The case for a belief in free will

The paper title is Believing there is no free will corrupts intuitive cooperation, and the authors are John Protzko, Brett Ouimette, and Jonathan Schooler.  The abstract is this:

Regardless of whether free will exists, believing that it does affects one’s behavior. When an individual’s belief in free will is challenged, one can become more likely to act in an uncooperative manner. The mechanism behind the relationship between one’s belief in free will and behavior is still debated. The current study uses an economic contribution game under varying time constraints to elucidate whether reducing belief in free will allows one to justify negative behavior or if the effects occur at a more intuitive level of processing. Here we show that although people are intuitively cooperative, challenging their belief in free will corrupts this behavior, leading to impulsive selfishness. If given time to think, however, people are able to override the initial inclination toward self-interest induced by discouraging a belief in free will.

I would say that we need a large swathe of society to believe in ideals of free will and individual responsibility, even though such concepts are not entirely faultless from a metaphysical point of view.  For a given thinker, it is worth asking whether he or she adds to or takes away from that social belief.  For some writers, the concepts of individual blame and responsibility apply only to their intellectual adversaries!

For the pointer I thank Ben Southwood.


"I would say that we need a large swathe of society to believe in ideals of free will and individual responsibility, even though such concepts are not entirely faultless" ...kinda like voting

You should write a post on which noble lies you think are worth propagating in society. Perhaps some form of meritocracy, karma, God, and objective morality?

"Karma" means the "fruit of action". Cause and effect. It's traditional application is not at all like the way it is used in the West. Roughly like "you reap what you sow", more or less. For example, you could try going and being a total asshole to all your friends, family and co-workers, or try to manipulate and rip off your clients in business. Karma's a bitch. But if the individual who is responsible for a wrongdoing cannot be pinpointed, it is not rational to think that there is some inherent property of the universe where they will "get what they deserve" - in time, however, many will.

I think the question of "objective morality" is well worth exploring, and do not see it as a "noble lie". In some senses, this reflects evolutionarily devised cooperative mechanisms, and more importantly, it reflects our ability to reflect on how things work in society if we do not construct systems of "objective morality" which constrain the excesses of what our natural selves may lead us to when aggregated in modern societies for which we are not evolutionarily designed.

The concept of "God" as a distributor of justice troubles me, because it takes personal and social responsibility away from solving problems. However, it may be useful in not being too judgmental.

Not sure what you mean by meritocracy being a noble lie ... do you refer to how the extent of meritocracy is not very complete or biased in various ways as influenced by various interest groups?

No. karma means action. (Fruit of action is karmaphala.) For instance in the Mahabharata, the protagonists after they die end up in Hell. Even though the war they fought was under divine guidance, when all is said and done the fact is they were responsible they were responsible for the deaths of many people. However because they didn't fight for selfish reasons, the time in Hell was short and they eventually ascend to Heaven.

So karma would seem to deny a free will based morality. No matter what you do, it will have consequences outside your control. However there is also dharma - the natural law and structure of the universe and society. Arjuna the Pandava doesn't want to fight because he realizes what the consequences will be. Krishna Bhagavans answer to him in the Bhagavad Gita is that as a Kshatriya (member of the warrior caste) it is his dharma to fight for good. He should do his duty regardless of the results.

For a dharmic person it doesn't matter if there is no free will. He should act morally simply because it is the right thing to do. How does he know whats right? Because God and ancestors said so. That's the part which might be a problem for some people.

"So karma would seem to deny a free will based morality. No matter what you do, it will have consequences outside your control."
It doesn't even make sense.

Well I didn't express myself clearly enough My understanding of the Western concept is that there can be something that you consciously choose to do (e.g. accept Jesus Christ as your savior) which will erase the consequences of your previous behavior. This is why free will is important to morality because that choice cannot be coerced. Or if you choose to go against Gods wishes you must suffer because you consciously chose to rebel. Again free will is necessary for the rebellion to be meaningful.

We disagree. What you should do is enough good deeds to outnumber the bad deeds. All deeds will have their result regardless of your intention or who told you to do it but if the sum of good deeds is greater than the sum of evil ones, the outcome will be good whereas if evil is greater the outcome will be bad. A corollary of this is that there are no completely good or completely evil people. A person with a preponderance of evil deeds can do good things but that doesn't negate the evil that he did. And a mostly good person who does one bad thing will not get a discount for being good in everything else.

A truly enlightened person says the Gita supresses the notion of "I will" and does what is right without regard to the consequences.

"So karma would seem to deny a free will based morality. No matter what you do, it will have consequences outside your control."
The fact we are not omniscient doesn't eliminate free will.
"Again free will is necessary for the rebellion to be meaningful."
No at all.

