Over the past week I have not been able to shake this one nagging thought: that James Holmes’ study of neuroscience had something to do with his horrific crime in Aurora, Colorado. Before you think that I am somehow blaming the field of neuroscience for this tragedy, please note that this is not my intent. But I do keep wondering whether James Holmes – clearly a troubled and unstable individual – developed his plan as some kind of sick demonstration to prove one of the most provocative insights from modern neuroscience: that free will is an illusion.
From the (still very few) books that I’ve read on the subject (such as Sam Harris’ Free Will and The Moral Landscape, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion, and Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis) one major theme is that free will as it is commonly understood does not exist. As Harris puts it in his most recent work:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.
The science behind this claim is powerful. From a range of studies over the past few decades, it seems clear that our conscious self is usually the last one to know about choices we have already made. As Jonathan Haidt describes it in The Happiness Hypothesis – we can view ourselves as riders of elephants. As Haidt puts it:
The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
So what does all of this have to do with James Holmes barging into the premier of Dark Knight and gunning down innocent people, and then claiming not to remember anything? I just keep wondering if Holmes, having been inundated with such discussions about free will and the inevitability of most of our actions, decided to take such concepts to their most terrifying conclusion. Perhaps in his sick mind he even hoped that his well-crafted demonstration could serve as the basis for a compelling doctoral dissertation that would somehow save his failing academic career?
Most likely my suspicions about Holmes are totally off-base, but they do raise a more fundamental question: how does belief (or lack of belief) in free will impact behavior? I’ve spent the past few days researching this question, and discovered that:
- There’s a lot of new research on this topic, and
- All of the research I’ve been able to find shows that when belief in free will is reduced, it tends to have a negative impact on behavior.
For example, in a much-cited study by Kathleen Vohs and and Jonathan Schooler, when undergraduate students read passages that argued that free will is an illusion, they were much more likely to cheat in a subsequent task than those who read different types of passages. A study by Roy Baumeister, E.J. Masicampo and C. Nathan DeWall showed that when belief in free will was reduced, individuals were less inclined to help others and more likely to act aggressively. Another study by Baumeister (Stillman, Baumeister, Vohs et al) showed that believing in free will was positively correlated with both positive attitudes about ‘future career success’ and actual job performance. And in this study, neuroscientists detected that ‘inducing disbelief in free will’ negatively impacted brain functions related to motivation ). FYI – this page contains a nice summary of these studies and others.
For me, the most disturbing aspect of these studies is that they show the potential dangers of undermining belief in free will while simultaneously highlighting its illusory nature. In all of these studies, simply reading a few passages about determinism (how all phenomena are determined by previous causes) led the study participants to change their core moral attitudes and behaviors. The individuals portrayed in these studies appear utterly malleable – no better than a basic computer program where the output depends completely on the selected input. This article – which explores how our beliefs in moral agency appear to be hard-wired (and sometimes even irrational) – made me even further despair. Is it true that a concept that lies at the core of any kind of moral life is no better than any other kind of gut instinct?
But the study of the relationship between belief in free will and actual behavior seems be a relatively new field – one where there’s room for a lot more research before any hard conclusions are drawn. In the meantime, as we struggle with the implications of these findings, it seems like faith ought to help. Perhaps free will is one of those things in life for which there is no scientific evidence, but which we simply have to believe in order to make life worth living. After all – isn’t free will at the root of religious belief and practice? I mean, why would God have bothered giving us the ten commandments if we had no control over our ability to obey them?
Unfortunately, I am also disturbed by how the faith community itself sometimes struggles with the concept of free will – for completely different reasons. In reading responses to the Aurora tragedy, I saw discussions like this one . To summarize the arguments here, it goes something like this:
Question: Why would a ‘good’ God let something evil like Aurora happen?
Response: Aurora was caused by one sinful human exerting his free will and making a terrible, tragic choice. The Aurora massacre was not caused by God.
Question: But if God is omnipotent, He could have prevented this human from making this terrible choice, right? (And while He was at it, he could stop the slaughter in Syria, in various locales in Africa, etc). If not, then human free will is a limit on God, and God is not omnipotent.
Response: No, God is omnipotent, and God is good, but God chose not to stop James Holmes (or all that other bad stuff) and we just don’t know why because God is a mystery.
I personally find this last response (which, by the way, is the punchline of the book of Job) to be deeply unsatisfying (please also reference my last post where I talk about when bad things happen in nature and how those bad things usually are part of a natural cycle of life, as opposed to human-generated evil that is just destructive). Anyway, it seems to me that many people of faith feel some level of discomfort with fully embracing the idea of free will and prefer to think that somehow God is orchestrating all our actions (or, as my friend’s child recently put it “Mommy, God is making us all walk around on earth. We’re his puppets and he’s pulling our strings from up in heaven”)
Up until this point I had been thinking that the best way to find truth is to look for those places where faith and science can agree. But when it comes to free will, I am terrified that this approach may point to a rejection of free will. If it comes to that, I think I may have to switch allegiances. Perhaps rather than having faith in God, I will have faith in Free Will instead. I am too scared to live in a world without it.