Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism — Part 2

Evil02_insideby Gregg D. Caruso

[This two-part essay was inspired by the author’s TEDx talk on the same topic, which can be viewed here.] [1]

I. Addressing Pragmatic Concerns with Free Will Skepticism

Let me begin with the concern that giving up free will belief will increase anti-social behavior. This concern has been fueled largely by two widely reported on studies in social psychology (Vohs and Schooler 2008; Baumeister, Masicampo and DeWall 2009). Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler (2008) found, for example, that participants who were exposed to anti-free will primes were more likely to cheat than participants exposed to pro-free will or neutral primes. In one study, they asked thirty college students to solve math problems on a computer. The volunteers were told that owing to a computer glitch, the answers would pop up on the screen after the problem if they did not hit the space bar. They were asked not to hit the bar, but also told that no one would know either way. In addition, some of the participants in the study were first asked to read passages by well-respected scientists to the effect that we do not have free will. In particular, they read one of two passages from The Astonishing Hypothesis, a book written by Francis Crick (1994), the Nobel-prize-winning scientist. The participants read statements claiming that rational, high-minded people — including most scientists, according to Crick — now recognize that free will is an illusion. Vohs and Schooler found that students exposed to the anti-free will primes where more likely to cheat than those in the control group. Additional findings by Baumeister, Masicampo and DeWall (2009) found that participants who are exposed to anti-free will primes behave more aggressively than participants exposed to pro-free will or neutral primes.

While these findings appear to support concerns over the anti-social consequences of relinquishing free will belief, I advise caution in drawing any universal or sweeping conclusions from them. There are powerful criticisms of the methodology of these studies which put into doubt the supposed connection between disbelief in free will and any long-term increase in anti-social behavior. First of all, the passages used to prime disbelief in free will appear to be priming the wrong thing. Several critics have noted that instead of priming belief in hard determinism or hard incompatibilism (Pereboom 2001), the Crick excerpt subjects read is actually priming a scientific reductionist view of the mind, one that is proclaimed to demonstrate that free will is an illusion. Free will skepticism, however, need not entail such a reductionist view and the priming passages may be giving participants the mistaken impression that scientists have concluded that their beliefs, desires, and choice are causally inefficacious (a claim not embraced by most philosophical skeptics) [2].

Secondly, there are alternative explanations for the cheating behavior that have nothing to do with belief in free will, per se. For example, it is equally plausible that the cheating behavior is being driven by the more general fact that participants are being told that one of their cherished beliefs has been shown to be an illusion by science. On this alternative, the cheating behavior would have less to do with disbelief in free will and more to do with ego depletion more generally. That is, perhaps people are simply more likely to cheat after reading passages from scientific authorities challenging (or even mocking) one’s cherished beliefs because it depletes one’s self-control, which in turn weakens one’s ability to trump the self-interested baseline desire to cheat [3]. It would be rather easy, in fact, to test this alternative. One could, for example, challenge participants (say) pro-American beliefs by having them read extended quotes from a famous authority (say Noam Chomsky) which challenges or mocks the belief, then checking to see whether this increases one’s propensity to cheat. If it does, this would support the alternative explanation above since it would suggest that the results in the Vohs and Schooler studies are not being driven by anything unique about belief in free will. Until this alternative (suggested by Thomas Nadelhoffer and Eddy Nahmias) is tested and ruled out, Vohs and Schooler’s findings remain in doubt.

Thirdly, these anti-social consequences come immediately following the prime, are limited in scope, and appear only to be temporary. Hence, these studies establish, at best, that participants were temporarily morally compromised after being exposed to anti-free will primes. While this may suggest that (say) I should not do my taxes immediately after being told that I do not have free will for the first time, they say nothing about the long-term effects of free will skepticism! Once people properly understand what the denial of free will entails (and what it does not entail), and once they have sufficiently come to terms with it, there is no reason to think (at least not from these studies) that we would find an overall increase in anti-social behavior.

An illustrative analogy here would be the unfounded concerns voiced in the past about disbelief in God. It was long argued (and, perhaps, is still argued in certain corners of the United States) that if people were to come to disbelieve in God, the moral fiber of society would disintegrate and we would see a marked increase in anti-social behavior. The reality, however, has turned out to be quite the opposite. Several studies have shown, for example, that murder and violent crime rates are actually higher in highly religious countries than in more secular ones (Jensen 2006; Paul 2005; Fajnzylber et al. 2002; Fox and Levin 2000; Zuckerman 2009). Within the United States, we see the same pattern. Atheists, for example, make up around 10% of the general population, yet they comprise only 0.2 % of the prison population (Golumbaski 1997). Census data further reveals that states with the highest murder rates tend to be the most religious. And these findings are not limited to murder rates, as rates of all violent crime tend to be higher in “religious” states (Ellison et al. 2003; Death Penalty Information Center 2008; Zuckerman 2009). And if one looks beyond crime statistics, one finds similar trends with divorce rates, domestic violence, and intolerance — e.g., studies reveal that atheists and agnostics have lower divorce rates than religious Americans (Barna Research Group Survey 1999, 2007), conservative Christian women in Canada experience higher rates of domestic violence than non-affiliated women (Brinkerhoff et al. 1992), and non-believers are in general less prejudiced, anti-Semitic, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian (Altemeyer 2003; Zuckerman 2009). Given how wrong people were about the putative harms of disbelief in God, a healthy dose of skepticism would likewise be warranted here. In fact, I will argue next that disbelief in free will, rather than bringing about negative consequence, could actually bring about good, freeing us from other harmful tendencies, beliefs, and practices.

II. (Un)just Deserts: The Dark Side of Free Will [4]

Recent findings in moral and political psychology suggest that there may be a potential downside to believing in free will and moral responsibility. For the sake of this section, I will define free will as “a kind of power or ability to make decisions of the sort for which one can be morally responsible” (Fisher, Kane, Pereboom, and Vargas 2007, 1), where moral responsibility is understood in the basic desert sense. While most of the empirical work done so far has tended to focus on the potential upside of believing in free will (Vohs and Schooler 2008; Baumeister, Masicampo, and DeWall 2009), a growing body of research has also found some interesting, and potentially troubling, correlations between people’s free will beliefs and their other moral, religious, and political beliefs.

Recent empirical work by Jasmine Carey and Del Paulhus (2013), for example, has found that free will beliefs correlate with religiosity, punitiveness, and politically conservative beliefs and attitudes such as Just World Belief (JWB) and Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). They found these correlations by administering their The Free Will and Determinism Scale known as FAD-Plus (Paulhus and Carey 2011) — a 27-item scale used to measure people’s beliefs and attitudes about free will and related concepts — along with measures of religiosity, political conservatism, just world beliefs, and right wing authoritarianism. It’s important here to highlight just how worrisome some of these correlations are. Take, for example, a few of the sample items used to validate belief in a just world.

Just World Belief Scale (JWB) (Lerner 1980):

“By and large, people deserve what they get.”

“Although evil men may hold political power for a while, in the general course of history good wins out.”

“People who meet with misfortune have often brought it on themselves.”

And here are sample items from the the Right Wing Authoritarianism Scale (RWA) (Altemeyer 1996): 

“The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just ‘loud mouths’ showing off their ignorance.”

“Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways of sinfulness that are ruining us.”

“It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds.”

Many of you, I suspect, will find that these items express troublesome (and perhaps even potentially dangerous) ideas. If you do not, I will try to persuade you that you should in a moment. But first it is important to note that Carey and Paulhus also found a relationship between beliefs about free will and punishment — in particular, they found that believing more strongly in free will was correlated with punitiveness. They found that free will believers were more likely to call for harsher criminal punishment in a number of hypothetical scenarios. As Thomas Nadelhoffer and Daniela Goya Tocchetto point out, this is unsurprising: “It makes a priori sense that people who believe more strongly in free will would be more interested in giving wrongdoers their just deserts” (2013, 128).

In addition to the findings of Carey and Paulhus, Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto (2013) have also uncovered some troubling correlations. Using a slightly different scale — The Free Will Inventory (FWI), a 29-item tool for measuring (a) the strength of people’s beliefs about free will, determinism, and dualism, and (b) the relationship between these beliefs and related beliefs such as punishment and responsibility (Nadelhoffer et al. in prep) — Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto found, once again, a correlation between free will beliefs and JWB and RWA. They also found a number of correlations between religiosity, conservatism, and political ideology — e.g., Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) was strongly correlated with political conservatism, religiosity, Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), Just World Belief (JWB), and Economic System Justification (ESJ). And here, “the ESJ scale measures the tendency to perceive socioeconomic and political arrangements as inherently fair and legitimate — even at the expense of individual or group interests,” and the “SDO scale measures the degree of adherence to conservative legitimizing myths that attempt to rationalize the interests of dominant group members” (Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto 2013, 132).

These findings, I believe, support the claim that where belief in free will is strongest we tend to see increased punitiveness. In fact, empirical work has confirmed that weakening free will beliefs, either in general or by offering evidence of an individual’s diminished decisional capacity, leads to less punitiveness (Aspinwall, Brown, and Tabery 2012; Monterosso, Royzman, and Schwartz 2005; Pizarro, Uhlmann, and Salovey 2003; Shariff et al. 2013). These findings also support the claim that a conservative worldview, which is associated with free will belief, is generally correlated with an acceptance of economic inequality and a belief that the world is just and “people deserve what they get.” One should not be surprised by these correlations since the link between conservative social attitudes and free will belief has long been known (see, e.g., Atemeyer 1981; Werner 1993; Jost 2006; and Baumeister 2008). Robert Atemeyer (1981), for example, has shown that conservatives tend to be more blaming and punitive toward lawbreakers. And John Jost (2006) has found that conservatives and liberals tend to make different trait attributions for lawbreakers — conservatives draw attributions about “sinful” character, whereas liberals point to situational causes. Hence, the personal responsibility ethic emphasized by conservatives is firmly rooted in (and perhaps even necessitates) belief in free will.

