Does disbelief in free will make people cheat?

I’ve posted before about Greg Caruso, a philosophy professor who writes about the down side of believing in free will, including its support of a “just world” view in which people deserve what they get, and so shouldn’t get government help. (Many Republicans hold such a view.) Caruso’s also the author of Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will, as well as Science and Religion: 5 Questionsbooks that are on my on my reading list.

Caruso continues his exploration of the social consequences of believing in free will in a new article in Psychology Today, “Does Disbelief in Free Will Increase Anti-Social Behavior?”  The answer has long been “yes,” but that was based on a single article by Vohs and Schooler (reference below), showing that if you “primed” students with readings that either reinforced or denigrated free will, they were more likely to cheat on a subsequent computer test when primed against free will.

The problem with that study is that two attempts to replicate it have failed. One has yet to be published (see here), while the other was part of the recent and widely-cited study in which psychologists replicated 100 experiments published in respected journals. One of the many failures to replicate involved Vohs’ and Schooler’s 2008 paper (see here).

Caruso’s column points out these failures, adds another failure to replicate, and notes other methodological flaws in the Vohs and Schooler paper:

While [Vohs and Schooler’s] findings appear to support concerns over the anti-social consequences of relinquishing free will belief, I advise caution in drawing any universal or sweeping conclusions from them. There are powerful criticisms of the methodology of these studies that put into doubt the supposed connection between disbelief in free will and any long-term increase in anti-social behavior. First of all, the passages used to prime disbelief in free will appear to be priming the wrong thing. Several critics have noted that instead of priming belief in hard determinism or hard incompatibilism (the view that free will is incompatible with determinism and indeterminism), the Crick excerpt subjects read [the anti-free-will prime] is actually priming a scientific reductionist view of the mind, one that is proclaimed to demonstrate that free will is an illusion. Free will skepticism, however, need not entail such a reductionist view and the priming passages may be giving participants the mistaken impression that scientists have concluded that their beliefs, desires, and choice are causally inefficacious—a claim not embraced by most philosophical skeptics.

Secondly, subsequent studies have had a difficult time replicating these findings. Some readers may be familiar with the recent unprecedented attempt to replicate 100 studies published in three of the top psychology journals. Surprisingly, the Reproducibility Project was only able to replicate 35 out of the 100 studies and one of the studies that failed to replicate was the Vohs and Schooler—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article. This, however, was not the first time there have been difficulties replicating these findings. Rolf Zwaan at the University of Rotterdam, for example, attempted to replicate the findings but was unable to do so (see here). Eddy Nahmias and Thomas Nadelhoffer also attempted to replicate the findings and, as Nahmias describes their difficulties (here), “the effects don’t always replicate and they only seem to work with the over-the-top primes that suggest all kinds of threats to agency.” He goes on to say, “no one has shown that telling people they lack just what philosophical…skeptics say they lack and nothing more has any bad effects on behavior or sense of meaning.”

I wasn’t aware of Nahmias and Thomas’s “failure to replicate” (it’s described in a comment by Nahmias on a blog post by Caruso), but it’s good of Nahmias to mention that, as he’s been a big proponent of free will, at least of the compatibilist form.

But let us no longer claim that we have to believe in free will because experiments have shown that it makes us cheat. Even if that were true, cheating on a computer test given immediately after a real prime demonstrates only short-term effects, not ones that last longer than a few hours. Just as we don’t need the illusion of God to be moral, so we don’t need the illusion of free will (or some jerry-rigged compatibilist version) to be honest.

It’s sad, then, that some people still adhere to the belief that we should tell people fictions so they will behave properly. One of those people is described by Caruso:

Saul Smilansky, for example, maintains that our commonplace beliefs in libertarian free will and desert-entailing ultimate moral responsibility are illusions, but he also maintains that if people were to accept this truth there would be wide-reaching negative intrapersonal and interpersonal consequences. According to Smilansky, “Most people not only believe in actual possibilities and the ability to transcend circumstances, but have distinct and strong beliefs that libertarian free will is a condition for moral responsibility, which is in turn a condition for just reward and punishment.” It would be devastating, he warns, if we were to destroy such beliefs: “the difficulties caused by the absence of ultimate-level grounding are likely to be great, generating acute psychological discomfort for many people and threatening morality—if, that is, we do not have illusion at our disposal.” To avoid any deleterious social and personal consequences, then, and to prevent the unraveling of our moral fabric, Smilansky recommends free will illusionism. According to illusionism, people should be allowed their positive illusion of libertarian free will and with it ultimate moral responsibility; we should not take these away from people, and those of us who have already been disenchanted ought to simply keep the truth to ourselves.

That’s the Little People Argument, and it’s condescending and dishonest. (Note that Smilansky is recommending genuine lying: telling people—or not dispelling their misconception—that they have dualistic, libertarian free will.) The best strategy, I think, is to tell people the truth about reality, and then convince them why they still shouldn’t lie, cheat, or exercise retributive punishment.


Vohs, Kathleen D., and Jonathan W. Schooler. 2008. The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating(link is external). Psychological Science 19:49-54.



  1. Curt Cameron
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, last week I heard one of the Discovery Institute’s podcasts that featured Michael Egnor, and he was directly addressing your views about free will. He went on and on about how science has proved you wrong, because quantum mechanics has proved that determinism is wrong, that there is quantum indeterminacy.

