Why it matters whether you believe in free will



Scientific discoveries about how our behaviour is causally influenced often prompt the question of whether we have free will (for a general discussion, see here). This month, for example, the psychologist and criminologist Adrian Raine has been promoting his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, in which he argues that there are neuroscientific explanations of the behaviour of violent criminals. He argues that these explanations might be taken into account during sentencing, since they show that such criminals cannot control their violent behaviour to the same extent that (relatively) non-violent people can, and therefore that these criminals have reduced moral responsibility for their crimes. Our criminal justice system, along with our conceptions of praise and blame, and moral responsibility more generally, all presuppose that we have free will. If science can reveal it to be an illusion, some of the most fundamental features of our society are undermined.

The questions of exactly what free will is, and whether and how it can accommodate scientific discoveries about the causes of our behaviour, are primarily theoretical philosophical questions. Questions of theoretical philosophy—for example, those relating to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind and language—are rarely viewed as highly relevant to people’s day-to-day lives (unlike questions of practical philosophy, such as those relating to ethics and morality). However, it turns out that the beliefs that people hold about free will are relevant. In the last five years, empirical evidence has linked reduced belief in free will with an increased willingness to cheat,1 increased aggression and reduced helpfulness,2 and reduced job performance.3 Even the way that the brain prepares for action differs depending on whether or not one believes in free will.4 If the results of these studies apply at a societal level, we should be very concerned about promoting the view that we do not have free will. But what can we do about it?

One option, of course, is to censor information that may lead people to reject the idea of free will. This option is a non-starter. For countries that, like the UK, aspire to liberal values (or at least shrink from endorsing values that are clearly illiberal), censoring information that does not pose an immediate threat of harm would be a dangerous step. Whilst data about the effects of disbelief in free will are concerning, they do not provide grounds to conclude that publicising the view that we are unfree poses an immediate threat of harm. (An example of information that poses an immediate threat of harm is a set of non-specialist instructions for secretly sabotaging the brakes on a car, perhaps along with encouragement to do so.)

Perhaps we need not resort to censorship, however. The real problem here is not scientific data about the causal influences on our behaviour, but the associated claims about free will. The claim that such data threaten the idea of free will is generally not made by philosophers, but by scientists, journalists and members of the public. Philosophers, by contrast, tend to be more sceptical of the purported threat to free will (see, for example, the comments by philosophers here). Given free will is a philosophical issue, this suggests that those non-philosophers who believe certain scientific advances to undermine free will are mistaken. We might, then, attempt to counteract the potentially damaging effects of encouraging the public to reject the idea of free will by discouraging scientists, journalists, and others from making philosophical claims that they are not qualified to make. Possible ways of achieving this include promoting philosophical education in general (for example, by teaching philosophy to schoolchildren), fostering collaborative research between theoretical philosophers and scientists, encouraging theoretical philosophers to interact with the media—and perhaps simply by promoting the message that, in general, refuting theoretical philosophical claims involves more than making scientific discoveries.

That people’s beliefs about free will turn out to have important practical implications raises a general question about the relevance of theoretical philosophy. Theoretical philosophers are familiar with comments like ‘This is all very interesting, if pointless’ in response to explaining their research to non-philosophers. But it looks like understanding free will is far from pointless if it prevents one from hastily rejecting it on the basis of empirical evidence, and suffering the behavioural consequences. Further, beliefs about other theoretical philosophical issues have behavioural consequences, too: there is evidence that a belief in mind-body dualism leads to unhealthy choices.5 The same is probably true of other theoretical philosophical beliefs: this is a relatively new field, and no doubt much is yet to be discovered.

1 Vohs, K.D. and Schooler, J.W. 2008: ‘The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating’, Psychological Science 19/1: 49–54.

2 Baumeister, R.F., Masicampo, E.J. and DeWall, C.N. 2009: ‘Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35/2: 260–68.

3 Stillman, T.F., Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D., Lambert, N.M., Fincham, F.D. and Brewer, L.E. 2010: ‘Personal philosophy and personnel achievement: belief in free will predicts better job performance’, Social Psychological and Personality Science 1/1: 43–50.

4 Rigoni, D., Kühn, S., Satori, G. and Brass, M. 2011: ‘Inducing disbelief in free will alters brain correlates of preconscious motor preparation: the brain minds whether we believe in free will or not’, Psychological Science 22/5: 613–18.

5 Forstmann, M., Burgmer, P. and Mussweiler, T. 2012: ‘“The mind is willing but the flesh is weak”: the effects of mind-body dualism on health behavior’, Psychological Science 23/10: 1239–45