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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
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Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: “Don’t stop believing!”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Young Adolph HitlerSuspend disbelief for a moment and imagine that you have agreed, as a secret agent in some confidential military operation, to travel back in time to the year 1894. To your astonishment, it’s a success! And now—after wiping away the magical time-travelling dust from your eyes—you find yourself on the fringes of some Bavarian village, hidden in a camouflaging thicket of wilderness against the edge of town, the distant, disembodied voices of nineteenth-century Germans mingling atmospherically with the unmistakable sounds of church bells.

Quickly, you survey your surroundings: you seem to be directly behind a set of old row houses; white linens have been hung out to dry; a little stream tinkles behind you; windows have been opened to let in the warm springtime air. How quaint. No one else appears to be about, although occasionally you glimpse a pedestrian passing between the narrow gaps separating the houses. And then you notice him. There’s a quiet, solemn-looking little boy nearby, playing quietly with some toys in the dirt. He looks to be about six years old—a mere kindergartner, in the modern era. It’s then that you’re reminded of your mission: this is the town of Passau in Southern Germany. And that’s no ordinary little boy. It’s none other than young Adolph Hitler (image above).

What would you do next?

This scenario is, rather unfortunately for us, in the realm of science fiction. But your answer to this hypothetical question—and others like it—is a matter for psychological scientists, because among other things it betrays your underlying assumptions about whether Hitler, and the decisions he made later in his life, were simply the product of his environment acting on his genes or whether he could have acted differently by exerting his “free will.” Most scientists in this area aren’t terribly concerned over whether or not free will does or doesn’t exist, but rather how people’s everyday reasoning about free will, particularly in the moral domain, influences their social behaviors and attitudes. (In fact, the Templeton Foundation has just launched a massive funding initiative designed to support scientific research on the subject of free will.)

One of the leading investigators in this area, Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, puts it this way in a recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science :

At the core of the question of free will is a debate about the psychological causes of action. That is, is the person an autonomous entity who genuinely chooses how to act from among multiple possible options? Or is the person essentially just one link in a causal chain, so that the person’s actions are merely the inevitable product of lawful causes stemming from prior events, and no one ever could have acted differently than he or she actually did? …

To discuss free will in terms of scientific psychology is therefore to invoke notions of self-regulation, controlled processes, behavioral plasticity, and conscious decision-making. 

So with this understanding of what psychologists study when they turn their attention to people’s beliefs in free will, let’s return to the Hitler example above. In your role of this time-travelling secret agent from the twenty-first century, you’ve been equipped with the following pieces of information. First, the time-travelling technology is still in its infancy, and researchers are doubtful that it will ever succeed again. Second, you have only ten minutes before being zapped back into the year 2010 (and two of those minutes have already elapsed since you arrived). Third, you’ve been informed that seven minutes is just enough time to throttle a six-year-old with your bare hands and to confirm, without a doubt, that the child is dead. This means that you have only one minute left to decide whether or not to assassinate the little boy.

But you have other options. Seven minutes is also enough time, you’ve been told by your advisors, to walk into the Hitler residence and hand-deliver to Alois and Klara, Adolph’s humorless father and kindly, retiring mother, a specially prepared package of historical documents related to the Holocaust, including clear photographs of their son as a moustachioed Führer and a detailed look at the Third Reich four decades later. Nobody knows precisely what effect this would have, but most modern scholars believe that this horrifying preview of WWII would meaningfully alter Adolph’s childhood. Perhaps Klara would finally leave her domineering, abusive husband; Alois, unhappy with the idea of his surname becoming synonymous with all that is evil, might change his ways and become a kinder parent; or they might both sit down together with the young Adolph and share with him disturbing death camp images and testimonies from Holocaust survivors that are so shocking and terrifying that even Adolph himself would come to disdain his much-hated adult persona. But can Adolph really change the course of his life? Does he have free will? Do any of us?

One of the most striking findings to emerge recently in the science of free will is that when people believe—or are led to believe—that free will is just an illusion, they tend to become more antisocial. We’ll get back to little Adolph shortly (which do you think is the antisocial decision here, to kill or not to kill the Hitler boy?). But before making your decision, have a look at what the science says. The first study to directly demonstrate the antisocial consequences of deterministic beliefs was done by University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs and her colleague Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist from the University of British Columbia. In this 2008 report [pdf] published in Psychological Science , Vohs and Schooler invited thirty undergraduate students into their lab to participate in what was ostensibly a study about mental arithmetic, in which they were asked to calculate the answers to 20 math problems (e.g., 1 + 8 + 18 – 12 +19 – 7 + 17 – 2 + 8 – 4 = ?) in their heads. But, as social psychology experiments often go, testing something as trivial as the students’ math skills was not the real purpose of the study.

Prior to taking the math test, half the group (15 participants) were asked to read the following passage from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis (Scribner):

‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons … although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.

In contrast, the other 15 participants read a different passage from the same book, but one in which Crick makes no mention of free will. And, rather amazingly, when given the opportunity this second group of people cheated significantly less on the math test than those who read Crick’s free-will-as-illusion passage above. (The study was cleverly rigged to measure cheating: participants were led to believe that there was a “glitch” in the computer program, and that if the answer appeared on the screen before they finished the problem, they should hit the space bar and finish the test honestly. The number of space bar clicks throughout the task therefore indicated how honest they were being.) These general effects were replicated in a second experiment using a different, money allocation task, in which participants randomly assigned to a determinism condition and who were asked to read statements such as, “A belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science,” essentially stole more money than those who’d been randomly assigned to read statements from a free-will condition (e.g., “Avoiding temptation requires that I exert my free will”) or a neutral condition with control statements (e.g., “Sugar cane and sugar beets are grown in 112 countries”).