    I don’t know if he was completely ignorant of your writings on the topic, or was just being incredibly dishonest in presenting the topic to a friendly audience. I was wondering if you had come across it yet. It’s here:

    • eric
      Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Quantum indeterminancy /= free will. Hooking a robot’s decision-making algorithm up to a random number generator gives you pseudo-random decision-making, not free will.

    • Scott Draper
      Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      How is randomness any better for free will than determinacy?

      Creationists grab hold of anything that seems to offer an immediate escape from a problem, without regard to its long-term implications.

    • Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      “I don’t know if he was completely ignorant of your writings on the topic, or was just being incredibly dishonest in presenting the topic to a friendly audience.”

      Isn’t being dishonest what the Discovery Institute does?

    • Posted October 19, 2015 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      I’ve written repeatedly about how quantum indeterminacy doesn’t do squat to help us get libertarian free will. If Egnor doesn’t know that, he’s being dishonest (or hasn’t read what I wrote).

    • rickflick
      Posted October 19, 2015 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      This view that indeterminacy provides free will seems to be a confusion between unpredictability and free will. Just because you can’t know the future doesn’t say it is under our control.

    • RickK
      Posted October 19, 2015 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      “just being incredibly dishonest”

      If it’s Egnor, that’s the right answer every time.

      • Posted October 20, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        To be *slightly* charitable, there is a position in the literature due to Robert Kane (primarily) that tries to finesse the “roulette wheel” objection. I don’t think he succeeds at, but the position *might* be what is referred to.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s a little people’s argument that would only be beneficial to psychopaths who require guidance on how to behave morally.

    • Posted October 19, 2015 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Perfect point. Being a determinist doesn’t stop anyone from wanting to live in a more fair world.

      • Posted October 20, 2015 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        In my case, as I have gotten more and more of a “determinist” in the metaphysical and ethical sense here and away from notions of “free will”, I have simultaneously felt more and more strongly about political and social freedoms. I don’t know if there was a connection or not, though.

  3. Matt
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    There’s something suspect about people who take the position that humans need to believe something that isn’t true to be good. This misanthropic nonsense is in league with the “fall of man” and other ideologies that try to portray humans as broken wretched beings who need a false picture of reality to be good humans. Rubbish. Humans are capable of handling the truth in every instance. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a snake oil salesman.

    • eric
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Well empirically it could have certainly been the case. Human psychology is not perfectly rational, we have both built-in and acquired biases. So IMO it was a question worth asking and maybe something interesting to study.

      However, the gist of Jerry’s point is that after looking at the studies, the empirical answer is “no,” people don’t actually cheat more after considering determinism. Hypothesis posited, hypothesis tested, hypothesis failed, time to either move on or get significantly more sophisticated in study design.

  4. Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    It’s sad, then, that some people still adhere to the belief that we should tell people fictions so they will behave properly.

    Yes, agreed. The idea that we need libertarian free-will to be moral and for society to function is simply wrong. These beliefs are commentaries on humans rather then determinants of how human behave.

    • Posted October 20, 2015 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      It is important to note that there is no traditional notion of free will in one of the very influential ethical traditions of the world: Confucianism. (This tradition also is more or less atheistic [though not free from supernaturalism exactly], etc. as well, needless to say.)

      So arguably China, Korea, etc. are huge counterexamples at the get go! (These societies now are more authoritarian in general, mind, but …)

  5. Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Two things. First, libertarian free will is to action what “Goddidit” is to cosmology. It is a mechanism without a process, explaining nothing; the choice function simply collapses by itself because freedom. How do I get a good free will as opposed to a bad one? Nobody knows.

    Second, every single parent that I know, even the free will fundamentalists, believes in determinism based on their actions. Everything matters: prenatal nutrition and stress levels; postnatal stimulative environments; stable income and family structure; neighborhoods and social circles; activities that build character and work ethic. All these things scream determinism.

    Everyone secretly knows that determinism is true.

  6. reasonshark
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Surely the more pertinent point is that reward and punishment are simply social conventions that don’t even need a belief in moral responsibility to work. All you really need is something as mechanistic as operant conditioning: give something to the decision-making agent in order to shape its feedback so that it’ll repeat or avoid the behaviour in future. Deprived of any vague padding, that is what the concept’s bare skeleton really looks like.

    The point about social conventions, of course, is that they are arbitrary and fulfil some function among social organisms. They can be tossed out and replaced if they are shown not to fulfil that function, though of course they could be fulfilling other functions (for instance, you might praise somebody simply because it’s a nice and friendly way to make someone happy, and not out of an interest in shaping their behaviour).

  7. Kevin
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    No. I have said this before (*). Religion or selfish needs can motivate poor moral judgements, not one’s belief in free will.

    Look precisely at motivation, not justification. Consider a person who believed in free will for 30 years and claimed to behave justly because of that belief. Then that person stops believing in free will and decides to steal, an iPhone, for example. The person claims lack of belief in free will caused the crime. But the person does not steal anything else or rape anyone or murder anyone.

    If lack of belief in free will gave persons the license to cheat, lie, steal, and kill then there would be dozens if not thousands of examples of people spontaneously attempting to achieve all selfish needs at the moment of deterministic epiphany.

    We do not see anything like this. People’s moral compasses is hardly altered by a change of these types of beliefs. It’s the kind of irrelevant connection that exists in most people who claim to believe in God. Because the vast majority of those people think about God (or lack of free will) as much as I think about taking a poop…about two minutes a day…tops.

