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John Bargh and Some Misunderstandings About Free Will

My thoughts after the great debate in Tampa.

This post is in response to
The Will Is Caused, Not "Free"

One of the high points of the year for me was the SPSP conference, where I had the privilege of debating my old friend John Bargh about free will. Bargh has been repeatedly honored as the top social psychologist of his cohort and will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest social psychologists of all time. It is therefore a particular treat for someone like me to share a stage and match wits with him.

The debate did not go off quite as I had anticipated. I got the impression that we were not really debating the same questions. Hence let me focus on several key points on which my understanding differs sharply from his.

I have already posted a separate blog on this misunderstanding. John seemed to think that questioning determinism meant rejecting causality. Determinism is the belief in the inevitability of all causes. The past is set in stone as much as the future.

Some of the most heated moments at the Tampa debate arose from Bargh's reaction to his perception that people wanted him to stop doing or publishing research. That is a highly unfortunate misunderstanding. Nobody, at least nobody I know or respect, wants his work or any other scientific enterprise in psychology to stop.

The misunderstanding I believe arose honestly on both sides. It began with the Vohs and Schooler paper showing that inducing determinism made people more likely to lie, cheat, and steal. Schooler has used those findings to suggest that scientists should not tell the general public that determinism is a proven fact, because to do so may have socially undesirable effects. I have echoed that sentiment.

Bargh had mistakenly equated determinism with causality, however. Hence he thought Schooler was advocating that scientists should cease publishing research on causation in psychology. That is however not at all what Schooler (or anybody) meant.

Determinism is not a proven fact. Indeed, it is impossible to prove. In fact I believe the majority of natural scientists have rejected determinism, persuaded by quantum indeterminacy and other observations that the locked-in deterministic model of 100% inevitability is untenable. Despite this, many psychologists continue to cling to the dogma of determinism.

Many old-fashioned scientists also believe that determinism is incompatible with free will. Hence they think that to believe in free will is unscientific. They are willing to tell the public that free will is an illusion. However, their assertion is unproven and unprovable. When they make public statements of that sort, they are misrepresenting their personal, ideological or metaphysical opinions as if they were scientific facts. This is already irresponsible. Schooler is right to point out that their irresponsible misrepresentation of opinion as fact has additional and damaging consequences, insofar as they unfounded opinion they advocate will promote antisocial behavior.

The blog by Bargh and Earp, to which I am replying, contains the statement that "free will means free from causation." This is stated much more clearly and explicitly than in Bargh's remarks in Tampa.

If this is his point, then again, he is not debating against me. I have described freedom as freedom from particular causes, which I think is terrifically important and meaningful. And I have questioned deterministic causality as the proper model, saying that probabilistic causation (changing the odds) is much better suited to psychological science than deterministic. In terms of lay beliefs, as in the Vohs and Schooler study, I suspect people are often thinking in terms of internal causation rather than external.

It is possible to believe in free will even if you believe in determinism (i.e,. that everything that happens is 100% inevitable, all the way back to the Big Bang and on into the future until the end of time). The majority opinion in philosophy right now is compatibilism. That means most experts in these matters believe that determinism is compatible with free will. You can believe in the most rigid kind of causation and still accept free will.

I have emphasized two overlapping meanings of freedom in free will. Freedom can be relative. Here the "freedom from causation" can be understood in different ways, so it is not clear how much Bargh and I disagree. I think he means freedom from all causes. If you take that to the extreme, it becomes I think a useless notion: the ability to act at random, independent of anything else that is going on. Of what use would such a random action generator be?

However, partial and relative freedom is important and valuable. Some actions are freer than others. Psychology and indeed all social science are based on observing and explaining differences. If some acts are freer than others, then we have a genuine phenomenon worth studying. To understand the difference between the relatively free and relatively less free actions is to make a valid scientific contribution to the understanding of free will.

The second meaning I have emphasized is that human social life depends on free action in an important sense. We must be able to overcome some of the basic, natural patterns of response that we share with animals. Suppose you took a wild animal and gave it a position in our society: a job, a car, an apartment, a salary, and so forth. Why wouldn't that work? Some animals are supposed to be pretty intelligent, as we keep hearing. But they would not be able to function in culture because they cannot control their behavior well enough to act in proper ways amid the rules, restraints, and opportunities that characterize culture. This is hardly a controversial statement: If other animals were capable of improving their lives with a cultural system comparable to ours, they would have done so by now.