To make clear the potential danger of belief in free will and moral responsibility, let me return to the aforementioned Just World Belief (JWB) scale. As Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto (2013, 132) put it:

“The origin of the just world conception can be traced back to the original empirical findings of Lerner and Simmons (1966); namely, that persons have a tendency to blame the victim of misfortunes for their own fate. Based on these empirical findings, Lerner (1965) formulated the Just World Hypothesis, whereby individuals have a need to believe that they live in a world where people generally get what they deserve. In order to measure the degree to which persons are willing to believe that everyone deserves what happens to them, Lerner (1980) developed the JWB scale. Scores on the scale have been found to correlate with the presence of frail religious beliefs (Sorrentino and Hardy 1974), and internal (as opposed to an external) locus of control, and with the likelihood of derogating innocent victims (Rubin and Peplau 1975). In addition, people who score high on JWB are more likely to trust current institutions and authorities, and to blame the poor and praise the rich for their respective fates (Jost et al. 2003).”

For sake of time, I will focus the remainder of my comments on just world belief. I must unfortunately leave aside the Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) scale — but it should be noted that RWA, just like JWB, is associated with a number of troubling tendencies [5].

So what’s so dangerous about just world belief? Well, belief in a just world (which, again, has been shown to be correlated with belief in free will) is a blame-the-victim approach. It promotes the idea that “people deserve what they get” and “people who meet with misfortunate have often brought it on themselves.” Adrian Furnham gives a succinct statement of the basic belief in a just world: “The [JWB] asserts that, quite justly, good things tend to happen to good people and bad things to bad people despite the fact that this is patently not the case” (2003, 795) [6]. Lerner and Miller also acknowledge the falsehood of this belief, though they point out that it may serve a valuable function in motivating behavior and avoiding a sense of helplessness. This makes the belief difficult to shake:

“Since the belief that the world is just serves such an important adaptive function for the individual, people are very reluctant to give up this belief, and they can be greatly troubled if they encounter evidence that suggests that the world is not really just or orderly after all.” (1978, 1031)

Because of this, and despite its patent falsehood, belief in a just world continues to exercise a powerful (and often unconscious) influence on our attitudes about free will and moral responsibility (see Waller 2013) [7]. Yet despite whatever benefits this false belief may provide, they are bought at a high price. As Bruce Waller notes, “ironically, the costs of belief in a just world are paid in fundamental injustice” (2013, 72).

We can see evidence of just world belief in the unfortunate tendency, both among ordinary folk and the legal system, to blame rape victims for the circumstances. When we cannot easily and effectively help innocent victims, our belief in a just world is severely threatened, and the most convenient and common way of preserving that belief is to change the status of the victim from innocent to guilty:

“The case of rape victims is the most obvious and extensively studied example of this phenomenon. Rape is a brutal, demeaning, and trauma-producing crime; in a just world, no innocent person would be subjected to such a horrific fate. Thus there is a powerful tendency to see rape victims as really not quite so innocent: they dress provocatively; they were “loose” women; they did something to put themselves in that situation (they were careless about where they walked, or they drank too much); they “led him on” or were “asking for it” (thus in some parts of the world, rape victims are subject to death by stoning). Harsh cross-examination of those who claim to be rape victims are notoriously common; those harsh cross-examinations are common because they are often effective; and they are often effective because juries — eager to preserve their belief in a just world — are already inclined to see the victim of this terrible ordeal as other than innocent.” (Waller 2013, 73)

This is just one unfortunate example of the pernicious nature of belief in a just world. Other examples include blaming those in poverty for their own circumstances, viewing criminals as “deserving what they get,” labeling those on welfare as “lazy” and “mooches,” and blaming educational inequity on the parents and children themselves — since, of course, if the world is just, then people must have brought these circumstances upon themselves. This blaming of victims (in defense of belief in a just world) has been established by numerous studies, including studies showing that the stronger the belief in a just world the greater the likelihood of blaming victims for their unfortunate fates (Wagstaff 1983; Furnham and Gunter 1984; Harper and Manasse 1992; Dalbert and Yamauchi 1994; Montada 1998).

We all know, however, (at least in our more rationally self-reflective moments) that the world is not just and the lottery of life is not always fair. We need to admit that luck plays a big role in what we do and the way we are. It’s my proposal that we do away with the pernicious belief in free will — and with it the myth of the “rugged individual,” the “self-made man,” the causa sui. If what I have argued here is correct, the concepts of free will and desert-based moral responsibility are intimately connected with a number of other potentially harmful beliefs — e.g., just world belief (JWB) and right wing authoritarianism (RWA). It’s time that we leave these antiquated notions behind, lose our moral anger, stop blaming the victim, and turn our attention to the difficult task of addressing the causes that lead to criminality, poverty, wealth-inequality, and educational inequity.

Let me conclude by briefly looking at another set of recent studies that reveals the potential benefits of diminished belief in free will. Shariff et al. (2014) hypothesized that if free will beliefs support attributions of moral responsibility, then reducing these beliefs should make people less retributive in their attitudes about punishment. In a series of four studies they tested this prediction and found reason to be optimistic about free will skepticism. In Study 1 they found that people with weaker free-will beliefs endorsed less retributive attitudes regarding punishment of criminals, yet their consequentialist attitudes were unaffected. Study 1 therefore supports the hypothesis that free will beliefs positively predict punitive attitudes, and in particular retributive attitudes, yet it also suggests that “the motivation to punish in order to benefit society (consequentialist punishment) may remain intact, even while the need for blame and desire for retribution are forgone” (2014, 7). Shariff et al. describe the potential benefits of these findings as follows:

“[A] societal shift away from endorsing free will could occur without disrupting the functional role of punishment. Society could fulfill its practical need for law and order, leaving the social benefits of punishment intact while avoiding the unnecessary human suffering and economic costs of punishment often associated with retributivism (Green & Cohen, 2004; Tonry, 2004).” (Shariff et al. 2014, 7).

There is no reason to think chaos would ensue if we relinquished our commitment to retributive justice. As this study indicates, other justifications for punishment remain intact and unaffected by diminished belief in free will.

Study 2 found that experimentally diminishing free will belief through anti-free-will arguments diminished retributive punishment, suggesting a causal relationship (2014, 6). Studies 3 and 4 further found that exposure to neuroscience implying a mechanistic basis for human action — either reading popular-science articles or taking an introductory neuroscience class in college — similarly produced a reduction in retributivism. Interestingly, Studies 3 and 4 made no mention of free will; they let participants draw their own implications from the mechanistic descriptions. These results suggest that shifts in people’s philosophical worldview about free will beliefs, “even through simply learning about the brain, can affect people’s attitudes about moral responsibility, with potential broad social consequences” (2014, 6).

The findings of these studies are promising (at least for the line of argument I’ve been pushing here) since they show that reducing belief in free will leads people to see others’ bad behavior as less morally reprehensible, resulting in less retributive punishment. This is a good thing, since it diminishes a harmful kind of “moral anger” (Pereboom 2001) and an inclination toward excessive punishment. I am also encouraged by these findings that changing attitudes about free will and desert-based moral responsibility — which are probably inevitable as we learn more about neuroscience and the brain [8] — can help usher in an important evolution in legal thinking away from retributivism and toward a more humane and just system of punishment.

III. Conclusion

In this two-part article, I have briefly sketched the main arguments for free will skepticism as well as the debate over their implications. Defenders of free will, along with illusionists like Saul Smilansky, maintain that belief in free will is essential for the proper functioning of society, morality, and the law. Optimistic skeptics and disillusionists, on the other hand, disagree. Making the case for disillusionism, I argued that belief in free will and desert-based moral responsibility, rather than being a good thing, actually has a dark side and that we would be better off without it. In section I of part 2, I briefly examined one common concern people have with relinquishing the belief in free will — that it will lead to an increase in anti-social behavior — and argued that this concern is misguided and overblown. In section II of part 2, I then discussed recent findings in moral and political psychology which reveal interesting, and potentially troubling, correlations between people’s free will beliefs and their other moral, religious, and political views. In particular, belief in free will, it was found, is associated with just world belief, right wing authoritarianism, religiosity, punitiveness, and moralistic standards for judging self and other. While these considerations do not prove belief in free will is mistaken, they do indicate that the putative pragmatic benefits of believing in free will and desert-based moral responsibility are bogus.


Gregg Caruso is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Corning Community College (SUNY) and Editor-in-Chief of Science, Religion and Culture. He is the author of Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will (2012) and the editor of Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (2013) and Science and Religion: 5 Questions (2014). In 2012 he was awarded the Regional Board of Trustees Excellence in Teaching Award.

[1] This paper includes previously published material from the book Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Copyright 2013 by Lexington Books. Used by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, Inc.

[2] This criticism has been made by Eddy Nahmias and others. It’s important that one be careful not to misrepresent or caricature the claims of the skeptic. Free will skeptics do not deny that we make choices or engage in acts of deliberation and reasoning. Rather, they hold that these acts themselves are the result of factors ultimately beyond the control of the agent (see, e.g., Pereboom 2001, 2014). It’s important therefore that Vohs and Schooler prime the correct belief and not the mistaken impression that scientific findings have obviated the possibility of local control (Clark 2013). As Thomas Clark has noted, “if people come to believe they don’t have ultimate control, and if they have something like the authors’ (mis)conception of what not having it entails, then indeed they might become demoralized. This could explain the results of the study. But it’s important to see what’s demoralizing isn’t the empirically and logically well-supported conclusion that we don’t have contra-causal, libertarian free will, that we are not ultimately self-created, but the inference that if we are not free in this way then we aren’t causally efficacious agents” (2013).

[3] I am grateful to Thomas Nadelhoffer and Eddy Nahmias for bringing this objection to my attention on the now-defunct-blog The Garden of Forking Paths (January and February 2008).