    (*) –

  8. Heather Hastie
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    That’s my opinion too. In fact I think we could easily argue that determinism makes people make more moral decisions.

    For example, people used to think being LGBT was a choice. That made many treat them less well. The recognition that it isn’t a choice is what made the difference for many.

    Another one is mental illness – most societies have always recognized that some people cannot control certain impulses and they are not held criminally responsible in the same way.

    Most people also recognize that a person who comes from a childhood of abuse, violence, lack of love etc will find it harder to fit into society as an adult. If they commit a crime, for example, their background is often taken into consideration by the courts.

    Because of this governments make policies that tackle the root cause of offending and try to help early before a person is set on a permanent bad life path. That’s a positive effect of recognizing determinism.

    Applying the ‘fence at the top of the cliff’ strategy for anything is basically a nod to determinism, and usually a more moral strategy because it prevents future suffering.

  9. darrelle
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    ““the difficulties caused by the absence of ultimate-level grounding are likely to be great, . . .”

    Whenever I hear or read pretentious crap like that my first reaction is to write off the author as not having anything to say that is worth listening to. I then try to back of from that and repeat to myself that most people do have something of interest or value to contribute if you give them a chance and are patient.

  10. Posted October 19, 2015 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    The best strategy, I think, is to tell people the truth about reality, and then convince them why they still shouldn’t lie, cheat, or exercise retributive punishment.

    This is absolutely key; one downside to the alternative that doesn’t seem to be discussed much are the guilty feelings people have about whether a situation could have potentially turned out differently. Once one realizes it could not have and the lesson can only be applied to decisions going forward, it not only relieves the guilt, it helps focus on what can actually go differently the next time a similar situation arises.

  11. peepuk
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Living in a world dominated by the “we have free will”-view, with all the suffering it creates, promoting the “no free will”-view probably won’t be a big problem, even if the Vohs and Schooler’s findings were true.

  12. rickflick
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    “Nebraska petition drive foils legislature’s repeal of death penalty”

    It seems to me the death penalty is often justified by the idea of retribution. Recently the Nebraska legislature agreed to drop the death penalty in the state. However, the Governor and friends have gathered signatures to restore it. I have to think the Governor thinks those bad folks on death row exercise free will so they deserve to die.

    • Randy Schenck
      Posted October 19, 2015 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the heavy duty catholic, Pete Ricketts is not listening to his Pope. More likely listening to pop. And to hell with the overwhelming vote in his own legislature.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 19, 2015 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

        If he was schooled by sex-starved nuns with thick rulers, he surely knows punishment is for more than correction alone.

  13. Tim Harris
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    ‘Free will skepticism, however, need not entail such a reductionist view and the priming passages may be giving participants the mistaken impression that scientists have concluded that their beliefs, desires, and choice(s) are causally inefficacious—a claim not embraced by most philosophical skeptics.’

    This surely raises an important point, and one that has to do with the quarrel between at least some of those intrepid souls who proudly proclaim they are incompatibilists and those whom they like to describe pejoratively as compatibilists (I am reminded of the kind of petty distinctions that have played such a huge part in socialist movements). It really is no explanation of human behaviour to say it’s determined ‘because physics’ without taking into account all the other aspects of the world that determine behaviour – where one was born, one’s genetic nature, how intelligent one is, how sympathetic, how one was brought up, how educated, how one responds to rational argument, one’s ethical and political attitudes, one’s health, physical and mental, etc, etc – which is why remarks about changing molecules in people’s brains through one’s persuasive or argumentative efforts strike me as being pointless: of course you are changing molecules in people’s brains if they agree with you or if they disagree with you and even, perhaps, if your efforts leave them indifferent – but this has of course nothing whatsoever to do with the value or validity of what you are recommending.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 12:37 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I’m all in favor of telling people the truth, but claims that “we don’t make choices” and “we’re not in control” are exactly the sort of hyper-reductionist half-truths that Caruso rightly warns against.

      • eric
        Posted October 20, 2015 at 6:50 am | Permalink

        How do you ‘make choices’? I.e., how does your brain and mind come to a point where there are two possible physical outcomes to some set of atomic, chemical, or biological reactions, and it picks which outcome occurs?

        Because if there’s only one possible physical outcome and it doesn’t get to pick between options, how can you be described as making a choice?

        • Tim Harris
          Posted October 20, 2015 at 7:11 am | Permalink

          Why not add psychological or social or cultural or political reactions to the surely rather impoverished list you provide (though at least they are not merely ‘atomic’, but chemical and biological factors get a look in)? The question is what is the relation between that ‘one possible physical outcome’ and the various factors that conspire to bring it about. Those other factors are not irrelevant, otherwise Jerry would not be bothering to assert that religious belief in an Islamic form has to do with kinds of decisions, and, dare I say, ‘choices’, made by those who join and fight with ISIS. We seem to be locked into a not very enlightening charade in which people latch on to one simplistic model as to what a choice or decision might be and, whether for it or against it, are unable to break away from this model.

          • eric
            Posted October 20, 2015 at 7:48 am | Permalink

            Add all the layers of factors you want, its still not a ‘choice’ in a meaningful sense of the term if all that input data leads to a determined output.

            So I’ll rephrase, and hopefully you’ll do me the courtesy of answering the original question: how does your brain and mind come to a point where there are two possible physical outcomes to some set of [insert all factors you want here], and it picks which outcome occurs?

