About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

In Defense of Wishful Thinking

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

Email   PrintPrint

man seeing distorted view of himself in mirrorIn my most recent post and others—and in chats with George Johnson and Robert Wright on—I rail against biological determinism and defend free will. Some critics accuse me of letting wishful thinking cloud my judgment when it comes to these issues. They say that objective reality is objective reality, regardless of our subjective attitudes toward it. "The man wants scientific results to conform to his notion of the way the world should be," the evolutionary biologist and free-will denier Jerry Coyne scolds me, "and that’s always been a terrible mind-set for understanding nature." Actually, science itself demonstrates that our hopes and fears about reality often shape it. A few examples:

*Physicians have known for centuries that patients’ expectations about a treatment can become self-fulfilling. This is the well-known placebo effect and its dark converse, the "nocebo" effect. Patients’ emotions cannot cure cancer or schizophrenia, but they nonetheless produce robust, measurable effects. In "The Placebo Effect," published in Scientific American in 1998, the psychiatrist Walter Brown cites a study in which asthmatic patients breathed more easily after inhaling what they were told was a medicinal mist, which was actually just saltwater. Their breathing became labored and their lungs measurably constricted if they were told that the mist contained allergens that might exacerbate their asthma. Many psychiatrists acknowledge that the placebo effect accounts for most of the benefits of antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs. In fact, Brown recommended that placebo pills be prescribed for treating some depressed patients, because placebos are often just as effective as pharmaceuticals such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), cost less and have fewer side effects.

*One of the reasons why racist theories of intelligence—which are the most repugnant manifestations of biological determinism—are so insidious is that they can become self-fulfilling when widely believed. As I mention in my previous post, 19th-century scientific claims that black Africans are inferior bolstered slavery, which of course prevented blacks from becoming educated and corroborated whites’ racism. Today, racist and sexist stereotypes work in a more insidious way. According to the "stereotype threat" theory of the social psychologist Claude Steele, negative self-image can affect cognitive performance. He has shown that women score higher on mathematics tests after being informed that both genders perform equally well on the test. Blacks perform better on tests that they believe are unrelated to academic achievement. White students perform worse on a test after being told that Asian-Americans aced it.

*I’ve been hard on scientists—notably the anthropologist Richard Wrangham—who claim that war stems from innate male urges. I have two concerns about this theory: first, it doesn’t have much empirical support; second, it may help perpetuate war. In the 1980s the psychologist David Adams sought to document the ill effects of biological theories of war. Adams and a colleague asked 126 students at Wesleyan University and other schools whether they thought "wars are inevitable because human beings are naturally aggressive." Thirty-three percent of the respondents replied "yes," and 40 percent agreed with the statement that "war is intrinsic to human nature." Adams found that students with these views were less likely to participate in antiwar and disarmament activities. In the same way, I suspect, politicians who believe that war is inevitable are more likely to support hawkish policies.

*A recent experiment shows that belief in free will has measurable consequences. The psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler asked subjects to read a passage by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix, that casts doubt on free will. Crick wrote in The Astonishing Hypothesis (Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1993) that "although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that." Subjects who read this passage were more likely to cheat on a test than control subjects who read a passage about brain science that did not mention free will. Mere exposure to the idea that we are not really responsible for our actions, it seems, can make us behave badly.

This finding supports a sensible defense of free will mounted by the philosopher Daniel Dennett in his 2003 book Freedom Evolves (Viking Adult, 2003). Dennett argues, first, that free will is "not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world." Free will, he contends, is an emergent property of the brain, like consciousness, that allows us to perceive, mull over and act on choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will. Dennett calls free will "an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs" that humanity acquired recently as a consequence of language and culture as well as consciousness. Our free will grows along with our knowledge, material well-being and political freedom. Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an "objective phenomenon" and dependent on our belief in and perception of it.

In other words, the more we value and believe in free will, freedom and choices, the more we actually have. This is both wishful thinking and an objective, empirical truth. Wishful thinking works!

Photo courtesy

Rights & Permissions

Comments 20 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Tucker M 6:52 pm 07/5/2011

    When non-philosophers talk about free will, they’re referring to the ability to think or do what one wants, without external constraint. But everyone knows our wills are free, in that sense (the ordinary one).

    Philosophers, on the other hand, seem to want something stranger: a freedom from internal constraint, as well. They want to think that, even if a hyper-intelligent outside observer were privy to my every internal want, wish, desire, brain-state and sensory input, my next thought or desire would be, to some greater or lesser degree, unpredictable.