Jaldhar - it's interesting this contradiction between conscious choice and responsibility. On the one hand, yes, I think it is clear in many Christian traditions that choosing "good" is meaningless unless there is a genuine optionality in the matter (and so we were lectured, not beaten, for doing wrong things, and were taken to many different places of worship to learn about their practices). In order to "choose" "good", the option of choosing evil must be present, not only theoretically, but for practical purposes.

I find this very contradictory with regard to erasing all consequences if you just "accept Jesus as your Saviour". This seems to me like an unlimited supply of get of jail free cards, which some might use to wash away the assumed afterlife consequences of any level of wrongdoing. Like, how many Christians would answer affirmative to the question "Would Hitler go to heaven if, in his final moment, he repented, begged for forgiveness, and accepted Jesus as his Saviour?" How can there be personal responsibility in a system where everyone gets an unlimited supply of get out of jail free cards? How many Christians are troubled by the prospect that some people will play the "Jesus forgives everything" system, to live a life of evil with the intent to ask for forgiveness in their last moments?

"I would say that we need a large swathe of society to believe in ideals of free will and individual responsibility, even though such concepts are not entirely faultless from a metaphysical point of view. For a given thinker, it is worth asking whether he or she adds to or takes away from that social belief."

If you don't share assumptions, this is a call for social engineering and political persecution of subversive intellectuals.

Not of subversive intellectuals, but a Straussian call for the exclusion of faiths that have a strong belief in fate.

Buddhism, the defining threat of our time.

...can the same not be said anytime anyone expresses any desired societal goal?

Summing it up: "We must believe in free will because we don't have free will and wouldn't be able to resist being corrupted by this knowledge-- because we don't have free will." Do we have enough free will to believe in free will just because we must believe in free will to prevent the corrupting effects of knowing we don't have free will?

Perhaps we are destined to believe in free will, regardless of how true it is?

Considered at the theoretical physics level, at least their is random chance, which suggests that fatalist views are at least somewhat flawed.

And yet some notions of agency focus on non-random behaviors, where randomness indicates a lack of self. Other free will claims use deterministic intuition to identify free will within the perspective of the actor even as another perspective sees the preordained. The mainstream use of free will is almost like a giant trolling. No one agrees on the terms before entering a casual conversation. It's almost like the power of the term comes from its vagueness, and subjective malleability, which might make sense if "free will" has a social value. You don't need intellectual coherence so long as the right incentives are being activated.

Randomness does not mean free will. What appears as randomness still follows fixed rules of the universe. This is why Stephen Hawking does not believe in free will.

I agree. I did not sufficiently highlight that I was changing the topic somewhat to fatalism, as opposed to free will.

I agree with your first sentence. Whether I have free will or not, I'm made to act as if I did.

I don't see a refuge for free will in randomness.

Sorry, slightly different subject. But it introduces the notion that there may be no fate at the same time as not having free will, whereas in absence of sub-atomically defined randomness, this would appear as a contradiction.

Like, maybe some essentially random twitch of a molecule triggered a change in the level of some hormone on a given day with cascading effects to a really positive mood or really negative mood ... determining whether I was able to obtain that one-biggest-ever opportunity. In such a hypothetical context, one might still argue that there is no free will but that there is no such thing as fate.

Or, historically, say an essentially random effect somewhere in the atmosphere affect the development of the entire system, leading to some specific micro-climate phenomenon one day ... perhaps the Greek fire would have gone out before burning down the first ship, the Persians would not have lost confidence, and we would all be speaking derivatives of the Persian language this day, or some such types of things. Again, fate, not free will, is at hand ... but generally these concepts are considered as heavily tied together.

I've never been a fan of the no free will arguments. They usually seem to me to be playing semantic games more than anything else.

If the people discussing free will are focusing on semantic clarity and usefulness, then it is a far more interesting conversation than most free will discussions.

I understand why they do it, and it is useful for grappling with concepts of free will and such, but to me, such arguments become like many sophistic discussions, splitting finer and finer hairs about what means what. I just lose interest because the main point "is there free will" seems to always get subsumed into "what is free will?"

Here is an argument from Stephen Hawking that is not about semantics:

"Though we feel we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets...It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”

The Grand Design, p.31-32

Yes, that's a well put argument which goes back quite a ways before Hawking. It's pretty hard to dispute, except by saying there are many things which we know are illusions yet we treat as real, indeed I believe most of the modern world is built upon illusions we agree to treat as real. Anything further than this might risk being drawn into the semantic games I get so tired of.

This doesn't really refute Hawking's argument, and I suppose goes back to Cowen's point above. Maybe I believe in free will because my mother told me there was free will :)

To me that's akin to saying software really plays no role in in how a computer behaves because it's the CPU that's making all of the decisions. True, without a biological mechanism for carrying out decisions the "will" would have no impact, but that's does diminish the importance of the impulse.

