Disbelief In Free Will Causes Disbelief In Free Will

"I have no choice but to love thee, Theory."
“I have no choice but to love thee, Theory.”

Never was the West’s wholesale flight from philosophy and a classic education more evident than in the title of this peer-reviewed paper: Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness.

How could we have forgotten that it is impossible—not unlikely, impossible—to “disbelieve in free will”? Answer: scientism, the curious belief that science and only science is fit to answer all questions. In order to believe you must have free will because to believe is an act of will, and to believe in one proposition is to disbelieve in its contrary; therefore, in order to disbelieve you must have free will.

The paper appears in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and it’s by Roy Baumeister, E.J. Masicampo, and C. Nathan DeWall.

The abstract begins with the words, “Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable.”

Laypersons. Laypersons are those unfortunate souls who are not trained in the Ways of Science and who cling to superstitions like they are rational beings.

To paraphrase the abstract: since people believe they can make free choices, the free choices they make are better than the free choices they make when they disbelieve they can make free choices.

Preposterous isn’t in it. Yet there it is. And here is more. The opening words, worth paying attention to:

Belief in free will seems widespread and intuitive. Almost every person every day has the subjective impression of making a choice in which more than one outcome is possible. The most influential religious beliefs in Western culture give prominent emphasis to doctrines of free will, assuming that human individuals can freely choose whether to perform virtuous or sinful actions and even stating that eternal judgment of individual souls rests on the choices they make. Likewise, the legal system allocates guilt and punishment differentially based on whether the rule breaker could have acted differently such that perceived reductions in the capacity for free choice (including external pressures, lack of awareness, mental illness, or intense emotion) constitute valid reasons for reduced punishment or even acquittal.

We could spend a week on this. Almost every person? Phffag. Every person. And why pick on religion, why single out jurisprudence? I’ll tell you why, because these are the areas, religion and the common law, which intellectuals are most keen on dismantling. Now that’s a judgement of psychology and not philosophy, but it’s not made lightly. Here are the authors’ next words:

Intellectuals and scientists, however, seem rather less uniformly comfortable with the idea of free will than the general public. Many scientists regard the belief in free will as untenable if not downright absurd…Although not explicitly siding with them, Wegner (2002) summarized the opposition to free will as embodying the assumption that only “bad scientists” could believe such a thing.

Do the authors consider themselves good scientists?

How in the holy heckfire do you congratulate yourself for believing you cannot believe! The only possible answer is insanity. Scientists are driven mad by love of their pure and perfect theories. They have become Pygmalion.

Authors: “To be sure, the impossibility of free will cannot be proven either empirically or conceptually.”

The reason it cannot be proven impossible is that it exists. You cannot prove that which exists does not exist, though you might conduce somebody a few slices short of a loaf to believe that which exists does not—you might even convince them that what does not or cannot exist does, like bigfoot or Utopia.

The rest of the paper is given over to “experiments” where groups of college kiddies are exposed to the researchers’ particularities and then the kiddies fill out questionnaires. The questionnaires are given numerical answers and technologically sounding names. This is what makes it science. There are statistics and wee p-values. None of this is of the slightest interest.

The end the paper with this:

The broader implication is that many people in Western culture share a belief in human freedom of action and that, moreover, human society benefits from such a belief. (Indeed, we suspect that most cultures will have found beliefs in free will to be socially beneficial and hence will tend to favor and promote those beliefs.)

I despair, I despair.


Thanks to Mangan (@Mangan150) where I first learned of this paper.


  1. Sander van der Wal

    *Many scientists*, so there’s no consensus yet.

  2. Ken

    One way to perceive the paper is with an Asperger’s-like literal interpretation of terms.

    Another is to read the concepts for what they are…and recognize that what they are is what’s long (decades) been termed “learned helplessness” (look that up) — where people believe that their actions will have no positive effect (they believe they cannot do what needs to be done or their contribution will be too meager to make any difference).

    In other words, the buzzwords have changed:

    “Learned Helplessness” now =’s “Disbelief in free will”

    Consider the so-called “findings”:

    If someone believes they are powerless to help (they perceive they have ‘no free will’), they’ll be less inclined to help–why bother if it won’t make a difference… No surprise there, few people will go out of their way when they know their effort will be impotent.

    And, feelings of powerlessness (‘no free will’) in situations where one sees need for changes but cannot do anything about it naturally leads to frustration…and frustration [as everybody knows or ought to know from experience] frustration [from any source] commonly leads to rude/hostile/aggressive behavior. No surprise there either.

