it? If differences in our experiences can influence the causal inferences that we draw about our intentions, it seems quite reasonable that such disparities might also contribute to whether or not we are willing to entertain pragmatic considerations in determining our worldview. For some, the experience of free will may be so compelling that pragmatic considerations are of no issue. For others, the experience of the natural laws of cause and effect may overshadow the experience of free will. But for those of us on the fence, consideration of the practical value of free will may seem an entirely appropriate factor in deciding how to come down on this issue.

And of course, evaluations of the utility of metaphysical notions need not be limited to the question of free will. For those who find themselves undecided about metaphysical issues of all sorts, the functional value of these beliefs may seem an appropriate consideration in deciding whether or not to hold them. This is certainly the conclusion of some great minds such as William James and Blaise Pascal. In the end, each of us must decide for ourselves how much to weigh the value of a belief in deciding whether or not to adopt it.  Appreciating that the outcome of such deliberations may depend in part on the unique way that each of us experiences the world may help us to be more empathetic to those who come down on these issues differently from ourselves.  And if we do decide to take a pragmatist perspective it is nice to know that as the science of  the utility of different worldviews progresses, it will increasingly be able to inform us about which beliefs are likely to be most functional.

41 Responses

  1. Tam Hunt says:

    A common sense view of free will, which shouldn’t be discarded without very strong evidence against it, is that we enjoy free will when we contemplate different actions or possible futures based on such actions, and then decide which is the most desirable future to pursue. In other words, free will is a choice about the preferred future.

    As life has evolved greater consciousness we have at the same time evolved a greater ability to project the future. Our temporal lobes are thought to be very important in the pronounced difference between humans and other animals in projecting the future with such detail as we all know intimately. 

    Under this view, we have evolved ever more free will as we have evolved ever better ability to project the future. 

    But under the evidence from biology, it is clear that the ability to model the future with greater and greater detail has evolved as a continuum, not as a fully emergent property. Indeed, even a bacterium has a rudimentary model of the world in its little “head” that allows it to navigate the world in search of food, or in collective hunting (yes, bacteria sometiems hunt collectively), etc. So we can reasonably infer that even bacteria have some degree of free will under the definition of free will I’ve suggested here. 

    We may even reasonably infer some even more rudimentary model of the world and of free will in simpler entities than bacteria. Freeman Dyson, the American physicist, stated (not hyperbolically): “[T]he processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” So do have electrons have free will? As strange as it sounds, this is what Dyson is suggesting and it is a reasonable conclusion under the brief framework I’ve sketched here. It’s just extremely rudimentary free will and because it’s so rudimentary the behavior of electrons is highly regular and predictable (en masse; individual electron behavior can be quite unpredictable). 

    Many thinkers have fleshed out non-deterministic models of reality, perhaps most notably Alfred North Whitehead. For Whitehead, like Dyson, free will is in some non-trivial sense built into the fabric of reality. To be is to have at least some highly rudimentary decision-making ability. 

    We have fallen sway to a deterministic physical view of the universe for various reasons, but this is where the Copernican revolution has gone too far: we are not simply cogs in a machine that erroneously thinks it turns out of choice. We are, rather, the most free of entitites in our corner of the universe because we have evolved the ability to model possible futures in great details – and to choose among those futures. That’s free will worth having.

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      There is no question but that our ability to model the future allows us to engage in planning that is unique to our species.  Whether this represent free will depends on one’s definition and metaphysics, but it certainly appears that way to me.  I am also very sympathetic to the panpsychist notion that consciousness may represent a fundamental aspect of the universe that is manifest at many different levels, perhaps all the way down bacteria and even particles.  If consiousness exists all the way down, and if free will is some how a product of consciousness, then it too may exist all the way down.  Although I am sympathetic to the panpsychist view, I am far from persuaded that this is necessarily the state of affairs.  Still I think it is a perspective worth seriously entertaining.

      • Tam Hunt says:

        Jonathan, I agree that there is no slam dunk on panpsychism and libertarian notions of free will, as I argued above that there is no slam dunk on determinism. That said, as with all macro questions about life, the universe, and everything, we make our judgments and our arguments based on plausibility and narrative, and marshal evidence as best we can.

        The most immediate evidence available to us on the question of free will all swings strongly in one direction: we do indeed have free will. Every second of our waking life is based on the notion of free will, of agency. Our entire society is built on the notion that we are free agents. Criminal justice is just one strong example, in which intent plays a strong role in punishment. But all human relationships are built on the notion of free agency, and this is why I asked Roy to imagine a single human being, let alone an entire society, that truly believes he/she has no free will. So the best evidence available to us strongly supports a libertarian view of free will.

        It is only far more abstract and removed evidence, primarily from physics and cognitive science, that suggests we don’t have free will. The evidence from physics is hardly a slam dunk, however, because there are plausible views in physics today that suggest the universe is not deterministic. I’ve sketched these arguments, based on Ilya Prigogine’s work, here: Prigogine’s main point in his book, The End of Certainty, is that we can and should re-frame prevailing physical theories in a non-time reversible way, which accords with our experience of reality. And here’s an interview with physicist Lee Smolin questioning the deterministic notions of physical theories that hold sway today:

        As for cognitive science, Libet’s work is increasingly being questioned in terms of the general view that it supports a deterministic view of the brain and mind. Schurger and Dehaene’s recent work presents a very plausible counter-argument to deterministic views, which counterargument (as one of many possible counterarguments) allows us to restore the conscious mind to the role of decisionmaker (under their “accumulator model”). We don’t need to engage in highly speculative arguments about retro-causality, as some have done, to interpret Libet’s work in a way that supports free will.

        Anyway, in summary, there are highly plausible arguments in favor of a non-deterministic universe and a non-deterministic brain. Arguments about how far free will extends down the chain of being are important but secondardy, it seems to me, to this broader debate about determinisim in physics and cog sci. 

        Thanks for the great article and discussion. 

        • epcharles says:


          You said:

          “The most immediate evidence available to us on the question of free will all swings strongly in one direction: we do indeed have free will. Every second of our waking life is based on the notion of free will, of agency. Our entire society is built on the notion that we are free agents. Criminal justice is just one strong example, in which intent plays a strong role in punishment.”

          I suspect this case is not as strong as you think. Almost every waking moment of almost every day, almost all people go about their buisness with not a thought of free will and not a thought of themselves as free agents. You, as a third party interested in such things, might see them continuously excercising free will, but, most of the time, from their point of view, they are just acting. When someone asks me if I want to go to lunch, I say “yes” or “no” or “in a minute”, but I don’t typcially take the time to step out of the moment and reflect upon my having made such “free will” decision. Habit is a powerful things, and humans are creatures of habit.

          The case in criminal justice is also not as clear cut as it might seem. Justice Posner had some great early writings about Jurisprudence in which he questioned whether the crimial justice system ever really needed to get into someone’s head (or if it would find anything useful there if it ever succeeded). For example, there is good legal basis to treat “premeditation” as a visible thing a person does (brining necessary implements, scope out a location, etc.), regardless of what they report to have been “thinking”.

          I am not saying you are right or wrong in your conclusion. I am merely suggesting that if we were to take everyday experience at face value, it would suggest that free will was not at all ubiquitous.

          • Tam Hunt says:

            epcharles, I think your examples are fine examples of free will being exercised. When someone asks you to go to lunch, you consider the options – agreeing or pursuing different plans – and choose among these options. That’s exactly the definition of free will I provided above: a choice of a preferred future among different options. And every choice we make is like this, regardless of the degree of thought that is excercised in each scenario.

