Tag Archives: free will

Free Will and Morality

A while back, I blogged about how philosophy is embracing empirical experiments. A couple of experiments, one by the University of Minnesota and the other by the University of British Columbia, make for a great example of this. Both experiments had similar aims: to examine what effects belief in free will has on human morality and were structured similarly. The experimental subjects, mostly college students, were separated in two groups. One group was given text to read that expressed skepticism on the subject of free will, arguing that human actions and decisions were mechanistically determined by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. The other group was given either a neutral text in the case of the first experiment or a text that explicitly endorsed and defended free will in the second experiment.

After reading the texts, the students were given the task of completing a test. In both experiments, the students were given the opportunity to cheat on the tests, while being erroneously led to believe that their cheating would not be detectable. The results were that students who were given texts that were skeptical on the subject of free will were more likely than the others to cheat on their given tests. The researchers wisely caution against reading too much from these results, but at first glance, they appear to confirm concerns that advances in our understanding of how our minds work have far greater long-term ethical implications that the more publicly known worries over genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

The Death of Free Will

This month’s issue of Popular Mechanics has an article on the latest advances in mind reading technology: using magnetic resonance imaging machines to determine without ambiguity what a subject is thinking about. As a practical matter, the main experiment cited in the article is actually not that impressive since there was a base success rate of 50 percent simply by guessing what the test subject was thinking about. As a foretaste of what is to come however, it is intriguing. As the imaging resolution goes up and the database from which the raw images are interpreted grows, the accuracy of such devices will only increase. It is well within the realm of the possible that eventually such devices may be available in a portable form.

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