Vohs and Schooler’s findings reveal a rather strange dilemma facing social scientists: if a deterministic understanding of human behavior encourages antisocial behavior, how can we scientists justify communicating our deterministic research findings? In fact, there’s a rather shocking line in this Psychological Science article, one that I nearly overlooked on my first pass. Vohs and Schooler write that:

If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.

Perhaps you missed it on your first reading too, but the authors are making an extraordinary suggestion. They seem to be claiming that the public “can’t handle the truth,” and that we should somehow be protecting them (lying to them?) about the true causes of human social behaviors. Perhaps they’re right. Consider the following example.

A middle-aged man hires a prostitute, knowingly exposing his wife to a sexually transmitted infection and exploiting a young drug addict for his own pleasure. Should the man be punished somehow for his transgression? Should we hold him accountable? Most people, I’d wager, wouldn’t hesitate to say “yes” to both questions.

But what if you thought about it in the following slightly different, scientific terms? The man’s decision to have sex with this woman was in accordance with his physiology at that time, which had arisen as a consequence of his unique developmental experiences, which occurred within a particular cultural environment in interaction with a particular genotype, which he inherited from his particular parents, who inherited genetic variants of similar traits from their own particular parents, ad infinitum. Even his ability to inhibit or “override” these forces, or to understand his own behavior, is the product itself of these forces! What’s more, this man’s brain acted without first consulting his self-consciousness; rather, his neurocognitive system enacted evolved behavioral algorithms that responded, either normally or in error, in ways that had favored genetic success in the ancestral past.

Given the combination of these deterministic factors, could the man have responded any other way to the stimuli that he was confronted with? Attributing personal responsibility to this sap becomes merely a social convention that reflects only a naive understanding of the causes of his behaviors. Like us judging him, this man’s self merely plays the role of spectator in his body’s sexual affairs. There is only the embodiment of a man who is helpless to act in any way that is contrary to his particular nature, which is a derivative of a more general nature. The self is only a deluded creature that thinks it is participating in a moral game when in fact it is just an emotionally invested audience member.

If this deterministic understanding of the man’s behaviors leads you to feel even a smidgeon more sympathy for him than you otherwise might have had, that reaction is precisely what Vohs and Schooler are warning us about. How can we fault this “pack of neurons”—let alone punish him—for acting as his nature dictates, even if our own nature would have steered us otherwise? What’s more, shouldn’t we be more sympathetic of our own moral shortcomings? After all, we can’t help who we are either. Right?

In fact, a study published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that simply by exposing people to deterministic statements such as, “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules” made them act more aggressively and selfishly compared to those who read statements endorsing the idea of free will, such as, “I demonstrate my free will every day when I make decisions” or those who simply read neutral statements, such as, “Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface.” Participants who’d been randomly assigned to the deterministic condition, for example, were less likely than those from the other two groups to give money to a homeless person, or to allow a classmate to use their cellular phone. In discussing the societal implications of these results, Baumeister and his coauthors echo Vohs and Schooler’s concerns about “insulating the public” against a detailed understanding of the causes of human social behaviors:

Some philosophical analyses may conclude that a fatalistic determinism is compatible with highly ethical behavior, but the present results suggest that many laypersons do not yet appreciate that possibility.

These laboratory findings demonstrating the antisocial consequences of viewing individual human beings as hapless pin balls trapped in a mechanical system—even when, in point of fact, that’s pretty much what we are—are enough to give me pause in my scientific proselytizing. Returning to innocent little Adolph, we could, of course, play with this particular example forever. It’s an unpalatable thought, but what if one of the children slaughtered at Auschwitz would have grown up to be even more despised than Hitler, as an adult ordering the deaths of ten million? Isn’t your ability to make a decision a question fundamentally about your own free will? And so on. But the point is not to play the “what if” Hitler game in some infinite regress, but rather to provoke your intuitions about free will without asking you directly whether you believe in it or not. As any good scientist knows, what people say they believe doesn’t always capture their private psychology. 

In this case, it’s not so much your decision to kill the child or to deliver the package to his parents that research psychologists would be interested in. Rather, it’s how you would justify your decision (e.g., “I’d kill him because [fill in the blank here]” or “I’d deliver the package because [fill in the blank]") that would illuminate your thinking about Hitler’s free will. On the face of it, strangling an innocent six-year-old seems rather antisocial, and so perhaps hearing a deterministic message before answering this question would lead you to kill him (e.g, “ Hitler is evil, he will grow up to murder people no matter what—he has no free will to do otherwise”) . For some people, however, the decision not to kill the innocent boy is the antisocial one, because it may well mean the unthinkable for over six million fellow human beings.