            Now, of course, many things we do are reflexive and don’t require much thought. But there’s still some choice-making going on even when there’s not much conscious thought. It’s a matter of degree, not all or nothing. And, going a bit deeper, I would argue that even if some decisions (let’s say, driving a car while contemplating problems in one’s marriage) are largely unconscious, that unconscious process is still you; it’s just not your conscious mind. But the unconscious is still entirely you as a human being.

            This is another way to interpret Libet-type experiments in a way that preserves free will, similar to Schurger and Dehaene’s model, but different in a key way. A lot of the confusion about free will stems from mistaken notions of identity and the self. We need to get a better common understanding of identity before we can establish a better common understanding of free will. My self is far more than my conscious mind. It surely includes my unconscious mind. And it very likely should include the web of relationships that connects me to the world around me. 

  2. spacecalculus says:

    Personal responsibility begins and ends with an open heart and an open mind.

  3. epcharles says:

    The “practical value” arguement is a tough one. “Believe in free will, it will reduce your weight!” might be a great sell for people interested in losing weight, but not for people interested in “the problem” of free will. (And more people are interested in losing weight than discouraging cheating.)

    I suspect we need to reverse the question (following James’s lead even further). What are those situations in which we experience people (ourselves and others) excercising free will? Grant, as a pragmatist (or radical empricist), that free will is whatever is happening in those situations, and figure out what is happening. If we go this route, we will find that much of what is happening in those situations can be described with reference to activities in your neurons. However, we will need a lot more than that for a complete explanation. Neurons are not all there is to being a body, nevertheless all there is to being a person. The task ahead is to determine what other types of things are needed to explain those situations in which we experience free will. 

    As a seperate criticism, even if Crick was correct in his “bundle of neurons” quip, I don’t know why people insist on mistaking “explaining something” with “explaining away something”. Knowing how a rainbow is formed doesn’t mean there is no rainbow. If, one day, we really were able to explain how people do free will, that wouldn’t make free will go away. 

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      I like the idea of starting with assuming free will from a pragmatic perspective and then asking what does my possessing free will necessarily entail.  Different folks will sure come up with different answers to this question but this also seems like a good direction.  I also concur there is a difference between explaining something and explaining it away, although much of the issue here involves levels of analysis.  For sure you can explain rainbows in terms of refraction and the like, but this does not speak to the level of explanation regarding the awe that they inspire.   An explanation can be completely satisfying at one level, but largely irrelevant at another level.

  4. JohnTierneyNYC says:

    Thanks for the excellent summary of the arguments for and against free will. Should we encourage belief in free will? My gut feeling is yes, because I find the evidence for its benefits to be persuasive. At the very least, I don’t see any reason to discourage a belief in free will. Here’s an additional utilitarian argument in favor of this belief. We know that our cognitive resources are limited, and that expending mental energy can lead to to “ego depletion” (as Roy Baumeister termed it) that leaves us with less willpower, less self-control and less capacity for making good decisions.

    Now, if you have an intuitive belief in free will — as I do, and as I presume most people do — then it takes mental work to ignore this intuition and use your powers of reasoning to persuade yourself that you don’t have free will. Is that a wise use of your limited mental resources? I don’t think so. We already know of many situations in which our intuition leading to various forms of bias (faulty generalizations, strange superstitions, irrational loss aversion, hyperbolic discounting of the future, etc.) that lead to faulty conclusions and decisions that harm our long-term welfare. Shouldn’t we reserve our mental resources for fighting intuitions that we know to be mistaken and harmful? The intuitive belief in free will isn’t necessarily mistaken (at worst, it’s debatable), and it doesn’t necessarily lead to harmful results. In fact, as Dr. Schooler shows, there’s a lot of evidence that it leads to benefiicial results for individuals as well as society. So why discourage it? There are much better uses for our mental energy.

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      I quite agree with Tierney’s suggestion that trying to abandon one’s intuitive belief in free will could be depleting.  In our research we have found that telling people they lack free will can have effects very similar to other manipulations (like trying to write an essay without “e”s or “I” that have been shown to be ego depleting.   So there is a real cost in terms of mental energy to discouraging a belief in free will.   Still I know plenty of people who heartily endorse a hard determinism perspective and still get way more one than I do.   So perhaps at least for some, with practice, the energy costs of giving up a belief in free will are reduced, and people build up mental muscle so it no longer bothers them.

  5. Roy Baumeister says:

       Excellent essay, Dr. Schooler! I agree with your conclusion (that “No” is the answer to the question in your title) but not for the reasons you cite.

       The first reason you cite is that some studies have failed to find the results you noted. Are you saying the links between belief in free will and various behaviors are non-replicable flukes? For myself, I quite believe the positive results. In our lab, the occasional failure of research with free will beliefs has usually been due to some measurement problem or other technical flaw. We replicate the positive findings consistently, as long as measures and methods are good.

       Your second reason is that “disbelief in free will has its advantages.” There you cite the Sharif paper on vengeance. Let me comment on how I see this, rather than casting it in terms of good versus evil as you seem inclined to do.

       My view is that free will, like all other distinctively human traits, is likely an adaptation for culture, which is the way our species achieves survival and reproduction. Belief in free will likely goes along with that function. It is not that believing in free will carries some moral superiority to it, nor that the actions it produces are inherently better. They are however pro-cultural, in that they facilitate the social systems by which we live.

       In this connection, punishing people who misbehave is a way of upholding the rules of the cultural, such as morals and laws. People all have a stake in making sure others obey these rules. Without rules, society falls apart. Morality and law presuppose that people are able to act in different ways, so in that sense free will is an underlying assumption. Hence those who believe in free will think we should enforce the rules by punishing people who misbehave.

       As I’m sure you know, other studies by Sharif’s group found that the effects of belief in free will on recommended punishment vanished with close relationship partners. This is consistent with some work in my group, which found that believing in free will actually promotes forgiving close partners. Crucially, one’s goal is quite different when dealing with a close relationship partner as opposed to a stranger. When a stranger misbehaves, you want to affirm the rules of the society. When a partner misbehaves, you want to preserve the relationship, so you want to believe that the person can change. That’s why free will beliefs support punitive approaches toward strangers but forgiving approaches to intimate partners.

       Your third reason (which you oddly say is most important) applies only to a smattering of earnest intellectuals, so it is irrelevant to most people in the world.

       Nonetheless, as I said, I agree with your conclusion.

    • Tam Hunt says:

      Roy, how would a belief in free will evolve? More generally, does anyone really believe they don’t have free will (even the most hard-nosed of materialist determinists)? Can you imagine a human being at any point in our development, with cognitive capacity anything like modern humans who truly believes they don’t have free will? We can’t know with any certainty of course course but I would suggest that to be human is to believe one has free will, at least to some degree. 

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      Thanks Dr. Baumeister for your thoughtful reaction to my essay and for your generally postive reactions.  Regarding your quibbles.  1) You question the relevance of my mentioning that the relationship between belief in free will and behavior is often modest and sometimes not found at all.  I agree that we should not dismiss a result because it does not always replicate, but the larger point is that belief in free will has only a very modest predictive value then whether or not one endorses it might not have any bearing on a particular behavior.   2)  I certainly take your point that the relationship between belief in free will and retribution is complex and can be mediated by the nature of the relationship, nevertheless, I stand by the view that reducing people’s tendence for punishment purely for the sake of vengeance, could be viewed as one positive aspect of discouraging a belief in free will.   Green and Cohen make a similar point.  Finally, you question the importance that I see in the opinions of those who have given deep thought to the issue and concluded that it is better to accept what they see as a truth of reality then endorse even a potentially helpful fiction.   While I acknowledge that there may be some merit to the view “if ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise”, for me the opinions of those who have given deep and earnest thought to an issue, are particularly deserving of consideration. 