[4] The title of my TEDx talk, “The Dark Side of Free Will,” comes originally from a paper by Thomas Nadelhoffer and Daniela Goya Tocchetto (2013).

[5] Right Wing Authoritarianism is typically defined in the literature in terms of submission to established and legitimate authorities, sanctioned general aggressiveness towards various persons, and adherence to the generally endorsed social conventions (Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto 2013, 131). “It is also closely related to a large set of ego-justifying tendencies that provide support for social ideologies such as intolerance of ambiguity, dogmatism, terror management, uncertainty avoidance, and need for cognitive closure” (Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto 2013, 131).

[6] As quoted by Bruce Waller (2013, 72).

[7] As Waller writes: “When we think carefully, it is quite obvious that the world is not just. The world news provides depressing and constant examples of innocents caught in the midst of terrible wars and ethnic conflicts, dying from industrial pollution or industrial accident (think of Bhopal), losing life or loved ones in tsunamis and earthquakes, dying slowly and painfully in drought and famine stricken regions; and our daily lives among our friends and families and communities include cases of tragic traffic deaths, terrible genetic diseases that kill or disable children, abuse of children and spouses, the deeply depressing loss of jobs and homes and pensions among good hardworking people. Philosophers are very familiar with the ancient ‘problem of evil’: the unjust suffering of the innocent — on an enormous scale, and produced by famine, flood, war, and pestilence — is the major argument against belief in a just, caring, and omnipotent deity … Whether philosophers or folk, belief in a just world cannot survive conscious scrutiny; but the deeper nonconscious belief in a just world avoids such scrutiny and continues to exert a powerful influence” (2013, 71-2).

[8] As Studies 3 and 4 revealed, people naturally become less retributive after having been exposed to neuroscientific and mechanistic descriptions of human behavior. And as Sheriff et al. note, “What is clear is that the belief in free will is intertwined with moral, legal, and interpersonal processes. As the mechanistic worldview espoused by many scientists and particularly psychologists, gain attention (e.g., Gazzinga, 2011; Monterosso & Schwartz, 2012; Nichols, 2011), the impact of these trends — good, bad, or both — calls for understanding” (2014, 7). This remains true whether or not the mechanistic worldview espoused by these thinkers is correct or a real philosophical threat to free will.

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86 replies

  1. Gregg considers polls on the behavior of USA citizens. The relationship between believing in Free Will and believing that low lives dug their own fates, seems strong in the USA. With all due respect, the analysis may be too focused on USA psychology.

    Gregg says: “juries — eager to preserve their belief in a just world — are already inclined to see the victim … as other than innocent… just one unfortunate example of the pernicious nature of belief in a just world… since, of course, if the world is just, then people must have brought these circumstances upon themselves. This blaming of victims (in defense of belief in a just world) has been established by numerous studies… the stronger the belief in a just world the greater the likelihood of blaming victims for their unfortunate fates.”

    Any society rests on logic. The logic does not have to be all-embracing, it just has to be effective. Gregg’s general thesis is a good antidote to the present logic dominating the USA. Yet a USA social truth does not have to be a truth of human ethology.

    Now I am going to do two risky things. I am going to introduce non-USA based history and geography.

    The Nazis believed one should have no Free Will. So did the followers of Stalin. So do, to a great extent some of the Muslim religions (so called “branches” of Islam). All believe(d) that individual Free Will had to be eradicated. Islam comes from aslama “he submitted”.

    All believe(d) that the world could be made just through the application of strength, and the Will of God, the General Secretary, or the Guide.

    Now I shall let me rephrase the grand conclusion of Gregg, into its complete contradiction:
    …belief in NON free will, it was found, by studying the historical examples above, is associated with just world belief, authoritarianism, religiosity, punitiveness, and moralistic standards for judging self and other. While these considerations do not prove belief in NON free will is mistaken, they do indicate that the putative pragmatic benefits of believing in NON free will and desert-based moral responsibility are bogus.

    OK, I will humbly grant that my Grating Will is punitive, authoritarian, and just desserts based.

    However, the question is serious. If Gregg’s astute and superbly informed logic can be turned on its head, what is going on?

    The answer is from the theory of systems of moods. The reason that the logic can be turned on its head is that what truly matters are the mood and subjacent emotions.

    Example. The Nazis posed themselves as victims of an unjust world (big, bad, rich, hypocritical, Indian exterminating America; Versailles Treaty). Germans, all over, were oppressed minorities. Only surrendering Free Will would be bring back justice and stop the punition they were submitted to.

    Strong emotions, bound by strong logic make strong medicine. The logic is secondary. This is what the apparent truth of both Free Will Skepticism, and of my pernicious anti-thesis (just an observation, too), demonstrate.


  2. Patrice,
    “All believe(d) that the world could be made just through the application of strength, and the Will of God, the General Secretary, or the Guide.”
    And as we discussed previously, all originate from conflating the absolute with the ideal, but absolute is basis, while ideal is apex. So absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell.
    When we assume our ideals are absolute, the effect is extremism and the consequence, rather than rising everyone to the heavens, is they fall into the vortex.


  3. Daniel, thank you for your lengthy comments! Once again I will need to keep my reply short (since I’m about to jump in the car again). You say, “It is not clear at all that ego depletion could, or regularly does, cause aggressive behavior (as the second study found). I would want to hear how this connection would work. I see no connection.” You don’t? I think the connect is rather easy to draw! My daughter, who is five, exercises self-control all day long at school. When she gets home at 3:30 her ego is depleted and she is more aggressive. I think it’s a common occurrence that all parents are familiar with. Likely, I made a bunch of difficult decision at work today. Now I’m standing on the long exchange like, trying to return a horrible Christmas gift, and I lose my patients. Sound familiar? Sound plausible? Read Baumeister’s work on ego depletion and I think you will be able to see the connection.

    As for your defense of the Vohs and Schooler, despite what you think of my other criticisms, it tells us nothing about the long term effects of disbelief in free will. Your logic–that some other priming studies may have shown long terms effects, so it’s reasonable to assume this one will as well–seems misplaced here. For one, the vast majority of prominent students have NOT shown long terms effects. Secondly, you have shown no reason to think there would be long term effects here. And lastly, I have suggested analogies with other such fears that have been proven wrong.

    Robin, I have indicated several times now why I have connected free will and moral responsibility. Please, for sake of clarity, define your terms and answer the questions I earlier asked SocraricGadfly. Also, the empirical work shows there IS a connection. Not only the work discussed here, but also additional work in experimental philosophy. See for example the classic paper by Nichols and Knobe. (Especially the question whether people can be morally responsible in a determinist world).

    Lastly, many people continue to talk about determinism as the only reason for accepting free Will skepticism. That is simply mistaken. As I’ve indicated, most contemporary free Will skepticism are agnostic about the truth of determinism. Read my papers, then consult the literature for example.

    Sorry to keep my comments short again but it is Christmas and I must run…..

    Happy, Merry to all!


  4. There are no free will skeptics, only pretend ones…A tired pseudo-problem that should have long gone away.”

    As usual, Aravis goes to the heart of the problem with a few pithy sentences.
    Case closed.


  5. Is ‘will’ a physics-reality? What is ‘will’ anyway?

    “Will’ as a noun is used to describe an empirical human experience. As a helping verb, it is a driving force for an action. So, ‘will’ is not just a linguistic token but describes an empirical reality.

    Now, ‘free’ is a physics-reality and ‘will’ is an empirical reality. Yet, is ‘free-will’ a reality? If we can show that ‘will’ is a physics-reality (putting being an empirical reality aside), then two physics-realities can interact, and their dynamics can be written out and be measured.

    Dog and God are composed of the same alphabets, and this is an ‘English’ oddity.
    One, is Dog the God theologically? My answer is yes.
    Two, is Dog the God in physics? My answer is yes.
    Three, is Dog the God linguistically? No.

    Now, what is ‘will’? Just for convenience, I will start it with,

    Will = Consciousness + Intelligence

    If anyone has a better definition, we can discuss it later.

    For intelligence,
    The necessary condition = having a counting device (such as counting straw or Turing computer)

    The sufficient condition = all entities in this universe are uniquely tagged.

    For consciousness,
    The necessary condition = the ability to distinguish itself from all others [note: the necessary condition for this = all entities in this universe are uniquely tagged].

    The sufficient condition = the relationships among all entities and itself can be analyzed [note: the necessary condition for this = having a counting device].

    Now, this is similar to the Dog/God issue. My emphasis here is that consciousness is different from the intelligence just the same as the Dog/God difference. Yet, when we prove that the ‘necessary condition’ of each is a physics-reality, they two are automatically proved to be the physics-realities.

    First, I have showed that both proton and neutron are the bases for a Turing computer (see ).

    Second, I have repeatedly showed that ‘7-codes’ can uniquely tag all entities in this universe (see ), such as {A, G, T, C, M (male), F (female), K (kid)} or {Red, Yellow, Blue, White, G1, G2, G3}, etc.

    The G-string (Prequark Chromodynamics, see ) is only a ‘language’ for describing the quarks. As a language, it has no ‘right or wrong’ issue. Yet, it provides the ‘answers’ for the both necessary conditions.

    Without the G-string, there is no way to link the ‘intelligence’ to physics.

    Without this G-string, there is no way to link the ‘consciousness’ to physics. Furthermore, this 7-code G-string demands that Neff = 3 (not 2.9 nor 3.1). The recently (last week) released Planck data gives {Neff = 3.04}.

    Fortunately, both jobs are now done. Now, ‘will’ is a physics-reality by definition. It will not be difficult to show that ‘free-will’ is also a physics-reality, based all the way on the fundamental laws of physics. More, next.


