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1/15/09

Whether You Think Free Will or Determinism, Belief Shapes Behavior

Mind Shadows Whether You Think Free Will or Determinism, Belief Shapes Behavior

Popular wisdom has it that everybody will do right or wrong based on moral choice, and that moral choice is just―well, just a personal thing. One person can be as moral as another despite any difference in underlying beliefs about the world. Maybe, but Kathleen Vohs' and Jonathan Schooler's experiment gives us pause to think about the questions. What are the implications for society if people come to believe they have no free will? No moral responsibility?

They had some students read passages from Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis--a very deterministic view of the universe and the human place in it. We are creatures without God and without free will. The students read this: " ‘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.”

They had other students read inspirational books on how we make our own decisions and forge our own paths in life

They then let each group play a video game in which the groups were allowed to cheat. The students were told to do 20 arithmetic problems and to press the space bar when a question appeared, otherwise the answer would also pop up because of a computer glitch. The students were told that no one would know when the space bar was pushed. Still, the students were asked not to cheat.

So guess who cheated?

The group that read Crick's words.

What are the implications of this? We hold ourselves responsible when we think we choose our actions.
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An interesting commentary on the experiment can be found at Mindful Hack. A different approach is taken at Miller-McCune.

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