Sep 262016

study-problemsIn this post, I want to tell a little story about how a study can be negligent, and due to that negligence assert conclusions that should not be made. That study is titled “It’s OK if ‘my brain made me do it’: People’s intuitions about free will and neuroscientific prediction” by Eddy Nahmias, Jason Shepard, and Shane Reuter (2013).

This is not to say the study has no merit at all, or that some conclusion made did not have merit, only that there is a particular conclusion made that is based on a huge negligence.

In this study, the participants were given various scenarios in which 100% neuro-prediction or 100% prediction of what a person would do are granted. They were then questioned on things such as if the person had free will, or responsibility. The results were this:

Across three experiments we found that perfect prediction was not sufficient to undermine people’s attributions of free will or responsibility. These results held whether the scenarios described perfect prediction based on neural activity in the brain (Experiments 1 and 2) or on the basis of mental activity in the mind or soul (Experiment 3). In all three experiments, mediation analyses indicated that the differences in free will and responsibility attributions between scenarios were mediated by bypassing judgments, suggesting that on the ordinary understanding of free will, agents act freely only if their mental states have an effect on their actions.

This is all fine and dandy, and it for sure is the case that people will assign free will and responsibility regardless of 100% prediction (even if they should not). What this tells us is that common laypersons do not make a proper inference from prediction to “no free will”. This, however, does not mean that the free will belief they hold to is actually compatible with the 100% prediction scenario. But that is exactly the faulty conclusion that is made in the study. They bring up the criticism here:

The most significant response to our experiments is that many participants may be failing to understand or internalize relevant information from the scenarios. Perhaps people are so emotionally attached to having free will that they have a ‘‘free will no matter what’’ view and will refuse to say that some seemingly coherent scenario would take it away. Perhaps participants did not attend to the fact that every decision could be predicted with 100% accuracy.

Perhaps participants did not attend to the fact that every decision could be predicted before the agent was even aware of making their decision. If people failed to understand those features of the scenarios, then they may have failed to grasp the potential threat that neuro-prediction is supposed to pose to free will (e.g., that the technology rules out the existence or the causal role of a non-physical mind). In response, we first point out that our physicalist scenarios were based on a scenario offered by a prominent willusionist as just the sort of case that would lead people to clearly and appropriately envision what it would mean if people were fully governed by the laws of nature (Harris, 2012; also see Greene & Cohen, 2004).

And then address it here:

To make sure our participants fully understood the ramifications of the scenario, we stated three times that the neuroscientists could predict decisions with 100% accuracy, we stated three times that these predictions occur before people are aware of making their decisions, and we included a closing statement that highlighted that the experiments confirmed physicalism. Second, if most people have a conception of free will that conflicts with the physicalist scenarios (e.g., one that requires a non-physical mind or a form of uncaused agency), we should expect many more people to claim that the technology is impossible. Instead, we found that over 80% of participants thought that the technology was possible, and of the few who responded that the technology was not possible, most of them offered pragmatic or ethical reasons with no reference to free will, or minds or souls distinct from the brain. Finally, most people do respond that free will can be undermined in the case of manipulation or unknown potential manipulation, so they do not take a ‘‘free will no matter what’’ view. The most parsimonious explanation of the results is that most people accepted the possibility of the scenarios and simply do not understand free will in such a way that it conflicts with the possibility of prediction based on neural activity (see also Mele, 2012).

Instead, people might typically decide whether an agent acted freely by using something like the following principle:
An agent performed her behavior freely only if it was caused by factors that included her own reasons. As such, most people might have specific commitments regarding the basic capacities required to act freely while having no specific commitments regarding what underlies or explains those capacities. Willusionists, on the other hand, may not be so theory-lite. They tend to have specific views on what capacities are needed for free will and what underlies those capacities (e.g., Cashmore, 2010; Montague, 2008).

Here is where the negligence comes in. To suggest that people are using a “theory-lite” version of free will here that is actually logically  compatible with the 100% prediction in the scenario neglects a previous study done in 2006. Rather, their metaphysical baggage surrounding free will “abilities”  align far more with the “willusionists” (see the study for who is being referred to as a willusionist) understanding than is being let on by this analysis.

That other study was Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility.   Nahmias, E., S. Morris, T. Nadelhoffer, and J. Turner. 2006.