    This strange philosophical desire has always baffled me. If my next thought or action is 100% predictable based on the current state of my mind and soul, these philosophers would declare that I therefore have no free will…even though I think and do whatever I like! And if my next thought or action is (say) 1% unpredictable, then I’m sorry, but that thought is 1% random, not “free.” It’s 1% divorced from anything that is predictably tied to my current internal state (which includes all that I am, body and soul). And yet with a little randomness, some philosophers would say that my will is finally free! It makes no sense at all; if my thoughts and actions are even partially random, I say that makes my will less free, not more.

    Better to say that my will is truly free only to the extent my thoughts and actions are meaningfully caused by me. But whether or not “I” was the one who did or thought such-and-such has nothing to do with whether or not those actions or thoughts were predictable (fully constrained by my prior state) or partly random (partly unconstrained by my prior state). So the philosophical question of whether my will is free is, in my opinion, a meaningless question.

    And remember: the personally beneficial consequences of believing in free will, or God, or quantum physics, have nothing to do with whether or not such things are objectively true.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ShakaUVM 8:34 pm 07/5/2011

    No, that’s not quite right. Though it is a common misconception – free will and randomness are not at all the same thing.

    In other words, if I am a believer in free will, then I’m worried that the prior state of the universe before my birth will completely govern the course of my life. Replacing this with a plink-o machine that completely governs the course of my life is NOT an acceptable alternative. It’s just determinism with a different mechanism.

    That said, I think that there’s a very good argument for free will. Essentially, because determinism is impossible. Determininism implies predictability, and if you can predict the future, then there is no particular reason why you need to follow it. I wrote a formal proof of this is based on Turing predictability, but that is it in a nutshell.

    If we define free will to simply be the opposite of determinism, then we have a very good argument for free will.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bee 2:01 am 07/6/2011

    It makes more sense to me to think that our idea of ‘free will’ is in fact our ability to predict (to some extend) what we will be doing. That we are not able to make this prediction with certainty leaves us with the illusion that we have some choice about it.

    Link to this
  4. 4. lamorpa 8:04 am 07/6/2011

    Look at the money people blow on Homeopathic ‘remedies’ (water). There’s wishful thinking for you.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Odiseo 2:32 pm 07/6/2011

    I think both ideas talk about two diferent factors of the same thing, they both are right and wrong. Deterministic paradigms are extreme viewpoints as well as free will paradigms. The way I see it and I have encountered this ideas in some writings I have read, is that environment shapes our lives physically and mentally to a great amount but we can also shape them by being conscious of it and exposing ourselves to the type of stimulus we want for the results we want in ourselves.

    So in the end we choose and decide based on the input we get from environment in both conscious and unconscious ways. However everything that we pick comes from the environment as I just said and then our choices are limited by it, giving us a great set of choices that keep on changing and evolving cause the environment also includes other beings actions.

    I do not think there is only this two paradigms of understanding the subject, however it is real that in both ways of viewing it there is a certain amount of reality, and therefore we must not buy the whole package nor should we put the ideas as a whole to the trash can. I think we should select that parts which describe the phenomena better from each views and match them together in a comprehensive way.

    We should try to keep on studying the subject with our minds open to new or different ideas and not to buy and static paradigm. It is important however that people understand this otherwise prejudice and misunderstandings can flourish potentially making people do harmful actions and attitudes to themselves or others and to stop doing things that are good for them.

    Take this very discussion as an example, are we free in deciding which of this two options are right? Who said there are only this two options? You will see that although there is a deterministic factor involved in the possible outcomes on this discussion, we still can have a greater variety than two options in it, so various factors are for sure involved; our decisions which are based in the prior input we have had (our beliefs), the options that are put for us to decide (they come from other beings), the environment…

    Link to this
  6. 6. dudleybrooks 4:29 pm 07/6/2011

    Nothing the author writes has anything to do with free will except the last three paragraphs.

    "Tucker M" nails it, including his observation that it doesn’t matter whether our actions are controlled deterministically or randomly (e.g. by quantum physics) — it’s not free will either way.

    I would rephrase and explain what the author and Dennett (and perhaps Tucker M too) say, namely that, since the physicalist causes are below the conscious level and since among those causes are our upbringing, our own previous actions, and things we have heard (including hearing that we have free will!) — and all those are things which we acknowledge to influence our actions even if we believe in free will — then to our conscious perception it’s indistinguishable from the common (but logically meaningless) concept of free will, so we might as well act as if we had free will.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Wilhelmus de Wilde 11:45 am 07/7/2011

    In quantum and string theory we have the example of "splitting" worlds, every decision you make creates a "new universe, for us it seems as if we are just going on in one line , this line is the causal line that gives us the idea that we are predestinated (every point on this line can be accounted for) we cannot go back, but in fact there are lots of universes where the "history is quite different, so our free will is happening every moment .