    Reading the study in terms of what’s being addressed reveals a rehashing of very well known normal human behaviors the vast majority of us have, from experience, developed an instinctive understanding of. As such, it’s an example of creating a paper by dressing up old findings in new buzzwords to create the illusion the findings/insights themselves are new.

    People fall for this all the time–idiocy presented with serious formality will be perceived seriously & as credible. Humans put much more weight on what they see than the facts presented. As this skit parodies:


    The old saying is very true: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

  3. You don’t have to have a hyper-literal obsession to dismiss Free Will, Ken, and I find it hard to believe that all the people in that study even understood what Free Will really means.

    In the Biblical sense it’s completely nonsensical. God basically tells us we have the will to do whatever we want but if we don’t do what He wants than we are banished from Heaven or worse! For Free Will to have any meaning, you have to have something to will to choose in the first place! It’s like living in the poorest, barest country on the planet that happens to also be the most civil libertarian. The latter trait would be quite useless.

    The real point, though, is that nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything happens for a reason – even what we will.


  4. Ye Olde Statisician

    I find it hard to believe that all the people in that study even understood what Free Will really means.

    That is especially the case for those who deny that the will is free.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    There are even a few people (computer scientists) who think computers and computer programs don’t have free will, even though every layman knows they do!

    Computer programs contain conditional statements. They will do one thing if the input satisfies the condition, and another thing if it does not. Both possible outcomes are there explicitly in the program, there are two alternative outcomes possible. It’s clear that the program makes a choice, and it’s not always a choice influenced or directed by anything else. Not even the programmer necessarily knows what the program is going to do! (Ask any programmer…) Thus the choice is free, too.

    And everybody who has dealt with computers much knows they have a mind of their own. They don’t do what *you* want them to. They do as they choose, and you’ll have to jump through the appropriate hoops for them if you want them to choose differently.

    A few scientists will say they’re nothing more than electrons and electrons don’t have minds, but everybody can directly perceive on an intuitive level that they do. Even the scientists themselves routinely act and speak as if they do, although they’ll claim it’s just an illusion or metaphor. Of course, the same scientists say the same thing about neurons.

    Question is, if you asked a computer (running a ‘Bayesian Belief Network’ say,) to model the behavior of another computer from a partial view of its inputs and outputs, and by observing the behavior of its users and programmers, would it believe that other computer had ‘free will’? That is, can it make externally unpredictable choices that can come out both ways, not influenced or directed by other agencies? I think so.

  6. Sander van der Wal

    I haven’t read the entiere paper, but at page 2) there is this claim that Western Society thinks Free Will exists.

    1) Calvinists do not all believe this, there is a strong sense with a number of Calvinists that God has ordained everything, including whether you are going to Heaven, or not. If the theory is correct, Calvinists should be more prone to anti-social behaviour. This can be tested.

    2) secondly, why not test people with non-Western backgrounds?

  7. Gary

    By the evidence, you’re on solid ground criticizing the intellectuals and academics, but I think the college kiddies for the most part don’t really know what they believe.

    I also think we gloss over the term Free Will. All choices are constrained by circumstances of time and place. Does that make them partially free? Or is freedom a discrete quality as long as there is some element of choice involved, even a heavily (or heavenly in JMJ’s perspective. heh.) influenced choice. Briggs, can you define the term better?

  8. Ben

    All choices are constrained by circumstances of time and place. Does that make them partially free?

    If a choice can be partially free, then free will exists. The existence of a spectrum of redness from ‘barely pink’ to burgundy would be a terrible argument against the existence of red. I am free to be a taxi driver but not a dragon. The former requires that I compete for a medallion, but the latter is impossible (it’s only a lack of free will in the sense that will, free or otherwise, is impotent in this case). If I only have a choice to drive a taxi or starve, then I have a (limited, but free) choice. I simply can’t imagine a definition of ‘free’ which can’t allow for the existence of influencing factors (which emanate necessarily from man’s not being omnipotent). It seems to be the case that those arguing that influencing factors are disproof of free will have the burden of demonstrating that they are somehow evidential. It’s the major premise of the argument (if the argument exists), and I’ve never seen it presented.

  9. In the Biblical sense it’s completely nonsensical. God basically tells us we have the will to do whatever we want but if we don’t do what He wants than we are banished from Heaven or worse!

    Sorry, your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premises. Even if we accept each premise arguendo, the only conclusion we could draw is that being punished for doing what we will may be, not even is, unfair.

  10. Correction:

    In the Biblical sense it’s completely nonsensical. God basically tells us we have the will to do whatever we want but if we don’t do what He wants than we are banished from Heaven or worse!

