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Free will is the new god.

Posted Jun 14 2011 1:32pm

By, Adam K. Fetterman

Image: istockphoto/Janne Ahvo

Sam Harris has been discussing the idea of (or lack thereof) free will. He is of the mindset that there is no free will. Many scientists are in agreement, but at the same time, there is still plenty of arguing. In fact, Sam Harris has had to add some installments to his initial post on the subject. This age old debate has two sides. On the free will side (broadly), individuals argue that since we make decisions every day, all day, we must have free will. I am typing this out as I please therefore I’m exercising my free will. On the determinist side (again broadly), individuals argue that my actions are determined by automatic processes already in motion. I am typing this because of some biological or environmental push-pull. These descriptions are vague and simplistic, but the arguments go far beyond the word limit provided here. The scientific evidence on this debate is mixed, but seems weighted in favor of determinism, or lack of free will. This is true for social psychology (see Bargh, 2000) and neuroscience (Tancredi, 2007).

Even if it can be argued that the scientific evidence is not in favor of determinism, the amount of research on automaticity and the findings of brain activation prior to behavior should leave a large population of people believing in determinism. This, however, is not the case. The fact that Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne (with largely science-minded and atheist followings) have had to write numerous blog posts to continue arguing against free will, speaks to prevalence of the belief in free will. Indeed, Sarkissian and colleagues (2010) have recently found that belief in free will is quite universal (cross-culturally so) and that morality and determinism are at odds.

Jerry Coyne recently stated “ I’m starting to see realize there are striking parallels between belief in God and belief in free will. There is no evidence for the existence of either, and plenty of evidence against both.  Belief in both makes people feel better. ” Indeed, future psychological research should investigate a parallel benefits (real or imagined) between belief in a god and free will. I predict it will be quite similar. However, this does not exactly explain why blogs with strong atheistic followings would meet such resistance. Perhaps free will is a way to hang on to the anxiety relieving aspects of religious belief, without believing in god. Future studies should investigate this line of reasoning.

As far as the free will debate goes, I conclude that biological brain processes create consciousness, but not the other way around.

Note: Adam K. Fetterman is back from a hiatus. Check back every other Tuesday for his posts.

Sam Harris blog posts

Morality without free will     Free will and why you still don’t have it You do not choose what you choose

Jerry Coyne posts

Joe Horgan: “We do too have free will.”

My definition of free will

Cited references

Tancredi, L. R. (2007). The neuroscience of “free will”. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 295-308.

Sarkissian, H. et al. (2010). Is belief in free will a cultural universal? Mind & Language, 346-358.


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