  6. (Massimo I am sorry for the lengthy post once again, I am willing to try to cut down on it if you feel I have really overstepped my commenting bounds on this article)

    Thanks for the reply Dr. Caruso,

    You said, “I think the connect is rather easy to draw! My daughter, who is five, exercises self-control all day long at school. When she gets home at 3:30 her ego is depleted and she is more aggressive. I think it’s a common occurrence that all parents are familiar with. Likely, I made a bunch of difficult decision at work today. Now I’m standing on the long exchange like, trying to return a horrible Christmas gift, and I lose my patients. Sound familiar? Sound plausible? Read Baumeister’s work on ego depletion and I think you will be able to see the connection.”

    Okay I think I see where my problem was. I guess I just didn’t understand what ego depletion is. From the examples you mentioned I am still not completely clear on what ego depletion is. It sounds like it is either frustration from a difficult day or some kind of general mental exhaustion (something that is like decision fatigue?) I think I will just need to read your suggested work to get more familiarized with this, because now that I look this up I can see its a technical term that has a vast literature. Thanks for the reference.

    I looked up ego depletion and on wikipedia it says it is, “the idea that self-control or willpower draw upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up.”

    I suppose its still not clear to me how reading a passage that conflicts with your views would lead to a depletion of your pool of mental resources in the same sense that you and your daughter have your mental resources used up throughout the day? The obvious ego-depletion examples you mentioned involved long hard days of work draining one’s mental resources.

    However, putting myself into the mind of a subject (which is a good idea, I think, when evaluating any social psychology experiment in order to feel out whether or not some kind of other variables might be at play), I don’t really see how reading a brief passage that suggests an alternative view of free will other than my own would deplete my mental resources in the same way it depleted yours and your daughters after a long day at work? Was the passage hours long and mentally taxing? Perhaps you could help me with this (if you have the time). If you also don’t see a connection though, see below.

    You also said, ” [the study I mentioned though didn’t cite] tells us nothing about the long term effects of disbelief in free will. Your logic–that some other priming studies may have shown long terms effects, so it’s reasonable to assume this one will as well–seems misplaced here. For one, the vast majority of prominent students have NOT shown long terms effects. Secondly, you have shown no reason to think there would be long term effects here. And lastly, I have suggested analogies with other such fears that have been proven wrong.

    I think where you and I differ is what makes evidence strong enough to warrant consideration in practical decision making. Specifically, I think that what is at issue here is this- do these studies warrant us accepting (not believing) the proposition that belief in free will skepticism is harmful and has long lasting harmful effects? If we are warranted in accepting said proposition, then we should act under the assumption that belief in free will skepticism is harmful.

    (once again accepting a proposition is employing the proposition in practical decision making even if you don’t believe it is true)

    You seem to be requiring very strict experimental proofs (rule out all possible competing variables that could explain the results and ensure that you are showing precisely what your results support) for mere acceptance of a proposition, whereas I think that strict experimental proofs are only required for belief in a proposition (and even then, only perhaps). It might be said that in “physics epistemology” (so to speak) you can’t believe OR accept a proposition until it has been proven very strictly, but in the infant and methodologically difficult field of social psychology, I feel our “social psychology epistemology” is more relaxed. We can rely on less strictly conclusive experimental evidence for acceptance of a proposition as opposed to belief in a proposition.

    So here is what I take you to be saying:

    The study you mention only shows that some beliefs (with different propositional contents) have long lasting effects
    They don’t show that the belief with the propositional content -that there is no free will- has long lasting effects
    since you have not directly shown that the belief with the propositional content -that there is no free will- has long lasting effects, we ought not think we have any reason to believe that the belief that there is no free will has long lasting effects.

    My “social psychology epistemology/practical decision making” position is something more like this.

    A study mentions that some beliefs with different propositional contents have long lasting effects.
    It seems unreasonable to demand that, before we believe that primed beliefs generally have long lasting effects, we test to see if every belief with every different propositional content has long lasting effects.
    It does seem reasonable to believe that the aforementioned study gives us reason to believe that beliefs generally can have long lasting effects.
    It seems reasonable to believe that the primed belief that there is no free will can have long lasting effects.

    Anyways, I’ll concede the argument there and say generally I think you are still right (especially since you mentioned that other studies have shown that most beliefs don’t have long lasting effects).

    However, would you mind giving me your brief opinion on “social scientific epistemology.” That is, how “airtight” does a social psychology study has to be in order to warrant acceptance of a proposition, and how airtight a study has to be to warrant belief in a proposition?

    This is my 5th post so I can’t reply anymore. Thank you again for the article and response, and happy holidays.


  7. Astoundingly, although I do believe the General Will has to be carefully managed, and is perversely managed in the USA, I also tend to agree with Aravis and Labnut on the points they made.

    One has indeed to be very careful between “believing” and “pretend believing”. The point Gregg makes about the USA is supported by polls, yet, it is not the problem of “Free Will” itself. “Free Will” is pretty much an experimental fact. All the commenters and authors on this site exhibit a lot of Will. I don’t know if it’s free or not, but I have to weigh every single word, lest I be found “unduly offensive” (to the sensitive wills).

    “Free Will Skepticism” as massaged in Gregg’s essay, and TED talk, seems to mean skepticism not so much about the existence of Free Will, but skepticism that those who loudly believe in “Free Will” have a constructive, progressive attitude in the society of the USA.

    Ultimately, the problem of Free Will will have to tackle the problem of what are exactly the free agents in Quantum Physics. Well, nobody knows for sure. It’s the central problem of Quantum Computing, and the high energy physicists’ wild goose chase for high energy processes went the other way, so we don’t know what determines the evolution of the Quantum systems. The implication of this is that we do not know what determines the evolution of the simplest processes.

    As long as we do not really know what controls simplest systems, talking about whether there is Free Will, or not, is shooting the breeze. As I pointed out in a preceding comment, this is the object of on-going experiments on non-locality. In some hard core physics labs. Those experiments really aim to turn around the problem that we may have no Free Will, and I am surprised that nobody took the bait.

    I tried to understand what Brodix meant in connection to what I wrote. My major ethical point is that ethics is God-given by Human Ethology. So it’s absolute. God being, of course, biological evolution.

    What I suspect Gregg found is that Free Will supreme is used as a reason to crack down on various minorities, modern slaves, and those one wants to exclude… In the USA. But it’s not a fact of Human Ethology. Just a quirk of the reigning American mentality.

    Indeed fascism is characterized by the renunciation of Free Will of the individuals, replacing it by the mind of just one person. Thus denunciating Free Will, far from being progressive, has been the mark of intellectual, and then political fascism, throughout history.

    How does the Free Will of the individual arises is pretty much identical to how the new ideas of an individual arise. Without Free Intelligence, there is no Free Will. Yet, when Intelligence is really “Free”, for example free of countless references, it does not get published. An academic career starts pretty much by determining what the General Will wants.


  8. Patrice,
    The issue arises from the physical premise of determinism and so that has to be examined first. The assumption is that as history consists of this linear narrative of time and all the events comprising it are determined by the full input of all factors, with the result as set as the sum of a mathematical equation, it is presumed that all such events, thoughout the entire course of any future narrative, must necessarily be as set as those of that which has been settled and past. The reality though, is that these events are very much an effect of that process and are entirely subjective to boot. We think 1+1=2 must be some Platonic rule of the universe, but + is a verb, not a noun. It has to be effected, in order to know the result. If you have not added the two 1’s together, you do not have that set of 2. There is no platonic realm of information, absent the physical manifestation of it. There is no form to the void. No information, without the energy and thus the process/verbs, etc, to express it.
    So, yes, if you keep repeating the same action, you end up with the same effect and our minds like to hold onto such lessons, since they help us deal with this reality, but these top down projections, still need that bottom up process in order to exist. What we like to think is there is some universal frame or form, whether platonic, monotheistic, or mathematical and if we can discover it, we will find that code of the universe, the Theory of Everything. The fallacy of math is that as abstraction, the map it gives you of the territory is not foundational, but simply notable. It doesn’t reverse engineer reality back to some initial seed from which everything sprang, but simply distills out the hard and unchanging forms from the more ambiguous and softer tissue. The skeleton, not the seed. Quantum fuzziness is about how all those soft parts of reality still mess up the neat mathematical projections. For instance, even a moving car doesn’t have an exact location, or it wouldn’t be moving and if you try to slice time down to ever smaller slices, then you get to where even the atomic activity would have to be frozen and the car would literally disappear. Now space is defined as three dimensional, but that is actually just a coordinate system and in order to function, it has to be defined. So you can have multiple coordinate systems defining the same space, backed up by competing narrative timelines. Just think Jews and Palestinians in Israel. The problem is there is no top down, universal frame. When physicists start talking six, seven, eleven dimensions, what they are really doing is working with multiple such frames and how they interact and or transfigure. Photography is a good way to mentally examine this. Consider the idea of holography and how different layers of the same picture add up to a more complete one, like with 3D movies. The basic concept of holography is of many faint impressions of the same image that add up to the clear picture we see. Now consider that in terms of Gregg’s concept of ego depletion; Essentially the mind is still trying to grasp a mental projection, but it is faint and thus is like a holographic image that doesn’t shine through as clearly as necessary, so the fall-back position is simply to narrow one’s remaining energy onto a smaller image and try to transmit that information to others. Which gets emotional.
    Not to get to far beyond the word limit, but the basic dynamic is that relationship between energy and form. We want to dynamically project some static form of information onto our world and can only do so to the extent of the energy we have to do it with. Writers try to attract attention with clear, concise writing. Politicians with emotional appeals. Security and military forces with explosive power. So we try to marshal the energies of more people to our cause, we extract fuels from the ground, we leverage what we have to disrupt others energies. Yet it is still all bottom up. Information and form emerge from the process. Gods grow stale, Men grow old. Kingdoms corrupt. The energy is conserved, but in order to exist, the form has to evolve and so change.


  9. Aravis Tarkheena: “We’ve already had a near-identical discussion on S.S. not long ago, … There are no free will skeptics, only pretend ones.”