"does" diminish -> "does not" diminish the importance.

I don't think that analogy is persuasive. The CPU is a much less controlling host than the laws of free will. You could also say a house is a piece of hardware, but what people do inside of the home (like software) can still have important impulses that aren't dictated by the house.

The impulses you talk about are dictated by the laws of science. They are not independent, or even have the type of freedom that software has within a CPU.

"if our behavior is determined by physical law," << this is the assumption that there is no free will.

Free will is NOT "physical law" in the ways that the laws of physics and chemistry are.

But the clear point is this: if one believes there is NOT free will, then the criminals are not moral agents and are merely following their bio-physical "laws". Those who act in a less criminal, more cooperative way, often do so because they believe in free will and choose to be "good".

Will - soul is a meta-physical reality that current science doesn't explain, tho it might at some point.

I think they're useful in thinking about public policy. Once upon a time the mentally ill were thought to just choose to be that way. Now we realize there's something wrong with the operating system.

And it was't too long ago that many southerners were regarded as lazy because of lack of character. It turned out that a lot of them were just suffering from screwworm. Improvements in public health changed the inputs.

How do dingbat notions like the non-existence of free will get created and propagated? It's like solipcism, or the similar notion that the observable universe is just a simulation created by a higher power for your benefit and which lacks any reality beyond your simulated perceptions. Sure, I can't falsify such notions, but that's because they're by definition non-falsifiable. It's like if I postulated there's "massless invisible matter" that permeates all of space which is completely undetectable by any of our instruments. You can't prove that stuff doesn't exist, but it flunks any reasonable standard of plausibility. Same thing with the notion of one or more gods.

"How do dingbat notions like the non-existence of free will get created and propagated?"

Someone, or some group, has an insight that others suspect might be true, or has some validity. The idea spreads to other interested parties. Thus it is propagated. The end.

Yeah, well I got my own insights. The distribution of massless invisible matter is not uniform. It exists in low-lying clouds like fogbanks. If you're lucky enough to live in one, you have free will. If you don't, you're like a robot following a preprogrammed trajectory. This is the only known manifestation of massless invisible matter in our universe, but there may be others which haven't been discovered yet. I'm working on the theory of "hot" and "cold" massless invisible matter, but I need a grant to continue my work.

Yeah well I don't think this kind of "research" should be getting public funding either. This is the kind of stuff that gets overturned a few years later, but whatever the merits of the research itself, the worst thing about it is that this is exactly the kind of stuff that people who think of themselves as prospective managers of the hoi polloi pick up and write Very Important Books on. For recent examples, see "Nudging".

Perhaps, when you think you are exercising free will, it was in fact dictated by circumstance and the sum of your experientially defined and genetic self that you would arrive at these thoughts/acts which you deemed to be free will.

So if I obtained a gun and shot you, I should be blameless because I was compelled by whatever history and prevaling conditions put me on the trajectory toward shooting you. I didn't do it out of choice, hence lacked any criminal intent.

I propose that people who believe such notions should be compelled to sign up in some sort of registry, so anyone who shoots or otherwise harms them will be held blameless -- these erstwhile "victims" have essentially accepted (hence consented to) whatever fate has in store for them. Penalties should only apply for killing or harming people like me, who darn well hold you responsible for your actions.

Evidently your objection to determinism isn't based on logical argument, but your emotional response of offence taken to the upsetting of your moral instincts about blame.

"I didn’t do it out of choice, hence lacked any criminal intent."
We keep away people who are not legally responsible if they are considered a risk to society.
"Penalties should only apply for killing or harming people like me, who darn well hold you responsible for your actions."
I don't see why. Society values human lives no matter the beliefs of the protected human beings, so if punishment is a deterrence to harming human beings, it doesn't really matter if those preserved human beings believe in free will (and they may be right, some people may be faded to be deterred by the threat of punishment, and the others... we call them criminals).

One of many reasons that we must defend that free will is real, regardless of how founded it is in reality.

Perhaps it was fated that we would devise the concept of free will to deal with the sorts of problems you refer to.

I'm sorry, I missed the part where someone argued we should change the law.

Cut the blood supply to your brain for five minutes and your personality will be destroyed. Therefore decision making is a chemical process.

"Same thing with the notion of one or more gods."
Oh, OK, then.

I troll, therefore I am.

I found my PH pet money is actually a rare species found only in the Philippines. No wonder I could not find his picture on the internet. I might hire a biologist to reintroduce him to the wild. Apparently if they are less than 1 year old, as this one is, it's easier to do.

Ray, surely you know that love of money is the root of all evil. Did you have make a pet of it?

Better a pet than a god or a lover or a master.