            • Tim Harris
              Posted October 20, 2015 at 8:09 am | Permalink

              It doesn’t. That is to say, there is not, at some climactic moment, some little mannequin sitting in marvellously clear ether above those two absolutely equal and weighty possibilities (so equal that they are indistinguishable) that you have posited and plumping in vacuous and perfect freedom for one or the other. Neither, of course, are there the kinds of possible choices you seem to envisage.

            • Vaal
              Posted October 20, 2015 at 8:19 am | Permalink


              As before, this always gets back to the same problem.

              If “choice” isn’t real (in a meaningful sense) and “choice” contains the same misleading idea as free will, then to be consistent you will want to rid our vocabulary of the word “choice” as well.

              So how would you propose to get rid of the words “choosing,” “choice,” “choices” etc?
              Consider all the situations in which we employ the language of choice. What language will you use to replace “choice” that don’t either simply substitute a synonym (and hence the same concept) or that don’t necessarily imply exactly what you got rid of in the word “choice?”

              I suggest that when you try, and completely fail to come up with a workable alternative, it should become obvious that you are left with real world situations to describe – “Should we choose to go on vacation in Paris or New York this year?” – which only notions of “choice” adequately describe. And it should become obvious that we use the language of “choice,” necessarily, to describe real world states of affairs; it’s not the language of illusion.

            • Posted October 20, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

              Hi Eric,

              Add all the layers of factors you want, its still not a ‘choice’ in a meaningful sense of the term if all that input data leads to a determined output.

              It is notable that you say that the only “meaningful” interpretation of the word “choice” is one that doesn’t exist at all.

              It seems to me more meaningful to apply the word “choice” to what does actually happen in the real (deterministic) world.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted October 20, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

          We’ve been over this any number of times before, but here goes:

          When a computer plays chess, it must at every turn select a move from the range of legal moves available to it. The algorithm that does the selecting may be completely deterministic, with only one physically possible outcome, but that doesn’t obviate the need to run the code, perform the analysis, and make a selection.

          It’s the same with brains. We have a repertoire of behavioral competencies. At any given moment we must deploy some specific behavior from the range of behaviors available to us. There’s a cognitive process in our heads that makes that selection, and that process, as a matter of empirical linguistic fact, is called “choosing”.

          So yes, we make choices, in the ordinary, everyday sense of “choice” that everyone understands, i.e. we apply our brain power to the problem of determining what to do. That’s why we have brains in the first place; it’s what makes us different from rocks.

          If you want to tell people the truth, why not start by acknowledging that truth?

          • Posted October 20, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

            That’s the example I always fall back on. Computer programs, whether to play chess or do anything else all make choices or decisions based on inputs (excepting perhaps the most trivial of introductory programs). But any time you put an if/else statement in, I don’t see a problem in defining this as a choice nor do I find any problem with colloquially saying that we have the freedom to choose.

            True, the program can only run one way on a given moment and thus all the extraneous conditional statements that don’t execute are unnecessary on that specific execution. But they’re perfectly necessary if you want a generalized solution that will run under different inputs. We shouldn’t conflate the abstract with the concrete. Yes, at the bottom, Physics determines things, but if we want to go this route, we may as well say that it is not true that you have a 1 in 20 million chance of winning the lottery when you buy a ticket. You have either a 100% chance or 0% chance since Physics will determine whether your numbers match. But going this route doesn’t make sense in any context where the outcome isn’t fully predictable.

            As for the term free will itself, I’m fine with doing away with it since it is so riddled with religious themes and this causes people not to really think about what mean when they use the term. This point aside, I don’t see anything more wrong with the term than using the terms degrees of freedom when talking about a statistical model. Once dualism is set aside, the argument is semantic; and, if pressed, I think most theists would not hold to the view that we have infinite degrees of freedom in our choices. It’s trivial to demonstrate that anyone claiming otherwise hasn’t thought about whether they’re free to make a choice they didn’t think of as an option, so clearly even they admit some constraints.

            • peepuk
              Posted October 20, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

              The compatibilist usually equate a trait everyone has (the perception of free will) with something nobody can have (free will), at least if there are no spooky things.

              Trying to save this folksy idea of free will
              the compatibilist has no choice 🙂 to resolve his cognitive dissonance by redefining a clear concept and try to confuse people.

              Where the libertarian free willer causes only a lot of unnecessary suffering the compatibilist adds also a lot of unnecessary confusion.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 20, 2015 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

                “The compatibilist usually equate a trait everyone has (the perception of free will) with something nobody can have (free will), at least if there are no spooky things.”

                Perfectly wrong. Compatibilism seeks to disentangle the free will relevant to our material world from “type of spooky free will no one can have.” It doesn’t equate the two – it resolutely discards the latter.

                But then, strawmen are always easier to mock.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 20, 2015 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

                I recommend you have a peepuk at ‘Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away’ by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who has some arguments that bear on what you seem to be trying to say (your second sentence is a syntactical and semantic mess). Goldberger is, of course, a mere philosopher, as well as a novelist who thinks literature is rather more than a palliative, but she is also the wife of Stephen Pinker who rightly respects her.

              • peepuk
                Posted October 21, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

                Tim, sorry for the mess.

                “…who thinks literature is rather more than a palliative.”

