Free will seems a matter of mind, not soul

May 27, 2014
In a study of online volunteers, the perception that an agent had choice, not whether the agent had a soul, predicted whether the agent was perceived to have free will. Credit: Malle Lab/Brown University

A new study tested whether people believe free will arises from a metaphysical basis or mental capacity. Even though most respondents said they believed humans to have souls, they judged free will and assigned blame for transgressions based on pragmatic considerations—such as whether the actor in question had the capacity to make an intentional and independent choice.

Across the board, even if they believed in the concept of a soul, people in a new study ascribed free will based on down-to-Earth criteria: Did the actor in question have the capacity to make an intentional and independent ? The study suggests that while grand metaphysical views of the universe remain common, they have little to do with how people assess each other's behavior.

"I find it relieving to know that whether you believe in a soul or not, or have a religion or not, or an assumption about how the universe works, that has very little bearing on how you act as a member of the social community," said Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University and senior author of the new study. "In a sense, what unites us across all these assumptions is we see others as intentional beings who can make choices, and we blame them on the basis of that."

Results from a pair of experiments involving hundreds of online volunteers appear online in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

To lead author Andrew Monroe, a former Brown doctoral student and postdoctoral researcher now at Florida State University, the findings also suggest that people have a perception of free will and culpability that is compatible with brain science in that it does not depend on a spiritual underpinning.

"Neuroscience is no threat at all to this concept of choice," he said.

Free will, quantified

To quantify whether people define free will as being metaphysical (as derived from the soul) or psychological (as derived from a mental capacity for independent, intentional choice), Monroe, Malle, and Kyle Dillon of Harvard University conducted two experiments.

In the first trial, 197 demographically diverse Amazon Mechanical Turk volunteers considered the rule-breaking actions of a randomly assigned character or "agent." That cast included a normal human, an "akratic" human with an inability to use his thoughts to control his actions, a cyborg with a in mechanical body, an artificial intelligence in a human body, and an advanced robot.

Participants read about the agent and seven transgressions of varying seriousness and then rated the blame the agent deserved for each. Then the volunteers answered questions about the agent's capacities, such as their ability to choose and to form intentions, and whether they had a soul.

The results showed a clear difference between having a soul and having free will. Volunteers generally said each human agent (normal or akratic) had a soul, but only said the normal human had free will. Meanwhile they resoundingly said the cyborg with a human brain had free will but generally did not believe it to have a soul.

When it came to blame, people judged the normal human and the cyborg (the two with a mind that had the ability to make choices) most harshly. The akratic human (despite having a soul in the estimation of most), and the entirely artificial robot received the least blame.

Statistically, the capacities that most predicted whether volunteers said an agent had free will and should be blamed for wrong actions were the ability to make a choice with intentionality and being judged as free from control of others. Having a soul was a poor predictor of being seen as having free will or meriting blame.

"The thing that seems to be most important, and that people do extremely reliably, is that they care about an agent's capacity for choice-making," Monroe said.

Little role for the soul

The second experiment, conducted with 124 online volunteers who had not done the first one, ran much the same with important differences. In this case the cast of agents explicitly embodied four types covering the range of combinations of soul and choice: Normal humans had a soul and the ability to choose, robots had neither, akratic humans had a soul but no choice, and cyborgs had choice but no soul.

This experiment explicitly asked participants whether they believe in souls: 68 percent said they did, and participants were moderately religious, averaging 2.1 on a 0 to 4 scale.

Again, however, the characteristics that best predicted whether people judged the different agents to have free will or to be worthy of blame were the psychological ones of choice and intentionality. Soul's statistical role in predicting assessment of free will was only 7 percent and its influence in the degree of blame was zero.

In the statistical models, a shared notion of metaphysical and psychological capacities contributed some predictive value, but further analysis determined that it came almost entirely from the robot, who had neither a soul nor the ability to choose and therefore bore no free will or blame by any criteria.

The findings suggest that the concept of a soul, while widely held, is not readily applied in day-to-day situations, Malle said.

It also suggests that people could come to regard non-humans as having free will if they come to believe that those actors—for example, a sufficiently sophisticated robot—have the capacity of independent, intentional choice. Malle recently entered a collaboration studying whether robots can be infused with a sense of right and wrong.

Monroe is now studying the information processing that underlies how people make moral judgments and update those judgments in response to new information.

Explore further: Suicide is widely deemed immoral because it 'taints the soul,' study shows

More information: Paper: … ii/S1053810014000671

Related Stories

Suicide is widely deemed immoral because it 'taints the soul,' study shows

December 19, 2013
Suicide is a major public health issue; it takes the lives of more than a million people each year. It is also widely believed to be immoral. Why do people so commonly believe it is wrong for people to take their own lives? ...