Note that Nahmias is a key person on both of these studies, so he knew the first study all too well. In this study people were given a similar 100% prediction scenario, in which once again the majority said that the person still had free will and assigned responsibility (blameworthiness, etc.). This study, however, asked another key question. The participants were asked if the person who was 100% predicted could have done other than what was predicted. For the perceived “blameworthy” case, the study participants majority said yes, and this aligned with those who assigned “free will”.

Here is a past post about this:

Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)

The study I want to focus on is what I call the “Jeremy” study:

Scenario: Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a supercomputer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time. It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25, 2150 AD, 20 years before Jeremy Hall is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195. As always, the supercomputer’s prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195.

They were then asked to suspend belief about whether or not such could actually take place and were asked:

Regardless of how you answered question 1, imagine such a supercomputer actually did exist and actually could predict the future, including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction):

Do you think that, when Jeremy robs the bank, he acts of his own free will?

The majority said that Jeremy did rob the bank of his own free will. They were then asked the “otherwise” question:

In these cases, participants were asked—again, imagining the scenario were actual—whether or not Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank (case 6), whether he could have chosen not to save the child (case 7), or whether he could have chosen not to go jogging (case 8).

In the blameworthy variation, participants’ judgments of Jeremy’s ability to choose otherwise (ACO) did in fact track the judgments of free will and responsibility we collected, with 67% responding that Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank. However, in the praiseworthy case, judgments of ACO were significantly different from judgments of his free will and responsibility: Whereas a large majority of participants had judged that Jeremy is free and responsible for saving the child, a majority (62%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to save the child?’’ Finally, in the morally neutral case, judgments of ACO were also significantly different from judgments of free will—again, whereas a large majority had judged that Jeremy goes jogging of his own free will, a majority (57%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to go jogging?’’

The majority thought that Jeremy could have not robbed the bank, even though the scenario was a 100% prediction that he would. It’s important to note that this was asked in a way that cannot be conflated with a different kind of “otherwise” response such as in the colloquial, counterfactual, or epistemic usages here:

The Important Context of “Could Have Done Otherwise” (for the Free Will Debate)

The context of the study is clear:

  • “It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy.”
  • “Regardless of how you answered question 1, imagine such a supercomputer actually did exist and actually could predict the future, including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction)”
  • participants were asked—again, imagining the scenario were actual—whether or not Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank

Of course, this idea that he could have chosen not to rob the bank given the 100% prediction that he would… is… incoherent. It is not a “theory-lite” version of free will…it is the mucked up problematic ability that “willusionists” and free will skeptics say is incoherent given this scenario. The fact of the matter is, given the 100% prediction, Jeremy could not have decided not to rob the bank. It was not in his ability. It was not in his capability, even if there was no coercion, manipulation, brain-washing, or any other interaction of another person or technology forcing him to rob the bank. Per the predicted outcome, there is no real capability any more than a chess program is capable of making a move outside of its 100% predicted results. Consciousness can not help here…nothing can. That is what it means to have a 100% accurate prediction.

Also, it should be noted that there was an inconsistency between variations of this study, in which the wording was identical but the act that Jeremy takes changes. For things in which people assign blameworthiness over a wrongdoing, the majority (67%) assign a “could have done otherwise” attitude, where-as, more say the person could not have done otherwise for a seeming praiseworthy or neutral case where they don’t need to attach blame (62% and 57%). This shows an inconsistency and a willingness to assign extraordinary abilities in order to blame someone for wrongdoing. This type of inconsistency crystallizes the types of biases people have and how flexible the “free will” abilities they grant are, depending on the scenario. This is anything but a “theory-lite” version of free will.

In a separate case called the “Fred and Barney” case, people tracked an “otherwise”assessment regardless of if it was a wrongdoing or good deed (keeping or returning a wallet) – at an even higher percentage (76%). This one didn’t entail prediction, but it did entail an entirely deterministic scenario. You can see the scenario here:

The conclusion is that people have a problem making a logical connection or inference, not that they do not have incoherent notions attached to the free will abilities they think exists.