    I have showed that free-will is a physics (not physical) reality. It is not too difficult to ‘jump’ from here to the conclusion that free-will is a human ‘faculty’, long identified as an empirical human attribute before my physics-analysis. If anyone disagrees with this jump, I will discuss it later. With this, there is a big problem with your (Caruso’s) article.

    You are seemingly have a major confusion between the free-will-belief and free-will-faculty?
    Free-will-belief can be implanted or primed from without.
    Free-will-faculty is an innate part of human nature.

    Anti-free-will-belief is allowed by the free-will-faculty, as it is the precise essence of the free-will-faculty. But making anti-free-will-belief as a thesis without first giving a detailed reference about its ‘source (the free-will-faculty)’ is wrong. If this wrong is done in ignorance, I have showed the right answer. If this wrong is done on purpose, it will be a lie. While the lies are allowed by the free-will-faculty, they are disdained by most people. This is why the wrong thesis could at best be in fashion for a short time, before people know that it is wrong.

    Your analysis on the belief-system in the USA is good and useful. But, going one step further from that for constructing an anti-free-will-belief-thesis is wrong and will not get to anywhere.

    Paul So: “Aravis,… I respectfully disagree …because I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the author’s work out of hand when he puts a lot of effort in his article.”

    Caruso indeed put a lot of effort in his article. But, Aravis has a very important point {We’ve already had a near-identical discussion on S.S.}. He (Caruso) can of course have different view from the previous discussion. He can of course come and give us a lecture. But, I am truly surprised that Caruso did not allude a single reference on this free-will issue from this Webzine which he is publishing his article. Seemingly, all our previous discussion were just for nothing. In addition to defend his ‘this article’, he should write a comment about our previous discussions, in comparison to his article.

    Patrice Ayme: “Ultimately, the problem of Free Will will have to tackle the problem of what are exactly the free agents in Quantum Physics. Well, nobody knows for sure.”

    You know, or you don’t.

    Patrice Ayme: “As long as we do not really know what controls simplest systems, talking about whether there is Free Will, or not, is shooting the breeze.”

    Who are ‘we’? You know or you don’t, you are a single person, not ‘we’. Many great scholars did many great works on the issue of ‘free-will’. Don’t put them in your ‘we’.


  10. My daughter, who is five, exercises self-control all day long at school. When she gets home at 3:30 her ego is depleted and she is more aggressive. I think it’s a common occurrence that all parents are familiar with.

    I have an alternate explanation. Her teachers believe in free will, and so they praise her when she does well and discipline her when she misbehaves. When she gets home, her father is indifferent to her choices and treats her like a pre-programmed automaton.

    I don’t know why you think I’m trying to undermine personal freedom and Christianity.

    I explained that in my comment. Christianity teaches free will. Those with the individual ability to make their own choices have more personal freedom than those who don’t. You want to convince people that they do not have that ability, and you say that it will promote certain leftist ideological goals.


  11. Based on everything I think I’ve learned about belief systems, and what I know of US politics and culture in particular, it seems to me that changing the political conversation on justice by promoting belief in determinism is the longest of long shots.

    The comment in Part I about what people say they believe vs what they manifestly believe according to their actions seems very apropos to this whole discussion.. And the labels liberal and conservative are slippery in the extreme. We really need to break down the components of political ideology into coherent components. There really are too many different components to support the idea of two arch-rival teams, liberals and conservatives. Despite much admirable analysis and a concerted attempt to do just that (actually the subject was morality — which of course highly overlaps with political ideology), Jonathan Haidt, until near the end of The Righteous mind, failed to distinguish liberal from libertarian. I’m not sure he has quite gotten over that, but he admitted that towards the end of the project, he became aware of having a big blind spot, and needed to add the dimension of Liberty/Oppression to his original five, and he also realized late in the game that “fairness” is used two nearly opposite ways.

    Doctrines in general, and free will/determinism in particular have often, I believe gotten bent to serve tactical political necessities. A most blatant case would be Stalin’s way of suddenly abandoning one ideological position leaving a group of former coalition partners holding the bag and ripe for charges of heresy. He pursued that course until he no longer had any need of coalition partners.

    Based on my reading, it appears like early Protestants while by no means consciously thinking in such a calculated way, adopted an anti free-will stand largely out of disgust with indulgences and other “means” used for salvation. And then, paradoxically, according to Max Weber the same doctrine made Puritans far more energetic in the use of means to broadcast to the world that they were in fact favored by God.

    Again, paradoxically, in America’s second Great Awakening, the growing rejection of predestination seems connected to subsequent astonishingly energetic reform movements from Abolitionism to Temperance to Women’s Rights which sprang from the religious movements which embraced “means of salvation”.

    Meanwhile, it seems people can be so unrigorous in their ideological thinking that the Democratic / Republican dichotomy has almost completely reversed polarities between the mid 19th century and the present. The Democrats once stood for small government, liberty-or-death (esp. liberty for southern planters), anti-elitism. Republicans prior to WWII stood for America minding its own business.


  12. For all the talk about the freedom and responsibility of individuals, conservatives’ talk reveals a deterministic view of society (as collections of individuals). While liberals talk of the freedom of society in remaking itself, conservatives counter that with “the poor will always be with you” (so anti-poverty programs will be a failure), “God’s invisible hand” in the economy will best take care of everything (so governments shouldn’t interfere), civil rights laws won’t work because “you can’t legislate morality” (from the 1960s), etc.


  13. Iabnut & Aravis, “There are no free will skeptics, only pretend ones…A tired pseudo-problem that should have long gone away.” Nice quib but rather dismissive of a large body of literature and a lot of sincere philosophers. A lot of excellent work has been done on free will in the last few decades, and to dismiss it as a pseudo-problem is to miss out on some really interesting insights (even from those I disagree with). I think it might also be based on a misunderstand of what free will skeptics are maintaining and what we are not maintaining. If you are equating free will with certain compatibilist capacities then you are begging the question from the outset.

    Patrice, “The Nazis believed one should have no Free Will. So did the followers of Stalin. So do, to a great extent some of the Muslim religions (so called “branches” of Islam)”.” Are you really equating the philosophical position of free Will skepticism (as advocated by Pereboom, Levy, Nadelhoffer, Waller, and myself) with the political attempt by authoritarian governments to repress political liberty? There are quite a few conflations going on here. Perhaps an analogy with the Buddhist philosophy that is (sometimes) read a denying free will would have been fairer. That would be a much better analogy and one that manifests some of the attitudes I recommend (unlike the examples you provide).

    Daniel, once again your question requires more attention than I can give it here. My short answer, however, would be that until we have a study that directly shows the long term effects of free Will skepticism, I think we should remain agnostic. I don’t think your default reasoning is the way I would go. BTW, there would be a rather easy way to test the long term effects of free Will skepticism. Run these experiments on those who are convinced skeptics and see if they exhibit increased anti-social behavior. My guess is that the results would be negative.

    Tienzengong, I really have no idea what you mean here: “I have showed that free-will is a physics (not physical) reality. It is not too difficult to ‘jump’ from here to the conclusion that free-will is a human ‘faculty’, long identified as an empirical human attribute before my physics-analysis. If anyone disagrees with this jump, I will discuss it later.” You go on to say that I have confused free will belief with a free will faculty, but don’t clearly define what you mean by a free will faculty!–other than to say “Free-will-faculty is an innate part of human nature.” Can you define your terms in a non-question-begging way? If you simply mean the ability to make choices, change ones mind, reason, etc. than I have addressed this earlier. Free Will skeptics do not deny these things. To avoid attacking a strawman, you really need to acknowledge what free will skeptics maintain.

    Schlafly, with regard to how I interact with my daughter, I by no means treat her as an automaton (another misreading of free Will skepticism). And yes, I have found that the reactive attitudes associated with basic desert MR are counterproductive and that other attitudes work much better. Read Pereboom for the replacement attitudes. Maybe losing some of your moral anger would be helpful 🙂

    I will try to comment more tomorrow….I once again have a seven hour car ride in front of me today.


  14. Gregg Caruso:

    It’s your response that is dismissive of a well established and venerable tradition — i.e. that of ordinary language and late-Wittgensteinian analysis. I did not simply call free will a “pseudo problem” and walk away. I wrote at some length about conceptual frameworks, hinge propositions, and preconditions for intentional and moral ascription, all of which you ignored, to make it look as if I had been naively dismissive.

    The free will problem is precisely the sort of philosophical dilemma that is most amenable to a Wittgensteinian or Ryle-ean analysis, something you know very well, if you are at all acquainted with the philosophy of the last century. It is invoked when problems are interminable and when dispensing with the relevant concepts seems impossible, despite our inability to provide rational justifications for them. Your position depends upon dispensing with moral and intentional ascription — whether you want to admit it or not — and this is simply something that is never going to happen. Back in the 1980’s Paul Churchland suggested that we would stop using folk psychological language and that poets would write thing like, “At the sight of you, my fourth lateral neuron fired at 60khz,” but only ideologues and the overly credulous bought it. Moral and intentional ascription are constitutive of our conception of personhood and that conception is here to stay, no matter how far our scientific descriptions of ourselves diverge from it.

    I’ll be happy to re-engage you, once the critique is taken seriously. Until then, as far as I am concerned, the critique stands unanswered and consequently, your thesis remains unjustified.


  15. brandholm in his Comment(25Dec:0030) makes good points about “Freewill’d desert-based morality”. E.g. “.. collective punishment.. is unjust.. others punished do not “deserve” it. To argue others shouldn’t be punished..(implies).. they are.. less deserving.”

    Again I descend from the philosophic stratosphere:
    As life-forms evolved into increasing complexity, it gave them more freedom of action, choices of possible various alternatives then further developing a more deliberate and slower “conscious” control of the rapid feral basic “kit”, pre-selected and “unconscious” genetically-inborn reflexes, instincts, -pain, fear and other intuitive reactions. A “good” choice of action would be one that gained increased chances of survival. In humans, this process of discrete “conscious” choice we call “Reasoning”. Libertarians and Compatibalists argue that this provides (at least) some “Freewilled” action (maybe unique to our species) which entails a “desert-based morality” of blame/praise.

