I will choose free will

…and I don’t even like Rush.

PsyBlog has an article about some research which shows that people who don’t believe in free will are more likely to be aggressive and less likely to help others than those who do believe in free will. I find the research interesting, especially considering my own feelings about the free will/determinism argument. The discussion is fraught with misunderstandings, and it has taken me a while to come to terms with determinism. In a sense, I would say that there are two kinds of free will and determinism that aren’t mutually exclusive, so it’s worth taking some time to think about it.

Free Will from a biological perspective

From a psychological perspective, determinism is generally defined as the belief that our actions are controlled completely by mental processes, and free will is defined as behavior without cause. In other words, there are no physiological determinants of behavior; it just happens.

I am using definitions that I flat out stole from The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, so this may not be widely accepted. From this point, I would call free will a myth. Unless you’re a dualist, it is hard to buy into the idea that there is no physical/neurological causes of behavior. Everything comes down to neurons and the complex structure of the brain. Therefore, from this perspective, I would say I am a determinist, but not a strick determinist. Morew on that later.

Free will from a theological perspective

I thought i understood free will and determinism in undergrad. This was before I read Pinker. I understood free will from a philosophical/theological perspective. In this perspective, determinism would mean that some agent (god, the flying spaghetti monster, Yoda, etc.) controls our behavior through some divine plan. As George Carlin says, if god has a plan, what’s the point of prayer. Free will means that we have control over our own actions. From this perspective, I would say that free will is the way to go.

Strong or Weak?

You sometimes read about strong or weak determinism. Biologically, I consider myself a weak determinist, meaning that I think that genes create a framework for the brain and some aspects of behavior and we act within that framework, but we have some pretty broad choices. For instance, genetics leads to my hair-trigger temper, but I can choose to control it in the right situations. We don’t choose the type of person we fall in love with, but we do choose whether to go to the movies or which lawnmower to buy. A strong determinist would claim that all of these things are predetermined by genetics and learning.

The Research

The research by Baumeister, Masicampo, and DeWall, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, features three different experiments. The first two studied helping behavior and the third studied aggression. In the first exdperiments, subjects read statements which either promoted or denied free will and the subjects were asked to answer questions. I find the second experiment the most interesting. In this experiment, the subjects were tested on their opinions on determinism and free will and were asked to volunteer for a helping situation. What isn’t mentioned is the nature of the determinism. In other words, is there a difference between believers of strong and weak determinism?

Another interesting facet of the first experiment is that a neurtal group, which read statements that weren’t related to free will or determinism, gave responses similar to the free will group. This leads the conclusion that belief in free will is a default condition. To what degree this default condition is correct remains to be seen.


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