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.