    For living things, Determinism includes a same “freedom-of-action” as a physical effect (it defines Life from the “dead” matter out of which it is made) but insists that it is always the **effect** of prior events: it is never complete and utter freedom. However, the definition of a “good” action (one that gains an increase in chances of survival) still applies and hence it similarly entails a “desert-based morality” though it no longer uses the “choice” of action but a different criteria, the (Evolutionary) value of the “chooser” -an individual’s genetic value to its Species.

    In the days when a super-parent seemed a possible explanation for many physical events, religions in a variety of forms actually worked successfully in evolutionary terms for tens, probably hundreds, of millennia to oversee vast increases in numbers of humans living communally.

    It has three major flaws:
    1. A supremely-inspired moral code is by definition unable to change.
    2. It requires absolute faith to achieve sufficient obedience to its supreme moral code.
    3. It is a merit-based system of enforcement (that all-seeing, totally-pervasive CCTV footage, the Eye of God) which is not applicable to non-believers and especially closed to convinced atheists.

    Now we get to what I read as the sub-text of the OP, how we may best foster moral action, (i.e. in my view, behaviours more likely to foster the human species), when all we can do is try to guess the future based on our historical knowledge, on correctly understanding and extrapolating from our now huge data-base of past events. Whether punishing criminal activity beats cultural reform: whether humans are genetically sufficiently morally malleable.


  16. Hi Gregg,

    Please, for sake of clarity, define your terms and answer the questions I earlier asked SocraticGadfly.

    Not addressed at me, but I’ll answer anyhow:

    I define “free will” in the compatibilist sense of “did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced?”, or of Schopenhauer’s “Man can do what he wills but not will what he wills”. I realise that this is the most boring and prosaic version of “free will”, but I think it’s the one that matters in everyday life. We experience that we have a will and it is important to us that we can act on it.

    The fact that that will is the product of low-level brain machinery, and thence a product of a (largely) deterministic chain of causation doesn’t change the centrality of our will to our experience. In everyday life, freedom is all about what prisoners and slaves do not have, it is not about causation contrary to the laws of physics. “Free speech” is about societal constraints and “free will” can be construed similarly.

    “Moral responsibility” is then all about the social contracts that govern how we interact with each other. If we interpret “John deserves to be punished” as meaning “John broke a social contract” and “John’s fellows would dislike it if John were not punished”, then we have “moral responsibility” and “justice” and “just deserts” in a non-realist moral scheme that works fine and is consistent.

    I’ve not met libertarian or hard-determinist accounts that seemed sensible and consistent. Determinist incompatibilism needs to adopt compatibilism whenever it actually deals with human society, all bar some possible language differences.

    Let’s take a specific example. The IRA used to be in the habit of robbing banks by the tactic of kidnapping a senior banker together with their spouse and children, and then requiring the banker to cooperate in robbing the bank under pain of their family’s life. Most of us would agree that the banker would not be morally culpable, and should not be jailed, for helping to rob the bank under these circumstances, whereas they would be normally. This makes entire sense under a compatibilist scheme. I’d be interested in how a “free-will skeptic” analyses such a case, and whether their analysis amounted to de facto compatibilism.

    I’m wondering, however, if there is a disconnect between the “everyday” compatibilist and the compatibilism defended by professional philosophers.

    Possibly. On the atheism/science-oriented blogs that I’m more used to the “compatibilism” that is most influential is Dennett’s version. The other versions you point to don’t seem like “compatibilism” to me, though I confess that I’m not familiar with them.


  17. Dear sir.
    You point out the following “Libertarians therefore reject determinism and defend a counter-causal conception of free will in order to save what they believe are necessary conditions for free will — i.e., the ability to do otherwise in exactly the same set of conditions” You mean by this (I think), that we are guilty of cherry picking. Yet have you not cherry picked your determinism? Did you not use free will when doing the speech at TED? Was your speech exactly as pre-ordained by the god of determinism? If not a god then by whom? Is not incredibly arrogant to assume an intelligent designer or methodology at work behind the scenes concerned with such things as to for example, the perfect pre-determined speech at TED, and the required outcome among the many variables (People)? What would be the variables that would apply in such a scenario? What are the guidelines that change the possible outcomes? How can you prove any of it? Faith perhaps? In fact based on this very premise time travel, at least to the past would be a simple matter, since apparently the principles of entropy don’t apply. Am I incorrect in this assumption? If determinism is real you are also negating that physics, specifically the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not always apply. That is quite an incredible claim to make, don’t you think? Your concept for the quarantine of criminal offenders (victims to you, rapist and killers to others), i.e not culpable but in fact victims of determinism, do not depend on free will skepticism to make them possible. These criminal reforms stand-alone just fine. I can only attribute your connecting them to sophist tactics appealing to the emotional state of the TED listeners like a good politician. I apologize in advance for my arrogant post, but I must say that I find this beyond offensive as a philosophical prospective. It is as poorly constructed as religious dogma and I find it as interesting to discuss as talking about the existence of Santa Clause. Commit this essay to the fire!


  18. Aravis Tarkheena: “Gregg Caruso: It’s your response that is dismissive of a well established and venerable tradition — … I wrote at some length about conceptual frameworks, hinge propositions, … all of which you ignored, …”

    Gregg, you are indeed just dancing around the bushes. Obviously, this is not my one person opinion.

    Gregg Caruso: {Tienzengong, I really have no idea what you mean here: “I have showed that free-will is a physics (not physical) reality. …”}

    I wrote three comments prior to the above statement, and you did not reply to them. If you have anything to say about those three comments, please do, and you might be able to know what I mean.

    Gregg Caruso: “To avoid attacking a strawman, you really need to acknowledge what free will skeptics maintain.”

    You data on American ‘believing’ system is very interesting and can be very useful for sociology.

    {What free will skeptics maintain} is using the power (faculty) of free-will to deny the free-will, in the name of a ‘believing’ system analysis. In fact, all those ‘believing’ data is transient (reflecting the current collective subconsciousness of a group). While free belief is a part of the free-will, ‘belief’ can be implanted and primed. With a different education system, those beliefs will be different.

    Free-will (of universe, not just the human faculty) is the most powerful law in nature which allows the existence of all fictitious entities (prohibited by the physics-laws) to be realities, such as the ‘Lord of the Ring’, etc., that is, including your {free will skeptics}.

    Can {free will skeptics} move the society? I don’t really think so; 99.99% of street walking people will think that it is a joke. So, the future of this {free will skeptics} will be at best as talking-talk among a few scholars in their own club meetings. There will be definitely no future for the {free will skeptics} either in society or in academia.

    Many commenters have disagreed with your thesis one way or the other, but you just disagreed-back with talking-talks. Now, you just need to answer one question.

    What is the ‘source (whatever that is)’ giving you the power (authority) to ‘doubt’ or to disagree anything (whatever that is)?

    No, that source is not your data? However great or accurate of those data, someone can always ‘denies’ them. You are denying almost all critiques regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Yes, you do have this power, and I would like to know what the ‘source’ of that power is.


  19. Aravis, I didn’t mean to be dismissive of your Wittgensteinian point. It’s been hard for me to properly address these comments while traveling from house to house, and hotel to hotel for the holidays. I hope you understand. I guess I would make a few general points about your approach: (1) I’m not sure if you are aware of the work of Richard Double, but he provides an argument for free will skepticism different than the one’s I’ve been discussing but one you may find interesting. In his *Metaphilosophy and Free Will*, Double holds that any argument for or against a specific free will position will be persuasive only if one adopts supporting meta-level views of what philosophy is. He argues further that since metaphilosophical considerations are not provable (and not even true or false, if the late Wittgenstein is correct), there can be no hope of showing one free will theory to be more reasonable than the rest. Rather, the most philosophers can do is make a desire-based case for preferring their package of metaphilosophy and substantive free will theories. Double then goes on to elaborate the connection between metaphilosophy and free will. He identifies four distinct meta-level viewpoints that drive different answers to the free will problem (I won’t go into them here). From there, he discusses intermediate-level principles that work in combination with the metaphilosophies, then provides ten applications from recent free will debates that demonstrate how differences in metaphilosophy make the free will problem unsolvable. In the second half of his book, he makes a strong case–as strong as he can, consistent with his own metaphilosophical view–for accepting a form of free will skepticism. It’s a very interesting argument (again different than the one’s typically discuss), but one you might be more sympathetic to. He concludes that there cannot be any such thing as free will, and there cannot be any such thing as moral responsibility either. Determinism has nothing to do with it, because the difficulty lies soley in the ideas of free will and moral responsibility. Our proclaiming choices to be free and persons to be morally responsible for their choices can be nothing more than our venting of non-truth-valued attitudes, none of which is “more correct” or “more rational” than competing attitudes about choices and persons. (BTW, if you accept this line of argument (which is Double’s, not mine,) the pragmatic questions I’ve tried to address in my paper might be of more importance. In face, Double has another paper where he argues that adopting libertarianism is immoral because of its lack of epistemic certainty and its moral hardness!) (2) My second point would be that while you couch your concerns in the language of Wittgenstein, it sounds very similar to the argument of Peter Strawson in his classic paper. There are well worked out responses to Strawson’s concerns (that we cannot live without the reactive attitudes), and I would just refer to to those arguments. Again, Pereboom and Waller would be a good place to look. (3) Lastly (and I’m hoping we might get some agreement here), there is no reason why free will skeptics cannot maintain moral and intentional ascriptions! Since that is what you seem most concerned about, it doesn’t seem to be a concern relevant to free will skepticism. Skeptic can appeal to intention language, hold on to morality, etc. What they cannot preserve, however, is the reactive attitudes of *resentment* and *indignation*–but, given my argument in this paper, I actually think we would be better off without these.