                Sometimes when it rearranges some of your neurons in a beneficial way; often it does exactly the opposite, but mostly it is just an opportunity to escape from reality.

                “Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away”

                That’s obviously true.

                But we don’t need more philosophy about free will; Arthur Schopenhauer and Sam Harris did both a good job.

                Philosophy is great in asking questions, it cannot give you any answers about reality. We invented science for that.

                Unfortunately science gives answers almost nobody likes. We see the resulting cognitive dissonance resolved in different ways:

                The “free will”-deniers changed their beliefs to match the facts.
                The dualists made imaginary things up to keep themselves happy.
                The compatibilists try to redefine a non-existing phenomenon to suit their own personal preferences thereby creating an incredible mess.

                If belief in free will didn’t cause so much harm, I couldn’t care less.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 22, 2015 at 6:49 am | Permalink

                I should also like to add, peepuk, that science also gives answers that many people like, and that your tone of embattled and courageous self-pity is not justified by the facts. I am reminded by your performance of the way those American fundamentalists and their foxy friends go on about poor little Christians are under threat. Why not, instead of rehearsing readily remembered and unconsidered talking points and indulging in unwarranted smears and trivial rejoinders try to genuinely address what Vaal, Chris Buckley and Gregory Kusnick have said? They have spoken responsibly. If you don’t agree with them, then it really is up to you to explain why you don’t.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 21, 2015 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

                Ah, peepuk, the usual little litany of prejudices that haven’t really been thought about or examined. I shall merely say that we learn from all sorts of things including science, and that, pace Laurence Krauss, a great many things besides science contributed to the various improvements that have come about in some of our lives at least over the past 500 years.

      • Vaal
        Posted October 20, 2015 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        Agreed (not surprisingly) Gregory and Tim.
        I’m concerned with what is true, not what’s comforting.

        When I read certain incompatibilist proclamations I become concerned. But it’s not over the idea that people can’t handle the “truth” as espoused by the incompatibilist. I get concerned with the untruths – or half truths – propounded by the incompatibiliist!

        (That is the confusion sewn by claims Gregory mentions, and others).

        • peepuk
          Posted October 22, 2015 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Maybe bit too much; probably I should have said it a little nicer:

          Compatibilists try to redefine free will to match the scientific facts, thereby necessarily creating confusion, even when they succeed.

          The real problem is the harm this causes.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted October 23, 2015 at 6:20 am | Permalink

            I don’t think, peepul, that the problem is that you are saying things nicely or nastily, but that you are saying things thoughtlessly. This latest little statement of your position, if one may call it that, neither addresses what has been said by others nor gives any justification for what you suppose to be true or correct.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted October 23, 2015 at 7:16 am | Permalink

            And, incidentally, peepul, you seem not not to have noted that Vaal was talking about ‘choice’ and not free will, so what relevance your rejoinder has to what he was saying I fail to see. But perhaps you have a choice response to his use of the concept ‘choice’.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted October 23, 2015 at 7:17 am | Permalink

              ‘not to have noted’

            • Tim Harris
              Posted October 23, 2015 at 7:19 am | Permalink

              And, sorry, ‘peepuk’ not ‘peepul’.

  14. Posted October 20, 2015 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Of course Determinists do make choices. We cannot both lie and not lie at the same moment about the same thing. Irrespective of any external coercion our body/brain can do one only! But “the decision”, the “chosen action”, will come from a mental activity of reasoning and assessment which is wholly controlled (caused) by our memory, genes, experience and environment at that same moment. Of all the actions we see as possible alternatives, the one that our memory-genes-experience-environment “chose” determines our adaptive, moral worth, our behavioural value as a human who is inevitably an interdependent member of a group, a social animal.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 6:08 am | Permalink


      • Posted October 20, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        The objection is similar to having branch points in a computer program and saying “well, it can only go one way!”

  15. darrelle
    Posted October 20, 2015 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Wow. Shortest freewill comment thread ever. Everyone feeling OK?

    • Tim Harris
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      Probably not…

    • Posted October 20, 2015 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      Could it have possibly been otherwise?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 20, 2015 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        No. It was determined in the Big Bang.

        • Posted October 20, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

          Which is also the reason all of us are here…at least the bang part.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      I’m determined to find out.

      • darrelle
        Posted October 20, 2015 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        I’m indeterminate. I can’t decide.

  16. nathan
    Posted October 20, 2015 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I have an anecdote based on a sample size of 1, so take it as you will –
    Many years ago, I was in an AOL chat room on religion. I ended up in a heated (but cordial) discussion with 1 fellow in particular, and he and I took our exchanges private. Relevant to the issue here, at one point the fellow – an Evangelical Christian – told me point blank that if it were not for his fear of eternal punishment, HE would be out “raping and killing”. I decided then and there that by golly, religion may have a saving social grace after all.

    • Posted October 20, 2015 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Had he not been indoctrinated into a religion that tells him he is worthless without a personal savior and that all of humanity is hopelessly depraved, would he have felt that he’d be out raping and killing without the threat of hell fire?

      I’d contend that he most likely wouldn’t be, and we have plenty of evidence from secular countries in Europe that people do not need threats to keep them in line. Moreover, everything we know about behavior analysis indicates that reinforcement is the best behavior modification tool, not punishment.

