The John Templeton Foundation has put a big multimedia ad in Slate similar to the ads it used to put in the New York Times, in which a group of luminaries and scholars (often whose research was already funded by Templeton) discussed one of the Big Questions at the intersection of science and sprituality. This new Big Question is that of “free will”, and you can go to the sections by clicking on the dots to the left of the first page.
The question is actually “are we free?” and, in the main, the interlocutors answer “yes.” After all, Templeton wants science to show that we still have free will, something that Dan Dennett mentioned the other day when reviewing Alfred Mele’s new book that defends free will (Dennett likes the book but suggested that Mele’s objectivity might have been compromised because his views are congenial to the source of his funding). Mele is in charge of two multimillion-dollar Templeton grants (here and here; see his response to Dennett here). One of them is the free will project touted in the ad.
I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that Mele bends his results to conform to Templeton’s agenda. Rather, I suggest that Templeton gives money to people who either have a track record of results that comport with their agenda, or are likely to produce those results. And that certainly shows in this Big Questions feature.
Here’s the first page: a quote from Mele that sums it all up:
The page of essays and opinions is here; there are seven short essays by Mele (a professor of philosophy at Florida State University), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a professor of practical ethics and philosophy at Duke, Thomas Nadelhoffer, a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Charleston, Derek Pereboom, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, Robin Collins, a professor of philosophy at Messiah College, Kathleen Vohs, who has the unusual title of “Land O’ Lakes Chair in Marketing at the University of Minnesota”, and Robert Kane, a teaching professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
I won’t summarize all their views, as you can read the short essays yourself. Most are compatibilist although at least one writer, Kane, espouses a weird kind of physicality (not quantum-based) in which you do have the power to decide in multiple ways at any given time.
One thing I noticed is that several of the writers make the point—as has Dennett—that belief in free will is important in keeping society together. I still believe that this is a motivation (perhaps sometimes unconscious) for compatibilists’ claims that although determinism reigns, we must confect some kind of free will to promulgate to the public.
In Free, I explain why the scientific experiments that are most often claimed to prove that there is no free will, in fact, leave the existence of free will wide open. I regard this as good news. There is evidence that lowering people’s confidence in the existence of free will increases bad behavior. In a 2008 study by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, people who read passages in which scientists deny that free will exists cheat more often on a subsequent task than others do. In a 2009 study by Roy Baumeister, college students presented with a series of sentences denying the existence of free will proceed to behave more aggressively than a control group: they serve larger amounts of spicy salsa to people who say they dislike spicy food, despite being told these people have to eat everything on their plates.
. . . What primarily drives my work on free will is a desire to get at the truth about a deep and important issue. But I also worry about a society that does not believe in free will. The pervasive flaws in free will research must be exposed.
From Thomas Nadelhoffer:
This ongoing debate is not just a tempest in an academic teapot.There is gathering evidence that challenging people’s beliefs about free will can influence their moral behavior in a variety of ways (see, e.g., here, here, and here). This research suggests that believing in free will may play an important role in our daily lives. If free will provides the foundation for our moral beliefs and practices, and its existence is incompatible with what science is telling us about human cognition, then free will is not just a topic fit for philosophers—it is a scientific, cultural, and public policy issue as well.
And from Kathleen Vohs:
At a conference nearly 10 years ago—surrounded by highly influential scholars who argued that free will did not exist—Schooler and I wondered whether merely hearing claims that free will is an illusion would cause people to loosen their moral standards and behave unethically.
We could understand how demoralizing it might feel to hear that free will does not and cannot exist. As psychological scientists, we believed that this idea had important implications; so much of what makes a society work is people behaving in morally good, self-controlled, judicious ways. Society will not function well if people exploit each other, fail to keep promises, and fail to delay gratification. We were so intrigued by our ideas that we decided to conduct experiments.
We performed two key experiments to test our predictions.
Vohs then describes her experiments, which involved psychological tests given to students after they had just read passages denying free will, and “control passages” which were about other topics and (in experiment #2) a passage affirming free will. In both experiments, students who read the “denying free will” passages were more likely to cheat than were students who read the other stuff.
These results have served to justify much work on compatibilism, But really, should we believe in a concept simply because it promotes good behavior? What if religious belief showed the same results? Should we then promulgate religion, even if we don’t believe it ourselves? That is the “belief in belief” gambit, also known as “The Argument from The Little People.” (I’ll leave aside the question of whether these short-term experiments have anything to say about long-term behavior.)
Vohs, brimming with optimism, concludes:
. . . believing in free will appears to encourage the kinds of morally good, self-controlled, judicious behaviors that make society work.
Are we going to deny that this provides no motivation for the Compatibilist Program? People like to think that compatibilism isn’t driven by any social agenda, but I’m not buying into that. That is, of course, independent of whether it makes any sense.
Besides, what makes this whole argument from consequences bizarre is that research shows that most people’s conception of free will is not compatibilist, but libertarian. Yes, there’s one study showing a compatibilist belief in general, but most studies show the opposite. In my own discussions with scientists, many of them, while not explicit dualists, still believe in a libertarian free will in which there is an “I” who makes decisions at any given time, and could have decided otherwise. (I was surprised to learn that physicist Steve Weinberg, an atheist, believes this.) I do think this is the average person’s concept of free will, and that is buttressed by Thomas Nadelhoffer, who did surveys of how people construed “free will”. From his essay:
Consider, for instance, my recent work on The Free Will Inventory (FWI)—a new scale for measuring people’s beliefs about free will (and related concepts). In developing FWI, we presented more than 1,500 people with a series of 29 statements and asked them to state their level of agreement. For present purposes, I am not going to discuss all of our results. Instead, I am going to focus on participants’ responses to some of the items that are especially germane to our present discussion:
“Free will is the ability to make different choices even if everything leading up to one’s choice (e.g., the past, the situation, and their desires, beliefs, etc.) was exactly the same”: 6% disagree; 15% neither agree nor disagree; 79% agree.