      • Jonathan Schooler says:


        For sure there are no slam dunks on either side of the issue, which is why people have to make up their minds for themselves.  Thanks for adding some good lines of argument to the debate for people to consider.


        Yes it is notable that even those who dismiss free will still act like they believe in it on a day to day basis.  But this may be a functional way of dealing with all sorts of unpleasantries in life.  I may reasonably believe that  I  lack free will, that I might die at any moment, and that people all over the world are suffering in unimaginably awful ways, but to constantly act on these beliefs could become paralyzing.  Some people who have concluded that free will does not exist have surely worked out effective ways of not letting that stifle there day to day lives.  Others, may be less successful in this regard.

  6. Janet says:

    First, belief in free will is essential to the work I do in psychotherapy, which often involves encouraging people to make choices for healing, such as behaviour change, attitude change, and forgiving wrongs. Second, my intuition and experience is that even people who defend determinism act in their daily lives as if they have free will

  7. rcl says:

    If by free will we mean having a deterministic control of decisions through choice, then perhaps a link can be drawn between habitual memory and creating new paths divergent from that tendency.

    It seems that free will can only be exerted in those moments when we are confronted by choices which are inevitably narrowed through habit to be relived over and over until we consciously, in the moment,  say NO and make a decision contrary to that impulse.

    Of course the real question is where does our consciousness, as the vehicle for our thoughts, originate from and how does it influence our minds interpretation and meaning of reality through which the choices are made?

    Perhaps the problem can be thought of Quantumly,  where possibilities are reduced to personal probabilities through habitual memory and can be overrode only by conscious effort (free will) in the moment.

    If this is true, then free will would be exerted in only a fraction of our lives when we consciously decide to take another path away from the habitual memories that propel our reality.

  8. nepley says:

    Jonathan Schooler suggests that the consequences of holding a belief should be considered as justification for belief when the empirical evidence is equivocal.  This encourages us to think of beliefs in the same way that we think of actions, where the decision to pursue one course of action over another is determined by the consequence each action would bring.  Believing in free will is good for you and therefore you should believe it, Schooler tells us, in the same way that going to school is good for you and so you should do it.

    I find this argument compelling.  However, I also think it is an illusion.  Schooler believes in free will not because of the positive outcomes it produces, but because—just like any other belief one holds—it seems to be true.   

    Everyone experiences free will, either because each of us actually has it, or because it’s a profoundly compelling illusion.    If it’s true, then belief in our experience is justified, regardless of the consequences of holding the belief.

    But if it’s a compelling illusion, then you would still feel that you have free will, even if you knew it was an illusion. As anyone who has ever looked at a visual illusion can attest, simply knowing about the illusion doesn’t make you stop experiencing it.  I know the two lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion are the same length, but one still looks longer than the other.  I know that the little circle in the Ebbinghaus Illusion is the same size regardless of whether it’s surrounded by big or little circles, but it still seems to change size depending on its neighbors.  And I know the Escher stairs don’t rise forever, but I still wouldn’t want to start walking on them.  Knowing about an illusion doesn’t keep you from experiencing it.  The same is true of cognitive illusions.  Knowing about the “Planning Fallacy”—that people have the illusion that they will get tasks done more quickly than they actually do—does not stop me from experiencing the illusion and agreeing to do more than I can possibly get done.  And so, like the Ebbinghaus Illusion and the Planning Fallacy, even if the evidence suggested that free will was an illusion, you’d still feel that you had it all the same. 

    When people are asked to explain their beliefs, decades of research that Schooler knows very well (because he contributed to it) shows that people may invent justifications rather than discover true causes.  I suspect something similar is occurring here.  Schooler, like all of us, believes in free will because he feels it, not because it’s good for him to believe it.  And he’d stop believing in free will if he stopped feeling it, not if his experiments revealed that believing in it was bad for you.

    Fortunately, the potential disagreement I have with Schooler’s essay is not a matter for debate, but for experimentation.  What would influence a person’s belief in free will more?  Lacking the experience of it, or finding out that believing in it was a bad for you?  I predict the former. Schooler, I think, predicts the latter.


    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      Epley suggests that I may be the victim of a common illusion.  I think that part of the reason I believe in free will is because it is useful, however, this is just an erroneous justification.  The real reason I believe in free will is because it feels like I have it.  Epley raises an excellent point.  We often do not know the reasons for our attitudes and beliefs, and when we try to justify them we can get it quite wrong.  So  there is  no way for me to know for sure whether and to what degree my perception in the utility of free will may be driving my belief in it.   That said, there are good reasons to think that it may be.  For one there is a large literature on motivated reasoning that shows that we are sympathetic to arguments that lead to conclusions we are motivated to agree with.   Students are going to be more persuaded by arguments for lowering tuition relative to raising it. Given that I am motivated to believe in free will because of its functionality, the research on motivated reasoning would suggest that the functionality of a belief in free will would likely to influence my belief.  Now of course this is only possible if I am willing to entertain the possibility of free will, as many scholars (e.g. James, Pascal) who have promoted a functional perspective on the adoption of belief have noted, you can only be influenced by the utility of a belief if the belief is an option.  Fortunately, as Epley suggests this is a testable proposition.  However, I would not set the  experiment to see if belief in free will is driven either by experience or by its perceived value, as both may be operative.  Rather I would ask whether those people who are already open to the idea of free will might be more likely to endorse it if they were exposed to evidence of its utility, and I rather expect they would.  Such a result would show  that at least for those whose experience is consistent with the possibility of free will, an appreciation of the functionality of a belief in free will can contribute to their willingness to adopt it.

  9. Eddy Nahmias says:

    Hi Jonathan, you lay out the issues nicely.  I’ll reproduce (from a commentary on Baumeister in Neuroethics) my explanation for why some people’s behavior changes when they are told they lack free will, noting (a) that the way they are told they lack free will typically requires strong reductionistic messages that also suggest our powers of conscious self-control are ineffective, and (b) that I agree with you that the body of evidence (including our own) suggests these effects are relatively small and inconsistent:

    (1) Suppose many people believe that free will involves both libertarian powers (LPs) and compatibilist powers (CPs), while some believe that it involves primarily or only CPs, and

    (2) Supppose scientists and the media inform people that free will is an illusion, and

    (3) Suppose neither these scientists (nor media reports) nor ordinary people are clear about what is meant by ‘free will’ or exactly which powers are in question, then

    (4) Most people are likely to come to doubt that they have CPs, including the powers for rational and conscious deliberation and self-control.

    And while people are doubting they have those powers (probably not for very long unless they have these messages driven home repeatedly), they are less likely to exercise them (including their limited resources for willpower).  Messages that specifically target Libertarian powers (e.g., to be an uncaused cause or to have a non-physical soul or just to have non-deterministic processes occur in our brains) are unlikely to make people passive or anti-social, especially if people realize–as they should!–that these LPs are not required for our considerations of future outcomes of various choices, and our efforts of self-control, to play an essential causal role in what choices we make and what happens in the future depending on what we do.

    This interpretation is more difficult to apply to the results regarding people’s diminished judgments of retributive punishment, but it’s plausible to think that if people are led to think people lack Compatibilist powers, they will think criminals don’t deserve as much punishment (and punishment would be less effective for deterrence and rehabilitation too).

    Thanks for an interesting discussion!

