November 30, 2022

Is free will a myth or the foundation of law and order?

Some recent research in psychology suggests that when people disbelieve in free will, they are more inclined to act in antisocial ways. The Neuroskeptic blog has highlighted the work of a violent dissenter from this point of view.

Calvin was deemed a heretic by Catholics for preaching that only the predestined elect would be saved and that the predestined reprobate were all toast. That was in the 16th century, but the battle over free will continues, though written in the language of neuroscience rather than theology.

Some recent research in psychology suggests that when people disbelieve in free will, they are more inclined to act in antisocial ways. Free will is said to underpin all social morality. In one often-cited paper, Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler found that disbelief about free will was associated with lax attitudes towards cheating among the students they tested. They concluded, much as Victorian atheists did about religion, that “identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative”. In other words, whether or not there is free will, people are more moral if they believe in it.

The Neuroskeptic blog has highlighted the work of a violent dissenter from this point of view. Writing in the the British Journal of Social Psychology, “independent researcher” James B. Miles claims that a belief in free will is responsible for much of the world’s misery and is quite immoral. Furthermore, neuroscientists are out of touch with modern philosophy, which has thoroughly discredited the idea of free will. Nietzsche, he notes, described the idea of free choice as “a kind of logical rape”.

“We have seen evidence that the myth of free will is inextricably linked to contempt for the poor and the unlucky, that it undermines both legal and natural justice, and may even make a mockery of the conceit of Christian compassion for the poor and marginalized. According to Anders Kaye, the myth of free will even allows racial prejudice to find a home within the Western law. Honest, moral, and prosocial?”

He claims that source of the problem is that the psychologists are very poor philosophers and have confused fatalism with a disbelief in 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.”

If philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists can’t agree on the basic terms of the debate, what chance do the rest of us have? Are we predestined to believe in free will or predestined to be sceptical? 

Michael Cook
free will
neuroscience