    Sorry, your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premises. Even if we accept each premise arguendo, the only conclusion we could draw is that being punished for doing what we will may be, not even is, unfair.

    (Matt, any chance you can add formatting buttons or at least a preview?)

  11. Cute, YOS, but don’t kid yourself. You should never assume what someone knows.

    But here I don’t blame you much. Just from looking through the comments, you can see few people agree on what Free Will even is, or if or how it matters.

    The problem with Free Will is manifest in our Police State and Prison Industrial Complex, in how we reacted to 9/11, in the way we treat homosexuals or people of other faiths, in how we treat animals and the environment, and in all sorts of other bad, dumb things we do to each other and the world around us.

    It’s like the ol’ Stevie Wonder song, “If you believe in the things that you don’t understand then you suffer – superstition ain’t the way”

    Free Will, as understood by the Western educated, is a product of rationalizing religion. That’s all it is. A pointless concept otherwise.


  12. Sander van der Wal


    It is your Police state, not our’s (your’s and mine’s). Which means that you made the wrong choices. In a Democracy, it means that you voted for the wrong politicians. If you don’t like the result of the choices your free will made, it means that you are not smart enough to make better choices. It doesn’t mean that you cannot make a choice.

  13. I’m afraid it is perfectly possible to believe that we don’t have free will. It’s a proposition which can be held. It implies that there can’t be reasons for beliefs, only causes, but so what? It is possible to hold a belief without accepting all it’s true implications. It is, anyway, possible to believe that all one’s beliefs have come about as a result of causes rather than reasons. Come to that, it is possible for people who do not believe in what we would call belief to have mental states which we would call beliefs.

  14. Briggs


    It’s perfectly possibly to pretend to believe in the lack of free will, as you say, for the momentary excuses it buys you. But, no matter what, that (or any) act of belief is still a choice, and so negates itself. Just like a man on fire can say, “I believe I am not on fire”.

  15. Not just pretend.

    They don’t think that acts of belief are choices. That they don’t think beliefs are chosen doesn’t stop them having beliefs. Even if they were right that beliefs are not chosen, it wouldn’t follow that they aren’t any beliefs. Just no chosen ones.

  16. Joseph, in what way are conclusions related to secondary causes?

  17. Nullius in Verba

    The will can be free in the same way coin tosses are random.

    We toss a coin and cannot predict the outcome. We mentally model the event as ‘random’ – the coin can come out either way up, the decision is not made until it lands, and it is not related to anything outside it. You could say, the coin has free will.

    Other people say that the physics is deterministic, the spin of the coin is a simple consequence of the forces applied to it, the forces applied are set by the physiology of the coin tosser, and the outcome is decided before it is even tossed. Freedom is an illusion born of ignorance. ‘Random’ only means ‘we don’t know’. There’s no magic by which an actual choice between real alternatives is made, breaking the determinism of the universe’s physical laws.

    And yet, even people who think the latter will still use a coin toss as if it was random. They can’t help it – it’s the way brains are wired.

  18. clazy8

    Seems to me, the error is to presume that there is anything material or objective about “free will” when it is instead a purely moral concept. To say I have free will is only to say that I am responsible for my actions. To assert the existence of free will is only to say that others are likewise responsible for their actions. It has nothing to do with neurotransmitters or hormones or anything else subject to experiment. It describes a social relation.

  19. clazy8

    As for the biblical sense, I can’t say. I went to Catholic school for 8 years, but everything I now believe seems to have come second-hand via Milton. After reading Paradise Lost, I was convinced that poor Lucifer had been duped by the Father into doing His bidding: namely to introduce Adam and Eve to the knowledge of right and wrong , i.e., the burden of personal responsibility. Until that moment, Adam and Eve are children; afterwards, they are adults. Time to move out and get a job!

  20. clazy8

    One last item, at least for now. I’m reminded of that stupid Obamaism, “You didn’t build that!” But of course. How could you be responsible for building that if free will is an illusion? Personal responsibility is useless to a collectivist; he prefers obligation.

  21. Sander van der Wal

    The problem with the physics of tossing a coin is that you need to be very accurate, especially when you invoke determinism. First, the number of figures you need so that the computations are accurate enough are astonishingly high.

    And secondly, you need to model the rest of the universe too. How else are going to be able to proof that there was this high-energy cosmic ray that added that minute amount of impulse so that the coin turned up tails instead of heads? Or that there was enough matter left over after making the computation device to create a coin to toss?

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