    Coel, if you define free will in the compatibilist sense that simply begs the question from the outset. What the compatibilist needs (and most of them provide) is a neutral definition (like the one I provided based on basic desert moral responsibility), then they argue that what is need to justify (non-consequentialist) praise and blame is ____ (where they fill in the blank with their own account of Compatibilist Free Will–e.g., guidance control, hierarchical integration, Frankfurt-like identification, reasons-responsiveness, etc.) (It’s actually pretty telling how each compatibilist account of C-Free Will generally disagrees with the other accounts of C-FW on what, exactly, is required!)

    Since I am getting toward the end of my time here at SS, and I’m not sure if I will have time to post tomorrow, I would like to thank everyone for their comments. They have been extremely helpful. I really enjoyed my stint here at Scientia Salon!

    Massimo, thank you for publishing the paper and for hosting this site! The mission of SS is an important one, and one that I strongly support. Keep up the great work. (And perhaps we can continue this conversation on your podcast.)

    Let me sign off with some general comments. Whether you agree with me or not, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves how we should as a society deal with criminal behavior? Is our belief in free will essential to adequately address criminal behavior, or could the skeptical approach offer a new way of addressing crime without the need to resort to back-ward looking notions of moral responsibility and guilt? The kind of free will that could justify retributive punishment based on a criminal’s moral responsibility needs to be the ‘ultimate’ kind – the kind I defined in terms of basic desert. According to free will skepticism we are not free in the sense that is required for moral responsibility (i.e., the basic desert sense) and we therefore lack the responsibility that is needed to justify any kind of punishment that draws upon revenge or desert. However, what does remain is ‘moral answerability’ and forward-looking claims of responsibility that focus on the moral betterment of individuals who are prone to criminal behavior, and on the realization of reparative measures towards victims. Whereas mass incarceration, severe sanctions and stigmatization have resulted in more recidivism, adequate treatment programs that focus on increasing an individual’s capacity to better control and change their future behavior have been linked to less recidivism. Such an approach can be placed within a broader public health perspective of human behavior that addresses both environmental and individual risk factors of criminal behavior. Hence, rather than undermining our current criminal justice practices, the skeptical approach can draw upon more humane and effective ways of reducing immoral behavior.


  20. schlafly,
    “Christianity teaches free will.” That’s not strictly true. Different churches actually differ on this point. Calvin thought that god predetermined the vast majority of humans to be predestined to extinction or damnation. Those predetermined to damnation are thus likely predetermined to engage in bad behavior. (The Presbyterian Church, one inheritor of this thought, has not, to my knowledge fully backed away from this position.) On the other hand, Catholic theologians, who have been debating this issue since the founders, roughly arrived at the position that character determines action, and that character is itself determined through education and habit; but the grace of god provides the favored with moments when they can change their minds.

    You write about “leftist ideological goals” as if (1) those on the left are engaged in some cruel conspiracy, and (2) as if those on the right have no ideology. Both implications are simply nonsense. There are ideologies (multiple) on the right, just as on the left, and some of these arise in good faith and are directed toward humane goals (although some may not be), just as is true on the left. Philosophical arguments between ideologies, whether on the same side of the spectrum, or between left and right, are efforts to clarify thought, and persuade and convince others. If this isn’t allowed, then not only do we have no democracy, we have no need of it.

    One problem here is that you seem to assume that because Caruso raises an argument intended to direct thought concerning one possible political goal, he is pushing some monolithic agenda of goals. As I noted, concerning my Catholic friends in the movement to reform the justice system, one need not assume Caruso’s position entirely to assume that this cause is humane. And as I noted in a previous comment on part 1, one can imagine a strict determinist with no interest in human political causes at all. (This is one of the problems I have with Caruso’s argument.)

    It follows then that it is possible to distinguish between different arguments for different causes, and that each argument on each cause ought to be considered on its merits. Welding causes and arguments into big blocks, and then diving up the blocks along simplistic ideological lines – dismissing one chunk for being on the ‘wrong side’ politically, while praising another chunk, without supporting argument, for being on the ‘correct side’ of the spectrum, accomplishes nothing. We shout at each other until we lose our breath, and then all stand together looking like fools. I admit I’ve done that in the past, and I suspect most people have. Mistakes are what we learn from. But they are nothing to be proud of. The learning is.


  21. schlafly,
    On this particular argument on this particular cause, Caruso is claiming that choice of retributive justice arises from a belief in free will, and that retributive justice being inhumane, this raises doubts of the social usefulness of belief in free will. Some agree, some disagree, some think the argument needs better reasoning or more data to be convincing. This sort of process seems to occur in any healthy philosophic or political debate. (Anecdotal reference to a mistake in judgment by editors of the Rolling Stone, is not very convincing in this context. It is not enough data, and the reasoning is unclear, since editors do make mistakes, whatever their political bias.)

    Although it would require a different and larger discussion, let me suggest that this debate should really begin with deciding whether retributive justice is really inhumane, since that is a basic assumption of Part 2 of Caruso’s argument. I don’t think that anyone seriously doubts that those who engage in criminal behavior are deeply influenced by parenting, social class and environment, education, psychological dispositions. The question is whether this influence is so great as to warrant reconsidering whether they ‘deserve’ a certain kind of punishment, based on any possibility of their having chosen otherwise in a given circumstance, or if social influence makes the question of ‘deserved’ punishment moot, thus suggesting not only other theories of justice, but other practices in addressing criminal behavior, directed toward rehabilitation.

    On this point I refer you, and other readers, to the concluding arguments by Darrow and Crowe in Illinois vs. Leopold and Loeb. (

    That was clarification. My personal sense is that assumption of a retributive justice requires a prior assumption that there can be anything such as ‘moral revenge.’ I believe that’s an oxymoron, whether meted out on behalf of individual victims or that of society as a whole.

    It should be noted that my Catholic friends do not oppose retributive justice on any assumption that criminals could not have chosen otherwise, but because it lacks mercy – failing to account for the social influences on criminals, and the possibility of their rehabilitation, retributive justice can only be directed toward causing pain to make observers satisfied in their sense of righteous outrage. Ultimately, to say that criminals ‘deserve’ such pain is an obfuscation evading intellectual responsibility. If people want to claim enjoyment in the pain of others under the shield of righteous indignation, let them do so. But when they do so, they will have surrendered claim to any moral high ground. Enjoyment of the suffering of others can never be a moral good, however tempting at times.


  22. ejwinner, excellent commentary as usual. But this:

    “My personal sense is that assumption of a retributive justice requires a prior assumption that there can be anything such as ‘moral revenge.’ I believe that’s an oxymoron, whether meted out on behalf of individual victims or that of society as a whole.”

    I would ask whether one need view it as “moral retribution” = “moral revenge.” Or better yet, drop “moral” for a moment and consider whether “retribution” and “revenge” are synonymous. They needn’t be and ideally they are not in principle. Missing in much of this discussion is any serious debate regarding how the transgressor views his/her transgression, both as a matter of personal principle and as a matter of social justice. Retributive justice deals with events/actions that are past while utilitarianism and consequentialism attempt to adjudicate decisions on suppositions of future outcomes.. All well and good. Nevertheless, one can, in fact, fall on one’s sword. And some still do.

    If I understand the author’s point, it is not that the notion of retribution is in all cases unwarranted or even unexpected. Rather it is whether suspension of belief in free would be advantageous in terms of the implementation of a system of justice when compared to what he takes to be the common notion of desert morality (problematic? because the evidence is inconclusive.). Of course, the author can correct me if I misconstrue this point. But he writes:

    “And although retributivism and severe punishment, such as the death penalty, would be ruled out, preventive detention and rehabilitation programs would be justified (2001, 2013, 2014). He even argues that relinquishing our belief in free will might well improve our well-being and our relationships to others since it would tend to eradicate an often destructive form of ‘moral anger.'”

    To my mind this doesn’t take retributive justice off the table, but rather insists that it somehow be applied without “moral anger.” And that to my mind begs the question of whether retributive justice cannot aspire to be so applied. In practical terms, though, a case can be made that it has failed, but, as I noted in my earlier comment, since I believe the notion of retribution is embedded in our nature, I think the best we can hope for is to improve its application.

    And, yes, I am still struggling with the author’s precis on Pereboom’s book, while at the same time trying to unpack Pereboom’s definition of moral agency.


  23. Per schlafly: The right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) scale was created by a left-wing Obama supporter who was infuriated by the libertarian anti-government views of the Tea Party. Here is his anti-Tea-Party rant (pdf). The Tea Party is the least authoritarian political movement in the USA today. And yet he claims that the Tea Party is dangerously authoritarian because they believe that President Obama is dictator and that mounting debt and interference with the free market is destroying the country.

    While I don’t think the RWA scale, or psychological characterizations of political parties are productive, Bob Altemeyer started in the early 1980s, and is also a Canadian, so “Obama supporter” is at best misleading, especially when you seem to be implying that the whole thing was a reaction to the “libertarian anti-government views of the Tea Party”. when it preceded it by nearly 3 decades.

    Does it matter? Very much, I think. Movement conservatism tries to link everything to Obama and drum up a sense of a crisis that came in on his coat tails that we need to eliminate or we’ll be a totalitarian nation any day now. The US has survived Bob Altemeyer and the RWA for over three decades; it is not part of the imagined recent crisis that came in on Obama’s coat tails.

    You’re making just about the least amount of effort at clear reasoning of anyone on this forum (you have some competition I admit). Your writing sounds like free associating right wing talking points, as in:

    “Yes, Gregg, a disbelief in free will would be harmful. If your goal is to promote leftist goals and undermine personal freedom and Christianity, then I agree that a disbelief in free will might help, as I argued in previous posts. You did not disagree, except to point out that beliefs among philosophers are not perfectly correlated. Of course some theists are free will deniers, as some believe in predestination.