I, for one, wouldn’t hesitate to gleefully strangle that little prick in 1894 Passau. (The fact that I recently visited Auschwitz may have something to do with that.) I can’t help but feel that Hitler could have raised his hand at any time and quashed the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish people” before it ever began. This justification seems to reveal my hidden belief in free will: Adolph could have acted differently, but chose not to. That is to say, the chain of causal events preceding Hitler’s rise to power seems largely irrelevant to me, or at least inconsequential. His bad deeds would have occurred irrespective of the vicissitudes of his personal past. There is something essentially evil about this individual. And so I decide to kill the child: it’s probably best in this instance, I seem to be saying, to slay the beast while it’s still lying dormant in a little boy playing with plastic soldiers.

But you might opt for a less homicidal way to spend your time with little Adolph. For example, if you spare the life of this pasty, forlorn kid and decide to deliver the package to his parents because, you say, had the Hitlers known what was to become of their troubled son, they would have raised him otherwise, and this change in his early environment would almost certainly have prevented mass genocide, this entails that you subscribe more to the principle of causal determinism.

In any event, your minute is up! So what’s it going to be—and why ? With millions of future lives at stake, do you murder the innocent six-year-old boy as a pre-emptive homicide? Do you deliver the package to his parents, in the hopes that the shocking vision of the Holocaust will lead Adolph—one way or another—to choose a different career path, or even to flub his own rise to fame from all the pressure? Or, like those who lived in Nazi Germany and who were bombarded with (false) deterministic messages about the Jews, do you simply not intervene at all?

 

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.

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  1. 1. orocam 12:37 pm 04/14/2010

    Deterministic or free will, putting the anti socialites away protects society from them.

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  2. 2. Hermit 12:45 pm 04/14/2010

    I think part of the "determinism" controlling us are the positive and negative reinforcers, punishers and conditioned stimuli, both physical and social, that shape our behaviors and emotions in real time. The interplay of all these factors in the environment with our complex brains makes for such a high degree of uncertainty that it feels like self control. We don’t kill 9 year old kids because our moms would disapprove, among others. And they would disapprove because their mother, and others, did.

    It looks to me like the social control works because of a culmination of how we shape each other with elicited consequences. Talk nice in a bar and get a free beer, talk rude and you get punched. Your future confident friendliness or reticence to be be a loud-mouth will feel like your exercising free will.

    Hermit

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  3. 3. ljyoung 12:53 pm 04/14/2010

    This is yet another example of science by decree. We decide that because we are applying what we believe to be the scientific method to the study of something, then we ipso facto are now looking at the ‘science’ of that something. Twaddle. Crick was then driven by some ineffable force outside his ken or control, to rip off Rosalyn Franklin and hence is without culpability for his act. Twaddle again.
    This sort of ‘research’ is inferential schlock at best. While the exercise of free will may be Boolean, its study isn’t.

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  4. 4. heavy.airbourne 12:53 pm 04/14/2010

    This is easy: It’s not about ‘holding s.o. acountacle’, it’s about protection. Many mindsets pose a threat to the average citizen, and like protecting people from wildlife, people have to be protected from human predators. Sometimes, in some places, you either lock predators away (e.g. polar bears in Churchill), kill them (e.g. gators in Florida), or limit their access to human lifelihood (e.g. lions in Kenia). The same should apply to humans who cannot, by reasons of either geneset or socialization, respect the well being of their fellow citizens. Impact on their life should be kept to a minimum – alas, they should not be punished for s.th. they are not responsible for – but they must be kept away from innocent and peaceful people.

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  5. 5. ssm1959 1:08 pm 04/14/2010

    Again the age old fallacy. The answer to the free will or determinism question is YES, we are both. Without the deterministic part we could not walk and chew gum at the same time. We operate in this mode most of the time. When you test for it you see it. However, clearly we are not determinist in the way other animals are. When we need to bring up and consider our actions we can operate contrary to the determinist model. When you test for this you see it as well. The examples cited show this dichotomy. Both ask us to consider the determinist model for Hitler and the guy with the prostitute yet both ask us to consider our action towards each. Hitler is determined but we have a choice of action? How can that be in a purely determinist universe: it cant.This ability to consider our actions when needed has allowed humans to thrive in every biome on the planet: something no other higher organism has done

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  6. 6. PeterVermont 1:24 pm 04/14/2010

    Terrible as Hitler and the holocaust was I would do nothing since as Spin-oza points out we cannot predict the results. At least in the current timeline, we still exist in 2010.

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  7. 7. BioSam 3:30 pm 04/14/2010

    I believe all this analogy is pure nonses about time travel and change the future. Yes, mabye alter it a bit but not much. Despite all reliogion etc. the world’s finger print has changed little altough we believe not. If a new christ will arrise from the dust he will n=be treatet the same all over, only not crusified the way punisment was in that time. Same as we see War lords and drug strafficers being killed, the source, pleasure to the masses is still there and someone else takes over the process. Thsi would have beeb=n the same w ith Hitler, some one else would have taken his place. Hitler was not the onle one that had commited these crimes against humanity in the history of the world, and that we forget quickly. Who know who’s next?

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  8. 8. Chirality 11:19 pm 04/14/2010

    Unfortunately, I recognize myself as a victim of this "understanding." However, the condition(call it dysthymia, so to speak) is one in which I have recovered. For nearly two years, I believed that I was merely the sum of a past that I may or may not have empirically experienced. I felt as though my consciousness was depleting every day. My homework assignments, moral values, and even social interactions soon became ineffable. As a child, it was not my desire to someday be invisible, but if it was; mission accomplished.