'I would say that we need a large swathe of society to believe in ideals of free will and individual responsibility'

And designer babies - 'My view has long been that most people, if they have the chance, are willing to embrace and also use eugenics, albeit with some reframing and rebranding. Eugenics was a very popular idea with Progressives earlier in the twentieth century, and also with economists (in particular, pdf), and ultimately the Nazi connection will be seen as a bump in the road. Competition with the Chinese will help push Americans toward this ideological shift.'

Because nothing says free will like eugenics, right?

Big difference between policies designed to eliminate certain groups from the gene pool and individual decisions to influence the genetic composition of their progeny. One is top-down taking control of the reproduction of the species, the other is an act of free will (however, it may be poorly informed and highly sub-optimal).

"One is top-down taking control of the reproduction of the species, the other is an act of free will."

Err, yeah, an act of free will of one person on another. Or do we "own" our children like property?

If everyone decides to give their child the ass of a Kardashian, would that be better than the government decreeing it just because they chose it? If the government wanted every child to be an Einstein and the population wanted every child to be a Kardashian, which would be better?

I think it is correct to drawn attention to such potential problems. But in a similar vein to what I originally said, it would be much different for a government to dictate that all citizens must have a Kardashian ass than for free citizens to all make such a choice "independently" (scare quotes, because in such a circumstance, clearly there would have been an extent of social pressures which for practical purposes would not imply much freedom at all in the decision).

I am also troubled by the view of children somewhat along the lines of property, where parents hold the right to define and indoctrinate as we see fit, perhaps in the future extending to the right to tinker with their genome. But this would be vastly superior to any system where the state held the right to force such decisions. If anyone should have the right to do such things, who other than the parents?

So, to your point, yes, I would prefer that if every parent wanted their children to have the ass of a Kardashian they would have the right to do so, as compared to the government dictating that every child must be an Einstein. However, I'm generally uncomfortable with the notion of using CRISPR or other not-yet-developed similar technologies for applications other than targeting well-understood genetic diseases (and here, it would be troubling to consider how the definition of "genetic disease" could be expanded over time to include things that most people accept as falling within the natural existing variation within the population with regard to various traits).

> I would say that we need a large swathe of society to believe in ideals of free will and individual responsibility

I'd add the closely related concept of meritocracy to this list. Even the most fair nations are really not. Corruption, nepotism, and just dumb luck play huge roles in individual outcomes. Plenty of venal idiots wind up billionaires. Hard work and talent does provide an edge, but by no means a deterministic one, and if most people realized the actual odds they'd just plain give up. On the other hand, getting a mass of people to do better and work harder almost guarantees societal success. A talented, dedicated and focused striver may edge out his dullard competitor 51% of the time. But the law of large numbers means a million strivers edge out a million dullards 99.9% of the time.

Demonstrably false, as much as the logic appeals to society's losers. You can expropriate Jews' wealth, for example, and they will, by virtue of intelligence and hard work, accrue it again.

What the hell does this even have to do with my point?

Put it this way, say you strip a random self-made billionaire in the United States of his or her wealth, connections and reputation. A genie comes, casts a spell, and *poof* they find themselves in a middle-class, middle-prestige job. What percent would wind up being billionaires again? Definitely way more than the percentage chance of a random person becoming a billionaire. But definitely way less than 50%. Ergo talent and disposition are important, but luck and non-deterministic factors influence the sizable majority of the variance.

Like I said, hard work and talent only gives you a statistical edge in achieving success, not any individual guarantees. That's a much hard message to sell as motivation than "work hard and all your dreams will come true for sure".

I am not a rich person but I associate with a good number of them. It's astounding to observe how luck rains down upon the smart and much so that I'd say it's unfair!

"I am not a rich person."
So, are you the one who are not smart or the one who are not diligent?

Imagine a world where not everyone's goal is to accrue wealth.

(psst don't everyone but I'm quite stupid)

"how luck rains down upon the smart and diligent…so much so that I’d say it’s unfair!"
And yet luck, as you seem to define it, has not rained upon you. It is almost unfair.
Talking about raining, as the old goes:
"The rain, it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust fella.
But more upon the just because
The unjust has the just's umbrella."

We're talking past each other. In your analogy, I'm quite content in the rain, and would not fault my friends for procuring umbrellas, nor would I envy their "luck."

For example, while there is no doubt that Zuckerberg is a very smart guy, I don't see any particular reason why it would have been him and not just some other smart guy in the right time/place to become the multi-billionaire owner of Facebook. Give him another kick at the can, and without having stumbled into an early success that led him into internet entrepreneurship, the more likely scenario would be that he becomes a moderately successful programmer barely making it into the 1%.

