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Free Will: What Are the Real Reasons to Believe in It?

Some say that free will might be a useful delusion but neuroscience provides sound reasons to believe that it is real.

University of Missouri psychology professor Kennon Sheldon’s message is neatly summed up in an opening statement: “Regardless of whether humans do or don’t have free will, psychological research shows it’s beneficial to act as if you do”.

The author of Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live (Basic Books, 2022) responds to philosophers who say that we do not have free will:

All my life, I’ve struggled with the question of whether humans have ‘free will’. It catalysed my decision to become a psychologist and continues to inspire my research to this day, especially as it relates to the kinds of goals people set for themselves, and the effects of goal-striving on people’s happiness and wellbeing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that people really do have free will, at least when it is defined as the ability to make reasoned choices among action possibilities that we ourselves think up…

Regardless of who is correct in this debate, my work has led me to a second conclusion that I consider even more important than whether we have free will or not. It’s that a belief in our own capacity to make choices is critical for our mental health. At the very least, this belief lets us function ‘as if’ we have free will, which greatly benefits us. – Kennon Sheldon, “The three reasons why it’s good for you to believe in free will,” Psyche, June 15, 2023

Now, the obvious problem with his approach is that if we believe in free will simply because that belief is supposed to be good for our mental health, then we really don’t believe in it.

A simple example suffices: We sometimes hear that being optimistic is also better for mental health. In one sense, that’s true. If we focus on the positive things, our lives feel more pleasant and that is bound to be better for mental health. But what if we have no good reason for optimism? What if we live under an active volcano that shows signs of erupting? Optimism (“it probably won’t really happen this year”) could delay evacuation past the point of no return.

So let’s look back at free will in this light: If we believe that we have it — and that belief is true — we are empowered to deal with temptations and addictions, firm in the knowledge that we really can cast the deciding vote for our best possible outcome. But if free will is not true, we are setting ourselves up for delusion if we succeed and needless disappointment and misery if we fail. Not only that but we are participating in an unfair system where people are judged and punished for unwise or bad behavior that they cannot really help. So functioning “as if” we have free will turns out not to be very good at all.

Sheldon goes on to say,

The second reason why I consider belief in free will to be beneficial is that it makes you a better person. Studies in social psychology show clearly that, if people become convinced that they have no free will, there can be negative effects on their ethical behaviour. – Sheldon, Psyche, 2023

Perhaps that’s true but it amounts to saying that perhaps we should be deluded for our own good. Even though delusions are said to be bad for us… Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?

Sheldon offers a reason why some thinkers deny free will:

You might wonder why anyone would choose to believe in determinism, given the clear negative effects of this belief? There are several possible reasons. Some people might think that determinism is the most scientific and intellectually sophisticated position to take, and they like feeling smarter than others. – Sheldon, Psyche, 2023

Well, if science matters, the good news is that neuroscience provides sound reasons to believe in free will. As Stonybrook neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has pointed out here, the work of neuroscience pioneer Benjamin Libet established that we certainly have “free won’t” — the ability to choose not to do something:

… what he found was, when you made a decision to push the button [in a psychological experiment], you still had the brain wave that preceded the decision by half a second. But when you decided to veto pushing the button, there was no new brain wave at all. It was silent in terms of brain waves. But you did make the decision to veto. So he said that it wasn’t so much that you have free will but you have free won’t. That is, you have the ability to decide whether or not you are going to comply with what your brain is urging you to do. And that compliance is not material. It’s not a brain wave. It’s immaterial. – Michael Egnor, “How a neuroscientist imaged free will (and “free won’t”),” Mind Matters News, March 19, 2020

Physicist Marcelo Gleiser also notes that science does not really support the view that free will is an illusion: “[T]he mind is not a solar system with strict deterministic laws. We have no clue what kinds of laws it follows, apart from very simplistic empirical laws about nerve impulses and their propagation, which already reveal complex nonlinear dynamics.” In any event, quantum mechanics shows that nature is indeterminate at the fundamental level and that the observer’s decision of what to measure plays a role in what happens. One outcome is that a number of younger thinkers accept free will as consistent with the evidence.

In other words, we can accept free will based on the evidence. There is no particular need to think that it might be a possibly pleasant delusion.

You may also wish to read: How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Free Will: What Are the Real Reasons to Believe in It?