      If religion has to resort to telling people they’re born sick, commanded to be well and this is the reason they’re not acting sick, no thank you. We can all live better without those kind of “saving social graces”.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      Believers have made that same claim before and I don’t doubt that some believe that to one extent or another. I think it is highly improbable for at least a couple of reasons.

      Most believers, even devout believers fall within the behavioral norms of the average human and the average human embedded in the average human society does not go about raping and killing. So I think most such claims by believers are oberdramatic grandstanding, perhaps to bolster their own beliefs.

      In cases were it may indeed be true that a believers commitment to their religious beliefs is what keeps them from raping and killing, I don’t think their religious beliefs are the only crutch capable of helping them to not give in to their urges, or the best one. If they really have such a problem then they very likely are pathological and legitimate medical attention would be the best thing for helping them, not religion.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      Oh, forgot to mention, the claim sounds to me like an admission that freewill does not exist. Either that or that the typical human can not be trusted to exercise freewill. So either it doesn’t exist or it does but you can’t use it.

  17. Posted October 20, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I have a different take why the belief in free will might make someone behave more moral. This is a speculation on my part, but see the proposal. It seems to be that the presence of a watchful agent deters individuals from cheating. This agent can be a supernatural entity as well, as long the individual believes it is being observed. This answers already one part of the topic: As atheists we accept that we shouldn’t maintain the belief in gods to take advantage of this effect. See the abstract of the research, “Princess Alice is watching you”:

    Child groups (5–6 and 8–9years of age) participated in a challenging rule-following task while theywere (a) told that they were in the presence of a watchful invisible person (‘‘Princess Alice’’), (b) observed by a real adult, or (c) unsupervised. Children were covertly videotaped performing the task in the experimenter’s absence. Older children had an easier time at following the rules but engaged in equal levels of purposeful cheating as the younger children. Importantly, children’s expressed belief in the invisible person significantly determined their cheating latency, and this was true even after controlling for individual differences in temperament. When ‘‘skeptical’’ children were omitted from the analysis, the inhibitory effects of being told about Princess Alice were equivalent to having a real adult present. Furthermore, skeptical children cheated only after having first behaviorally disconfirmed the ‘‘presence’’ of Princess Alice. The findings suggest that children’s belief in a watchful invisible person tends to deter cheating.
    Jared Piazza, Jesse M. Bering, Gordon Ingram
    Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2011

    The belief in libertarian free will could be understood as a tiny judgmental god that watches over our mind and that helds us, itself, accountable for what it did. Theories about how our minds work would have enough room for such a high level daemon, or another one who represents the previous self that is being judged (“how could I be so stupid!”). This dualism between an object (that is being judged) and a subject (that judges) is a model only and probably not what is really going on in the mind. Maybe it’s a parliament, or a strange loop, or a self-referential loopy parliament.

    Without the illusion of free will, our watchful tiny god has nothing to judge, as “stuff happens”. The difference is between smashing a vase accidentially, and having it done on purpose, which is analogous to cheating (“I couldn’t help myself, the ace fell into my sleeve by accident and found its way into my hand without my help”). If we can justify it was merely by accident, we don’t have to fear a watchful agent judging us, and since it’s all in the mind, neither does the agent has anything to judge, since it just happens. The question is whether it is even possible to really convince ourselves that we you have nothing to decide. That’s where I am highly sceptical.

    I still lean to the yet other camp, the Compatibilists. I say we can’t joost out of reality anyway, we only have the illusion of doing so. I’m a model-dependent realist, as it’s apparently called these days, and I can accept “Free Will” as the name of a model we use and rely on. That’s about it. We are fooling ourselves anyway. We have to redefine some terms anyway and maintain the illusion, otherwise a lot of everyday talk would not make sense.

    Let’s suppos we are totally honest about it, as Incompatibilists often demand: there is no free will, we don’t delude ourselves and let go of the notion. We smash this model for good. No redefinition of the Will anymore, enough of it already! How do I express that I want (Eeeekk) to eat chocolate? How do I convey that I prefer (Eeeek) it over vanilla? How do people express all the million things that involve willpower, getting up from the couch for sports on one day, but somehow don’t manage it another time? What is “consent” then? This goes to rubbish as many a term and entire conceptions with it.

    Why shouldn’t we force other people to do something? We actually don’t, nor are we overriding anything. We are more a billiard ball that hits another one and thus make it change direction, according to laws of nature. We can’t even express that we want (Eeek) to maintain the universial human values, heed Golden Rules or stick to Categorical Imperatives. We can’t express this anymore. And if an Incompatibilist does, they have sneaked in the free will model through a back door.

    However since there isn’t free will, we should (Eeeek) still draw the conclusions, as Jerry writes: “The best strategy, I think, is to tell people the truth about reality, and then convince them why they still shouldn’t lie, cheat, or exercise retributive punishment”.

    • Posted October 21, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      “No redefinition of the Will anymore, enough of it already! How do I express that I want (Eeeekk) to eat chocolate? How do I convey that I prefer (Eeeek) it over vanilla? How do people express all the million things that involve willpower, getting up from the couch for sports on one day, but somehow don’t manage it another time? What is “consent” then?”

      Yes, these are the sort of real-world situations for which the term “free will” (and any associated terms) are perfectly logical and meaningful descriptors.

