Those dendrites made me do it: free will and morality

Feeling that we are merely material and act in predetermined ways appears to lead people to behave irresponsibly.
Karl D. Stephan | 2 June 2014
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Back in the 1970s, TV comedian Flip Wilson liked to play a character named Geraldine, whose Church of What's Happening Now taught her to say, whenever she did something bad, that "the devil made me do it!" Recent research over the last decade or two has given new strength to the argument that our will is determined not by the devil, but by certain neurons, whose axons and dendrites transmit characteristic nerve impulses that appear to precede our conscious decisions to do a thing by a substantial fraction of a second.

Both research scientists and the general public tend to conclude from brain science that there is no such thing as free will. If free will is an illusion, then so is responsibility, and it doesn't matter what we do. And thinking we don't have free will actually affects the way we act, according to a body of research pointed out by Azim Shariff, a psychologist, and Kathleen Vohs, a business-school professor.

Writing in the June issue of Scientific American, Shariff and Vohs describe a series of experiments in which researchers first primed subjects to think critically of free will. This priming took various forms. Reading an essay explicitly criticizing the concept of free will was one way. But popular-science articles describing brain research, without explicitly mentioning free will, appeared to be about as effective. However the researchers brought up the topic, it tended to make their subjects less likely to act nice, and less likely to punish others for not-nice behaviour.

In one study, volunteers who read an anti-free will article put almost twice as much hot sauce on tortilla chips they were asked to prepare for another volunteer (secretly in cahoots with the researchers), who had previously made it well known that he didn't like hot sauce. Other subjects shown anti-free will material then proceeded to cheat on an academic test more than subjects who read about an unrelated matter. The idea that we are simply complex material objects reacting in an entirely predetermined way to our environment appears to lead people to behave irresponsibly, and to judge others as having less responsibility for their actions as well.

The essay by Shariff and Vohs is an outstanding example of what I would call scientific fence-sitting. Nowhere do they say what their personal views are on whether free will exists. Instead, they cite studies of what happens to people when they are exposed to the idea of determinism, either directly or indirectly, and they find that mostly, the results are not good, except that people tend to ease up on the idea of punishment as revenge.

Shariff and Vohs seem to think that modern societies are gradually abandoning the idea of free will, and that this might lead to trouble, although if things get too bad after we leave the concept behind, we "might have to reinvent it." But they write as though science is the only way of knowing anything for sure, and because science can't resolve the question of whether free will really exists, there's no point in talking about it directly. It doesn't seem to occur to them that science is not the only way to know things.

I have a couple of modest proposals in the form of hypothetical questions. Dr Shariff is an assistant professor, meaning that in the normal course of events, he will go up for tenure some time in the next few years and be evaluated by his peers in the department. Dr Vohs is Land O'Lakes Professor of Excellence in Marketing, which presumably means she owes her living to the success of Land O' Lakes Inc. in selling lots of margarine.

Dr Shariff, what would you think (not feel, not act, but think) if your personnel committee came up to you after you turned in your application for tenure and they said, "Well, Azim, we were going to grant you tenure, but hey, we were talking and discovered that we're all determinists and it doesn't matter what we do, so to save money, we're going to let you go instead."

And Dr Vohs, what if the people in charge of the Land O' Lakes Endowment or whatever it is that pays your salary sent you a letter saying, "Dear Dr Vohs, reading your article in Scientific American convinced us of the truth of determinism, so being freed of the burden of responsibility for our actions, we're taking the endowment that pays your salary and are all going on an extended vacation to the French Riviera."

I am fairly confident that both injured parties in these situations would think that their supervisors made wrong decisions, and would appeal to rules that apply to their jobs. These rules spell out responsibilities for both professors and administrators. You can take the position that, as a practical matter, societies have to pretend that things like free will and the responsibility of moral agents exist, because otherwise we'd degenerate into a state of anarchy and chaos, like Somalia is today.

But there is a problem here. I thought science was the search for truth. Not pretence, not convenient fictions that we live by in order to survive, but truth. The sense I get from the Scientific American essay (I'm reading between the lines here) is that the authors don't personally believe in free will, but recognize that if we didn't act like it existed, we'd all be in a lot of trouble, both individually and collectively.

There are two related lessons here for the engineer, and anyone else for that matter, who is looking to behave ethically, both on the job and elsewhere.

First of all, be careful what you read. I'm not saying that you shouldn't read articles on brain science, but be sure your reading is at least a balanced diet of a variety of viewpoints, because your reading may influence your actions even if you don't think it does.

Next, guess what? Free will exists. I'm not just pretending that it exists, but it really does. I'm not enough of a philosopher to trot out all the arguments in favour of it, but I can point to people like Aristotle and Aquinas who were, as well as plenty of modern philosophers. And while it is technically what theologians call a "mystery," meaning we can understand some of it but never all of it, free will is compatible with the idea that God is in ultimate control of the universe.

Why, there are even some philosophers, called compatibilists, who argue that free will is compatible with atheistic determinism! So you really can decide to do the right thing in your work, in your personal life, and in deciding what you think of a couple of professors who won't even say whether they believe in free will, even though they spend years researching it.

Sources: The essay "The World Without Free Will" appeared on pp. 76-79 of the June 2014 issue of Scientific American. I referred to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on free will, and to Wikipedia for articles on Flip Wilson and dendrites. Also, I found out that Land O' Lakes makes other things besides margarine—Purina animal feeds, for example.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics

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