Psychologists probe moral judgments of suicide

January 8, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Suicide is a major public health issue; it takes the lives of more than a million people each year. It is also widely believed to be immoral. Why do people so commonly believe it is wrong for people to ...

Brain scans link concern for justice with reason, not emotion

March 28, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion, according to new brain scan research from the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

Recommended for you

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

Schizophrenia disrupts the brain's entire communication system, researchers say

October 17, 2017
Some 40 years since CT scans first revealed abnormalities in the brains of schizophrenia patients, international scientists say the disorder is a systemic disruption to the brain's entire communication system.

Before assigning responsibility, our minds simulate alternative outcomes, study shows

October 17, 2017
How do people assign a cause to events they witness? Some philosophers have suggested that people determine responsibility for a particular outcome by imagining what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.7 / 5 (6) May 27, 2014
Poll after poll showing the plurality, if not majority, of people who believe in UFO's, "evolution", the "safety" of vaccines, the presence of God, are repeatedly roundly attacked by "science" as having little to no importance. "It's not what people believe, it's what really is", "science" opines. And, yet, here is "science" presenting a poll on whether people believe choice or soul plays a part in free will and using the results of that to "conclude" whether soul exists or not. Note, too, conventionally, you can have a rocket to go from the earth to the moon, but, if you don't have fuel, the rocket won't go anywhere. Where is the proof that having a choice leads to a person making use of that choice?
3.8 / 5 (4) May 27, 2014
Interesting study. That's some serious food for thought - especially in light of the way humanity may progress and/or our interaction with advanced AI.
1 / 5 (3) May 27, 2014
julianpenrod, you took the words right off my keyboard.
5 / 5 (2) May 27, 2014
Of course, the concepts of "free will" and "methaphysics" are also based in religion and a misnomer for describing electro(chemo)physical systems. It is better to say "will" vs a complex behavior that includes the specific capacity to make autonomous choices.

And oh, look, a creationist (or two?) trolling a science site with lies about science and meaningless deepities (this time dressed in supposed "question" form - but a question must have meaning to have an answer) about his magic ideas. How not surprising, and speaking of lack of morals.

I bet a robot could be less predictable and have better morals.
5 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
JP, given the way you combine such contradictory stuff, I'm not surprised you don't understand the answer...
not rated yet May 27, 2014
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM, they are hardly based in religion, its a matter of philosophy and logic. Which I should point out underpins all science. Not a thing was mentioned about creationism, why all the grand assumptions on unrelated matters? You make less sense then them and its worth mentioning you are in violation of the commenting guidelines.

Otherwise, its an interesting article. Its nice to see qualitative study about how our perceptions play into ever day life on these hotbed topics.
not rated yet May 27, 2014
Interesting but I think too simplistic for such a multifaceted subject matter to draw any absolute conclusions.
May 27, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) May 28, 2014
Holy jesus.

"Bertram F. Malle was trained in psychology, philosophy, and linguistics at the University of Graz, Austria, and received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 1995... currently president-elect of the Society of Philosophy and Psychology, which has a long tradition of studying the mind from multiple disciplinary perspectives."

-I don't know where to begin.

"Malle recently entered a collaboration studying whether robots can be infused with a sense of right and wrong."

-Well I suppose 'right' for a robot would be fulfilling the object of its programming and 'wrong' would be failing to do so.

Free will is one of those philo concepts which is used to generate endless conversation and unapproachable research papers, just as are the terms mind and soul and consciousness. They are certainly unscientific.

Why try to base some sort of objective study on such nonsense concepts, and then ask people their opinion on them?
3 / 5 (2) May 28, 2014
When you ask someone if they believe there is a soul you're really asking them if they want to die or not. When you ask someone if there is free will, you're really asking them if they like the idea of being confined or not.

What would you expect them to say? Even philos should be able to understand this.

I asked a young Danish family man once if he believed in god. He said no. I asked him if he believed in souls. He said yes. He was willing to give up the idea of an all-powerful wish-granter but still held out for an escape from death for he and his family.

Death IS confinement. It is that unopenable cage door. Animals mercifully can't see it but we can't avoid seeing it. It colors everything we do. It is the REASON we invented religion, and why we cling to it so dearly despite evidence.

Robots will not be encumbered with such distractions unless they are programmed to be so. Which would be a very difficult and dangerous thing to do.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.