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      I share Nahmias view that people hold both compatibilist views about free will that are consistent with physical laws and libertarian views that are not.  I also think it is likely that when you discourage the latter it bleeds over to the former.   I am perhaps less persuaded that the arguments that discourage a belief in libertarian beliefs in free will do not necessarily also apply to compatibilist, but this stems with my difficulty really getting my head around the compatibilist perspective.  For me its like getting to have your cake and eat it too.

  10. James Laird says:

    I believe that new life emerges within me, and it’s not predetermined by the laws of physics. That belief empowers me to give – to know that I have the ability to contribute toward the overall growth of life. To me, said contribution fits the idea of being a “better” person, and therefore my belief in free will helps me to be a better person.

    In summary, I believe the answer to your title question is yes.

    In addition to commenting on the main idea of your essay, please allow me to comment on one other idea that you mentioned; Crick’s essay 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 a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons…So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us, and we cannot change that.”

    If Crick really believes that’s true, then he must also believe that one thought within a physical brain cannot have any intelligent effect on another thought within said physical brain, and that *all* of the control happens *solely* from the four fundamental forces of physics (4FFOP) in a predeterministic manner from the bottom-up. Do Crick’s beliefs seem reasonable to you? In other words, if a person believes in predeterminism, then they must also believe that in order for one thought to affect another thought in an *intelligent* manner, human intelligence must come *directly* from the 4FFOP (e.g., gravity). It doesn’t matter how scientists technically model the interaction of two human thoughts in order for that conclusion to be true. The model is completely irrelevant.
    I believe we can go one step further: In addition to helping mankind understand that a belief in free will makes us better people, we can also prove that the “strong sense” of free will exists (i.e., a person has the ability to make a decision that isn’t predetermined) by acknowledging that new emergent forces are a property of human thoughts (i.e., forces which aren’t simply a direct sum of preexisting forces). If some of the activity that occurs within a physical brain isn’t controlled solely by the 4FFOP, then it’s reasonable to believe there’s new life therein and a person has free will. Best wishes, James Laird.

  11. wondering14 says:

    I don’t understand the meaning of “maximally functional beliefs”, nor “functionality of a belief in free will”.

    Regarding Crick’s “assembly”, was brings it to action? Why not the mind causing the assembly to act rather than, as one would interpret Crick, the physical causing the mental? Has Crick’s done research that supports his free will assertions?

    Why would not believing in free will encourage cheating?

    The author writes, “Research by Stillman and colleagues found that believing in free will is associated with better career prospects and job performance.”  A family’s oldest child is also said to have a similar advantages over the younger siblings. Could there be a connection?

    The author writes about “belief” in free will, or not, rather than talking about “free will” or “determinism” themselves. Is that because resolving the free will/determinism question is impossible, or because the author is interested in only the psychological aspects of “belief”?

    If “Ultimately, whether or not a belief in free will affords positive benefits likely depends on a person’s idiosyncratic predispositions and understandings”, then can the author’s research cannot be applied unless a person’s idiosyncrasies is known. Is that correct?

    • epcharles says:


      I can’t speak to all your points, but I can try to flesh out whit William James would have meant regarding the functionality of a belief in free will. While “pragmatist” philosophy covers a broad range of issues, many pragmatist philosophers (as individuals) have had a particular interest in understanding different aspects of “belief”. One way to explain prgamatist thinking is to say “If two things have all the same consequences, then they are the same thing.” Skipping some of the potentially problematic parts of that, we could say “If two seemingly different beliefs have all the same consequences, then they are the same belief.”

      For example, whether or not I believe “There is a sixth moon around the fourth planet around the third star I saw tonight in the sky” has no practical consequence in my life, and so believing it or not believing it are, for all practical purposes, the same thing.

      So, consider what consequences it would have for your life if there was free will, and consider what consequences it would have for your life if there was not free will. If you cannot find any consequences that distinguish the two options than (certainly, at least, for you) believing in free will and not believing in free will are the same — you can do either, or both, or neither with no consequence.

      Now… if we have experimental evidence that people act differently depending on the stregnth (at any particular moment) of their belief in free will, then that suggests we have fulfilled the above criterion for showing that belief or non-belief has a consquence in this situation.

      I’m not actually sure what William James, or any other particular pragmatist philosopher would think of this reverse engineering. James and Charles Sanders Peirce (the founder of pragmtism) certainly were envisioning something more like a forward-looking thought experiment rather than a backwards-looking empirical study. I suspect James would have personally gotten a kick out the inversion.

      Does that at least help the question to make sense?

      • wondering14 says:

        Yes, thank you. So “functionality of a belief” means how a person would act if that belief is held.

  12. FrMike says:

    This conversation makes odd bedfellows of determinists and predestinarians! Both groups believe your destiny is fixed by initial causes and subsequent events, themselves determined by the flow of the universe or the hand of God.

    In both cases the no free will folks have a cop out.  God, the Devil, or the universe made me do it.  I know the compatibalists work hard to force responsibility in there, and that is all I find it to be; a forced argument.

    I have read articles that suggest the mind is actually in gear and firing on a decision before we “make it”.  David Eagleman’s “Incognito” suggests that criminals may not be responsible for actions drawn from behaviors that have been hard wired in their brain, but he also argues that we can affect and rewire some of that.

    I think a belief in free will allows us to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our choices but that does not necessarily equate with being better people. Or ability to chose may exist as only a thin veneer over a lifetime of behaviors that we have automated or hard wired, but even as a very thin layer it exists.

    For those who wish to see us as public trasportation for bacteria and viruses, I hope they at least run on time.

  13. James Laird says:


    I’m like you – I’ve had difficulty getting my head around the compatibilist perspective. The main issue as I see it, is that they use a “weak sense” of the term “free will”, and therefore they’re able to believe FW is compatible with determinism. (That’s how they get to have their cake and eat it too.)

    I’m thinking there are two very different meanings to the term “free will”, and when people debate the existence of FW, it’s important to be clear on which sense they’re using.

    The “weak sense” of FW is simply the ability for a person to make a choice. I think it’s fair to say that almost everyone is willing to agree that FW in the “weak sense” exists, and that’s why the vast majority of philosophers agree that FW in the weak sense is compatible with the theory of determinism. Compatibilists effectively believe that your choices are predetermined, while at the same time they believe you have FW since you’re able to make choices. (Yes, it’s weak.)

    The “strong sense” of FW is the ability to make a choice that isn’t predetermined by the laws of physics. The strong sense *requires* that new emergent forces exist within a physical human brain that don’t result simply from a direct sum of the four fundamental forces of physics. The strong sense requires the ability to do otherwise (i.e., other than the path if it were controlled solely by the 4FFOP).

    Incompatibilists have a different view than compatibilists, wherein they believe FW and determinism are incompatible. That’s because incompatibilists use the “strong sense” of FW instead of the weak sense (which is why compatibilists and incompatibilists have such a difficult time communicating with one another). However, there’s another fundamental roadblock for incompatibilists, and it pertains to the meaning of the word “determinism”. I don’t think “determinism” and “predeterminism” mean the same thing, and I think the theory held by  incompatibilists is really advocating that FW and *predeterminism* are incompatible (and correctly so).

    To clear all of this up, there’s a new idea that mankind needs to realize: new forces (i.e., living forces) are an emergent property of living things, and those new forces transcend multiple force fields thereby adding into the mix along with the 4FFOP. Those new forces affect the path of reality – they’re part of what *determines* what happens. So from that perspective, we can believe that the path of reality is determined, but not predetermined, since new living forces emerge along the way – they don’t preexist – they’re related to new life.

