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Free will and morality

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In light of recent comments, I thought readers might find this discussion between Joshua Knobe & Roy Baumeister of interest. Please keep in mind that broad swaths of humanity, such as Calvinists and most Sunni Muslims, have nominally rejected free will (most American Baptists are Calvinists):


  • Meng Bomin · June 26, 2010 at 5:49 am

    I think that they wisely avoid discussing free will head on. It’s a concept that’s generally poorly defined and thus poorly discussed.

  • A nihilistic passerby · June 26, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    That ultimate moral responsibility is provably impossible by virtue of a priori argument, read this:

  • John · June 26, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Some neat stuff. I thought the stuff on romance/attraction was interesting, too. So if you have self control, you are initially more attracted to someone who is spontaneous, but in the long run, are better off with someone who also has self control. The results of the study are very believable to me. I’m still trying to figure out why, from a Darwinian standpoint, this would work.

    The other thing out of this is that society is better off if people do believe in free will. Since I believe in free will, I can just jump up and say, “Yay!”. For people who don’t believe in it, it raises the same dilemma that some have with religion. Suppose a study came out saying that religious belief made someone behave better. If you think religion if false, then what? Preach what you know is false, or tell the truth and pay the cost? (I’m in the latter category)

    Meng Bomin, I define free will as consciously making decisions. I decided to have cornbread for breakfast today, and I did so. To me, that’s free will. The fact that Laplace’s demon could have predicted that yesterday doesn’t mean I didn’t freely choose it.

    Passerby, that is an interesting argument, but I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that we are not responsible for our actions if we didn’t design ourselves. If I consciously decide to murder someone, I am responsible for my actions. I did it, and I chose to do it. The fact that my personality was determined by some mix of genes and environment is irrelevant. If I had the same genes and environment as Jack the Ripper, I would have committed the same acts as he did, and be fully responsible for my actions. Of course, I wouldn’t really be me anymore. I’d be Jack the Ripper.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 26, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    The other thing out of this is that society is better off if people do believe in free will.

    i was skeptical of this being generalized to a societal level. a large minority of americans who are calvinists reject free will. very few mexicans (catholics) reject it nominally. but where are people more fatalistic?

  • John · June 26, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    David Hume: I did a quick Google search for studies of free will by country, and didn’t find anything. I also looked for studies about national differences in internal/external locus of control (which is what the typical person on the street probably has in mind when people talk about “free will”) Here again, I found nothing I could see for free.

    I guess here is a study worth doing: Ask people if they believe in free will and see if there is a pattern by country. The hardest part of this study would be making sure that the same thing was meant by the term “free will” in different languages.

  • wm tanksley · June 26, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Most Calvinists don’t reject “free will”, unless you define “free will” extremely precisely and philosophically as “the power of contrary choice”. The broadest Calvinist viewpoint is simple “compatibilism” — that free will and determinism can coexist. To make that possible you have to admit that free will is something other than “the power of contrary choice”, but since most people don’t understand that, this is hardly a loss.

    Rather than being contrary choice, compatibilists (religious and irreligious) believe that free will is simply the ability to choose what you most want, based on your own goals and not on someone else’s. Thus, your free will choices are foreordained by your own desires.


  • Author comment by David Hume · June 26, 2010 at 10:56 pm


    click through and look for choice vs. control.

  • John · June 27, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Thanks! I’ll give it a look.

  • j mct · June 28, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Describing what free will would seem to be one of those things that cannot be described by what it is, but only by what it is not. One might say that a thing with free will is something that ‘science’ doesn’t work on, what it does cannot be reduced to a set of measurements whereby individual members of the set can be transformed into each other via a function, such functions being called scientific laws, with the set of functions possibly including truly random variables.

    As far as the question of free will affecting human thinking on morality, intelligently analyzing what is ‘lost’ by denying free will will stop one dead in one’s tracks long before one gets there, one should analyze the denial of free will on one’s thoughts concerning psychology first.

    The thing is is that the guy who denies that humans have free will is really saying that people other than he don’t have free will, he is assuming that he has free will, whether he realizes it or not.

    If the guy denying that man has free will were to apply his thinking to himself first, then his thoughts on whether other people have free will cannot have anything to do with whether they actually do or not. There is no imaginable chain of causes between the truth or falsity of the proposition and his utterances on it.

    To wit, if he doesn’t have free will, then there could be some set of measurements concerning him that are related to each other via a set of functions (the functions being natural laws) and one can simulate the working of them on a computer. Then one would be saying that one can design a computer program whose input from the world, including some from humans, via keyboard, a video camera, or a microphone…, whose output to the query, ‘Do men have free will?’ might have any chance of being correct other than dumb luck. No one has as yet written such a program, and if you believe some program of this sort might come into existence in the future, and the program would be a thing that in principle a human could understand it, one will see it in action around the same time as one has a chat with the clean shaven barber of Seville, who shaves all and only the men of Seville who do not shave themselves. So one will be waiting for a long time, given that an eternity is a long time.

    In addition, the query ‘Do men have free will?’, is a drop in the ocean as to queries one might ask any possible computer program where the output of the program and reality cannot have anything to do with each other.

    So if the guy who denies free will is correct about himself, his thoughts on psychology are necessarily dismissable too, so one will never get to how the denial of free will might blow up moral thinking, the denial of free will blows up psychological thinking, and lots and lots of other kind too, so one will never actually get to chewing on moral problems.



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