“The fact that we have souls that are distinct from our material bodies is what makes humans unique”: 11% disagree; 16% neither agree nor disagree; 73% agree.
“Each person has a non-physical essence that makes that person unique”: 6% disagree; 13% neither agree nor disagree; 81% agree.
“The human mind is more than just a complicated biological machine”: 6% disagree; 9% neither agree nor disagree; 85% agree.
In short, the majority of participants endorsed precisely the kinds of views about free will and dualism attributed to the folk by the scientific skeptics.
(The pejorative term “scientific skeptics” is used in several of the essays to refer to incompatibilists, who see determinism as incompatible with free will. I can’t help but think that that term comes from either Mele or Templeton.)
But if this is really the average person’s conception of free will—as libertarian or sometimes dualistic—then it provides NO support for the assertion of compatibilists that belief in free will is good because it promotes more harmonious societies. For most of those compatibilists explicitly deny the types of libertarian free will evinced above. We have no idea at all whether the average person’s belief in compatibilist free will, along with acceptance of pure determinism of decisions, would still promote the same kind of honesty and morality.
Curiously, Nadelhoffer finds one result he sees as conflicting with the results above, but something that doesn’t surprise me at all:
However, upon closer inspection, things are even more complicated still. Consider, for instance, participants’ responses to the following statement:
“If it turned out that people lacked non-physical (or immaterial) souls, then they would lack free will”: 36% disagree; 32% neither agree nor disagree; 30% agree.
Here the results are mixed, with a roughly even split between those who disagree, those who agree, and those who neither agree nor disagree. While the responses to the earlier items suggest that most people endorse dualism and the unconditional ability to do otherwise, the responses to this latter item suggest that there is broad disagreement when it comes to the relationship between free will and the immaterial soul.
But really, is that a surprise? After all, not everyone believes in an immaterial soul, but everyone feels that they have free will, and I suppose you can impute a kind of libertarian dualism to an “I” that excludes the religious conception of a soul. Not all homunculi in the brain have haloes. I am sure, for instance, that Steve Weinberg doesn’t believe in a soul.
What Nadelhoffer’s results do show is that the average person believes in free will, and of the libertarian and not the compatibilist sort. But he hedges his conclusions:
There are at least two important take-home lessons: First, the scientific skeptics have rushed to judgment when it comes to how people ordinarily think about the relationship between free will, dualism, and the soul. Second, the critics of the skeptics have more work to do before they can rest their own case.
Really? “Scientific skeptics” have rushed to judgment just because most people’s libertarianism doesn’t include a soul? I don’t care what the basis is for a false view of libertarian free will, or whether or not it involves a soul (except when I’m criticizing religion); I’m more concerned with showing that determinism falsifies any kind of libertarianism. Nadelhoffer sounds like he’s scolding the “scientific skeptics” even though his results don’t give any evidence for a “rush to judgement.”
I’ll bring this to an end except to recommend that, if you want to see an exercise in muddled thinking, you should read Robert Kane’s essay, “Free will: an achievement over indeterminacy.” The essay contains this gem that purports to explain why our wills are free:
I believe the “self-forming” choices or actions that are required for free will occur at those difficult times in life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become. And they are more frequent in everyday life than we may think. We might be torn between doing the moral thing or acting from ambition; or between powerful present desires and long-term goals; or faced with difficult tasks for which we have aversions. The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation, I argue, would be reflected in some indeterminacy in our neural processes themselves (in the form of chaotically amplified background neural noise), “stirred up,” one might say, by the conflicts in our wills. What is experienced personally as uncertainty at such moments of self-formation would thus correspond physically to the opening of a window of opportunity that temporarily screens off complete determination by influences of the past.
Another common mistake: chaos theory = pure indeterminism. Chaos theory means that physical systems may be unpredictable based on tiny differences in starting conditions, but they are still deterministic.
I’ll end by saying four things. First, I believe that much compatibilist philosophy, whether it’s stated explicitly or not, rests on the Little People Argument: believing in some kind of free will—even if it’s cooked-up and also bestows free will on computers and amoebas—makes our society more moral and harmonious.
Second, there are many ways to define “compatibilist” free will. Are they all right? Shouldn’t we decide what we mean by free will in advance and then see if we have it? If there are many ways to achieve compatibilism, shouldn’t only one be the right answer?
That leads us to my third conclusion: compatibilists don’t define free will at the outset and then see if we have it. Rather, they start with an assumption: we do have some sort of free will, and then they make an argument to support their view. This exercise involves justifying an a priori conclusion, and is more akin to theology than to science—or even to good, rational philosophy.
Finally, Templeton got what it wanted: a group of people who espouse the existence of free will, even if some admit to determinism. And a lot of those people think that some kind of belief in free will is necessary for morality and social harmony. Now remember that each essayist got paid, probably a handsome sum, for his or her opinion. That doesn’t mean that they wrote what they think Templeton wanted to hear. Rather, I think it works the other way around: I think that Templeton chooses people whose track records suggest that they will write what Templeton wants to hear. After all, many of these essayists are already getting money from Templeton.
Granted, sometimes there are dissenters from the Templeton viewpoint in these Big Essay questions. But somehow the gist of opinions always favors the Foundation’s view of a rapprochement between science and spirituality. And every essayist, whether or not they agree with Templeton, gets their own person stall in Templeton’s Stable of Thoroughbred Intellectuals.