Does “Willusionism” lead to “Bad Results”?


Early on in the paper “Willusionism” leads to “Bad Results” Nahmias sets the tone for what will ultimately be his argument: “ [A conception of free-will is naturalistic and] [u]seful because scientific discoveries about human decision-making and self control, such as those offered in the research they discuss, can help explain how such free will works … Many other scientists work with a conception in mind, they suggest that scientific discoveries about human decision-making explain away free will, suggesting that it is an illusion.”

He goes on to explain the concept “bad results” which is when people behave worse when they are told they lack free-will. Very briefly, in experiments where individuals read sentences like “who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons” they were more likely to steal, cheat and be aggressive.

Nahmias then mentions the myriad of experiments that claim science has shown that free will is an illusion can be labelled “willusionism”

The emergence of these two concepts together “bad results” and “willusionism” raises a worrisome neuroethical question: if it is the case that “bad results” are extended to show that these “willusionism” claims have sizeable negative effects on people’s behaviour, should we – for political and social reasons – hide the supposed revelation of these claims?

Now, a positive answer to this question calling for social control of potentially harmful scientific claims is not an argument for compatibilism. Rather, it is more concerned with the debate about whether, if free-will were an illusion, that this truth be embraced or hidden. The argument for illusionism (hiding free-will denial) due to potential disastrous consequences can be found here. However, Nahmias, doesn’t think that free-will is an illusion, and he would rather dispute the scientists claims that do so. As he says “As someone who would be loathe to advocate any such response, I am hopeful that there is a better alternative – to correct the willusionists’ claims.”

He thinks the scientists usage of free-will is ambiguous and how “willusionism” is interpreted depends on how ordinary people understand freewill. “I will argue that the best explanation for the “bad results” is that people interpret willusionism in ways that the evidence does not justify.”

He distinguishes between two types of powers libertarian powers (LP) – “involve … indeterminist “gaps” at appropriate places in the process of human decision-making, and often an extra power of agents to initiate causal processes without being caused to do so” (“agent causation”) and compatibilist powers (CP) – “include … cognitive and volitional capacities … like self-control, rational choice, and planning.”

So, Nahmias wants to answer, (1) on willusionists claims are they CP or LP? (2) when ordinary people think about freewill what powers are they thinking about?

  1. Nahmias answers that willusionists in the main are thinking about LP when they say that freewill is an illusion

But this answer is problematic. Even if it were the case that scientists ascribe LP to these experiments, the correct interpretation of these experiments by philosophers is the crucial aspect. This is the manoeuvre that Nahmias himself is suggesting when he will later in the paper go on to suggest that these same experiments actually confirm CP, despite the initial proclamations of the scientists themselves. I would argue, however, that the correct interpretation of these experiments actually point closer towards incompatibilist intuitions as it appears that the experiments of Bargh, Wegner and others suggest that conscious processes and intentions do not play a causal role in action. Nahmias anticipates this reply by arguing “[Bargh and Wegner] are unclear about whether they take this to mean that humans lack LPs or CPs or both.” Well that may be the case for the scientists, but as Nahmias surely knows that hard incompatibilists, hard enough determinists and hard determinists will argue that is because humans lack CP. My interpretation of these experiments, along with Gregg Caruso and others, is that it suggests a rather large role for unconscious processes in initiating and playing a causal role for action, while the scope for conscious intention is rapidly shrinking. Nahmias does not attempt to argue the case in this paper, but he points to other papers of his where he suggests these arguments are “highly contentious and, I believe, false.” The nature of Nahmias’s argument, then, is that if consciousness does not have a causal role for action then free will is an illusion. He, of course, argues that consciousness does play a causal and intentional role in action.

In this paper, at least, then the question is still open whether the claims of willusionism can be interpreted to suggest that we do actually have CPs as the battleground between compatibilism and non-libertarian incompatibilism is still being fought over this very issue. Interestingly, though, there is a distinct lack of scientific data to suggest that consciousness does play a causal role in action, and this surely is a mark against his argument. As Nahmias says in a book review of the incompatibilist Sam Harris, “[s]teeped in the modern zeitgeist, they believe that neuroscience will surely explain all human decisions and actions. But such explanations currently offer no place for consciousness, since there is not yet a neuroscientific theory that explains how certain neural processes are the basis of and explain conscious processes.” Nahmias might be correct that neuroscience of the future will bring consciousness back into the causal picture in regards to producing actions and intentions, but as it stands the science doesn’t support him and his argument is relying on a hedged bet that his horse will come through at the end. (Note: I may have done him a disservice here and should read his other arguments referenced in the papers in the future, apologies if that is the case)

Moving onto (2) Nahmias suggests that ordinary folk-intuitions are of CPs.