This is where the neglect of the 100% neuro-prediction study comes in. Knowing this, Nahmias needed to ask the participants if they thought the person “could have done other than what the 100% prediction said”, in which case, given this prior study, the answer for any perception of blameworthiness case (and potentially others) would almost certainly have been a resounding “yes” – and this whole “theory-lite” conclusion would be shown for the fiction it is.

I suspect that Nahmias knows this, and that is why he opted to leave that question out, and also leave out wrong-doing. After all, some of his conclusions don’t seem to be partial, as I explained in my post about the 2006 study. Even if, however, it was just an oversight, it is a huge oversight that ties into the conclusion made, and in turn allows compatibilists to cite this source as evidence that what people “really” mean by free will is some more “theory-lite” version that does not have the problems that willusionists and other free will skeptics such as myself suggest. Of course, as shown by the 2006 study, this is anything but the case. Regardless if this was purposeful negligence or accidental negligence, it was negligence and should give people doubts on the reliability of the people conducting the study.

This study should be replicated (hopefully by a separate unbiased party), except with asking the question of whether the person “could do other than what the 100% prediction predicted, at the time of decision”, especially for cases of perceived wrong-doing. If they say “no” to this and still denote “free will”, then we can talk about a “theory-lite” version that common laypeople might assess. Of course, this wouldn’t take away from the implications of not being able to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise, and what that means for strong responsibility / blameworthiness:

We already know that people assign the strong sense here, and that is a big part of the problem. This brings me to another problem, the word “responsibility” is too ambiguous. Questions over if the person “deserves punishment” (regardless of utility) should be (indeed NEED to be) asked.

Where the study is correct: This study does seem to be correct about one thing. The idea that neuro-prediction will undermine one’s beliefs about free will and responsibility that some williusionists claim could be a mistake. I think, however, what most are really saying is that it “should” undermine people’s belief in free will and responsibility, if they are to stay coherent – not necessarily that it will for those laypersons who are not adept at critical thinking. It is just that coherence and an ability to think critically is not a large staple for the common layperson. It should be no surprise that they do not, but this does not imply what they do believe in is some coherent “lite” version. That would be a mistake: it’s a very convoluted, sticky version that can mean different abilities at different time, as studies like Folk Intuitions on Free Will (Shaun Nichols) explains:

“In different conditions, people give conflicting responses about agency and responsibility. In some contexts, people treat agency as indeterminist; in other contexts, they treat agency as determinist. Furthermore, in some contexts people treat responsibility as incompatible with determinism, and in other contexts people treat responsibility as compatible with determinism.”

Also, per 5 different studies, the belief in free will is also in ways linked to the desire to punish wrongdoers: Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief

“Across 5 studies using experimental, survey, and archival data and multiple measures of free will belief, we tested the hypothesis that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In Study 1, participants reported greater belief in free will after considering an immoral action than a morally neutral one. Study 2 provided evidence that this effect was due to heightened punitive motivations. In a field experiment (Study 3), an ostensibly real classroom cheating incident led to increased free will beliefs, again due to heightened punitive motivations. In Study 4, reading about others’ immoral behaviors reduced the perceived merit of anti-free-will research, thus demonstrating the effect with an indirect measure of free will belief. Finally, Study 5 examined this relationship outside the laboratory and found that the real-world prevalence of immoral behavior (as measured by crime and homicide rates) predicted free will belief on a country level.”

Another problem for the 2013 study is that it offered no moral-wrongdoing scenarios, when it is these very scenarios that highlight the metaphysical baggage people inject in – in order to be able to blame. It matters not that these would be emotionally charged, it shows the “ability” they require in order to fulfill the “deserving/blame” type of responsibility they desire.

The fact of the matter is, the “free will” abilities that people hold to range from consistent, to inconsistent, from coherent compaibilist notions, to incoherent compatibilist and libertarian notion, and so on, usually depending on context, a psychological need to blame and punish, a desire to justify one being more or less deserving than others (inequality), and so on. And the more “free will” belief the more retributive the ideas about punishment are: Free will and punishment: a mechanistic view of human nature reduces retribution.

“Study 1 found that people with weaker free-will beliefs endorsed less retributive, but not consequentialist, attitudes regarding punishment of criminals. Subsequent studies showed that learning about the neural bases of human behavior, through either lab-based manipulations or attendance at an undergraduate neuroscience course, reduced people’s support for retributive punishment (Studies 2–4). These results illustrate that exposure to debates about free will and to scientific research on the neural basis of behavior may have consequences for attributions of moral responsibility.”