    Upon mankind’s realization that living forces exist, I believe the two different camps will come together and agree on the truth. The compatibilists will realize that living forces allow us to believe that determinism is compatible with free will in the strong sense, and the incompatibilists will realize that predeterminism is false, and therefore they’ll convert to the new compatibilist’s point of view.

    • Tam Hunt says:

      I also agree that compatibilist views are problematic. The problems arise from definitions. If we all agree that determinism means that every future moment of the universe is determined based on previous conditions and the set of laws that govern the next moment, then every moment of the universe is fully and completely determined from the very beginning of time (let’s call it the Big Bang, even though that beginning is increasingly being questioned). As such, I just don’t see any room for free will at all. I’ve read Dennett’s work in this area, in particular, Freedom Evolves, and didn’t find it at all convincing. He attempts to craft an edifice that allows us to preserve “free will worth having” in a deterministic universe. But he never explains how to get past the basic problem of determinism actually determining things! If determinism means what I just defined it as, there just doesn’t seem to be any room for any kind of free will worth having. And that’s why I’ve suggested in my comments here and elsewhere that the universe is not in fact deterministic. 

  14. wondering14 says:

    Chaos exists in the physical world, which I think disallows the determinacy of certain systems. 

    Has chaos been shown to exist in the non-physical world, in the mental world? Is so, does this affect the free will—determinism question? If it has not been shown to exist, is it because it is impossible to prove?

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      Response to Laird- emergence

      Laird suggests that free will may be an emergent property of living brains that enable them to produce activity that cannot be explained in a bottom up manner. In other words, even if one fully understood the four fundamental forces of physics and their interactions, that would not enable a full prediction of human thought and behavior. I am sympathetic to the notion of emergence, and the concept of downward causation, that somehow higher order processes can impact on lower order ones. However, there is much I know I don’t understand about these issues, and also I believe much that isn’t known by anyone. In short, I come back to the need for great humility in interpreting the current evidence and how it may or may not constrain our metaphysical worldviews. From my vantage, the notion that genuine free will may be an emergent property of complex conscious systems seems quite plausible but not a necessity. Thus while I am perfectly prepared to concede that a belief in free will as driven by emergent properties may very well make Laird a better person, I am hesitant to endorse his further conclusion that this suggests an affirmative answer to the more general assertion that a belief in free will makes us better people. This seems too sweeping for the many people for whom it may not aptly apply.

      Answers to wondering14- assorted questions

      Wondering asks a number of questions

      I don’t understand the meaning of “maximally functional beliefs,” nor “functionality of a belief in free will.”

      I acknowledge that there is some serious wiggle room in how one might construe the functionality of a belief in free will, and this is one of the reasons why I think it may depend on people’s predispositions. One of the predispositions I am referring to is what each person sees as functional. For myself the idea of functionality means beliefs that enable you to be consistent with your personal values, and not cause significant unnecessary harm to others. Beliefs that encourage pro-social behavior generally fit in this category for me.

      Why would not believing in free will encourage cheating? There are several possible reasons. Perhaps not believing in cheating causes people to take a “don’t blame me” attitude. If they lack free will, they may feel they lack personal responsibility and thus cannot be blamed. Alternatively losing a sense of free will may cause “ego depletion.” It may take away their sense of personal control, and undermine their capacity to behave in the manner that they would most like to.

      Could their be parallels between belief in free will and the impact of being first born?

      I am not that familiar with the current state of knowledge of birth order effects although I know that it is a somewhat contentious issue (my father Carmi Schooler actually reviewed this literature a while back and at that time concluded that there was relatively little evidence for such effects). However, there may well be as wondering suggests a tendency for people who are first born to have better career prospects, and if so, it might be interesting to look at whether there are differences in first born children beliefs in free will.

      …can the author’s research only be applied if a person’s idiosyncrasies are known.

      Much of psychology involves generalizations about processes that do not necessarily apply to everyone.   Very rarely when we do studies do the findings work for everyone. The relationship between free will and pro-social behavior is especially susceptible to this concern. We see it for some people some times but not everyone all the time. Moreover, at present we still do not know the specific conditions that determine when the relationship we have observed will apply. Eventually as we understand the process better we may be able to predict what idiosyncrasies predict who is likely to most benefit from a belief in free will, however, we are not even there yet. So at present, as I emphasized caution should be taken in assuming this research will necessarily apply to any particular individual. Try it out for size for yourself and see how it fits.


      Responses to FrMike- predestination and re-wiring

      FrMike observes that determinists and predestinations are odd bedfellows as they both believe their fates are set in stone: one by physical laws, and the other by supernatural forces. I think this is true, and one very interesting direction for further research is to see whether there may be similarities and differences in the impact of dismissing free will depending on whether this conclusion is based on determinism or predestination.

      FrMike mentions Eagelman’s view that we can rewire the hard wired connections in our brain that make us behave the way we do. But of course from this perspective, whether or not we choose to do this would itself be a product of the original hard wiring, so I am not sure how much that really buys you in terms of gaining free will.

      The idea that free will is the capacity to overcome default automization is a very interesting one that I discuss further in my response to echarles.

      Response to Laird2- emergent living forces

      Laird suggests that the difference between compatibilists and determinists has to do with their definitions of free will with the former adopting a weak sense (the ability to make a choice) and the latter a strong sense (the ability make decisions that are not predetermined by the laws of physics). He further argues that as we come to understand emergence we will come to recognize the existence of “living forces” that are not simply the product of current known physical forces. I think this is an intriguing prediction and one that I am personally sympathetic too. Human action can be interpreted as the interaction of fields, an idea that actually goes back to some of the early founders of psychology (e.g. Lewin). It is intriguing to think that consciousness and social interactions may produce emergent forces that are distinct but consistent with existing physical processes. For sure it seems a very daunting task to explain all of human action and social interactions from the reductionist perspective of physics. However, only time will tell whether this view holds empirical merit. 

      Response to Hunt- understanding compatibilism

      I agree with Hunt regarding his assessment of the difficulties of compatibilism. It is very hard for me to get my head around the idea of free will that is  governed by a chain of events that long preceded us. However, there are lots of things that experts in their respective fields assert that I have a hard time getting my head around, so I acknowledge it might be some limitation in my perspective or philosophical sophistication. This has been Dennett’s diagnosis of my difficulties.  However, in this particular case I cannot escape from the reservation that if I can’t get my head around a concept I should be weary of simply taking it on faith.

      Response to epcharles- the importance of habit.

      I agree that people are creatures of habit, and that free will, even if it does exist may not apply to much of peoples day-to-day lives when they are operating on autopilot. This is a view that has a long history. Here is an excerpt from my chapter (What science tell us about free will) that speaks to this issue

      For William James (1899/1946), the existence of genuine free will was limited to situations that depend on voluntary attention, which ‘‘consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast an idea’’(p. 187). According to James, these incidences of sustained voluntary attention necessary for careful deliberation provide the window for the introduction of genuine free choice: ‘‘Our acts of voluntary attention, brief and fitful as they are, are nevertheless critical, determining us, as they do, to higher or lower destinies’’ (p. 189). Kane (1996) similarly suggests that the impact of genuine free will might be limited to relatively rare difficult decisions, what he refers to as ‘‘self- forming actions,’’ in which individuals are torn between competing visions of what they should do or become.”” (Schooler, 2010 p 209)

      Response to Wondering12- reverse engineering

      Wondering suggests that in assessing the value of a belief that we consider what would happen if we did versus did not accept it.  If there are no consequences of the alternative views then pragmatism has no input on the matter, if there are consequences we should favor, if we can, the belief with the better outcome. This seems reasonable to me and I expect to the founders of pragmatism. For what it is worth, one of the founders of pragmatism (William James. my hero) had this to say about the choice to believe in free will “The very first act of a will endowed with freedom should be to sustain the belief in the freedom itself. I accordingly believe freely in my freedom. I do so with the best of scientific consciences”

      Response to Wondering 14: Chaos

      Wondering14 suggests that chaos disallows determinacy and asks whether it has been shown to apply to human behavior. In fact, this is an inaccurate characterization of chaos. Chaotic systems are entirely deterministic they are simply unpredictable because very small differences in initial states can lead to huge differences down the line. So chaos does little to challenge determinism.



