People attribute free will to mind, not soul

Broadly speaking, there are two conceptions of free will.  The first is libertarian free will, where one has metaphysical freedom from the laws of nature in making decisions.  Libertarianism is usually understood to require mind-body dualism, in other words, a non-material soul.

The second is compatibilist free will, which generally recognizes that thoughts arise from the brain working according to physical laws, but still philosophically sees the concept of free will as useful.

One of the ongoing aspects of the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is whether it is appropriate to use the term “free will”, specifically whether a pragmatic compatibilist conception of free will matches up with people’s intuitive understanding of the concept, particularly as it’s used in ethical judgment.

The results of scientific studies of those intuitive understandings have tended to vary, with people often showing an inconsistency in how they regard free will.  Now, a new study has looked at this closely, with a couple of moderately large sample sizes, and come up with results that appear to show that people are pragmatic in their conception of free will.

A new study tested whether people believe free will arises from a metaphysical basis or mental capacity. Even though most respondents said they believed humans to have souls, they judged free will and assigned blame for transgressions based on pragmatic considerations — such as whether the actor in question had the capacity to make an intentional and independent choice.

Across the board, even if they believed in the concept of a soul, people in a new study ascribed free will based on down-to-Earth criteria: Did the actor in question have the capacity to make an intentional and independent choice? The study suggests that while grand metaphysical views of the universe remain common, they have little to do with how people assess each other’s behavior.

“I find it relieving to know that whether you believe in a soul or not, or have a religion or not, or an assumption about how the universe works, that has very little bearing on how you act as a member of the social community,” said Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University and senior author of the new study. “In a sense, what unites us across all these assumptions is we see others as intentional beings who can make choices, and we blame them on the basis of that.”

To lead author Andrew Monroe, a former Brown doctoral student and postdoctoral researcher now at Florida State University, the findings also suggest that people have a perception of free will and culpability that is compatible with brain science in that it does not depend on a spiritual underpinning.

“Neuroscience is no threat at all to this concept of choice,” he said.

via People attribute free will to mind, not soul — ScienceDaily.

The study seemed to go out of its way to study whether people linked possession of a soul with having free will.

This experiment explicitly asked participants whether they believe in souls: 68 percent said they did, and participants were moderately religious, averaging 2.1 on a 0 to 4 scale.

Again, however, the characteristics that best predicted whether people judged the different agents to have free will or to be worthy of blame were the psychological ones of choice and intentionality. Soul’s statistical role in predicting assessment of free will was only 7 percent and its influence in the degree of blame was zero.

In the statistical models, a shared notion of metaphysical and psychological capacities contributed some predictive value, but further analysis determined that it came almost entirely from the robot, who had neither a soul nor the ability to choose and therefore bore no free will or blame by any criteria.

The findings suggest that the concept of a soul, while widely held, is not readily applied in day-to-day situations, Malle said.

It also suggests that people could come to regard non-humans as having free will if they come to believe that those actors — for example, a sufficiently sophisticated robot — have the capacity of independent, intentional choice.

Free will is a concept that many atheists reject, probably because it is often put forth as one of the theological theodicies, one of the defenses against the philosophical problem of evil.  For them, the term “free will” refers to a pernicious theological concept that must be countered.

The results of this study seem to show that most people are more pragmatic in their understanding of the concept, even to the extent that they would recognize it in a sophisticated enough robot.  However, something tells me that this won’t settle the debate, if for no other reason than the fact that this study took funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

I don’t believe in libertarian free will myself.  In truth, I’m not even sure it’s a coherent concept.  But I’m a compatibilist in the sense of having no problem with the phrase “free will” being used in an emergent sense or as a synonym for volition.  I use it in the same sense that I use the word “faith” as a synonym for confidence, or “spirit” as a synonym for a mind-set or outlook.

h/t amanimal

Update: amanimal found this blog entry that sheds additional light on the study’s motivation and methods.


27 thoughts on “People attribute free will to mind, not soul

      1. I’m fairly certain that last we talked, you were wrong. If that still holds true, then yes. (Boom)


          1. You might say so, but in my world view, you will be wrong until events and conditions conspire to not let it be so. In your wrong paradigm, you may choose to not be wrong anytime.