Human beings are animals fully equipped with animal behavior capabilities, including instinct and the animal learning patterns. In order to make culture work, we have to overcome some of those reactions when they aren't socially appropriate or beneficial. That is a vital sense of free will. Culture depends on responsible moral action, for example.

To me, the essence of the idea of free will is that people actually make choices. The very idea of choice entails that more than one future outcome is possible. Determinism is precisely the denial of that. To a determinist, only one future outcome of any given situation or event is possible.

To determinists, choice is illusion. You may think you can choose between three options, all of which are possible, but you are mistaken, because causal processes are in motion that will lead you inevitably to choose a particular one of them. Your belief that the others were possible is the illusion. Thus, as you sit in the restaurant pondering whether to order the beef or the chicken, processes are moving along inside you that will inexorably lead you to order the beef. It was never possible that you would order the chicken. Already five minutes after the Big Bang, it was inevitable that you would eventually sit there and order the beef. That's what determinists believe.

They might be right. I am skeptical. It seems to me that it is worth trying to develop an understanding of human behavior and choice that accepts the genuine possibility that you could order the chicken after all. That, to me, is one fascinating core challenge in developing a theory of free will.

The pull line in the Bargh and Earp blog is "Our belief in free will is mainly self-serving." (By "our" I am not sure whether they refer specifically to themselves or mean to include all human beings.) That's overly limited. That belief serves more than just the self. I think one crucial point of the findings of Vohs and Schooler (2007), and further studies in my own lab, is that belief in free will serves the social group. Belief in free will supports honest, responsible, moral, helpful, non-aggressive, and otherwise prosocial behavior.

This point is not trivial. I suspect that belief in free will is widespread not just because it appeals to individual egotism but because it contributes to the smooth, effective functioning of the social system. Belief in free will makes people behave better: that's probably why cultures support that belief.

These effects are orthogonal to the question of whether free will is a reality or, perhaps more accurately put, the question of in what sense people have free will. The belief could be supported by society as useful even if it were completely false.

Assuming, however, that the concepts of free will and free action are linked to some genuine and meaningful psychological phenomena, then the social benefits of belief in free will have further implications. These dovetail with my view that the reality behind the idea of free will is a mechanism of action control that evolved to enable humans to create this new kind of social life, namely culture.

If there is an alternative to the deterministic causal universe, it might understand freedom along the lines of self-organization. There is actually considerable basis for thinking of free will in the form of self-organization in dynamical systems theory.

Here is the argument, though this is quite preliminary and pieced together, and I would welcome input from readers of the blog. Determinism is the view that causality is locked in: the laws of nature determine everything with 100% certainty, and the future is as set in stone as the past.

Against that view, we can think of the basic form of reality as including multiple possibilities, randomness, chaos, and the like. (In fact, reality seems somewhat chaotic and random at the subatomic particle level, indicating that our reality has organized itself out of the chaos but is still not entirely free of it.)

In total chaos, patterns occur accidentally ever so often, by random chance. One such pattern was the Big Bang, which self-organized a universe with natural laws, as one of the possible patterns that could occur by chance amid the random chaos of basic reality.

Physical matter has causality, as its organization, but it still tends to slip back toward chaos. Hence the drift toward entropy, also the second law of thermodynamics, and so forth.

Life, however, is a further step in self-organization. Each living thing demarcates a precise boundary between itself and the surrounding environment. You can dig up a tree and it is clear exactly where its roots and and the dirt begins.

Living things do not tend toward entropy. Life pulls relentlessly away from entropy. As Nobel physicist Ernst Shroedinger wrote, life is based on negative entropy.

One pattern of causality among living things is evolution. Evolution pulls away from randomness and entropy, toward ever greater self-organization. Things evolve to become more complex.

Agency is another step in the progress of self-organization. To evolve from plants and animals meant adding the capacity to move around. With multiple possibilities, the animal needs some kind of primitive agency, to tell its legs where to go.

Agency, which is largely connected to having a brain to operate your body, escalates through further evolution.

Human free will would then be a further step of self-organization - sort of like Agency 2.0. It is thus the continuation of natural processes of the sort that are most central to dynamical systems.

I think it's a plausible view. I don't see any definitive empirical evidence for or against. It broadly fits the observable facts.

In the end, the entropic thrust of physical matter is likely to prove stronger than life, as it does in every individual case, and the universe will revert back to random chaos, like it was before the Big Bang. But in the mean time, we have free will, relatively speaking at least.