  15. wondering14 says:

    Is there an “internal” and “external” distinction to be made? Crick’s biological automaton characterization is internal to a person. Yet besides our relation to ourselves, we also have external relations to other people (and things, Nature, etc). Those “others” have their own make up too. When two or more people interact, what happens then?

    To say that the details of that meeting is predetermined because each is a collection of neurons would seem trite, if we are only saying we react because are biological beings. If the external event of a hurricane destroys a house, is that predetermined, or only our reaction to it? If we cannot predict the hurricane, can we say that our reaction to the destruction of our house is predetermined?

    I need more insight into what type of determinism we are talking about. God-determinism, environmental-biological determinism? Are our “neurons” affected by external environment? Is this determinism we discuss dynamic, changeable over time, just as our bodies mature or age? If I begin a habit of daily exercise because I like chocolate eclairs too much, are such habits also inevitable? 

  16. ianful says:

    Free will implies something about the will being ‘free’ in the case of humans – that is free from the will of God. Maybe what has been discussed so far is about choice, determination and self-control, which is really important for the rational mind and maintaining well-being of the self. The spoiled brat has none of these, and consequently has poor self-esteem.

    Then again, belief is really important for humans to function. Belief in our financial and economic systems has taken a hammering in the past five or six years, and has caused disruption to many people and societies.

    On the other hand there is the will and it is the creative force that operates outside the rational mind. Trying to understand the will or free will with the rational mind does not make sense, as it belongs in the abstract world, and out of reach of the rational mind.

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      Responses to wondering14- definition of functionality, kinds of determinism

      Wondering 14 asks whether when I refer to the “functionality of a belief”  I mean how a person would act if that belief is held.  Well sort of.   When people hold particular beliefs those beliefs can influence their behavior just as Wondering 14 observes.  However, functionality refers to the fact that some of those influences may actually enable people to behave in ways that are more commensurate with their values or the values of society.  So if a belief helps people to be more honest and productive that would be (in my view) a functional belief.

      You also ask for clarification on the sources of the factors that are viewed as causing behavior from a determinist perspective.  Hard determinists from a scientific bend view the factors that determine behavior as involving a combination of environmental factors (everything that one has been exposed to in their lives) and genetic factors (the dna blue print that they were born with).  Many also acknowledge the ways in which these two types of factors can interact.  For example, environmental pressures can determine which genes are expressed.  There is also religious determinists such as Calvinists who believe that our future has already been decreed by supernatural powers.   In our research when we manipulate people’s belief in free will it has always been by emphasizing the scientific perspective on determinism (ie. the kind of views that Crick promotes).  It would be interesting to see what would happen if people were exposed to more religious forms of determinism.  I doubt that this would have the same effect as there is a considerable amount of research that suggests that when you highlight religious concepts people are more likely to follow social conventions (ie. not cheat).  However, who knows it could be that religious determinism also gives people a get out of jail free card “don’t blame me, God made me do it”

      Reply to Ianful-  what does free will mean?

      Ianful suggests that free will means free from the will of God.  This is certainly one meaning of the concept, and it is the meaning that the Calvinists and others dispute.  However, it is certainly not the only meaning.  Many libertarians mean free will as being free from being completely constrained by physical forces.  Compatibilists simply mean the ability to make choices that affect outcomes.  When you ask lay people about their beliefs in free will they typically mention exactly the kinds of things that Ianful suggests is what this discussion has been about namely, “choice, determination and self-control”.   Given that these are the things that people think of when they think of free will it seems entirely appropriate that they be the topics of our discussion.  Ianful goes further and suggests that “. Trying to understand the will or free will with the rational mind does not make sense, as it belongs in the abstract world, and out of reach of the rational mind.”  If by will or free will Ianful is referring to the notion of a metaphysical soul that transcends physical forces and perhaps even supernatural forces then yes I think it is possible that such metaphysical issues will never be fully resolvable by science.  However, free will as it is currently understood both by philosophers and the general public, ie. the ability to make choices that matter, can certainly be scrutinized by science, even if a final conclusion on exactly what free will does or does not entail is likely to elude scientific understanding for some time.

  17. Dr.GSPANGLOSS says:

    Use of reductionist schemes to explain consciousness necessarily entails regression of theorems into infinity, and therefore infinite degrees of uncertainty and incompleteness. For if one strives for consistency , uncertainty and incompleteness are unavoidable , since every link in the chain  depends on the validity of the predecessor, as determined by it’s predictive and explanatory power ,  and predictions and explanations  forever will entail  some degree of uncertainty and incompleteness .  The only certainty is that uncertainty and incompleteness will forever exist . All experiments have inherent indeterminacy and incompleteness of knowledge within their framework. All human explanations about any and all parts of our Universe, or Multi- verse , are reducible to Axioms (even if not explicitly stated , are inferred), which with the  rules of logic  , underpin all theorems derived , and the laws of nature , the  understanding of which stems from ,and are knowable to whatever degree possible, only by use of  deduction and inference .In addition , all  rules of logic are themselves  assumed to be self evidently true , and underpinned by an Axiom infered ,that  at it’s most basic level , the Universe is “logical”. For if it weren’t , conscious entities , being themselves part of the universe ,could not reflect back upon itself . Emergent phenomena are called thus because they have eluded such reductionist formalistic strategies to explain them, to any degree. But to some degree, all known properties are emergent, since all explanations are at their most basic level , both uncertain ,and incomplete,  and derived from a point in Space Time , the conditions of which are , even at a cursory level , unknowable. If at it’s most basic level (the subatomic level), reality entails Indeterminacyy , and at it’s Inception, entails an unknowable ,  and if determinacy entails predictability , but the predictability can only be expressed ,as a Bell shaped dress , then determinacy  , in the strictest sense ,  is , and  will forever be an illusion. There exist determinacy only in the sense that all are bounded by  the laws of nature and natures God(first Axiom) , and for any given life those laws will  impose limitations on what is possible. However each individuals idiosyncratic Bell shaped curve of probable outcomes allows room, depending on the endeavor, or question posed, for what is probable . Even if it be that all exist in infinitely expanding parallel lives , the laws “governing “ this reality will entail indeterminacy and incompleteness . If the latter be true then does one have any choice as to which Universe one inhabits? I believe  the answer to be in the affirmative.  Emotions rule our lives . But are we just along for the ride ?They are both a persons reason for living , and his/her bane. The pertinent question to be answered is; Are emotions never under ones control? The short answer is no , although it may take much effort for a person to control his, or her, proclivities (there are degrees of uncertain determinacy). ..…. Free Will and chance , like an eternal romance , of lovers entwined , in perpetual  dance , or  inoperable twins from the Sea of Siam –cannot be transected , rejected on stance.

