I Am A Bird Nowphoto: Toni Blay/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

The nature of “free will” is central for those who study ethics, the law, and religion. And science is getting in on the discussion.

Researchers cannot determine whether humans can make truly voluntary choices or if we’re justifying unconscious impulses. But their findings around the edges of it are illuminating.

For example, Miller-McCune reports that antisocial behavior is linked with the belief that free will is an illusion.

Researchers asked participants to read three types of essays: one that argues that free will is real, one that argues that it is an illusion, and a third one on a neutral topic. The experimenters are trying to instill a “disbelief” in free will.

The participants in this group reported that they were less likely to help a woman raise money for college (a fabricated scenario). They reasoned that it takes energy to help someone else, and, if a person doesn’t believe in free will then he or she is more beholden to one’s urges and will want to preserve energy. According to the authors of the study, “disbelief in free will serves as a cue to act on impulse, a style of response that promotes selfish and impulsive actions.”

And on the flip side, a more recent study found that people who are extraverted “are more likely to believe that free will remains a viable concept.”

Now, note that this study had a small (121) pool of subjects, and they were all scientifically-minded psychologists or philosophers. The researchers created a scenario about a man named John who kills a shop owner “because he needs money.” They were asked how strongly they agreed with three statements:

  1. John is morally responsible for his action;
  2. John did it because of his own free will;
  3. John’s decision was up to him.

A high level of agreement with these statements correlated with how extraverted the subjects reported themselves to be.

Journalist Tom Jacobs raises interesting legal implications from this work:

“If these results hold up, they could pose a challenge for the legal system, with its need for impartiality. A jury that is largely composed of extraverts ‘may be more willing to hold a person morally responsible for an action, even if the person could not have done anything to prevent the action from coming about,’ they write. ‘Extraverts may be less likely to evaluate excusing conditions for bad actions,’ even when doing so might be appropriate.”

Now where exactly does personality come from?

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The field of Neuroscience is approaching these questions from a much more rigid scientific direction. I might recommend that you look into the work of David Eagleman as a starting point. Many neuroscientific experiments are informing this issue.

I was glad to see that the first comment that came up on my screen mentioned Eagleman. I'm  currently reading his book "Incognito". Early in this book, the author describes Galileo's experiences, the  discoveries and persecution of this brilliant man. The discoveries of many other brilliant minds follow in subsequent chapters. Amazing stuff, and if it doesn't cause the reader to question many things, the reader may be a troglodyte.  

"It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself--as though that were so necessary-- that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object--that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated--chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key! It may be at the cost of his skin, it may be by cannibalism! And this being so, can one help being tempted to rejoice that it has not yet come off, and that desire still depends on something we don't know?" --Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground.

I would love to hear Krista do an interview with David Eagleman!

Experiments over the past vigesimal [Eagleman et alia] demo ALL decisions are made by consensus of brain modules from 0.03 - 0.07 seconds before one even 'knows' he has a 'choice' to make...awareness of 'self' is also an illusion [read the journals, put the issue to rest, & focus on the existential consequences].

Then consider the ontological conundrum--if there never was Nothing, then Something [multiverse] has been here forever...no creation, no Creator, exit Deus ad sinistra...QED 

Is John guilty? Indubitably yes & absolutely not...get used to it...potassium cyanide can be ordered on-line, but what keeps us 9th-decaders from taking it? Curiosity re desuetude & devolution of H. non-sapiens v-a-v the fate of other 'intelligent' species in the galaxy...are madness & suicide ineluctable?

Nonsense.  Don't get all knotted up over this. It's a superstate, a duality. Like in quantum computing when the qubit is a 0 and a 1 simultaneously.... You have BOTH free will to do whatever you like AND everything is fixed and you can't change a thing. You are responsible for being yourself and for playing your role, both simultaneously.