    Unless you are some sort of hard-core Marxist atheist, creating a nation of sheep is not a good thing. The Soviet Union tried it. It still exists in Cuba and North Korea. It partially exists in the Islamic world, where the mosques teach fatalism and the suicide bombers think that they are carrying out Allah’s will.”


  24. Consciousness, as a dynamic premise, will always be pushing against that which physically, emotionally, conceptually confines and thus defines it. It will do so out of desire or distaste, love, or hate. That is will. If we shrank from possibilities, lack of will, we wouldn’t exist.
    How the reality against which it pushes, often other parts of society, tends and or choses to respond, will reflect both that action and a vast number of other factors. Will some of it be emotional, revenge, retribution? Those are descriptive terms for what is a fluid and subjective context. If we seek to eliminate negative emotional responses, would that affect our ability to act out positive emotional responses?
    As we build these vast social and civil structures, they will benefit some and repress others. That is basic physics, so if we really want to build a civilization which can be both generally beneficial and reasonably sustainable, it would seem the first step would be to go back to the drawing boards on our educational systems and explain to people the basic thermodynamic realities which build up and break down such processes, in literally a wave dynamic and have them understand that we can work within the facts of nature and accept sometimes we will be going up and other times, coming down. Bigger waves will result in bigger troughs. Sometimes you will be at the head and sometimes at the feet, but the real problem is when the head and the feet no longer communicate. Communication, whether of pleasure or pain, is what makes a society whole. Nodes are a function of the network, every bit as much as the network is a consequence of the nodes.
    I think this is my last. Tata.


  25. Hi Gregg, I realize you were inundated by a lot of replies so maybe you missed mine, did not have time to get to them? There were four points which I raised that were not covered by others and it does not seem you addressed. Most were made in my post on Dec 24, which directly took up the challenges you mentioned wanting to address. And another poster has commented that my reply contained an important issue.

    Hopefully you’ll have time to write today, or if not I’d be interested in personal communication (if/when you’d like) since this subject is important to me. Briefly, my points were in increasing importance:

    1) While you did suggest weaknesses could be found in all studies, aren’t the criticisms you leveled at studies in section one regarding how long pernicious effects might last, equally able to be leveled at the studies in section two?

    2) The criticism leveled at the studies in section one regarding not using the same definition of FW as FW-skeptics, might be equally leveled at those in section two (not using the same definition of FW that compatibilists use). While there may be some disagreement on exactly what compatibilists are, the end message from all studies seems limited to strong libertarian concepts of FW.

    3) I do believe anti-FW beliefs can lead to negative effects for people with other beliefs, in a mutually supportive way similar to FW+LWB/RWA. It might be more important to look at correlations in people with nihilistic/fatalistic beliefs or with suicidal/self-harm tendencies. And it would seem possible that they could be used to manipulate vulnerable populations or when combined with indoctrination over generations.

    4) There seems to be a difference between compatibilists and FW-skeptics on moral responsibility that is crucial. In this case I seem to be using your definition of compatibilist so that shouldn’t be an issue (though I am still troubled by using “true” or “ultimate” just deserts). It would seem that FW-skeptics cannot argue against collective punishment, which is considered “unjust” based on the lack of responsibility of the others punished (or in some way “treated”). That is as long as it is in order to end the undesired actions of another moral agent (consequentialist reasons). The hypothetical can be devised such that it is not simply retributive punishment of the others. In fact it would seem an FW-skeptic would be open to the argument that since it is arguably societal factors that led to the moral agent’s actions, treating those that gave rise to/helped influence that moral agent are equally important to “treat” for better consequences down the road. The compatibilist can reject this “unjust” blindness to personal culpability.

    Well I hope you hear from you. But if not, I agree with the general thrust of your message, even if not on all the details (will have much to read to separate lay compatibilism from professional compatibilism/FW-skeptic), and wish you happy holidays!


  26. Hi Gregg,

    Coel, if you define free will in the compatibilist sense that simply begs the question from the outset. What the compatibilist needs (and most of them provide) is a neutral definition (like the one I provided based on basic desert moral responsibility)…

    Fair point, but unless I’m misinterpreting your definition of “free will” it seems to require moral-realist moral responsibility. I would agree with you that there is no such thing (and I don’t see how any such thing can be compatible with determinism). Thus I wouldn’t regard your definition as neutral, I’d regard it as libertarian. I don’t think there can be a neutral definition that covers both libertarian FW and compatibilist FW (hence my earlier comments about the article lumping compatibilism with libertarianism, whereas I’d see it as allied to hard determinism).


  27. Speaking of polls, Scientific American has one*. (Results to be revealed on January 10.)
    “Online Survey: Do You Believe That Free Will Exists?”


  28. @Gregg

    I’m surprised that no one has yet directly defended the claim that disbelief in free will would be harmful to society, our interpersonal relationships, meaning, etc.

    At Scientia Salon, discussing the topic of the article is considered gauche.

    The thing that convinces me that the free-will question is a flybottle is the fact that while scientific determinism presumably incapacitates free-will, indeterminism does not resuscitate it. The “agency” of the language game is pretty clearly a different category of causal thing than what’s invoked in a statement of scientific determinism.

    As Aravis said, the language of intention and agency are not going to be dispensed with. But as he also implied, that language game rests on *conceptions*, and those conceptions do change over time. I’m for a more charitable interpretation of Churchland. In modern times, science has been one of the biggest forces in the development and change of our conceptions, and I doubt anyone would deny that the language game of personhood has changed, even in the last century.

    The main change I see is the incorporation of conceptions of complex causality and complex systems in general. We have come to see criminality, for example, not just in terms of an individual’s choices, and not just in terms of an individual being molded by his or her specific life experiences. We see complex societal and geopolitical causes – like endemic poverty, migration, the way urban spaces are constructed, the long-lived and complex ripples of slavery and racism – as being causally relevant to criminality. And we’ve come to see the unconscious brain and the mechanisms of pathology in the brain as being causally relevant too.

    All of these developments undermine the traditional conception of responsibility. My take is that the philosophical question of free-will steals the thunder of your more interesting question of whether to embrace complex causality with its concomitant undermining of the traditional conception of responsibility — keeping in mind that parts of that conception are probably basic to the nature of cognition and will never wholly disappear from the language game.

    I think the answer to that is largely, “Yes”, as long as our new conceptions get us closer to a model of how things really are, and insofar as those conceptions allow us to engineer better outcomes. There always will be (and already have been) negative effects from long-held conceptions being undermined. It’s a phase we have to go through — and apparently it’s a long one. We currently have ideas about retribution, punishment, “correction” and rehabilitation that are Frankenstein’s monsters of simple and complex causality. The complex view has the advantage of allowing us to think at the level of society rather than at the level of the individual.


  29. Hal Morris: Yes, the creator of the RWA scale was a left-winger before Obama and the Tea Party came along. You are also correct that movement conservativism has been anti-authoritarian for decades.

    Jonathan Haidt of NYU has shown that university social scientists are overwhelmingly liberal, and that they do not understand conservatives at all. Conservatives have a much better understanding of liberals. As a result, there are endless social science studies on topics like RWA that pretend to study conservatives but completely miss the point to what conservatism is all about.

    Caruso argues that free will belief is correlated with conservativism, which is correlated with RWA, which is correlated with opinions like “Our country desperately needs a mighty leader”, and he says that is troublesome. As the RWA was created in a partisan attempt to badmouth conservatives, this is nothing but a political argument for leftist ideological views.

    I actually agree with Caruso’s main point, that free will skepticism will promote leftist political views. He does not really dispute anything I say. In particular, he is arguing that if people can be convinced that they do not have free will, then that will undermine conservative belief in individualism, personal and family autonomy, free markets, and libertarian ideals.


  30. schlafly, I’m afraid I have a very low opinion of Haidt’s research. It is a well known fact that university faculty lean liberal (with huge pockets of exceptions, often in economics departments). But he hasn’t a shred of evidence as to his claim that this is due to a bias in hiring, and in fact there are much more reasonable and obvious explanations for that “bias.” But of course that’s way off topic. Still, if interested:


  31. Reblogged this on A Philosopher's Take and commented:
    This is the second post from Prof. Gregg Caruso re: an optimistic view of Free Will Skepticism.


  32. I hope I will be excused for saying what I feel.

    The frequent acceptance, in the comments, of ‘moral responsibility’ or ‘moral anger’ as not legitimate in some sense is disconcerting. If we are responsible for anything at all as individuals, surely our treatment of others should be at the top of the list. If anger is justified in any context, surely anger at those who hurt others would top the list.

    To have a program, in service of a utilitarian goal of some abstract idea of ‘social justice’, seeking to deprive people of their sense of responsibility and seeking to make them feel that the anger they feel when a fellow human deliberately or uncaringly hurts someone else is somehow illegitimate is, to me, somewhat like cutting the beaks off chickens so they don’t damage the rest of the livestock. Only much more cruel. There is a inhumanity in this which I can tolerate toward chickens, but find extremely disturbing when directed toward humans.


  33. Most of the right wing social scientists are at right wing think tanks making 6 figure salaries. Haidt ought to have included them in his surveys except I very much doubt they’d participate.


  34. Neither Haidt nor I is making any claim about a bias in hiring, as far as I can see. Your argument about how “the NBA would be sued for discriminating against short people” is a little strange — the reason the NBA is not sued is because there is no law against discriminating against short people. At any rate, you are not contesting the fact that university social scientists are overwhelmingly liberal and that their understanding of conservatives is suspect. This is relevant because Caruso’s main argument is about free will skepticism might influence people towards more leftist ideological views, and there is no serious consideration of why right-wingers would believe in free will.


  35. Oh, for a few more comments like this one. Expressing philosophy rather than Philosophy!
    BTW errata in my previous comment “criteria” should read “criterion”.


  36. schlafly, actually, Haidt is precisely making the claim that there is anti-conservative discriminatory hiring in universities. So much so that he called for a rather oxymoronic affirmative action for conservative professors…


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