    "Some philosophical analyses may conclude that a fatalistic determinism is compatible with highly ethical behavior"
    (-But I am a hero of myself, for I have discovered medicinal wisdom.) I am highly curious as to the elucidation of this statement. I currently hold in thought an idea or belief that engages determinism with ethics in an arbitrarily profound way, and I wish to share it with the individuals who have believed in this possibility.

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  9. 9. Scico 1:38 am 04/15/2010

    This article should be posted in Philosophy America not Scientific American. There’s no such thing as a time machine and we can’t change the past. The examples remind me of annoying philosophy questions like: "what would you do if you were stuck in the desert with a straw up your nose?" The experiment also doesn’t make much sense. Just because you read free will you will choose it? The former communist USSR failed because of a lack of free will. You could not choose where to travel, what to learn, what music to listen to. Many people were imprisoned or executed for expressing free will. North America prospered because we could express free will as long as it does not violate the rights of others. I like your articles Jesse but this ones a little too science fiction.

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  10. 10. geoguy 1:46 am 04/15/2010

    I had an experience that gave me real reason to doubt free will.

    I was watching a videotape with my family that I had recorded years earlier with my camera while driving around in a car with my family. It was of our view out the window as we drove around on a trip in france but it also managed to capture our conversation.

    The thing that was mind blowing and taught me that no thought was really by choice or free will was that as we all watched the same view we saw out the windshield so many years ago we all said the exact same things in reaction to what we saw and even had the same conversation.. which we then clearly heard on the tape becuase the same environment had triggered the exact same commnets and conversations from all of us years earlier.

    Multiple people saying the same multiple things when confronted with the same visuals from years ago.

    I simply don’t beleive most of our thoughts aren’t triggered by outside stimulus anymore.

    vivzizi

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  11. 11. phadrus 3:04 am 04/15/2010

    if free will exists or not how do you know if the same subjects would not have otherwise. you don’t and you can’t. if the same person read the other statement it may not have changed anything. PS on the Hitler thing you can’t kill him for whatever reasons you can’t kill your grandfather (you wouldn’t exist to do it), but that is another, however related, problem.

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  12. 12. Rabe 8:14 am 04/15/2010

    Tweet : Law is the law.

    Even if the lawmakers and the bandits have deterministic wills, I see no objection to define the law as the actions to take when someone does something.

    It is a linguistic problem as much as a psychological one.
    It is the word "choosing" that could become more abstract.

    Even if it is deterministic, the choice process exists. So the judgement is toward the deterministic process that is outlaw, a forbidden path.

    Deterministic does not necessarily means with external causes. You’re understanding is an internal cause and your 5 senses too. Your self is the present main cause of the deterministic will and the past main cause may be your own parents.

    As back in 1942, it would mean that judges had always condemn "disabled" people, they lacked good parameters in their past processes so they grew up an altered representation of reality. Having such an altered representation of reality is forbidden in our society.

    It is known that the experimental psychology representation of reality is feared too. Because criminals make experiments on their victims (but the data they are seeking is not of good scientific value, history tells)

    I guess that if a nazi scientist had only one minute to make a decisive experiment on a child (as in the article) he would promptly outspell poetry from is paradigmatic view to obtain a maximum deterministic efficience.

    But as war is over, time should be taken, and money allocated, to find what parameters deterministically make good lawmakers and poets (and psychologists ?) rather than cold logicians and physicists who think determinism is theirs. (it is a variant of the parent package of the article)

    So what are the more important parameters ? effort + good will (hunting) + intelligence + kindness ? Everything that makes us much more than an animal. I mean that above a certain level of deterministic processing the impression of free will emerges and overwhelms us. The article says that free will is an illusion but not a cause. But if it is not a illusion but a consequence of the parameters therefore it is a cause for something else. So if free will is a good cause to fight for then it is real.

    I think free will is as good as sex, even better because it lasts forever. The idea of freedom is an insulation from bad data that cannot be replaced by an underinformed scientific article. A scientific article is not the science itself, the experiment is not the article. Maybe if there is no free will then anyone not performing the experiment has only the illusion to share its conclusion.

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  13. 13. Rabe 8:14 am 04/15/2010

    Tweet : Law is the law.

    Even if the lawmakers and the bandits have deterministic wills, I see no objection to define the law as the actions to take when someone does something.

    It is a linguistic problem as much as a psychological one.
    It is the word "choosing" that could become more abstract.

    Even if it is deterministic, the choice process exists. So the judgement is toward the deterministic process that is outlaw, a forbidden path.

    Deterministic does not necessarily means with external causes. You’re understanding is an internal cause and your 5 senses too. Your self is the present main cause of the deterministic will and the past main cause may be your own parents.

    As back in 1942, it would mean that judges had always condemn "disabled" people, they lacked good parameters in their past processes so they grew up an altered representation of reality. Having such an altered representation of reality is forbidden in our society.

    It is known that the experimental psychology representation of reality is feared too. Because criminals make experiments on their victims (but the data they are seeking is not of good scientific value, history tells)

    I guess that if a nazi scientist had only one minute to make a decisive experiment on a child (as in the article) he would promptly outspell poetry from is paradigmatic view to obtain a maximum deterministic efficience.

