Friday, July 15, 2016

Are we capable of being moral if free will is just an illusion?

From guest blogger, Leona.

In Kant’s view of morality, there are two important conditions of humanity that came into play: autonomy and rationality. A way to attack this assumption mentioned by is The Argument against Autonomy that was included in Shafer-Landau’s book. Essentially, it aims to prove that our choices are out of our control. While the argument provide a philosophical prospective, psychologist are also looking into the matter of free will and decision making. There was a proposal made by Dan Wegner and Thalia Wheatley about two decades ago. If proved, it would render free will an illusion as well as the Kantian morality. The proposal suggested that our brain might justify our choices after it was made and gave us the illusion of intention. A paper came out early this year by Adam Bear and Paul Bloom from Yale might gave some solid evidence for this hypothesis. They conducted experiment showing 5 white circles on the screen and one of them will turn red in seconds. The subjects were instructed to guess one that would turn red. The final result showed that the chances the subjects chose the right circle was about 30%, which is much higher than the probability. It should be noted that this is a very simple decision making process and might not illustrate what happens in more complicated decision making. Moreover, even the 30% result is statistically significant, it also shows that choices could be illusions at times, but not always (in that case the subjects would “guess” the right circles all the time). Still, personally speaking, scientific discovery like this would make me leaning towards nihilism. 

Reference: Bear, A. (2016). What Neuroscience Says about Free Will. Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 15 July 2016, from

1 comment:

Michael Eppink said...

If free will does not exist, then an obvious argument can be made that morals no longer exist. If we truly have no more agency in our actions than say a plant does in growing, then morality is irrelevant to us. We can't possibly be held morally accountable for actions we have no control over.

There are two possibilities: one, we have free will, or two, we have only the illusion of free will. In either case, it shouldn't really affect how we think about morality. In case one, free will is real, and so morality exists as we would normally expect it to. In case two, whether or not morality still exists, humans are not bound to it any more than a plant is. However, the illusion of morality still exists to us, which has as much reason to be considered by us as real morality does in case one. (I know this requires more justification, but that is beyond the scope of this post)

If it somehow was proved that free will is only an illusion, I very seriously doubt humans would throw all sense of morality out the window. Just because free will is an illusion does not make it stop feeling like the real thing, and our approach to moral theory would reflect that.