Note, again, that the “moral responsibility” being referred to is the stronger sense denoted here:

This is important because as long as the inconsistent, incoherent, and dangerous notions about free will are mixed in, we shouldn’t be pretending people are adhering to some consistent “theory-lite” version only.

Studies aside, as they all should be taken with a grain of salt given the ease of mistakes and unintentional or biased negligence – I also think it obvious that people hold more incoherent ideas about free will that lead to poor notions of “strong responsibility” that are harmful, and that can be denoted by the state of the world, the capacities to blame, ideas about free will and sin (on the religious side), and so on. This study, however, is too negligent and needs to be repeated with appropriate parameters that take into account these other studies.

I have more to say about this study, for example, the emphasis it places on the fact that if a person is manipulated their ideas about free will get trumped. This is all too obvious, but what takes away free will intuitions has no say in what the conception of free will is. That is because “free will” is an umbrella term, and disqualifiers are not the whole story. For more info on that read here:

Or how about the flakey term “responsibility” that is extremely ambiguous. The problem with not using scenarios where “blameworthiness” and being “deserving” are not assessed is that the notion of responsibility (or even morally responsible) could be conflated. See here for why this word is ambiguous:

I have a feeling I will be revisiting this study in a future article to point out further flaws and problematic ideas or conclusions in it. For now, just understand that just because people’s ideas about “free will” are unphased by 100% prediction / neuroprediction, does not mean they understand that alternate possibilities are out given the 100% prediction – especially in perceived “blameworthy” cases. I know that sounds crazy, but it just shows the lack of inference or critical thinking involved, and points to a free will ability that is anything but a “theory-lite” version as this study suggests.


UPDATE: A reader has brought to my attention that the work on free will by Eddy Nahmias is funded by the Templeton foundation.  This foundation has various biases. Here are some posts by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne about this:

To quote Coyne:

“Templeton cannot, of course, mandate the research findings of its scholars (one of the studies it funded, for example, showed no effect of intercessory prayer in curing heart disease), but it clearly steers money towards projects it likes, and rewards those who produce the desired results with additional grant money. And everyone knows that: to stay on the Templeton gravy train, you have to get the results that it likes.”

The Templeton foundation is a good example of how money can corrupt, and how assessments can “lean” in the direction that the money is funneled from. One should be at the very least skeptical of assessments made by others funded by this foundation.


Folk Intuitions on Free Will* – Shaun Nichols, 2006

Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility.   Nahmias, E., S. Morris, T. Nadelhoffer, and J. Turner. 2006.

It’s OK if ‘my brain made me do it’: People’s intuitions about free will and neuroscientific prediction – – Eddy Nahmias, Jason Shepard , Shane Reuter, 2013

Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief – Cory J. Clark, Irvine Jamie B. Luguri, Peter H. Ditto, Irvine Joshua Knobe, Azim F. Shariff, Roy F. Baumeister, 2014

Free will and punishment: a mechanistic view of human nature reduces retribution.
Shariff AF1, Greene JD2, Karremans JC3, Luguri JB4, Clark CJ5, Schooler JW6, Baumeister RF7, Vohs KD8.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  22 Responses to “The Negligence in a Study: It’s OK if ‘My Brain Made Me Do It’”

  1. While it is a kind of logical bias, my bias against work funded by the Templeton foundation, does exist.
    Eddy Nahmias seems like he accepts grants from the foundation. Alfred Mele is another.

    I can’t help thinking the foundation funds people and projects that will have a friendly outcome. The outcomes approach 100 % predictable 😉

  2. You have said you are writing a book about morality in the absence of free will. (please correct me if I am wrong here).
    I can’t help thinking this is not a wise move from a logic point of view. I can’t help thinking this falls into the same trap that compatibilists fall into in this debate.
    Since losing my belief in free will, I have strived to live an amoral life … and I too would argue this is a betterment (though I was not keen on the word).

    • I think a case can be made for a type of forward-looking ethical realism without backward blaming moral responsibility. For connotation reasons I prefer the term “ethics” over morality (even if I use them interchangeably). But I’m not an ethical nihilist (I think there is ethically relevant “value” intrinsic in states).