      When I’m talking to someone and I differentiate between myself and a rock by saying I have free will and the rock doesn’t, I’ve communicated meaningful information to my interlocutor. At the very least I’ve communicated that there is a difference between the lump of matter that is me and the lump of matter that is the rock; I have consciousness, desires, a mobile physical apparatus that makes it possible to act on those desires, etc. The term free will conveys all that even if I think it’s all explicable by physics but my interlocutor is a FW Libertarian and thinks it’s because of a soul/dualism/magic/whatever. I might try to convince him that it’s not because of a soul, but that doesn’t mean “free will” is a term that needs to be trashed.

      “Without the illusion of free will, our watchful tiny god has nothing to judge, as “stuff happens”

      This sounds like an Appeal to Consequences, but I think if rephrased, you’re making an interesting point. I might say something more like “The concept of free will is part of what gives us functioning consciences”.

  18. Posted October 20, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I’ve been prevaricating -and still am- on the issue of free will.
    Formally I *know* there is no such thing (Jerry, for example, pointed that out very convincingly). However, in ‘every day life’ it just does not work out that way very clearly.

    Is my ‘choice’ to fry mushrooms with some harissa not a choice made of free will? Drinking that extra glass of good wine? Copulating with one who is not your established partner? Killing that aggressive moron who plagues you on a regular basis (or, if too sordid, the enemy)? You see I’m escalating. Free will maybe an illusion, but it is a strong one.

    The French ‘Existentialists’ (Camus, Sartre) realised we make a choice any moment of our existence, but curiously they were not *particularly* interested in whether this was ‘determined’ or ‘free will’.

    When I still believed in free will I cheated on my partner (and I killed 13 people -mercy killings, for all clarity). Now that I do not believe in free will anymore my inclination to cheat on my partner has not increased (on the contrary) and I will not kill anymore (line of work changed).

    So Jerry, I can anecdotally confirm: realising free will is an illusion did not increase or decrease cheating in this subject.

    • Vaal
      Posted October 20, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      “However, in ‘every day life’ it just does not work out that way very clearly.”

      That’s because the incompatibilist thinking you are running with doesn’t seem to map very well to every day real life.

      You are describing yourself doing real things, making choices, and then deciding you didn’t really do the things you did (make choices). Essentially you are stuck thinking that making choices is incompatible with your experience of actually making choices.

      No wonder you are confused 😉

      • Posted October 21, 2015 at 5:41 am | Permalink

        I know I make choices. They are not inconsistent with incompatibilism. I know that my choices are fixed by the sum condition of my memory-genes-experience-environment at the moment of that choice and to choose differently would have needed a prior change to that aforesaid sum condition.

        In fact my choice will be affected by my acceptance that I have no freewill: that there is no evidence for and that I am free of any Supernatural control or surveillance of my behaviour and that all holy commandments have human origins. Yet I recognise that many of the “religious” ethical moral rules (used to create and to justify legally-enforced coercions) must be an effective means to benefit human societal life, BUT SURROGATE-PARENTAL RELIGIONS ONLY WORK WHILE THE BASIC BELIEF IN THEIR SUPERNATURAL SOURCE IS SUFFICIENTLY FIRMLY AND WIDELY HELD.

        The problem for incompatibilists (in their lack of any such “belief”) is how do we decide what is moral behaviour? What is good/bad, right/wrong? Are our individual subjective moral intuitions sufficient to maintain a civilised society? And this is the elephant in the room in protracted debates about “freewill”. Evolved “religious” coercive moral sanctions have created strong, stable successful communities. Can any very large human society survive/thrive without such imposed rules?

        • Posted October 21, 2015 at 7:34 am | Permalink

          PS.And who gets to compose and to impose them?

          • Tim Harris
            Posted October 21, 2015 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            The people who have seized power, that’s who.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted October 21, 2015 at 7:47 am | Permalink

          How ‘individual’ & ‘subjective’ in fact are your moral intuitions? I doubt very much whether they are all that individual and ‘subjective’ (whatever you may mean by that). How strong, stable and ‘successful’ historically have communities with ‘coercive moral sanctions’ deriving from religion actually been, and if they have actually been strong, stable and successful how much of this has been due to their having coercive moral rules? With what societies that lack such moral rules are you comparing such ‘communities’? A look at the religious wars that wracked Europe, and the kinds of social collapse that Norman Cohn described in his great work of history ‘The Pursuit of the Millennium’, might make one wonder as to the stability, strength & stability of societies that try to live by religious rule. Your worries seem to have nothing to do with the question of free will – you seem instead to be recommending some sort of right-wing political tyranny, with lots of splendid ‘rules’, as a means of maintaining strength, stability and success: well, we have seem how those sorts of ideas have played out in all sorts of places – those frightfully Christian generals in Argentina, Pinochet and his torturing lot on Chile… Come on!

          • Posted October 22, 2015 at 10:27 am | Permalink

            Hi Tim,
            I will “Come on”!
            I did not mean to be an advocate for “right-wing” regimes. And I do not believe that “those frightfully Christian generals in Argentina, Pinochet and his torturing lot on Chile” were using “lots of splendid ‘rules’” let alone adhering to their Christian Ten Commandments. Religion has always been and is still is capable of misuse -just as are our otherwise communally-valuable motor vehicles and jet aircraft.

            Organised religions emerged probably hundreds of thousands of years ago as one means of maintaining accord between unrelated humans. They were a “glue” enabling the merger of small tribes of biologically-related individuals into ever larger and diverse but more powerful, more successful groups. But there were rival groups, hence Religious Wars.

