In the Free Will Debate, Does the Truth Matter?

According to the New York Times this morning, researchers have discovered a curious correlation between belief (or disbelief) in free will and behavior:

[W]hen people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.

This raises a troubling question: regardless of whether free will has any empirical basis, should you believe in it anyway? The Times quotes a psychology researcher who seems to suggest that you should, offering up the following sunny observation:

“Free will guides people’s choices toward being more moral and better performers,” Dr. Vohs said. “It’s adaptive for societies and individuals to hold a belief in free will, as it helps people adhere to cultural codes of conduct that portend healthy, wealthy and happy life outcomes.”

And we all want to be adaptive, don’t we? Seeing reality as it is, it would appear, sometimes makes us less adaptive.

But this notion seems to me a variation on the “believe in God because it’s good for you” meme. The truth doesn’t matter. What matters is whether your beliefs help you function (or, as Woody Allen titled one of his films, to cope with this absurd universe we should go with Whatever Works).

And the New York Times reporter gets curiously opinionated in the last paragraph of the article, conflating rational reasons for not believing in free will with the (apparently numerous) good pragmatic reasons for doing so:

Some scientists like to dismiss the intuitive belief in free will as an exercise in self-delusion — a simple-minded bit of “confabulation,” as [Francis] Crick put it. But these supposed experts are deluding themselves if they think the question has been resolved. Free will hasn’t been disproved scientifically or philosophically. The more that researchers investigate free will, the more good reasons there are to believe in it.

In other words, it’s Crick, not you, dear reader, who is really deluded. And so we can all go back to sleep now, comfy in our pillowy notions that we have free will. And always remember the following: if something hasn’t been positively and unambiguously “disproved scientifically and philosophically” (whatever that means), and you want to believe it, by golly please do so with all your heart and mind.

That’s American. (And how George Bush got us into the Iraq War, now ongoing for eight years and counting.)

I do like, however, the Arthur Schopenhauer quote the reporter managed to work into his piece: 

Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills. 

This reminds me of a paragraph from Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise:

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.

But that would mean we don’t have free will, and that’s good to know.

Isn’t it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to In the Free Will Debate, Does the Truth Matter?

  1. I always get baffled by the argument that you have to believe in god to believe in free will. As I understand it, the argument is something like: without god, we are driven by causality and the choices we make are predetermined by the matter, energy and events that preceded us. Is that accurate, Santi?

    • santitafarella says:


      Well, Calvinism is religious and determinate, so the categories don’t hold, do they?

      But it does seem that, without God, it is extraordinarily difficult (impossible?) to arrive at free will because it means that the world, when it comes right down to it, is either quantum random atoms in the void or straightforward determinate atoms in the void.

      Given these two options, where is the escape hatch for free will (if you want to believe in it)?

      It seems that you need some sort of mind-body dualism where the mind influences the body to get to genuine free will (and not some Orwellian substitute).

      Whenever I think about free will, I feel as if I’m evaluating a chess board in which there is a king that is obviously in checkmate, but I don’t want to admit it.


      • Santi-

        The dualism of the body/mind relationship almost seems implicit, doesn’t it? There is no debating that the body influences the mind. Food and drugs influence the mind on an ever ongoing basis. Yet, the mind also influences the body. You find out that you should eat different things for a better outcome on the body, in doing so, you change how the body operates and how it can influence the mind. Moods and emotional cycles are the expression of the interaction. This is a point in time evaluation of free will, but it seems to hold up on a macro level as well, particularly if you look at quantum mechanics. (LOL @ quantum mechanics as the macro level, although quantum is the only word I know of that also means its opposite). All interactions are probabilities and observation affects probable outcome. Well, each day, each of us evaluates numerous interactions and affects numerous probabilities of which no one else in the world is even aware. We are all the master observers of our own interdependent system.

        Slice it differently. I believe that I express my will every day. Is this a trick of our minds to give us an illusion of will in a predetermined universe? If it is, then I would ask why. It is hard to imagine an evolutionary need for such a trait to have developed. Perhaps our brains just designed too poorly to perceive the universe correctly? Again, evolution is the problem here, correctly perceiving the predetermined path of the universe would be the ultimate survival trait.

      • @Santi – can you offer any feedback on this opinion? My philosophical context for thinking about these things is quite novice. Any suggested reading?

  2. andrewclunn says:

    I don’t know why people who don’t believe in God are caught up in the discussion of free will. If you remove the super natural element then isn’t free will’s existence more a matter of disagreement regarding classification than the nature of reality?

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