Among other problems, the very same personality traits that lead many to be a leader of a multi-billion dollar company may also lead you to failure for the fact of excessive obstinacy and independence.

Especially in internet technologies, most billionaires seem to benefit mostly from being in the right place at the right time, and being able to exploit early entry into brand new markets. Good for them, and I uphold the notion that the incentives which reward them are generally desirable for an effective capitalist system. But I do not believe that many of them "deserve" it in the sense of having worked oh so much harder or being oh so much more competent than others. "Deserve" many millions? Easily so. "Deserve" many billions? Only in the sense that this upholds incentive systems.

I've met people who demonstrate very high quality programming skills, an understanding of business development and implementation, venture capital markets, and whose ideas seem marketable, and in many ways seem essentially indistinguishable from the billionaires except for the size of their bank accounts. Connect them with a few of the right people, or stumble on the right idea at the right time, and they could become billionaires themselves. Recognizing that it's basically a crapshoot, many try dozens, hundreds or thousands of ideas, partially implementing many through many incrementally better iterations, and following through on those which seem to hold the greatest promise - however, I've met these people in the common areas of budget hotels, indicating that clearly nothing has been a hit yet.

I think most non-inherited wealth is the result of ingenuity and hard word. However, the magnitude of wealth is greatly influenced by luck.

Steve Jobs would probably have been a millionaire in any time period. But he became a billionaire because he had the right ideas at the right time in the right place with the right people.

Regardless of whether free will is real, we must believe that it is real (even if strongly defined by either social circumstance and/or heritable stuff).

It is the bulwark of the incentive systems which underlie progress in a capitalist society. If we do not believe in free will, we effectively hand over the keys to those who DO exercise free will to rewrite the rules of the game as they please and to work those rules to their maximum advantage.

I sometimes put it as follows: "Do not wait for God to fix everything, or we may find ourselves waiting an eternity." I doubt that emperors or kings of yore would have promoted such thinking.

Free will would have me lavish the abuse on this comment that it so richly deserves, but determinism binds me with a desire not to be banned from the ballpark.

Comment of the thread!

Have a good at it, and exercise your free will in a manner that does not involve personal attacks. Like, discuss the issues instead of attacking people you disagree with.

You would implicitly assert that incentives are irrelevant or that things will turn out amazing if we just wait for God. I would be amazed if you could sustain a decent counterargument. But hey, maybe you can?

Have a go at it ... I mean.

Are typos free will? Fate? Hmmm...

The whole "no free will" argument is embarrassing. It's like they feel that free will ought to be magic, but at the same time they know there is no magic, so ...

What decides the output from your brain? The brain state. What is the brain state? It's you.

It is more complex than that. The brain state IS the output from your brain!

Consider Stephen Hawking's argument:

"Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets... It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.” The Grand Design, p.31-32

I do not find his argument embarrassing.

I can't walk to Mars, hence I have no free will.

Sure. That is so deep.

Hawking did not discuss whether the inability to do the impossible is relevant to free will.

If you had some knowledge of organic chemistry, biochemistry, sub-atomic physics, etc., you would have an easier time understanding what Hawkings was saying. Decent open source texts are available in all these subjects ...

Oh please. Come up with a model that defines and predicts our brain function. There isn't one, we are barely scratching the surface. I suspect that at one point there will have to be a totally new insight gained into biochemistry akin to the chaos theory in meteorology or particle theory in physics to get our minds around how it works. It will be strange, counterintuitive and throw philosophers into a tizzy.

We don't have the faintest clue. The fate / free will debate is an attempt to fit a very complex and even undefined problem into a deterministic box. There are few deterministic boxes in reality. Especially in Hawking's world.

In the meantime we can actually examine our priors, ponder the influences upon us, make choices based on our own and others experiences. We can teach our children, set up and respect systems that optimize human behavior, essentially setting up a bound within which we can actually have the opportunity to make choices. That is what AIDS researchers did; they figured out a way to make homosexuality a non fatal choice.

Here's a model: if you suffer a traumatic brain injury it's 95% likely you will have a very different sense of self than before. You may even become an ardent lover of classical music.

Another example:
It seems almost like the origin story of a superhero. OK, not a good one, but...

"We don’t have the faintest clue. The fate / free will debate is an attempt to fit a very complex and even undefined problem into a deterministic box. There are few deterministic boxes in reality."

Err, do you have some other mechanism to propose, besides determinism? If things are not fundamentally deterministic, however complex they are, what are they? What is the other option?

LOL, the last sentence rebuts your Straussian case:
"If given time to think, however, people are able to override the initial inclination toward self-interest induced by discouraging a belief in free will."

