Clarifying misconceptions about my position on free will

Posted by on February 1, 2016 in News | 0 comments

Though this is typically a forum for news about the lab, and I don’t typically write blog-type posts, I wanted to make an exception to make some clarifications about a discussion of our research on another blog. Jerry Coyne, a biologist, had a post about free will, compatibilism and morality on his blog, in which he heavily discussed—but misrepresented—an article that Kathleen Vohs and I wrote for Scientific American.

Coyne rightly railed against arguments that we ought to shut down scientific and philosophical discussion about the potential lack of free will out of fear that undermining free will beliefs will compromise people’s moral behavior. However, he quite wrongly indicated that Kathleen and I were among those making this censorious argument.

In Coyne’s post, a selective set of quotations was taken from our article to make it appear like we were making the point that Coyne was attacking. Since our original article is behind a pay wall, I submitted a comment on his blog clarifying our actual position. However, since Coyne declined to allow the comment to appear on his site because I used the term strawman, I’ll take the opportunity here to link to the research I’ve done showing that experimentally diminishing free will beliefs decreases retributive punishment, and to link to a free post in the vein of the SciAm article where I argue that abandonment of free will beliefs would lead to a more enlightened and humane society. I’ll also provide an additional quote from the original SciAm article that clearly makes the same point:

New research unveiling the biological machinery behind human thought and action may prompt a similarly dramatic change in moral views. This is the first possibility. As they have before, changes in moral sentiments may actually help improve the U.S.’s penal system. Currently, criminal punishment is driven primarily by eye-for-an-eye retribution—the kind of punishment favored by people who believe in free will—and, perhaps as a result, is woefully ineffective at deterring future crime. Society should stop punishing people solely for the sake of seeing them suffer and instead focus on the most effective ways to prevent criminal activity and turn past lawbreakers into productive citizens—strategies that become more appealing when people question the reality of free will. Though uncomfortable at times, doubting free will may end up as a kind of growing pain for our society, aligning our moral intuitions and legal institutions with new scientific knowledge and making us stronger than before.

Coyne also insinuated that Kathleen and I were compatibilists (people who argue that free will can co-exist with a physically deterministic universe). We made no such claim in the SciAm article. In fact, I now try to remain mute regarding my own thoughts about whether free will exists (at least explicitly) because every time mention it, it fully distracts from the research I’m discussing on what are the psychological effects (and causes) of free will beliefs. People have very strong views about whether free will exists or does not, and in my experience, when they read an opinion that differs from their, that ends up being all they can focus on and want to discuss. Since my research says nothing about the existence of free will, but a lot about the consequences of those beliefs, I prefer to keep focus on the data I present, rather than what my opinions happen to be.

As a final way to clarify my own thoughts about the consequences of diminished free will beliefs, I’ll close with a brief excerpt from the SPSP post I wrote:

Will free will beliefs entirely disappear, and with them any motivation for retributivism? Will we abolish what Skinner called the “autonomous man — the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity”?

Unlikely. Between the illusory but intimate experiences of conscious will, and the emotional appeal of retribution, these concepts are likely to stick around. But that doesn’t mean that, as our understanding of the brain and free will are sharpened, we won’t get closer to a system of justice that is more scientifically defensible… The story of legal punishment has been long, but along this way, in fits and spurts, improvements in scientific understanding have helped it bend towards justice.


-Azim Shariff