Tag Archives: determinism

Who’s phrase is ‘free will’ anyway?

There is a good post by Bill Skaggs on his blog (http://weskaggs.net/?p=1452) in which he comments on the Sam Harris – Daniel Dennett debate on free will. Skaggs puts it nicely: “Both Dennett and Harris agree that the “folk” concept of free will is hopeless nonsense. Dennett has spent a substantial part of his career trying to persuade philosophers and the public to redefine free will in a more reasonable way. Harris does not think that redefining a folk concept is a viable strategy. Regardless of who is right, this is the sort of thing that they should be able to argue about without insulting each other or flaming each other.” Skaggs is not taking sides here.



It has been clear for a long time that the compatibilists do not actually believe in old fashioned free will, but have redefined it so that they can say that they believe in “free will”. Like Harris, I find this the wrong way to go, simply dishonest and confusing. I also think that it just postpones some very needed readjustments. What readjustments?



  1. If we drop the use of the phrase “free will” then we can also drop the idea of “determinism”; we can stop thinking that these are opposites and mutually exclusive. We do not have a conscious will that is free from physical constraints and we also are not part of a clock-work type of causal universe where our decisions are fixed before we do the deciding. This useless argument consumes a lot of time and energy.

  2. We can re-examine responsibility and figure out when, how, why we are responsible for our actions. We should resolve the ways that we are responsible for our values, habits, morals, and unnecessary areas of willful blindness. What is our responsibility to actually put effort into doing things right?

  3. We could find out and face what consciousness is and is not. This is difficult when some of its models are mixed up with theories of free will and others are not. The understanding of decision making is also hampered by the contamination with free will. This is also a problem with other areas of neuroscience.

  4. We can produce a legal system that makes sense. The principles that hold up the current legal systems really need to be cleaned up. And there are other civic ideas that could do with a re-think. I get the feeling that many compatibilists are trying to avoid any changes at all to the legal system at all cost. It is like they feel the system is so fragile that it will collapse without free will. But changes in the system can be good and not lead to any breakdown in law-and-order. I don’t see it as that perfect a system that needs to be protected from scientific knowledge.



Changing the definition of free will makes these tasks harder and postpones facing them. But there is more. I also think that there is something very arrogant about setting out to redefine well established words. What is wrong with coining a new word? So if someone writes a paper or book, redefining a word, does he really expect hundreds of millions of people to say “yes, sir, I’ll obey, sir”.



Some words are fairly easy to hive off with some technical definition. But when the word is used by a large non-technical population in the same or similar contexts, then it is not reasonable to continue using the technical term without some marking of it. For example “tolerance” has an engineering definition and a social one, but the context in which they are used is so different that there is little confusion. But “rational” has a philosophical meaning, an economic meaning and a folk meaning. The economic and folk meanings do overlap in the media and this causes confusion. It would be better to use “economically rational” or a different word entirely. When people insist on causing confusion, they should not be surprised if they get accused of wanting the confusion.



Words change meaning naturally as the knowledge, need and context of their use changes. But changing them by fiat when they are in general use takes a lot of coercive power. Nor can people really control how their statements are put to use. So someone defines their terms and uses those terms to say something but he cannot be sure that the definitions and the quote will not get separated and the quote used to say the opposite of what was intended. Isn’t it better to avoid the confusion?




Should science be dishonest to the public?

There is an idea floating about that people should be encouraged to believe in free-will even if it is not a sensible thing to believe. This is not the way science should work. Why upset people by telling them that the earth goes around the sun? How upsetting! Why tell them that they are descended by evolution from animals? They will act badly if they think they are animals. Why tell them that the world is billions of years old? That would only disturb their faith in the truth of the Bible. And here we go again. Why tell people how they make decisions with their brains? Why tell people that consciousness is not as it appears? Why not just lie about the impossibility of free-will? They may become criminals.

This is not how science is supposed to work. Science is about making our model of the world more and more correct and publishing the improvements. The task is to find a more and more clear picture of the workings of the brain, not to tell convenient lies.

So Vohs and Schooler (see citation) have published a paper that shows that being primed to think of determinism prompts people to cheat more. This one paper appears with no replication to date and yet there is discussion of abandoning scientific ideals. I have four reasons to suspect the paper but even if it turns out to be strong evidence, it does not justify telling people that free-will exists in the sense that they understand it. Libet’s experiments have been replicated and have stood up to attempts to disprove them for a few decades. His was a disproof of free-will as ordinary people used the term. We should not tell people otherwise.

The first thing that bothered me about the Vohs paper was the particular quotation they used to prime people towards determinism. It is about the most negative way to present the issue that can be imagined. What a depressing way to say that your brain makes decisions! There is nothing in this essay from the Astonishing Hypothesis that is not factual. But it is written in a way that makes one feel doomed. It starts: “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons. I don’t know what was used for the free-will or neural primers but I assume that they were not depressing.

Then I noticed that there was all of 30 subjects and the results were not dealt with individually but as averaged results. That can hide a lot of outliers and data spreads much larger than the average effect. This is just not the sort of statistical analysis that gives me a lot of confidence. By that time I was setting aside the paper as something that needed corroboration by other experiments.

Finally I saw a posting in the Why Evolution is True blog (here) discussing some unpublished work by Rolf Zwaan (here) which failed to replicate the Vohs results and pointed out some flaws that were not obvious to me, such as the subjects being predominately Mormon.

The Vohs/Schooler paper seems to have been accepted without much criticism by many – so have papers by Baumeister, Stillman, Wegner. But there is some criticism. One paper by Miles (citation below) is particularly useful for its broad and deep treatment of the issues.

Here is the abstract and part of the conclusions:

Over the last few years, a number of works have been published asserting both the putative prosocial benefits of belief in free will and the possible dangers of disclosing doubts about the existence of free will. Although concerns have been raised over the disservice of keeping such doubts from the public, this does not highlight the full danger that is presented by social psychology’s newly found interest in the ‘hard problem’ of human free will. Almost all of the work on free will published to date by social psychologists appears methodologically flawed, misrepresents the state of academic knowledge, and risks linking social psychology with the irrational.

Of course, even if we were to begin to acknowledge the moral and intellectual downsides to the free will myth, this would not suggest that Vohs and Baumeister were right to claim that belief in free will may also have prosocial upsides. We have seen that Vohs and Baumeister appear as yet to have shown no such thing, because all they have been studying appears to have been the effect of an acceptance of fatalism, not disbelief in free will. Contrary to the claims made in social psychology journals, we appear to have seen no evidence to date that disabusing people of the myth of free choice encourages anti-social behaviour, yet significant evidence that the myth of free choice encourages immoral, unjust, prejudiced, and anti-intellectual behaviour. If nothing else, this paper should stand as an important corrective within the psychological literature on free will.

This seems to put the nature of this work in a nut shell. I am not surprised that Vohs has won a Templeton prize.


Vohs KD, & Schooler JW (2008). The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological science, 19 (1), 49-54 PMID: 18181791

Miles J.B. (2013). ‘Irresponsible and a Disservice’:The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 205-218 : 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02077.x

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