    But as war is over, time should be taken, and money allocated, to find what parameters deterministically make good lawmakers and poets (and psychologists ?) rather than cold logicians and physicists who think determinism is theirs. (it is a variant of the parent package of the article)

    So what are the more important parameters ? effort + good will (hunting) + intelligence + kindness ? Everything that makes us much more than an animal. I mean that above a certain level of deterministic processing the impression of free will emerges and overwhelms us. The article says that free will is an illusion but not a cause. But if it is not a illusion but a consequence of the parameters therefore it is a cause for something else. So if free will is a good cause to fight for then it is real.

    I think free will is as good as sex, even better because it lasts forever. The idea of freedom is an insulation from bad data that cannot be replaced by an underinformed scientific article. A scientific article is not the science itself, the experiment is not the article. Maybe if there is no free will then anyone not performing the experiment has only the illusion to share its conclusion.

    Link to this
  14. 14. 42waystolive 8:52 am 04/15/2010

    Looking at the two test groups, it seems clear that since different outcomes were affected by external influence (messages about free will and personal responsibility) that we do indeed have free will. If we did not, the outcomes would have been inconsistent within both groups, matching instead each individual’s predisposition toward personal responsibility or innate behavior. The test proves human beings’ capacity for external influence.

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  15. 15. 42waystolive 8:53 am 04/15/2010

    Looking at the two test groups, it seems clear that since different outcomes were affected by external influence (messages about free will and personal responsibility) that we do indeed have free will. If we did not, the outcomes would have been inconsistent within both groups, matching instead each individual’s predisposition toward personal responsibility or innate behavior. The test proves human beings’ capacity for external influence.

    Link to this
  16. 16. ImproperUsername 10:51 am 04/15/2010

    I would go tell the little boy that he will grow up to become a great artist who will be misunderstood, and to ignore everyone who says that he isn’t, and to devote his life to painting despite criticism. LOL!

    There was a ‘Highlander’ episode that showed an encounter that MacLeod had with young art student Hitler. He dissed Hitler’s paintings, then later wondered what might have happened if he had been kinder.

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  17. 17. MarkBee 11:23 am 04/15/2010

    Do you people ever actually think about what it is you are saying? The scenario of going back in time to divert Hitler is an absolutely terrible one to use in a discussion of free will. If we assume that time travel is possible You can not go back in time to change history. Therefore the choice decision used in the article is predestined there is not choice/free will in this case, not because of any choice issues, but simply because the choice was already made.
    To clarify If you go back in time, your presence in history is an actual part of the already existing history. So when you depart the 21st century for the 19th, the decision you make was made has already been made – in the 19th century, when you were there. However, the you in the 19th century has as much free-will to decide one way or the other at that moment because you are a part of the 19th century, at that moment. But history tells us you didnt kill Hitler&
    The only way this could work is if one of the theories of parallel, dividing universes has any truth, which I doubt. But even in this case, your universe had an adult Hitler. This you could not change.
    An interesting twist to this, by not killing the young Hitler and instead giving the information package to his family, you might have sparked ideas into the young Hitlers head that he would never, without that, have had, thus you would have made history, but again, you cannot change history.
    In terms of the general conversation free-will is of course predetermined, but because you cannot, and will never, be able to determine all the genetic and stimulus variables for any single decision, it will never be predictable, and so will always appear to be free-will. For example, at a given decision point, a flash of light from the sun reflected of a car going past might flip a decision or fly buzzing by. Why because something happened to this person as a child that that stimulus pulled some fleeting memory to the fore for just an instant& You cant know.
    However, if you can make a career out of researching this and having nothing really useful to society at the end, I guess Im in the wrong profession.

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  18. 18. Rabe 2:39 pm 04/15/2010

    The horrible secret may be that the international net (kn)owns you (since 1995).

    Maybe serious psychological experiments use artificial intelligence software that really measures human psyche with only ridiculous mini tests.

    You cannot explain that to everybody. You can can only argue that it is a proven statistical algorithm.

    Your psyche analysis uses 2 Go of Data on the disc …
    If the experimenter knew your real identity he would predhict each of your decisions.

    Identity is protected to allow commercialization of the software after testing.

    So there is no free will ? there no reason for your psych to quit the sofa.

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  19. 19. Rabe 3:06 pm 04/15/2010

    "My brain made me do it" -> so jail my brain.

    The argument "I was someone else" is more dangerous for law and needs very very long preparations before being discussed for an experiment.

    Then Adolf and his svastika shocked the enlighted world, as an adult he was not the 1894 little boy anymore.

    That is why I like metaphysical ideas and I cannot design any rigorous psychological experiments.

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  20. 20. bucketofsquid 4:41 pm 04/15/2010

    There are 115 posts before mine and I ain’t gonna read very many of em. The premise of only 2 options with young Hitler is silly. I would kill Alois. His domineering and racism is a large part of what bent Adolph.

    If a second trip worked I would start eradicating the French and English political leadership. A third trip would target Russian and German leaders.

    Alternatively; just grab adolf and bring him forward. It wouldn’t stop the other monsters that made up the NAZI party but why not?

    Side note: Alois was born Shicklegruber and tried to change his name to Hiedler but it was spelled wrong.

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  21. 21. Rabe 4:53 pm 04/15/2010

    As a method brainstorming should be deterministic but it is not for me. Even in everyday experiment everybody (civilians) in the room express free will.

    If your inner psychology learns from the behavioural psychology of the group then you learn (or ape) free will.

    I think that the strenght of free will depends on continuous freedom on every close detailed actions you do along the years. It is a personal collection. If freedom does not exist then free will does not.