            Whilst the supernatural explanations are considered to be reasonable, organised religion’s success has been evidenced by its continued and ubiquitous existence for so long. Certainly so until the comparatively recent Enlightenment and the development of more credible scientific explanations which gradual erode religious unsubstantiated convictions.

            Most human communal activities require generally accepted, often enforced, rules, be it playing games, driving in traffic, property rights and use of language, etc. Not least in importance are norms of Specie-al “good” behaviour (which is what I regard as moral behaviour) and they are a hard problem to agree about because they almost certainly require constraints and the consideration of others in the uncertain hope of future advantage for oneself or one’s dependants. Freewill or Not-freewill is just a factor that seems to affect the real problems: i.e. how we frame, justify and operate those norms to regulate huge disparate communities.


            BTW. Merriman Webster:”Subjective (philosophy): relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind: based on feelings or opinions rather than facts”

            • Posted October 22, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

              2 Typos! “gradually” and Arthur. Sorry

              • Tim Harris
                Posted October 23, 2015 at 6:35 am | Permalink

                Have a look at the polytheistic religions of Greece and Rome, or of East Asia, and you will find a tolerance that you do not find in any of the Abrahamic religions; and in the case of Rome and China they were polities that lasted through many centuries. You are being parochial. Judaism, anyway, surely was not, and is not, a religion that was aimed at maintsining accord between ‘unrelated humans’. It was fundamentally a tribal or national religion. Consideration for others is a basic human trait, whichever religion you may, or may not, belong to. The most stable political orders have been those that tended towards the secular. Regarding ‘subjective’, one’s moral feelings don’t exist in a solipsistic vacuum and moral values are shared values (and far from necessarily because they are imposed ‘rules’ of conduct that one is constrained to follow).

  19. cherrybombsim
    Posted October 20, 2015 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    The result of a coin flip is determined by the laws of motion, but incalculable as a practical matter. We cannot calculate the result, but we can get some useful information about it from a model that we call probability theory. Free will is “not true” in the same sense that probability theory is “not true.” Personally, I have no problem believing that my own and other people’s actions are determanistic in some “true” sense at the very same time I use free will as a model for them.

    (For the record, I don’t actually believe that evolution is “true” either. It’s just a very, very good model.)

  20. kelskye
    Posted October 21, 2015 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Every time I see the topic of free will pop up on the philosophy group I administer, the idea most reinforced to me is that people are so muddled on free will that it’s impossible to say whether the concept is illusory or not based on those accounts. Yes, any dualistic account of free will is illusory, and that follows from the notion that any form of dualism is illusory. But when people try to drill down as to what the problems of monism may be for free will, that’s where people don’t have much more than a fear that choice is the movement of atoms – neglecting that the brain as an information processing device is so much more than the atoms that compose it.

  21. Posted October 24, 2015 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I think you are mistaken that those Grecians, Romans and Chinese who enjoyed stable communities were notably tolerant of outsiders.

    All religions, not just Judaism, work because they bond as though they are extended “herds” (families/tribes/nations): even un-related secularists from different ethnic groups are (at least weakly) bonded by a common disbelief.

    I agree that consideration of others is a shared human trait but, just as with our eyes, ears and intelligence, it can vary quite widely from one to another of us.

    I am not pro any Religion but I do think superstition had to precede and then did eventually spawn empirical science. Old superstition’s power is being steadily diminished by increased knowledge but as its power goes so also does its associated moral precepts. I cannot suggest that any religion has much more than satisfactory moral standards but they allowed, (enabled even?), the human species to survive/flourish and vastly increase over countless millennia despite the inevitable bitter conflicts and the mistakes due to the false grounds of their beliefs.

  22. Tim Harris
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Sorry, Mogguy, I’ve just noticed this. Polytheistic societies or civilisations have in the main been far more tolerant than monotheistic ones. The Chinese Empire and the Roman Empire embraced many different peoples with very different beliefs. Ethics were constantly being discussed in both empires – in the case of the Roman Empire chiefly but certainly not solely among its Greek-speaking citizens. Chinese philosophy is mainly concerned with ethics and living an ethical life but is not usually interested in laying down moral rules that have to be followed (as Aristotle wasn’t). The rule-bound moral life, as well as intolerance towards those who believe in different gods or don’t believe at all, seems to be a monotheistic preference. In Japan, where I live, people simply don’t give a damn that I am an atheist, not because Japanese people are necessarily irreligious like myself, but because for fundamentally polytheistic people it really doesn’t matter very much what this or that person consciously ‘believes’.

    That’ll do! I’m getting to bed!

    • Posted October 27, 2015 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      Thanks Tim,
      But what makes acts ethical? They must have some justification of underlying principles of rightness, which I, of course, interpret as “rules” of good communal behaviour.
      I, too, am fortunate that, caucasian, English and living in England, I enjoy a tolerant, basically secular, society. But it is one where all its accepted laws (and order) are based on Christian moral coding. Yet this is an ethical system which was “designed” for life as it was many centuries ago and its “Divine Infallibilty” has required considerable tweaking to suit modern civilization. Now we even have women bishops (in the Church of England at least)! Divorce and unmarried relationships are are commonplace, homosexuality and suicide are legal and all carry much less public stigma -though legal assisted-suicide is still resolutely outvoted by The Establishment -both religious and medical.
      That’ll do for me too. Hope you slept well.

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