Why mislead people?

Is it important to society that the public believes in free will even if learned scientists and philosophers do not. Apparently there are those that hold that view. James Miles (see citation) writes that this is irresponsible and a disservice.


Here is the abstract:

Over the last few years, a number of works have been published asserting both the putative prosocial benefits of belief in free will and the possible dangers of disclosing doubts about the existence of free will. Although concerns have been raised over the disservice of keeping such doubts from the public, this does not highlight the full danger that is presented by social psychology’s newly found interest in the ‘hard problem’ of human free will. Almost all of the work on free will published to date by social psychologists appears methodologically flawed, misrepresents the state of academic knowledge, and risks linking social psychology with the irrational.


My nit-picking would not change Miles’ case, just the way in is laid out – and so I will forebear and not discuss his definitions.


Here is the heart of his argument against giving lip service to free will:

Vohs and her co-authors have suggested that perhaps ‘denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes’, and that a scientifically backed repudiation of free will ‘may encourage debauched behavior’ as people disabused of the illusion ‘seem to, at least temporarily, abandon their moral code’. Baumeister has claimed that belief in free will ‘supports honest, responsible, moral, helpful, non-aggressive, and otherwise prosocial behavior’. Moral code? Honest, moral, and prosocial?


The myth of free will has been linked to deceit for four hundred years now; the illusionist camp of Wegner is tied to, well, illusion; the compatibilist camp has been accused above of ‘wretched subterfuge’ and of being ‘a quagmire of evasion’; and the libertarian camp of Vohs and Baumeister is at least guilty of not examining too closely. We have seen evidence that the myth of free will is inextricably linked to contempt for the poor and the unlucky, that it undermines both legal and natural justice, and may even make a mockery of the conceit of Christian compassion for the poor and marginalized. According to Anders Kaye, the myth of free will even allows racial prejudice to find a home within the Western law. Honest, moral, and prosocial?


Of course, even if we were to begin to acknowledge the moral and intellectual downsides to the free will myth, this would not suggest that Vohs and Baumeister were right to claim that belief in free will may also have prosocial upsides. We have seen that Vohs and Baumeister appear as yet to have shown no such thing, because all they have been studying appears to have been the effect of an acceptance of fatalism, not disbelief in free will. Contrary to the claims made in social psychology journals, we appear to have seen no evidence to date that disabusing people of the myth of free choice encourages anti-social behaviour, yet significant evidence that the myth of free choice encourages immoral, unjust, prejudiced, and anti-intellectual behaviour. If nothing else, this paper should stand as an important corrective within the psychological literature on free will. …


Wegner echoes this turning-of-a-blind-eye sentiment when he says that ‘sometimes how things seem is more important than what they are’, but how things seem is never more important than what they are for those, such as the poor and racial minorities, who are being discriminated against on this issue. It is time social psychologists stopped advocating illogic and the suppression of knowledge.



Miles, J. (2011). ‘Irresponsible and a Disservice’: The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02077.x

2 thoughts on “Why mislead people?

  1. Our options- limited to those the future will allow- makes it appear that what happens next limits what happens now.

  2. I think I start to believe that the Santa is a big Nigerian scam. I’ll really have to stay awake and check out whether he really lands on the roof. By the way, it’s nice that the Earth was put at the center of the Universe.

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