    When you consider a choice you concentrate your conciousness (awareness), your experience is not factual souvenirs but free tu reuse personal collection.

    This pleasant act of concentration is the free will. It is made of very refined external facts with the help of freedom. So rigorous psychological experiment are concentration police with consenting adults, ignorants ones and free software tooled ones.

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  22. 22. hcharles1930 7:19 pm 04/15/2010

    thinking is what gives us a sense that we have some control over our actions. As an example I, were I in this traveler’s position, would bing him back to the present and let science explore his development .

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  23. 23. hcharles1930 7:22 pm 04/15/2010

    thinking is what gives us a sense that we have some control over our actions. As an example I, were I in this traveler’s position, would bing him back to the present and let science explore his development .

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  24. 24. Srinivasan 2:45 am 04/16/2010

    My understanding of free will is of different nature. If we have a free will then it is immaterial whether there is a God. If there is no free will thenthere must be God who has wound the clock for me(us) and started it.

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  25. 25. yannislykos2 11:33 am 04/16/2010

    well, if 2010 finds us able to time-travel then maybe the situation our spy finds himself in has already happened and Adolf’s future turned out to be the way it was because of our spy’s efforts.
    The free-will question is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. In other words the answer to the question of whether we have free will or not is not provable. "Time" as we know it seems to travel only one way. Going back is impossible at the moment and therefore we can only make ONE "decision" under any circumstances – each moment we can only be at one place and think and do only one thing. All the discussion about our actions that comes afterwards is the philology about free will but it doesn’t mean a thing and it doesn’t alter the fact that the decision we made is still the one that we did make – predetermined or not.
    Free will or no free will I wouldn’t kill a boy for what he might do in a possible future of his life that has already become a past half a century ago in my life.
    As for the author’s choice to kill a child, I wonder if we were to give him the choice to go back and forth maybe he would kill other kids too in an attempt to create a human race without mass murderers, thieves etc? And if he where to do that wouldn’t he be reeeally close to Adolf’s vision and efforts of creating an Arian race?

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  26. 26. Befell 5:11 am 04/17/2010

    A belief in free will requires a suitable ignorance and/or lack of intelligence.

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  27. 27. twango 11:12 am 04/17/2010

    I’d

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  28. 28. twango 11:17 am 04/17/2010

    I’d have to disagree with Crick, just as science has disagreed with LaPlace’s assertion that the universe is a clockwork. The mechanistic reduction of the mind as ‘nothing more than neurons’ is no more sophisticated.

    It ignores the lesson from computers that the rules of deterministic hardware cannot be used to deduce the output of the (higher level) software being run on that hardware. Neither is the software deterministic unless there is no input from the outside world … and how useful would such a computer be?

    It is far too premature to make any conclusions about how the mind works, or the likelihood of free will. The question remains moot.

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  29. 29. lylebarr 2:06 pm 04/17/2010

    What a wonderful beginning to a new understanding of free will! I wonder what kind of insight this gives us to religions that teach young children that they are "sinners." I agree with papadopc that a new understanding of cause and effect is forthcoming. Perhaps we’ll see a new acceptance not only the teaching of evolution in our schools, but with the social science of karma as well…

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  30. 30. Dr. Strangelove 9:44 pm 04/18/2010

    The conclusion that free will probably doesn’t exist is contradictory to the outcome of the experiment described. If free will doesn’t exist, then 100% of the subjects exposed to determinism should have shown antisocial or unethical action. The fact that this is not the case proves that people do make choices on how to act, though their choices are influenced by their belief – determinism or free will. That is the common sense and trite conclusion of the experiment. Sadly sometimes scientists and journalists try to interpret it ‘creative’ ways to make it more interesting and controversial.

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  31. 31. CHANCE69 7:09 am 04/27/2010

    Keep in Mind that TIME might NOT be linear afterall !!!

    If time is in fact static all possible outcomes are happening in the forever NOW.

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  32. 32. verdai 7:47 pm 04/27/2010

    thinking is freewill.

    Please, not Another question about "conciousness".

    the only realty is the forward nature of time and of direction.

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  33. 33. Gabriel Zamora Moreno 3:20 am 05/1/2010

    the point is self-responsibility
    everyone is responsible for their thoughts and actions, though yes: the mind is based on pre-programmed impulses
    Therefore to stop yourself from being a robot – stop your mind

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  34. 34. mlrb2113 5:52 pm 05/4/2010

    Another meaningless boondogle, worse even than "time" or "man- made global warming" articles. If I can’t do what I want to do, why do I make so many mistakes? In any event, what difference does it make?
    Didn’t have time to read the whole thing, but does it take into account the uncertainity principle?

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  35. 35. traceySTI 7:23 am 05/6/2010

    The Social Trends Institute is hosting an experts meeting on this topic next week. See details at: http://www.socialtrendsinstitute.org/Activities/Bioethics/Is-Science-Compatible-with-Our-Desire-for-Freedom.axd

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  36. 36. noigilersiraw 8:19 pm 05/25/2010

    I would ask the young boy if he is circumcised. Hitler’ parents had a Jewish doctor. I can tell you that removal of that so called little flap of skin is extreme pain. Some of us remember that pain and the following shame, distrust and parental hatred – fear for our entire life. Bottom line is , if the little boy is sexually modified , tell him it’s not his fault , let him go. If the little boy is normal , there is no reason to change anything. Strict parents are no more detrimental than slack parents , but religious parents are another matter. No kid should be exposed to bible content until eighteen years old.

