July 3, 2022

The eternal return of the free-will debate: new psychological research

A novel argument against free will from experimental philosophy is that a naïve belief in free will is founded upon a desire to blame and punish others.

After 2,500 years, one of the most hotly debated issues in philosophy is whether we have free will. We may feel that we are free, but it is very difficult to demonstrate. It’s a bit like love: you know it when you experience it and it’s hard to convince others. 

And it still has many opponents. A novel argument against it from experimental philosophy is that a naïve belief in free will is founded upon a desire to blame and punish others. A number of researchers from the US recently collaborated to study just how our beliefs about free will vary in response to different moral scenarios.

In a paper entitled ‘A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief’, (reported in Oxford University’s bioethics blog, Practical Ethics) five researchers completed a series of studies designed to test the influence of the misconduct of others on our belief in free-will. The researchers concluded:

“Taken together, our results provide a potential explanation for the strength and prevalence of belief in free will: it is functional for holding others morally responsible and facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society.”

In one of the studies conducted, university students were informed of their classmates using cheat sheets, and then asked to complete a survey on free will and the moral responsibility of the offenders. The results were that as students were informed of other students using cheat sheets, their belief in moral responsibility increased. Students who were informed of the specific case of cheating gave more positive scores on the Free Will and Determinism (FAD) test, and advocated for harsher penalties for the offenders.

Another study showed that countries with higher murder rates and crime rates have higher levels of belief in free will. “These findings are consistent with our contention that belief in free will is stimulated in part by exposure to others’ harmful behaviours and the associated impulse to punish”, the researchers wrote.

Whilst this research may provide potential reasons for belief in freedom, it does not address that hard question of whether our actions are really determined. Psychological research on the latter issue is still very nascent. And some philosophers argue that no amount of psychological research will confirm the determinist hypothesis.

Xavier Symons
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