            Now who looks silly?


  1. Free will is a fundamentally unfalsifiable (hence unscientific) concept. Unless time travel is possible, and one observes how one will choose in the future, and then chooses something different now, it is impossible to say whether our will is free or that we are simply carrying out the dictates of a strong determinism. So until we attain a time machine, all we can do is engage in mental masturbation.


    1. Many neuroscientists would say that they’re data show that libertarian free will is untenable. Whether the phrase “free will” remains useful is a philosophical question.

      What’s wrong with mental masturbation? You never know when the practice might become important.


      1. And when that time comes, be sure to encase your head in a plastic bag to avoid having a brain baby.


    1. Unfortunately no, and as you may have found the study, as is not uncommon, is behind an prohibitively(and outrageously) expensive pay-wall, nor could I find a pre-print version anywhere.

      That is an interesting artifact/anomaly – maybe respondents felt they needed to counter for it being human but having no conscious control?

      … if your ? was for ‘SAP’ feel free to ignore 🙂


      1. amanimal, I think your response is far more authoritative than any I could provide.

        Speculating, I suspect an akratic human is considered to have a soul because it is actually a human, just one that can’t act on their desires. Of course, this raises the question of what defines a human, or a soul.


        1. I know why you would expect the akratic human to be considered as having a soul, but that doesn’t really explain why people tag a normal person as less likely to have a soul than an akratic. You would think they would come out dead at best.

          I mean, normal humans are supposed to be the poster child of things-that-most-definitely-have-souls.


          1. Ah, just understood what you meant. That is weird. Along the lines of amanimal’s comment, they may be compensating for the person’s predicament, although it seems weird that a person would consider a regular human not to have a soul, but consider an akratic one to have one, but that’s what a portion of the respondents had to do.

            More speculation. The order of the questions might be a factor. Often times these are issues people haven’t thought through, and their stances sometimes evolve while they’re filling out the survey. Even if they had the ability to go back and change their prior answers, they probably didn’t exert the energy.

            Pity the study is behind a paywall. The methodology section would probably shine a lot of light on these questions.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t understand the phrase ‘compatibilist free will’. ‘Compatibilism’ is normally the resolution of Freewill and Determinism and may be the rejection of both. Nor do I agree that there are only two position we can take, since Determinism, Compatibilism and Freewill make three. Don’t particularly want to argue though, just registering an objection. As it happens, in my worldview even God (as a concept for a thought-exoperiment) ) could not have freewill. But it’s a tedious topic.


    1. As far as I can tell, compatibilism is determinism plus a weak definition of free will maintained for the purpose of enabling moral responsibility.


      1. Depends on the compatibilist. I’m not a convinced determinist, but I’m also not a libertarian. For me, compatiblism is the understanding that what we perceive of as free will is an emergent phenomenon. The reason that “only” being an emergent phenomenon doesn’t count against it ontologically is that everything we perceive is an emergent phenomenon, with the only reality being elementary particles and their interactions (unless they themselves are emerge from strings, branes, or whatever–the universe may be structure all the way down).


        1. Yep. Agree with SAP here. It would depend on the type of compatibilism. It can be simply a ‘sublation’ of freewill and determinism, leaving them as two ways of looking at one phenomenon. This is a popular view.


        2. Yep, pretty much what I said. I did forget to add on, “… and to represent a sense of agency,” to the end of the definition. I, of course, still maintain that the concept of free will is not necessary to enact punishments for crimes or immorality, and is downright misleading to describe a sense of agency.

          I would point out that fee will would be an emergent psychological phenomenon as opposed to something like life being emergent from specific kinds of chemistry. While more fundamental emergent phenomena are generalizations of the underlying order, simplifying it to explain the more complicated emergent behavior, free will is so far removed that it actually makes to falsify the underlying order.

          Crap, we’re doing it again.

          Speaking of the only reality being elementary particles and their interactions, there’s a video on materialism I found the other day that I think you’d enjoy.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.