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  37. 37. noigilersiraw 8:06 pm 05/28/2010

    your site appears to be based on religious will.
    you dropped my comment on Hitler’s experience with a Jewish doctor , but it is quite alright for Jesus to be circumcised ? What gives ?

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  38. 38. PaulMurrayCbr 1:03 am 06/3/2010

    Every line of this betrays dualist assumptions. If you actually do think that "I" am a bundle of neurons, then it makes perfect sense to hold "me" accountable for what the bundle of neurons do. They are simply two different words for the same thing. "My hormones made me do it" is a nonsense: my hormones are me. It’s only when you think that my "me" is a separate, transcendent thing that you start to run into difficulties.

    As for Hitler: I could not possibly bring myself to strangle a six-year-old boy, no matter why. I would prefer to think than the author could not either, if he really was presented with the dilemma.

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  39. 39. PaulMurrayCbr 1:11 am 06/3/2010

    "A belief in free will requires a suitable ignorance and/or lack of intelligence."

    No, it requires an understanding of what free-will means. I happen to be a compatibilist. Yes, my actions, my decisions are a result of neuronal firing. Sure! These neurons are me. What I am is who I am – my actions come from my self interacting with the environment. There is no division, no helpless ghost in the machine being pinballed around the table.

    As for the effect of this on ethics: stop teaching kids that it’s your intentions that count, and teach them that how you act reveals what you are. It’s simple: if you bully, then you are a bully. If you lie, then you are a liar. And it’s the truth.

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  40. 40. eternella 5:26 pm 06/6/2010

    The only trouble with killing the young Hitler is that the other conditions that caused the rise of Nazism in Germany wouldn’t be changed by it. They might have taken over even without his charisma, and they might have been led by someone less insane. The Nazis led by a somewhat saner madman might not have attacked the Russians until he’d finished off the British, might have actually invaded England, might not have declared war on the US when we declared war on the Japanese. In other words, he might have not made the mistakes that cost Germany the war. So killing the young Hitler might just make things worse for us, not better.

    All of which is to say, we don’t know all the factors that went into making our world, and what’s "better" or "worse" is subject to debate. Go back to the 1300′s and stop the Black Death? Stop Genghis Khan or Tamerlane before they killed and conquered and spread their seed? Hey, my ancestors (andthose of other Europeans alive today) made it, why would I take the chance of changing that?

    Go back and remove Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Socrates before they made their mark? If you believe they were sent by the owner of the universe, they’d just be replaced. If they weren’t, what would our civilization look like without their influence? Do you really know enough to mess with that?

    Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Mendel? Would science simply fill in the blanks left by their removal? And so on.

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  41. 41. laffy 2:25 am 07/13/2010

    Isn’t the Hitler question moot if you don’t believe in free will? Because that means your ‘choice’ of what to do about him is not a real choice, either.

    And yes, even without free will we need to hold people accountable. If you believe free will doesn’t exist, sure it’s in that guy’s nature to commit whatever transgression he committed, but it’s also in somebody else’s nature to hold the guy accountable. Hey, without free will, what can you do? People are just gonna hold other people accountable because it’s in their nature. And the ‘accountability’ impulse actually protects people.

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  42. 42. laffy 3:02 am 07/13/2010

    The assumption that answering the Hitler question will always reflect free will views is flawed.
    It could just reflect someone’s views on time travel/causality/time lines.

    "First, the time-travelling technology is still in its infancy, and researchers are doubtful that it will ever succeed again." Then choose, with your once shot, to travel back to right before they send you and they can ask the time traveler version of you whether or not Hitler exists. If time traveler you asks ‘who is Hitler’ then you go back to the six y/o and do whatever you feel like knowing it ends correctly.

    But why send you to six y/o him. Why not some other age or before he was born?

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  43. 43. agenthucky 1:17 pm 08/11/2010

    you have free will if you believe you do

    Perhaps it is that simple…

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  44. 44. klkeegan 4:11 pm 09/13/2010

    Sorry I am late to this blog entry, but let me try to get this straight: if we tell people that there is no such thing as free will, they will change their behavior to become more anti-social…. Am I missing something that is obvious to everyone else? If there is no free will, how could these people change their behavior at all? Doesn’t this experiment belie the whole idea of determinism?

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  45. 45. klkeegan 4:12 pm 09/13/2010

    Sorry I am late to this blog entry, but let me try to get this straight: if we tell people that there is no such thing as free will, they will change their behavior to become more anti-social…. Am I missing something that is obvious to everyone else? If there is no free will, how could these people change their behavior at all? Doesn’t this experiment belie the whole idea of determinism?

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  46. 46. yjacket32 10:45 pm 09/13/2010

    I agree that if people change their behavior under any circumstances they are exerting "free will." They are choosing to do what THEY want to do, not what a chain of events from the past is making them do. I believe that everyone has free will whether they believe they do or not because without it, is there such thing as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control? All of these things require that you make some sort of choice, ON YOUR OWN, to do something that betters your surroundings. It also requires thought and a choice to hate, envy, lust, etc. Everyone has done one of these; therefore, they have exerted free will. My point in saying all this is to prove that a persons actions are always the product of a thought, a thought that is separate from the physical being, a thought that makes a person want to move, and move to make a difference. No matter how much you tell a person that they are a hapless pin ball trapped in a mechanical system," they will still have to think about it and eventually make a choice to believe it or not, ironically proving that free will does indeed exist, and that they are owners of it.

