The Conundrum of Free Will

Dov Michaeli

First published 5/30/11 on The Doctor Weighs In

The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep - by Gustave Doré, Circa 1880

In every child’s life there is a story that is going to stay etched in his memory for the rest of his life. Mine was a biblical story that left me puzzled to this day.

There was a traveller of the tribe of Levi and his concubine who came to Gibea, a town southwest of Jerusalem, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. As they sat down to dine they were attacked by the townspeople and he offered his concubine to the mob in order to prevent being assaulted himself. The concubine was raped all night by the mob. The next morning the man carried his murdered concubine to their home town, cut her body into twelve pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel. The people, especially those of the tribe of Ephraim, upon hearing about the dastardly deed were outraged and proceeded to raze several Benjaminite towns, killing every man woman and child in them.

Outrage at Gibeah, the Levite carries his dead concubine away - by Gustave Doré, Circa 1890

I was shaken by this story. The image of the man carrying his woman’s body, all alone, silent, grieving, probably crying quietly, tugged at this little boy’s heartstrings. Why did the townspeople do it? I asked the teacher. They were bad people, but they believed they were carrying out God’s will, was the answer. And why did the people of Ephraim kill every man, woman and child? Because they believed they were meting out God’s punishment. Of course, a young child cannot quite put his finger on the philosophical inconsistencies of the answer. But six decades later I am still asking the same questions about Muslims raping, maiming and killing their own because it’s God’s will.

Don’t they have a will of their own? Why is it that religious fundamentalists seem to me to be more prone to violent behavior, and to a social worldview that is tinged with cruelty toward their fellow human beings? Doesn’t “the book” preach love and tolerance?

Brad Bushman, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is the lead author of a study, “When god sanctions killing: effect of scriptural violence on aggression,” published in the March issue of Psychological Science (vol. 18, pp. 204-207; 2007).  He had about 500 students read the tale about the tribe of Ephraim in order to study the role of “higher authority” in the propagation of religious violence. For half the students he added another passage:

When the man returned home, his tribe prayed to God and asked what they should do. God commanded the tribe to “take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the Lord”.

The students then took part in an exercise designed to measure aggression. About half of the study participants were from Brigham Young University , and almost all of them were religious Mormons. The other half were from the Free University in Amsterdam . Of the Dutch group, only 50% believed in God, and 27% in the Bible (astonishingly high percentages, for Europeans).

But for both groups, regardless whether they lived in the U.S. or the Netherlands , or whether they believed in God or not, the trends were the same: those who were told that God had sanctioned the violence against the Israelites were more likely to act aggressively in the subsequent exercise.

What does it mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean: one cannot conclude that religious people are more aggressive than non-religious people. But it does suggest is that people are more prone to aggression when they feel that it is sanctioned by some higher authority, be it God, or his clergy.

New studies suggest that there is a deeper aspect to the story. In the Feb. 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin researchers from the University of Kentucky and Florida State University described a fascinating series of experiments in a paper titled Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. As the authors stated, they started from the premise that “laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression”. An obvious consequence of this assumptions is that “disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable”. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. The authors conclude that “although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.”

The May 2011 issue of Psychological Science adds another contribution to the question of free will. In an article by scientists from the University of Padua in Italy, titled Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation: The brain minds whether we believe in free will or not.

First, let’s understand what is meant by” preconscious motor preparation”. About 30 years ago the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that when a subject is hooked up to EEG electrodes and electrical activity is recorded when he is about to perform some voluntary activity (say, press a Y or an N on his computer keyboard in response to a question flashed on the screen), a few milliseconds before the activity is initiated there will be electrical activity called “readiness potential”. Mind you, this is “preconscious”, because it happens before the subject is even aware of what his answer going to be. Which gives rise to the question whether this voluntary act was the product conscious action, or was it predetermined by the brain before it even entered consciousness. The feeling of being in control of one’s own actions is a strong subjective experience. However, discoveries in psychology and neuroscience challenge the validity of this experience and suggest that free will is just an illusion. This is an important question for the Church, which grapples with issues of sin and free will, or for the Justice system, which daily confronts issues of personal responsibility.

The Psychological Science paper didn’t deal with the question of whether free will exists of not. The question it asked was quite profound nontheless: does belief or disbelief in free will have any manifestation in brain activity? More specifically, does it affect the readiness potential?

Thirty subjects were presented with selected paragraphs from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Half the subjects read, among other paragraphs, one that stated that free will is an illusion. The other half did not read that paragraph. They were then asked to press a computer mouse when a cursor flashed across the screen. Result: the ones who read the passage questioning the existence of free will had a significantly reduced “readiness potential” as compared to the control group.

Whether the readiness potential is a manifestation of preconscious, predetermined instruction by the brain how we should act is a matter of debate. But predetermined or not, it is part of voluntary control. And the study shows that believing that there is no free will, that all is predetermined by the brain, has in turn an effect on the brain and how it functions.

What are the consequences of determinism?

The familiar consequences of fundamentalist belief that all is predetermined by a higher authority have been with us since biblical times, and they are here today. So when we ask “how can ostensibly religious people commit atrocities?” there are no simple answers, but here is an attempt at some explanations.

Neurobiology tells us that disbelieving in free will reduces the brain’s control of voluntary activity; in other words, it is a much more laissez-faire, anything goes, brain.

From an evolutionary point of view, we act on two levels: the individual aggressive animal, and the social empathetic one. The latter requires self-control, which requires the feeling of self-control, illusory or not. Remove the belief in the existence of self-control and you removed the linchpin of a civil society. Indoctrinate a person that God or your party leader (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot come to mind) predetermine all, that there is no such thing as free will, no point in thinking for yourself because such a thing doesn’t exist, it is all illusory, and you created monsters of historical proportions.

From a psychological point of view, we as social animals are programmed to behave altruistically, exert self-control in our interactions with other members of our society. So when the aggressor in us asserts itself despite our religious or humanistic instincts it creates an unbearable cognitive dissonance. We resolve it by denying belief in free will; God has willed us to do it, who am I to defy Him?

So regardless whether free will is illusory or not- it is important that webelieve it does exist. History taught us that the consequences of disbelievingin free will, of acceptance of determinism, are just too awful.

Dov Michaeli MD, PhD is a basic researcher who writes at The Doctor Weighs. In.

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