  3. Within a perfectly deterministic universe, we still have to distinguish between the case where (a) the person acts deliberately (of his own “free will”) versus the case where (b) the person is forced by someone else to act against his will. This commonly understood definition of “free will” makes no supernatural claims and no assertion of “freedom from causation”. Yet it is sufficient for all practical purposes.

  4. Can’t infer “no one could do other than what the 100% prediction predicted, at the time of decision.” What a person *will* not do, no matter how definitely, is not the same as *could* not do. It could not be the case that { (A) the laws of nature are L1, L2,… and (B) the past facts are P1, P2, … and (C) the person does other than A at time t}. We cannot infer: It could not be the case that the person does other than A at time t.

    • The inference is there: If the person does other than A at time t, the 100% prediction that they will do A at time t can no longer be a 100% prediction and that premise (of it being a 100% prediction) is contradicted. They “could” not without contradicting the premise of the 100% prediction they “will” not. No modal scope fallacy.

      • Suppose, in the scenario where the person does not-A at t, the predictor would have predicted not-A. Then the predictor and all its predictions could still be 100%. No contradiction.

        • “It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25, 2150 AD, 20 years before Jeremy Hall is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195. “

          Given that prediction, could Jeremy have chosen not to rob the bank at that time?

          • Narrow scope of “could”, Jeremy could have. Broad scope, no it could not have been the case that {the computer made its predictions based on (cite specific facts here) and Jeremy had chosen not to rob}. Your phrasing suggests broad scope, so then, no.

          • This is the phrasing/scope of the study….and you are right: “no”

            “…imagine such a supercomputer actually did exist and actually could predict the future, including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction)”

            “Could Jeremy have chosen not to rob the bank”

          • If you lop off the “Given that prediction” part, then the phrasing is more suggestive of narrow scope. In surveys, exact phrasing often matters; but of course I don’t know if that’s true here.

          • Sure, but for this particular study, they go out of their way to make the prediction part very clear for that very reason:

            including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction)…”

            Yet people still say that Jeremy could have decided to not rob the bank. This is a big problem. I do understand your concern over the context of the words “could have”.

          • I disagree with your taxonomy of “coulds”. What you call “ontic” are modal. Ability statements are modal and, unless otherwise specified, default to being about just the object or person in question, not all the surrounding conditions. (Can this car do 100?) Which makes them “iffy”. (If you floor it.)

          • Ability statements are modal

            This simply is not true when the modality is about counterfactual non-abilities for ontological reality. “Can a car do 100” falls under either the counterfactual (IF the car is driven in such a way, can…) or the epistemic usage in the post I linked. The ontological reality is that a car in a garage that is never nor ever will be driven (due to antecedent causality in a deterministic universe) could never have DONE 100, even if it is a Venom GT with no broken parts, because the surrounding conditions are a part of the assessment for an ontological “ability” (something that can really happen). This is why context is important.

          • The ontological reality is that the Venom GT can do 100 – this ability is a bundle of dispositions that, sadly, will never be triggered. That’s what “can” means as applied to cars. What does “can really happen” even mean on your view, if not “does happen”, and how does science discover it?

          • The ontological reality is that the Venom GT can only do 100 IF it can be triggered to do 100. If it cannot be triggered (for any reason) it cannot do 100 in reality. “Can really happen” means that it can be actualized as a real space-time event. This is why ontological possibility differs greatly from epistemic possibility or counterfactual analysis and why context matters.

          • We agree that there are “can” statements about the GT that are true; you call them counterfactual, but any “can” covers multiple scenarios, even when an actual one suffices to satisfy it. We agree there are “can’t” statements which mention the GT and other factors, which are also true. No reason has been given to call one uniquely “real”. An explanation re-using “can” doesn’t help much.

          • I’d suggest that it is untrue that any can covers multiple scenarios”, when under causal determinism multiple scenarios “cannot” – only one “can” (in the real sense of having the ability to be actualized in the world). The reason they are either counterfactual or epistemic is that they require an implicit “if”, and if that “if” is ontologically impossible (cannot be actualized in reality given determinism) then the reality is that those scenarios “cannot” be actualized either.

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