Almost all game-theory games are repeated games, from shopping to US negotiations with Iran. We don't need your lying philosopher kings after all. By the way, the people seem to really hate lying. They will forgive politicians a lot of things, but when they want to express their disgust they always go back to lying. So one Cowen hobby-horse (noble lies) clashes with another (common-sense morality) in a post culminating in a third (mood affiliation).

But game theory is not representative of reality, nor does it have any predictive element. It is a simple story, not as elegant and entertaining as the Greek pantheon, that tries to show that we are actors in some play. Life doesn't work that way, it is vastly more complex, but it fits the human tendancy to impose patterns on random events.

Zeus made me do it. I ended up here this morning instead of listening to a Munk debate or visiting a photography forum.

Situation 1: you are in a tourist town where the t-shirt salesman does not expect to ever sell you more than 1 t-shirt ever.

Situation 2: you are in your hometown where you meet the very same t-shirt salesman, and you might be a customer for life.

Game theory has strong predictions in comparing one-off meetings and repeated games. It is often a simplification of reality, but represents very important main aspects of commonly encountered situations. Yes, life is more complex, but it is often instructive to isolate the main features of the game rather than clouding the analysis too much by accounting for all factors.

I have trouble with free will, but it is clear that a pretty disposition to believe in free will and individual responsibility gives an evolutionary advantage, both genetically and culturally

This sums up the issue well I think.

Is there any evidence for this? It's not clear that any significant group of people has believed strongly in free will or determinism to the exclusion of the other (Christians, Buddhists and Muslims come to mind as groups with mixed views).

Well, there's the paper Tyler linked to.

Seems to me like most major religions allow for a malleability between free will and determinism -- free will is emphasized when it comes to rewarding good and punishing bad behavior, but they shift to emphasize determinism when it comes to accepting bad outcomes (ie don't worry, God has a plan).

I've found that high tolerance for ambiguity is important in entrepreneurial success. Being able to toggle back and forth between contradictory ideas is very useful when you're creating something out of nothing.

That is a strange loop. Brains evolved to execute choices. Straight up. When they gained a certain complexity some of the got caught in a "maybe there is no choice" loop. A bug. Bears probably ate most of the afflicted, solving most of the problem.

Reject the bug in the system.

Just because it feels like we are autonomous decision makers doesn't mean we are. There is so much that goes into making a decision that is sub-conscious. You can't believe in free will without believing in some kind of "soul" that acts outside of the chain of cause and effect (genetics, personal history, etc). If you believe in a "soul" than you are making a big metaphysical assumption in order to justify the "ideals of free will and individual responsibility"

I understand the argument that believing in free will has instrumental value for society, but for me personally, I refuse to believe a falsehood because it has instrumental value.

Were you forced to refuse or did you decide to refuse?

It felt like I decided to refuse, but in reality I probably didn't have a choice

Exactly. I find this whole discussion hilarious. If there is truly no free will, you cannot "choose" to believe or not believe anything - your "beliefs" are all determined by the physics/chemistry/biology (because clearly the brain can direct the body, so if you have control over (can choose) your thoughts/beliefs, you can control (can choose to influence) the physical world, too = free will).

Exactly. The very debate indicates the existence of free will. We wouldn't have the time, energy or means to waste our time unless someone somewhere chose to sort out the technical challenges that allow us to do it.

So there are limits. Seriously, the reason I obey the laws of gravity is because I choose to live another day. I am making a series of small decisions this morning that will benefit me. They are not automatic and there is no evolutionary or chemical process that led me to make them; in fact if I followed my normal inclinations the decisions would be different.

Through a series of smart decisions of our predecessors we have the luxury of choices beyond anyone's imagination, including the choice to discount those smart decisions.

"I am making a series of small decisions this morning that will benefit me. They are not automatic and there is no evolutionary or chemical process that led me to make them"

Where exactly is this autonomous entity that can make decisions independent of evolutionary or chemical processes? Are you saying that the brain is not a chemical process?

Would you make different decisions every morning if you grew up in a different country? Or a different religious tradition? Or had different parents?

Rusty do our individual brain cells have free will or is free will only something that emerges at the multi-cellular level? Our stomachs have many neurons as well. And often our gut disagrees with our head. Is our stomach actually a separate entity from our head with its own free will?

That's easy for me to answer - I have no idea. The point is, if you want to engage in sophistry, great, but count me out. At a fundamental level, you can't really prove anything about the universe - there is no way to prove we are not living in the matrix - fundamentally, your brain (if it exists at all - and I don't mean that personally) - could be a brain in a vat receiving "false" signals (the old skeptical philosophical argument going back to Descartes). Personally, I find trying to argue about whether there is free will like trying to argue about whether there's a real world or we're all a brain in a vat - we all live as if there's a real world, and as if we have free will, and pretty much everyone I know believes in both and acts accordingly (and I certainly do).