However the line of reasoning that enforces such an answer is extremely dubious. Nahmias himself says that it is “extremely complex” what ordinary folk-intuitions are. On the one hand he argues that “people think that freewill and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism” whilst on the other hand “most people think that free will is threatened by a fully reductionistic account of human decision-making in terms of neural processes, one that suggests to people that conscious mental states do not play a proper role in causing our actions.” He goes onto state that this means that the ordinary free-will intuition is that of CP, “people associate free will primarily with CPs, though they also tend to think such powers are inconsistent with the reductionistic framework sometimes suggested by neuroscience and psychology.” However, Nahmias has nothing to back up this reading of the data, one could easily argue the other way that they are troubled by determinism, but give CP intuitions when they do not think that brain and mind are the same. This reading is further enhanced by the fact that, if we agree with willusionism that freewill is an illusion since unconscious processes initiate and play a causal role in our actions, and individuals have “bad results” when they read sentences that suggest willusionism, then the most likely reading is that our freewill intuitions are incompatibilist. At very best for Nahmias those intuitions appear a stalemate, rather than his arbitrarily biased reading of the account.

On a last note, there is much good philosophy that Nahmias has contributed in this paper. However, philosophy is long, and life is short, so I will leave it here


8 thoughts on “Does “Willusionism” lead to “Bad Results”?

  1. Personally I believe that the academic realm shouldn’t lie about it’s results to the public.

    There is a disturbing trend within the scientific culture which moves science from the realm of a method of interrogating experience to the realm of religion.

    Just as the catholics distorted certain stories and melded certain christian rituals with native ones in order to avoid the “bad results” of the natives not being converted I think Nahmias is attempting a similar maneuver.

    Also we are moving dangerously close to the realms of an Orwellian dystopia if we start lying to people about their very selves in order to avoid “bad results”

    This also ignores that fact that it is because our choices our determined and part of a causal chain that we are able to change or have any effect (good or bad) upon ourselves.

    As for the role consciousness plays in decision making – – – I believe our conscious experience is purely passive. It’s a kind of data input that takes in data from the outside, puts it into a black box we have no access to which then pumps out the internal monologue and feelings.

    The internal monologue and feelings I believe are merely manifestations into the conscious experience of an already “decided” course of action.,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Philososophia – I agree that the academic realm shouldn’t lie to the public about its results, but that’s not the case here.

      I’m just going to listen a few additional thoughts that came to me about the article, though they are not necessarily related to your comment.

      First of all, nobody can really agree what free-will is, and what it consists of, so how can academic be misleading the public about free-will results and interpretation. This would require that we have a consensus on the issue, which we don’t. Although we do have consensus (which doesn’t mean truth) on philosophical positions in the free-will debate which are dead: classical compatibilism, is a prominent one.

      Secondly, Nahmias’ article is pretty disjointed, but his primary motive is to argue that the results that suggest that “free-will is an illusion” results are misguided because the results can be explained in compatibilist terms, rather than to state that were are purposefully mislead..

      This, however, has an interesting consequence. Nahmias argued, incorrectly in my view, that our intuitive understanding about free-will is compatibilist in nature, rather than libertarian. However, if this were the case, then why are scientists – who adopt the intuitive perspective of free-will before they test their hypothesis and arguments – naively thinking that free-will is composed of libertarian assumptions (or LPs), and declaring that “free-will is an illusion” after they find scientific evidence that can support either a compatibilist or incompatibilist reading depending on your bent. Although, my philosophical analysis believe the evidence points to incompatibilism. If the scientists were intuitively compatibilists, then they would not be declaring “free-will an illusion.” Moreover, Nahmias would not be writing this paper.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Philo – “This also ignores that fact that it is because our choices our determined and part of a causal chain that we are able to change or have any effect (good or bad) upon ourselves.”