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  47. 47. kayleegoss 8:43 pm 09/22/2010

    At times, the actions we make seem predetermined, impulsive, and uncontrollable, but does that mean our free will does not exist? No, it does not. Even though many times the choices we make seem to be only influenced by inherited traits or environmental stimuli, an alternative action or solution always exists. When we believe free will is an illusion, we ultimately give up hope or blame genes and surroundings. Fortunately, because we can never understand exactly how another person thinks or feels, free will must exist. One cannot determine whether the choices another person makes in his or her daily life are real or illusive choices. In other words, the human brain is not simply a “pack of neurons.” When an overworked business associate decides to go to the park for a lunch break rather than eating in a cubicle, he decides based on which option will make him the happiest. He does not decide to eat outside because the “pack of neurons” predetermined his spontaneous event. We can and will always be able to justify our actions; this is why free will cannot leave science or escape the mentality of the way humans behave.

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  48. 48. cathead 3:50 am 10/21/2010

    Hey brilliant scientists, vape on something for a number of years and see if anything surprises you in the least bit–if you dare. There must be forces at work that we cannot possibly imagine, so go tend to that wheat crop and be merry….do it do it do it do it! Peh…back to my Tao of Physics book.

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  49. 49. The Rationalist 8:11 pm 02/9/2011

    Are you kidding me? The universe is non-deterministic. They lose their argument before they start, by dragging it into the deterministic Newtonian Universe.

    The Newtonian Universe can only exist by an act of free will that we call act of observation.

    If the argument against free will is to take place in a deterministic universe, it took an act of free will to drag it there, since a will restricted by reason and rational thought seeking victory would have left the argument in the non-deterministic realm. The will would have to be completely unfettered to make a choice like that.

    Determinism is proof of free will since it is an act of free will that brings it into reality.

    Clearly the author’s free will to argue against truth is unfettered by reason, logic, or empirical fact.

    Soon, he will argue that his existence is proof against a state of absolute truth.

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  50. 50. hessc 11:56 am 03/2/2011

    If free will does not exist and a criminal has no choice but to commit his crimes, then we as society also have no choice but to punish him. If, however, the criminal does have a choice in committing his crimes and chooses to do so anyway, then we should choose to punish him. Case closed!

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  51. 51. rvrazvan 1:48 pm 09/29/2011

    I would do none of the above. Humans have many more mistakes to do. Imagine another hitler. Later…Having Hydrogen bombs in his arsenal ;) . Life, as an entity, is not about the things that did go wrong, it is about the things that stood the test of time.

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  52. 52. XSapien 3:18 am 06/12/2012

    “Hitler is evil, he will grow up to murder people no matter what—he has no free will to do otherwise.”

    This doesn’t make any sense. Even in a completely deterministic universe, the fact that you changed the past by visiting it, means that Hitler may not do what he did whether free-will exists or not.

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  53. 53. rachel279 12:38 pm 11/2/2012

    I’d bring him back with me. It doesn’t matter what is innately in him if the people around him are prepared for it and never allow him the power necessary to commit the atrocities he committed. He could not have committed the atrocities he did without the complicity of many, many others.

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  54. 54. nathanaelp_123 6:43 am 02/19/2013

    The message here is about hope. Without hope people give up. I think determinism is true but it’s not absolute by any means, and to consider it as such gives everyone permission to stop trying. It’s a get out of guilt free card which destroys the very notion of conscience. Surely their own experiments testing the effects of the negative fatalistic messages against the positive messages act as an argument against the deterministic case. People should do what they can to give positively to the world to promote more positive determinism and less negative.

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  55. 55. Maloidi 1:10 pm 03/17/2013

    Are you aware of yourself? If you are, then you have free will (travel in time back and forth each time you are aware of yourself or doing something creative), plain and simple. See: Robert Rosen (biologist), strange loops in the book Godel, Escher, Bach (strange loops are actually causal/temporal loops happening in your brain each time you think about yourself), transactional interpretation, anything by Wolfgang Pauli (Probably smarter than the author of this article. Or not?)…

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  56. 56. JonDoolin 11:00 am 04/20/2013

    Just came to this link from a discussion on free will at http://www.spacetimeandtheuniverse.com/other/6129-argument-why-free-will-does-not-exist-8.html#post18704

    I think Bering is saying that he does not believe that free will exists, yet it might be better to “lie” to people and say that it does, so that they do good.

    I disagree with the premise that this is a lie. But even though I fall solidly on the “free-will-believer” side of the debate, I think it’s an important issue, and a very good article.

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  57. 57. norman619 11:45 am 08/1/2013

    These examples are flawed. All our choices are based on what we know at the time we make those choices. the only way any of us can change the actions of anyone in the past we would have to give them additional information they didn’t have before which would increase the likelihood of them making different choices. the whole time travel thing always makes me laugh. Would you kill Hitler int eh past if you could? the smart answer is a resounding “No.” Why? the present is based on the past. This is the only timeline we know. There is no guarantee killing Hitler as a child would result in a “better” future. For all we know, while Hitler was a monster, the Nazi’s managed to kill a person or people who would have become far worse monsters had they continued to live.

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