  18. jeffj900 says:

    Every discussion on the question “do we have free will?” seems at some level to get bogged down on a lack of clarity in what “free will” actually means.
    At a very basic level, there needs to be a distinction between whether “free will” refers to:
    1. Some property, mechanism, or process, locatable and identifiable in the brain, whereby decisions are made and upon which decision making depends, something physical or non-physical that humans possess which confers special abilities that go beyond the constraints of deterministic laws of physics, or
    2. A general category grouping a set of macroscopically observed human behaviors which exhibit a human’s ability to intelligently choose what they want, express their needs, form and pursue goals, and resist what they don’t want.
    For example if we were talking about a dualistic idea, a Cartesian or theological notion of soul or other dualistic notion that is responsible for a free will that is the libertarian ability to override or escape determinism, then we are looking for something like #1.
    Compatibilist “free will” seems to be described by #2, not a deeply fundamental aspect of neurological mechanisms in the brain that give rise to intelligence and consciousness, but rather a net effect, a weakly emergent property of human intelligence, a macroscopic observation of humans that notices we can form goals, have preferences, make choices, compare results to our goals, and feed back experience into future choices in order to pursue greater and greater levels of satisfaction.
    There seems to be no fundamental conflict between hard determinism and compatibilism as expressed by Daniel Dennet. The only disagreement seems to be what one is willing to accept as the meaning of the term “free will”, and whether that term is an aid to understanding human behavior or merely a false comfort.
    We don’t really control how we see, how we hear, or how we taste, nor can we really decide what emotions to feel. It is obviously true that when events trigger an emotion, some other part of our brain can decide that emotion is one we reject intellectually, and we can try to suppress that emotion. Sometimes the emotion wins. This is certainly part of what we perceive as “free will”. But what is happening here is parallelism in the brain, where independent deterministic components are competing for control. And over time these independent components of our intelligence and conscious and unconscious mind can be nurtured, encouraged, developed, so that the balance of power shifts and we gain new abilities and new levels of control. These are competent and intelligent behaviors that it makes some sense to call “free will” as in #2 above, as compatibilists do.
    But while in our subjective experience it may seem this is a free will that defies our simplistic models of mere determinism, such as flipping a switch to provoke a response, there is no reason why such intelligent autonomous goal oriented behaviors can’t be the competent achievement of a very complex entirely deterministic system. Examining the difference between a computer and a thermostat should be a clue about the differences in degree of competence between various deterministic systems. As long as we throw out the old historical baggage about the soul and religious models of free will as dispensation from divine decree, a license to choose good or evil and reap rewards accordingly, or ideas of “free will” as some kind of magic special to humans that enables us to escape the physical determinism of our universe, then it makes some sense to use “free will” to refer to the behaviors of self-interested goal oriented sensing and analyzing intelligent systems capable of making informed choices to pursue satisfaction.
    The hard determinists and the compatibilists are both right, depending on what you are willing to have the term “free will” mean.

  19. Nicholas Epley says:

    Schooler’s response to my earlier post suggests that I may have misunderstood his main point.  It’s certainly true that motivated reasoning would likely use the consequences of a decision to justify one’s belief.  But notice that you already started with the thing I was trying to explain, because you assumed that someone believed in free will to begin with.  I thought the main argument was that one could use the consequences of an action to support believe when the evidence was equivocal (that is, it didn’t show a clear evidentiary preference to begin with).  That is, that it was not just a justification for a belief, but that it was a legitimate cause for a belief.  Did I misunderstand, or are we just getting lost in philosobabble? 

  20. brent.allsop says:


    Very interesting article on a very interesting subject, with lots of good related insight.  I particularly enjoyed comments like:

    “while more research is needed, science will likely determine which beliefs about free will are maximally functional long before it discerns which beliefs are correct.”

    The degree to which we’ve achieved anything along these lines can be rigorously measured by how much consensus there is on such topics.  Tracking this is our goal with the expert consensus building open survey system at  One survey topic has been started on thij particular topic titled: “Determinism vs Free Will”:

    With 6 experts participating so far, there is some clear expert consensus emerging.  It will be interesting to see how this progresses as ever more experts ‘canonize’ their views.

    • Jonathan Schooler says:

      Reply to Dr.Gpsangloss: branching universes

      There is much contained in this comment that I had trouble following however one intriguing issue it raises is the suggestion that “all exist in infinitely expanding parallel lives”.  This may be an allusion to the many worlds interpretations of quantum physics, that proposes multiverse of branching universes.  Essentially according to this view, at every juncture where alternative outcomes might happen, they actually do happen in splinter universes  This produces a near infinity of branching parallel universes that seems at first blush inconceivable.  However many physicists have begun taking the possibility of a multiverse seriously  If this is the case then our consciousnesses are themselves branching off all the time into different parallel universes.  One intriguing take on this is that free will may then be the capacity to choose at each junction which branch one’s particular consciousness goes down. 

      Reply to jeffj900: Is it all in the definitions?

      This nicely written commentary makes a strong case for how different definitions of free will can lead to different conclusions.  It further argues that free will could reasonable describe as deterministic process that nevertheless  enables“self-interested goal oriented sensing and analyzing intelligent systems capable of making informed choices to pursue satisfaction.”    I am sympathetic to this view although I still personally have a hard time getting my head around how such a system can be viewed as responsible for its choices if every choice is the product of deterministic forces outside of its control.   An interesting thought question is whether we would consider a rudimentary sensing robot that follow some basic rules and makes “choices” on the basis of those rules as possessing free will.  Seems like the above definition would have to say that such a robot had free will.  The only wiggle room might be the argument that simple robots don’t experience satisfaction.  However, in that case, consciousness is put into the mix and so a mechanistic explanation of free will requires a mechanistic explanation for consciousness, something that we are very far from accomplishing.

      Reply to Nicholas Epley-  More than just justifications.

      Epley raises a possible source of confusion in my response to his earlier comment.  In his earlier post he suggested that consideration of the value of a belief in free will was unlikely to be the deciding factor in whether or not one adopts the belief.  Rather, he argued, we believe in free will because it feels as if we have it.  In response, I tried to argue that while one’s experience has to be consistent with the possibility of free will to even entertain it, that the functionality of the belief may also contribute to people’s decision to adopt it.   I further suggested that research on motivated reasoning might bear on this issue as motivated reasoning demonstrates that our reasoning can be influenced by our motivations.   Accordingly, people’s reasoning about free will might be influenced by a desire to select the belief that was in their best interest.  In his most recent comment, Epley argues that motivated reasoning could help to explain why people would use the consequences of a belief in free will to justify it.  However, he argues this already presumes that they hold the belief and so the motivated reasoning would merely contribute to a post-hoc justification.  In this case,  the process of weighing the consequences of a belief in free will would come after the fact, and thus would not actually contribute to the adoption of a belief in free will as I had suggested.

      I think that it is quite likely that in many cases the order of events may unfold as Epley suggests.  People may first have a belief in free will that arises from their experience and then later use arguments about its functionality as a post-hoc justification for why they may believe in it.  However, I also think it is possible that a different causal chain may occur.  That is, people may be on the fence on the topic, but realizing just how functional the belief is might push them to adopt it.  I still think this order of unfolding could draw on motivated reasoning.  However, the motivation would not be to justify a pre-existing belief (as in Epleys account) but to enable them to adopt a belief that would help them optimize their lives.  In other words, people’s appraisal of the arguments for free will could be motivated by a desire to believe in something that they think will make them better people.