One does get the impression that a great deal of academic research is a species of onanism.

Yes, these two exchanges from the dialogues of the great philosophers capture it exactly:
1) David St. Hubbins: It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh... Nigel Tufnel: Clever.
2) “Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."
"And he has Brain."
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."
There was a long silence.
"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.”

I think it's pretty clear that free will exists, whatever sophistry people come up with (even people with a lot of "brain" like Stephen Hawking) - but in any case, if there is no free will, we can all just go home. :)

Utilitarian defense of free will and moral agency is no compelling argument. Maybe authors Protzko, Ouimette, and Schooler could next attempt a defense of democratic solipsism.

If there is no free will, economic models would work much better than they do.

I was pleased to see Dani Rodrik use my favorite distinction: a rock does not have volition, and that is what makes gravity or celestial orbits easier to model. We have volition, and so do not model so easily.

I am sure there are semantic arguments, but I think readily apparent volition constitutes free will.

Perhaps Catholics are on some weird wavelength, and being a Catholic economist is especially hard.

Maybe a no free will market economist should retire.

"If there is no free will, economic models would work much better than they do"

I disagree, even assuming no free will, economic models don't work well because the human organism is extremely complex and the environment that can influence behavior is extremely complex.

I am sure there are semantic arguments, but I think readily apparent volition constitutes free will."

This has nothing to do with semantics, by stating that there is "volition" (or free will) that is independent of cause and effect (genetic, history, and environment), you are making a metaphysical assumption of a "soul".

I make no argument about souls, but I think that's where much of the confusion comes from. I argue an agnostic view, with a strong evolutionary component. In that view brains decide, and complex brains decide in very complex ways. To call those complex decisions anything other than free will or volition is ... IMO ... self-deceptive bs.


Just because something is complex doesn't mean it is "free". Where are you getting the idea that the rise in complexity is synonymous with the rise of autonomous decision making?

Once you get to omniscience required to understand the state of the universe, you have embraced religion, and have a religious conviction that with all the understanding in the universe it is predestined.

Strange that you with your little brain can be sure, right?

anon - much like we can observe things in the fossil record and draw virtually 100% certain conclusions about many things (without requiring that we explain every event which is not explained in the existing/found record), we can understand things about the entire universe without any sort of omniscience. This is the value of deductive logic.

Some skepticism is always healthy, but for practical purposes there's not a whole lot of value in wondering "what if, 0.000000000000000001% assessed probability, there might be some different existing order of things and we simply cannot know if it might be the case?" Are we an imagined construct? Is all of our experience just a product of imagination and we are hooked up in a The Matrix-like kind of stasis? Interesting mind games, but for practical purposes not relevant to how ... our brains make decisions.

So complex decision making is the basis for free will? It's kind of cool that Google AlphaGo has free will just like us.

It is the product of free will. Smart people examined a problem, came up with an ingenious solution that implemented the algorithms they had designed. Let me know when Google makes a machine that can design and implement a war of keeping itself powered and can reproduce.

Someone a long time ago figured out that a long stout stick could be used to lift more that he could with his arms and back. Someone at Google figured out how to use the characteristics of silicon and electrons to play a game better than a human can.

Very simple creatures can reproduce. Do amoeba have free will? Is free will then just a property of anything living?

Steve, it takes a very simple, unnatural, environment for a flat worm's decision to be predictable to us.

I accept that a hypothetical mind, arbitrarily bigger than the universe, could predict the universe, but that is not exactly useful opinion.

Functionally it is fairly opaque decision-making.

Anon I am not claiming the universe is deterministic (hopefully something out there is random). I am claiming the flat worm and the human both are acting according to biological processes they do not control.

That seems an extremely narrow way of looking at the issue. It isn't an either or situation. I need sleep therefore I have no volition. If I drink alcohol or take LSD it changes my thinking, therefore I have no volition. That is a very narrow view of volition. I can choose to satisfy my sleep needs to optimize my ability. I can choose, in fact do, limit my alcohol consumption to optimize my earning capacity. I recognize how my brain functions, in our paradoxical ways at times, and approach matters in a way that takes advantage of its strengths and limited the downside. The scientific method is an example of this, taking the deeply embedded characteristics of the human mind as reality and setting up a system that circumvents the weaknesses.

I made about half a dozed decisions this morning that required thought and the balancing of net benefits. None would be obvious to anyone not familiar with what I do, and the knowledge and experience I have comes from choices I made and others made.

Does that mean I have a soul? There sky this morning is blue as a result of well understood interactions between light from the sun and the atmosphere. It is still blue to me, and it is blue to you. The fact that we are beginning to understand the complex biochemical interactions in our bodies that end up with a human doesn't change the fact that we are human with all that it implies. We are extraordinarily adaptive and resourceful individually and in groups, with all kinds and variations of social dynamics. Including the ability to make choices. Of course those choices are influenced by external inputs, those who made choices otherwise were pruned from the race and unable to pass down their dysfunction.