      – Good point. Nahmias actually concedes this point aswell, but that’s because its not important about his argument is not about social control, but for compatibilistic explanation of those “bad results”. On the very short term, free-will denying mindsets may make us think in less counterfactual ways and inhibit “free-will” type behaviour, such as rational planning and deliberation. However, incompatibilism as a metaphysical thesis does not deny the agent these capabilities, and in the long-term these side-effects of less counterfactual thinking, deliberation etc. along with aggressiveness, cheating and stealing are likely to subside. Since they will realise they do have these capabilities as before, except that scientifically are conception of free-will is an illusion.

      – A lot of philosophical commentators have argued, and I tend to agree, though I need to look into it further, that the “bad results” are extremely overrated as experiments go. The Vohs experiment has never been replicated, and has many alternative explanations, such as ego depletion and biased priming effects. The biggest problem with the outcome of the experiment, however, is the one you mentioned above.

      Philo – “As for the role consciousness plays in decision making – – – I believe our conscious experience is purely passive. It’s a kind of data input that takes in data from the outside, puts it into a black box we have no access to which then pumps out the internal monologue and feelings.”

      – I mostly agree. I think consciousness does play a limited role in planning, long-term memory, memory formation etc, but not enough to give us the “control” we want when we make our decisions to be morally responsible for them. That is, I think our adaptive unconscious does most of the work, but the role of consciousness does have some role — otherwise what is its evolutionary reason for being there?

      Philo – “The internal monologue and feelings I believe are merely manifestations into the conscious experience of an already “decided” course of action.,”

      – I totally agree for the most part, and this is the radical implication of the Libet experiments. Although I’m unsure if this is the case in the moments that consciousness itself does play an efficacious role in deciding courses of action in long-term planning. Although commentators find many methodological issues with Libet and his experiments, they have been continually replicated and other theorists, such as Haggard and Soon have built further on his experiments.

      – We are both incompatibilists, but it might be the case that you are a stronger version than I am: I give more credence to consciousness. Interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And I don’t really think anyone is arguing against free will in the compatibilist sense. The compatibilists redefine free will in ways that are nothing at all like the traditional libertarian type.

    Could you have done otherwise? Yes or no? It’s really that simple.


    1. Unfortunately Chandlerklebs its not really that simple in the way that you phrased it here, it may be that I missed the context, if so I apologise. Anyways, Libertarians oppose any form of determinism, so Libertarianism is anti-compatibilism and anti-hard determinism, However, in the determinism realm, compatibilism and hard determinists differ over whether the instantiation over the metaphysical thesis of determinism is compatible with being morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense. Where basic desert means that you deserve to be morally praised or morally blamed for your actions.

      I agree that compatibilism redefine folk-conceptions of free-will, the fact that they try to argue that our intuitive conceptions of free-will are compatibilist rather than libertarian is, for me, mindboggling, misguided and blatantly not true. The best strategy for compatibilists is to concede this point, but to argue that intuitive folk-conceptions of free-will are not at issue here, and then to argue for their position on the apparent strengths of their arguments.

      In regards to “could have done otherwise” its not obvious that its the be-all-end-all of the debate. Before I started my doctoral research I thought the “could have done otherwise” was extremely strong, but now I personally disregard it (many philosophers still think its essential, but its clear that its lost its power it once had). Harry Frankfurt, the wonderful compatibilist – although I disagree with compatibilism – had a wonderful argument that this constraint wasn’t necessary for the debate in his paper “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” – should be available on the web – and the argument is so famous they are referred to as Frankfurt style-cases. Also on independent grounds I’ve begin to believe that the claim is dubious for some epistemic reasons. Its not actually clear, even in a deterministic universe, we need to be able to have done otherwise.

      Personally I am a source incompatibilist rather than a leeway incompatibilist: they are more concerned with the casual history of an action rather than whether you could have done otherwise. They are, obviously, closely related, but they do have important nuances and distinctions.

      Anyways, welcome to the blog, it will be interesting to hear your views. I’m sure as both hard determinists (I’m actually a hard incompatibilist – but the distinction is not important here) that we have similar and complementing views

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My friend Trick identifies as incompatibilist because he remains agnostic about whether acausal events can occur. For the most part though, all of us who understand that libertarian free will is a myth tend to agree that no one truly deserves blame or credit.


      2. “For the most part though, all of us who understand that libertarian free will is a myth tend to agree that no one truly deserves blame or credit.”

        – I think this, in itself, is a fantastic demonstration of how strong the incompatibilist intuition is.


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