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Tamler Sommers Ph.D.

No Soul? I Can Live with That. No Free Will? AHHHHH!!!

Is Giving up on Free Will Really So Bad?

Imagine a world where no one believed in free will. Life would no longer have meaning, right? We’d be robots, puppets on a string, living a mockery of a real human existence. And why be moral? After all, if we do something bad, we didn’t freely choose to do it, and so we cannot be morally responsible for that choice. So why bother?

In part because of the perceived ethical hazards I’ve mentioned, the same philosophers and scientists who are happy to reject God, an immaterial soul, and even absolute morality, cannot bring themselves to do the same with free will. “Tell it like is” atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, for example, insist that we have the kind of free will that would make us genuinely morally responsible for our actions. (Though it’s possible that Dawkins pulls back here…) One well known philosopher—the University of Haifa’s Saul Smilansky—though a free will skeptic himself, argues that we should not broadcast the truth of his position to the public at large. Why, you ask? Because, well… see here. It appears that philosophers, scientists, and most everyone else regard positions that deny free will much like the wife of the Bishop of Worcester regarded Darwinism: “My dear, let us hope it isn’t true! But if it is, let us pray it does not become widely known!”

Until recently, however, there was no empirical support whatsoever for this pessimism about a widespread denial of free will. Then came the 2008 study by Volhs and Schooler in Psychological Science—a study that was pounced upon by the popular press. (See here for one example.) Briefly, the authors gave two groups tasks which featured opportunities to cheat, including one where they could pocket some extra money for doing so. The first group was given an excerpt from Francis Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis which stated that scientists had denounced the notion of free will. The control group read another excerpt that did not refer to free will. The subjects in the first group were more likely to cheat on their tasks. The authors end their paper by asking: “Does the belief that forces outside the self determine behavior drain the motivation to resist the temptation to cheat, inducing a “why bother” mentality?...Or perhaps denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.”

Does this mean that many of the fears about a world without free will are justified? I think the answer is no.

My goal here is not to trash this study, or even to nitpick about the methods, but rather to argue that the results, even when accepted at face value, don’t shed light on the most important questions about the implications of denying free will. The reason is simple: The way people might react in the short term upon having their belief in free will challenged likely has very little bearing on than how they would behave over the course of their lives once the initial shock wears off. (Having your worldview shaken up will certainly have some short-term negative effects on behavior.Right after Grady Little inexplicably allowed Pedro give up the lead to the Yankees in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, I would have done a lot worse than cheat on a psychology quiz!)

In sum, there's no reason to think that our behavior just after hearing that a cherished belief is false has any bearing whatsoever on how we'll act after further reflection. Has there been a single study that documents such a correlation? If there is none, then it seems that this study only shows that it’s undesirable for people to find out there's no free will fifteen minutes before they submit their tax return.What really matters is how people would handle this belief in the long run. Here is my prediction on that front. First, there would be a good amount of variation. Some people would shrug off the belief in free will without a second thought, right away. But some wouldn’t. Those on the dark end of the spectrum might get depressed—at first. They might think their lives had little meaning. They might confuse determinism with fatalism. They might think: what’s the point of accomplishing something if I won’t be morally responsible for the accomplishment? They might not stay late at work, or show up for their community service duty that week. They might spend their first few days watching eight straight hours of Law and Order and eating quarts of Starbucks ice cream. But then they would stop and think. Why was I really leading the life I was leading? Why was I trying to become a doctor, philosopher, novelist, snowboarder, actor, good father, good wife, generous person, philanthropist? Was it so that I could say that freely chose to be those things, that I was morally responsible, that deserved praise, for being these things? Was it so I could sit back one day and say: “man, it’s nice to be morally responsible for being an accomplished writer who gave a lot of money to charity, and who was also a good father to my daughter”? No. It’s because I want to become these things, because that would give my life the most fulfillment, the deepest happiness, and because I was in a position to help other people achieve their goals. That’s enough, isn’t it? So my prediction is that the masses can handle the truth, just not, in some cases, right away. (A helpful analogy might be what happens to observant theists once they lose their faith.) Anyone who is reflective enough to understand the reasoning behind arguments against free will should be able to understand that living morally and pursuing real goals are good things even if you don’t deserve praise for doing them.

That’s my prediction, an optimistic one. But how do you test it? The whole point of my prediction is that it will take some time, some reflection, to understand that living without free will is not that bad. By definition that means that an experiment that disabuses people of free will and then tests their reaction cannot support or undermine this prediction one way or the other. You could imagine a series of surveys over the course of a few years given to people who seem to have genuinely denied free will. A “35-Up” for free will deniers. But that would be methodologically challenging, if not outright impossible. At the same time, it is an empirical claim, in the same way that the pessimistic claim is empirical. So if we’re going to answer these questions, we’ll need empirical support. Any ideas?

(For some optimistic accounts of living without free will, see Derk Pereboom’s Living without Free Will. See also Greene and Cohen’s article “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything,” my paper “The Objective Attitude” (subscription required here, draft here), my interview with Galen Strawson in The Believer, and a host of essays and articles on the fantastic


About the Author

Tamler Sommers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston.