The Benefits Of Free Will

by Patrick Appel

Jonah Lehrer highlights a few studies suggesting that not believing in free will adversely impacts ethics. The gist:

At the very least, free will is a useful illusion, leading us to be more prosocial and ethical. Because even if we are just "a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules," we're a vast assembly that feels like so much more. William James, as usual, said it best: "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."

Some related thoughts by Jonah here:

When we learn that the amygdala is an ancient part of human nature, pumping out fear and anger, does that make it harder to resist the amygdala? When we learn that sugar activates the same dopaminergic areas as sex and crack, does that make it harder to not eat the candy bar? The brain has preserved a small space for executive control, which is a weak synonym for free will. Is modern neuroscience, by describing the determinism of the fleshy machine, undermining that sense of control? My worry is that we've come to see our imperfections as inevitable, just like those testosterone fueled subjects acting greedy in the ultimatum game.