    Link to this
  8. 8. Tucker M 11:45 am 07/7/2011

    dudleybrooks, I think that’s right. And I would add that the philosophical question of free will has nothing to do with whether you think our minds are just neuron machines, or whether you believe there’s something more magical going on (a soul, etc.). Either way, the real question is much more simple: does the sum total of who you are at this instant (including everything you think, feel and experience) strictly determine what you’ll think/do next, or doesn’t it? If it does, most believers in philosophical "free will" will say your will isn’t free (hogwash). And to the (tiny?) extent it doesn’t strictly determine your next thought/action, your thoughts/actions are just exactly that little bit random (you had no control over the variation).

    You may say "No, not random! I did/thought that – it was me, I’m the one responsible for it!" Fine. But you’re just saying you were the one who caused that action/thought…and the same question comes right back to bite you in the rear: did you cause it exactly, or only approximately? If approximately, it was a little random; to the extent it varied from your intent, you weren’t the cause. But if exactly, aha! Whatever you’re made of (particles, a soul, chakras), the sum total of that YOU is what determines your next thought/action. Yes, "determines."

    To ShakaUVM, I would point out that your statement "if you can predict the future, then there is no particular reason why you need to follow it" is simply incorrect, as reasonable as it sounds at first. Here’s why: if you were brilliant and self-aware enough to predict exactly what you will do/think next, you could never "choose" to do something else instead. If you did, I would say you weren’t quite as brilliant as you thought you were; you should have known that you would capriciously do the opposite of what was expected, given the results of your analysis.

    The bottom line is that free will in the philosophical sense (what dudleybrooks calls the "common" sense) is fundamentally incoherent. That said, do I have free will? Of course, in the sense I can do and think whatever I like; we all know that. But that has nothing remotely to do with whether I’m part of a deterministic universe or not, or whether my mind is made of atoms or soul-stuff…or whether my future ticks inexorably forward like a clock or flows unpredictably like a river.

    Link to this
  9. 9. sleeprun 1:07 pm 07/7/2011

    No Virginia, we do not need magical beliefs to keep people from murdering each other! Duh.

    Virtual World Study Reveals the Origin of Good and Bad Behavior Patterns
    “We interpret these ndings as empirical evidence for self organization towards reciprocal, good conduct within a human society,” they say.

    Link to this
  10. 10. FOOZLER8 1:21 pm 07/7/2011

    We have no free will, but believing that we do is absolutely essential. Think what would happen to lawbreakers.

    If by free will we mean that our conscious ego rules, then we are way wrong. Our unconscious mind is in charge of most of our behavior, thinking and perceptions (stimuli go through some processing, which includes creating emotions, before conscious awareness).

    Our control over our unconscious minds is minimal. Think how much trouble we have dealing with our emotions. If we truly have free will we could shut these off immediately.

    william f wallace, ph. d. (psychology)

    Link to this
  11. 11. Tucker M 2:45 pm 07/7/2011


    Here’s a thought experiment for you: suppose we lived in a universe where most people have no free will at all, either of thought or of action. And suppose that, as a purely observational matter, these people tend to commit violent crimes if there are no corresponding punishments…but behave peacefully and lawfully if there are. Would we impose such punishments?

    Of course we would. (The real world is of course more complicated than that, but for arguments’ sake.) My point is that the question of free will is simply not relevant to the ethics of punishing criminals or scolding children. It’s a complete red herring, don’t be fooled.

    Link to this
  12. 12. aidin.foroughi 3:27 pm 07/7/2011

    I think there are hundreds of assumptions implicitly assumed when someone asks about free will. There are a number of assumptions made about language among other things that are often missed… One of the assumptions is that we are separate intelligent agents acting on and perceiving the environment, while in fact it may be more like a unit closed system.

    We often like to ‘explain’ things, since it has proven to keep this bag of stuff together for a little longer.
    In fact explaining and predicting are closely related to my illusion of being in control.
    Perhaps that’s why we like music. It’s rhythmic and predictable and it gives us confidence in our abilities to predict what gods want for us..

    I believe the above article wants to tell you not to tell people that "ðe dont hæv fri wl" because for whatever reason, the author believes it may bring about undesirable results for you…

    whether you accept to do it or not may be already predictable if someone had a separate copy of this world and could fast forward through it.

    I like how Tucker M pours scorn on the expectations of philosophers of free will .. I like to put it in my own words.. We know that often we do what we like, but what philosophers want is to choose the "like" part of it as well ..

    Odiseo says that we can choose what we like by choosing the type of input that affects our liking, which is of course a fallacious argument for obvious reasons..

    To sum up, I am, too, content with just being able to do what I "like" and I won’t whisper "ðe dont hæv fri wl" in peoples ears not to mess with their head, and I don’t care if this decision that I just made could be determined or not, I’m just happy I can practice it

    Link to this
  13. 13. fa 9:25 pm 07/7/2011

    In the practical sense, for me free will means that I have the power to do what my conscience tells me to do.