      Reply to brent-allsop-  building expert consensus

      I think it is interesting to see where the experts stand on this issue which is why I posted the results of a major survey of philosophers in my essay  In this survey, the top nod goes to compatibilists – a camp that does not seem to be represented in the website linked by this commentator.   While I think consideration of consensus is useful, for me the primary consideration is simply the fact that this is a topic on which reasonable people disagree including scholars who have given it a great deal of thought.   I think it is premature to say that neuroscience has ruled out free will as Crick did, and furthermore, I think (although I recognize this is going against the majority of my peers) that it is premature to say that we understand the physical universe so well that we know for a fact that the principles of consciousness and agency and their interrelationship, will necessarily be explained within the framework that we currently use to explain physical causes.  There is still much we do not understand about consciousness, cause and effect and time.  Natural science as it is currently formulated presents a static universe in which time does not flow at all.  When the aspects of reality that seem most self evident to me (ie. consciousness, agency, and the flow of time) are dismissed as either epiphenomenal or illusions because they cannot be accounted for within our current understanding of physical causation, then it seems important to remain open to the possibility of alternative frameworks.   We discuss this point at some length in this speculative chapter

  21. Tam Hunt says:

    jeffj, your comments on the nature of free will, while certainly correct in that it all comes down to definitions, exemplify well my critique of compatibilism above. You use the word “choice” in your definition #2 of free will, and then you suggest that real choices are possible in a deterministic world. But this is exactly what determinism denies. In determinism, as the term is generally understood, all things are determined by the laws of physics since the moment the universe began. There is simply no room for any genuine notion of free will when the universe is defined in determinism as, well, determined. Dennett and others have argued for some version of free will that to me seems like anything but free. It is, at best, an entirely illusory free will in which humans and some other creatures fool themselves into thinking they have free will – but they really don’t. And that’s faux will, not free will. 

    • jeffj900 says:

      You are talking about choice in the libertarian sense. Also, the universe does not need to be entirely deterministic from the Big Bang until the present and on into the future in order for a subset of the universe to be deterministic. In particular, the brain can be deterministic, and all evidence points in that direction, even though the universe may not be.

      Computers make choices all the time, depending on their inputs and their programming and configuration. If you hand me a bundle of sticks of different lengths and ask me to choose the longest one, it is easy to see that the outcome is determined. I can easily evaluate the lengths of the sticks and select the longest. I followed a deterministic algorithm to fulfill the goal. Likewise, if I’m choosing what I want to eat, or what time I want to set the alarm for, I evaluate the options and arrive deterministically at the one that best meets my goals or fits my desires. And the determinism permeates that whole description: my ability to know about time, my desire to wake at a certain time, my ability to form evaluations or emotional reactions to reasons to wake up early, my ability to estimate the consequences of waking at various times, and so forth. Determinisim, just as with the evaluation and selection of the sticks, is happening at each level in this complex process. Each choice we make involves evaluations and comparing them with criteria to meet a goal, but normally the evaluations are much more complex than the length of a stick, and the goal more complex than picking the longest. It’s more like picking what bests fulfills our desires and advances our interests, but no less deterministic.

      People will play in a lottery when the winning number is already determined, as long as they perceive fairness (nobody is given privileged access to the winning number). An example is picking the number of jelly beans in a jar. When each person has submitted a guess, the winner is determined, even though nobody knows who it is yet. There is still surprise and enjoyment. Even if the universe itself in every detail were totally determined, this kind of surprise would still exist. We would not be able to predict the future, and if we were subtracted from the universe instantaneously it would change the future. This means we are playing a valuable role and our contribution matters, even if it all is deterministic. I think that the entire universe probably is not fully deterministic, but that the brain is deterministic. We can’t know or predict in advance what situations and environments we will need to contend with and react to, but our reactions will unfold deterministically based on the state of our brain at the time.

  22. jeffj900 says:

    My last post was supposed to be in reply to Tam Hunt’s comment on my original post.
    To Jonathan Schooler,Regarding your thought experiment, I wouldn’t like to say a robot has free will, but many compatibilists would do so. In fact, I’m not a compatibilist. I can understand the point compatibilists are making, but to me “free will” has a long history and means something more, it is connected with dualism and libertarian free will, so I prefer to say that humans don’t have it. Compatibilist free will is the only kind we could claim, but I disagree that it is helpful or important to insist that humans have free will, even to the extent of changing or limiting the meaning of the term in the way compatibilists do. I think this confuses most people.
    Regarding responsibility, I think we can break common usages of “responsibility” into obligation and accountability. Clearly we don’t need free will to recognize and meet obligations. Nor do we need free will to be accountable; we merely need to know in advance what the consequences of an action are, and then  factor that into our decision processes, which take into account our desires, our fear of consequences, our values, etc. All of that can be deterministic.
    So who or what is held accountable? Does determinism really mean things are beyond our control? As long as the deterministic decision making was not externally coerced, then it was all accomplished by our own internal mechanisms. We own them and they define our identity. It’s not as if we were something separate from those deterministic processes in our brain, and that were were dragged like a puppet into acting. No, the brain that we have cultivated during a lifetime of experiences, decisions, consequences, resulting memories feeding back into future decisions, the brain that defines the “I” in our subjective mind, has learned its place in the world, and that it will be held to account for consequences. This knowledge simply becomes part of the physical state of the normal adult brain, and is factored into deterministic decision making. 
    We also hold a hard drive in a computer accountable to live up to certain expectations according to its capabilities. If it fails, we hold it accountable: it either must be repaired or replaced because it has failed to live up to the responsibilities expected of it in the computer system. What we don’t do is throw it on the ground and stomp on it, curse it, or otherwise wreak vengeance and retribution on it. We calmly accept that it has failed, and we remedy the problem in the most effective manner.
    This same attitude can be applied to people and their responsibilities. Much more is expected of people because they are more intelligent and capable. We can dispense with moralizing retribution and still punish people for the sake of deterrence and as part of their rehabilitation.
    I like the approach, used by Project Hope in Hawaii, for probation and parole. The method is called “swift, certain, and not severe” punishment. It proves more effective than raising a less certain threat of returning to jail for the remainder of probation. I think this system must be in harmony with deterministic ways the brain calculates risk and values time. Evidently a shorter punishment that can’t be avoided deters as effectively or more effectively than a longer incarceration that might be avoided with warnings or exceptions.
    So I think that understanding determinism and how the brain works still allows us to hold people responsible, but to punish more humanely and effectively, minus the more emotional and primitive vengeful retribution.

  23. Jonathan Schooler says:

    Thanks all for your genuinely thoughtful comments and reflections.   Happily one of the most striking aspects of the discussion was its support for the contention that I began my essay with.  Namely that different people can have very different perspectives on the issue of free will, and that is as it should be at this time.  Although many (perhaps most) people expressed opinions voiced  with a strong confidence that their’s is the right approach, the fact that such different views were all so confidently and persuasively expressed illustrates that we are just not there yet.  As I read many of the conflicting perspectives, I found myself resonating with them, only to realize that to resonate with one is to disagree with another.  Compelling arguments were made for all three of the major views (hard determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism).    Less discussion was given to what I had hoped would be the novel aspect of my argument, i.e. that the functionality of beliefs may rightfully play in the consideration of their adoption.  On that note, let me  acknowledge Jeffj900 observations that deterministic world view has its pragmatic value noting “understanding determinism and how the brain works still allows us to hold people responsible, but to punish more humanely and effectively, minus the more emotional and primitive vengeful retribution.”     It is curious that belief in free will seems to be particularly functional for guiding our actions in the future, but determinism is helpful for exonerating our errors of the past.  Perhaps from a purely functional perspective then, we should figure out a way to see free will in our future, and determinism in our past.  It is admittedly hard to come up with a metaphysical world view that would suggest such a dichotomy, but given the functionality of a free future and determined past, it might just be an idea worth pursuing.