We seem fated by the Cowenian gods to limited editing capacity.

Half a dozen.

I don't think anyone is claiming you are not making decisions. We are claiming those decisions are the result of natural processes in your brain. We are wondering what is happening inside your brain that creates free will? Cells are processing normally then something (free will - what is it?) causes them to change what would have been their normal path. What is this change that happens that allows you to have free will?

Economic models often have 2-3 variables and a handful of moving parts. Even ones that more completely assess a macroeconomy have somewhere in the range of 100 variables, and, say, 5-10 or so assumptions to tie together the models.

Compare this to the number of variables relevant to human decisions. We could list of different types of gene groups, environments, personal histories, etc., and easily get into the thousands, not implausibly into the millions or billions. Add on to that the fact that culture changes, so economics is always trying to model a moving target.

Other than that, I feel trolled.

Someone is wrong on the internet, about the very nature of our minds.

de comprendre tout, est de pardonner à tous.

Why is the burden of proof on skeptics of free will? Seems like an unscientific mindset. But maybe folks can't help it.

The burden of proof is on "There is X" not on "there is not X". Much like in justice, where we must prove that something DID happen, not that it did not (often essentially impossible).

I agree. It is incorrect to place the burden of proof on those who claim the absence of something. However, since there seems to be a widespread social assumption about free will, it would seem to the non-scientifically minded (perhaps temporarily so) that the burden of proof lies in the other direction.

I can't choose to believe it or not believe in free will if it doesn't exist

The key problem of course is that our Straussian elites aren't propagating noble lies and then steering the ship of state based on grim realities. On many of the biggest questions they are actually less in tune with reality then the average citizen. So they invent ignoble lies and take them seriously, eventually forcing them on everyone else through propaganda, social pressure, and legal means.

So instead of an elite that promotes racial equality publically but implements 1924 style immigration controls, we get an elite that sees micro aggressions everywhere and seeks to punish anyone that gets in the way of radical immigration policies and social justice activism that are rejected by the average citizen.

And on down the list. Most elites ideas in the last several decades have been less accurate then traditional beliefs. Our current elite is anti-Straussian, their lies actually make things worse then the default.

Where is this elite that sees micro aggressions everywhere? Who is being punished for advocating for changes in immigration policies which is not accompanied by racist argumentation - who are the elite punishers and who are they punishing?

Here they are:

Brian points to one, there are examples everywhere. You have to be willfully ignorant not to see them. People compose robust lists of the witch hunts from time to time. You aren't interested in them. Just like you aren't interested in HBD evidence. You close out all evidence against your views, even when its abundant and within easy reach for you. Then you accuse people of not following the evidence.

If you want to be presented with evidence against your view, I recommend Google and an open mind. It isn't hard to find.

I am disagreeing that it is a defining character of "the elite". You refer to "an elite that promotes ...", which suggests that you think that this is an almost monolithic body that does so.

Surely, there are highly positioned people who adopt basically all manner of positions and ways of doing/perceiving things. Is it a generalized characteristic of "the elite"? Not even close.

Accepting contrary counter examples. They are the exception, not the rule.

This goes right back to last week's post about merit and luck. The only people who don't believe in merit/free will are the ones who were never born.

The notion that disbelief in free will is corrupting supposes an end state to that belief.

"I believe in free will" > strong evidence that there is no free will > "I don't believe in free will" > corruption > the end

But that corruption is fundamentally just another input. Something comes after the corruption. It could be a realization that, if inputs determine your life, maybe you should seek out more inputs, or different inputs.

Perhaps more people would start going to church. The puritan believers in predestination certainly did.

Going by the abstract because Elsevier wants $40: the money quote is "challenging their belief in free will corrupts this behavior, leading to impulsive selfishness. If given time to think, however, people are able to override the initial inclination toward self-interest induced by discouraging a belief in free will." Only under certain conditions did the authors find challenging free will reduces cooperation.

Beyond that, WEIRD cultures historically believed in metaphysical free will as a cornerstone of morality. Cultures or individuals without those beliefs probably would not be affected in the same way.

Here we show that although people are intuitively cooperative, challenging their belief in free will corrupts this behavior, leading to impulsive selfishness.

So they challenged beliefs in free will by a) time pressure and b) making them read a neuroscience article throwing doubt on free will.

Turns out that those folks who believe in a spooky unphysical free will don't actually like being challenged about it and get irritable and get more selfish.

If someone is *challenging* them, do we expect them to remain as cooperative? Would we expect these threatened people to be as disposed towards sharing?

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