    In the usual philosophical sense of the phrase we will have discussions as above.

    Seems that I need to get back to work instead of reading SciAm articles. Why didn’t I? Argh… where is my free will?

    Link to this
  14. 14. SolusCado 1:51 pm 07/8/2011

    My objection to this article lies in the author’s propensity to attempt to defend the notion of free will through numerous examples of causal determinism. The various "effects" of belief quoted in this article are merely variables in biological determinism, not evidence of its demise.

    Link to this
  15. 15. SolusCado 1:59 pm 07/8/2011

    Oh, and since everyone else is engaging in the free will debate in the comments, I will add my two cents.

    One merely needs look towards physics to understand the "objective reality" that the future coexists with the past across multiple objects travelling at different speeds. In other words, due to the relativity of time itself, multiple points in our timelines must exist simultaneously. This produces the effect of a universe in which there is no physical movement through space and time, but rather a countless number of static "snapshots" of the universe, all of which exist simultaneously.

    This means that not only does "free will" – in a traditional sense – not exist, it isn’t even possible. Our choices are already made. It isn’t determinism, it is staticity. I think I would agree with Dennett though, in saying that "free will" is a manifestation of our very lack of knowledge of the future that already exists. In other words, as I have said for many years now, free will is the result of our lack of knowledge of the future. It is our capacity to believe we are making a decision, simply BECAUSE we cannot predict it.

    Link to this
  16. 16. mounthell 2:32 pm 07/11/2011

    @FOOZLER8: eliminating emotions is pithing the mind/brain and eliminating motivation, for example, which produces the veggie robot.

    Yes, obviously we have free will constrained within our physical, biological and social histories. Philosophers too often seem to fixate on the wrong questions (answers to which prove useless beyond inviting more trivial verbiage).

    Yes, organism function does occur on substrates fraught with chance fluctuations, but living systems function exclusively on properties that emerge from the activities of populations, not widgets or individual elements. Nowhere is there a circuit of widget-like entities in which one directs the next to do y action and then pass it along to a third and so on. Our collective confusion on these issues stems from a lack of simple insight into biological (speaking broadly here, or I’ll give it away) process which can be clearly viewed only across disciplines.

    Therein lies the irony of science’s estimable edifice: we can’t view the problems of ‘what is life?’ and ‘how does it work?’ from a few disciplines of roughly the same-scale because the necessary insight exceeds that scope. Nor will the system allow serious consideration of the requisite and adequate cross-disciplinary study because the ever-tribal science business won’t abide such reorganization.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Joselle 5:22 pm 07/11/2011

    I hadn’t commented on your previous blog but should have told you I very much enjoyed it. Deterministic arguments are inherently flawed. I have a particular interest in mathematics and have come to believe that mathematics can actually be a window onto how LITTLE we actually understand about ourselves! I referenced your defense of Gould on my blog at

    Link to this
  18. 18. karen00100 9:12 pm 07/12/2011

    I think that in order to discuss ‘free will’ we must first define it.

    If we mean, simply, that no one else chooses for us,or even that free will is synonymous with choice, than we have free will. But, that is a rather impotent definition.

    If, instead, we mean that free will means we can choose other than as we do choose, that would be a more potent definition, and I think it is the definition most people think they mean when they say we have free will.

    Unfortunately, once we arrive at that definition any argument that we do in fact posess free well becomes quite suspect.

    Basically, at that point we must ask if our choices (which believers that we do not have free will agree we make)are in fact free…or un-caused. Then we can either say our choices are caused or they are not.If they are caused, they are not free. Unfortunately for believers in free will, if they are not caused, they are random, and that is really not any kind of freedom at all.

    We are who we are, at any given moment in time, and who we are makes choices. Unfortunately for believers in free will, we did not, and can not, make ourselves who we are. We are who we are because or our genetics and our experiences. Everything that has gone on before and since our births have resulted in who we are. We can not change that, we have no control over that…and therefore we do not have free will if the definition is that we can choose other than as we do, because who we are makes the choice.

    Link to this
  19. 19. karen00100 9:28 pm 07/12/2011

    Oh, one more thing, just because believing in ‘free will’ might be part of the reason we choose a particular way of doing something, say, not stealing and murdering,and therefore believing in ‘free will’ might be a good thing, that does not mean said free will exists.

    Just as a child believing in Santa, and that if s/he is good, s/he will get more gifts from Santa, might encourage a child to be ‘good’ and therefore believing in Santa would be a good thing so far as having children be ‘good’, that still does not change the fact that Santa does not exist.

    Link to this
  20. 20. giantslor 2:33 pm 07/29/2011

    "Actually, science itself demonstrates that our hopes and fears about reality often shape it."

    Of course. But what shapes our hopes and fears about reality?

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article