Is Free Will Just an Illusion?

As neuroscientific research reveals the underlying causes of behavior, will we come to see our lives as predetermined?

The following is an excerpt with from Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Liliefeld.

In May 1924, two young men set out to kidnap and murder a child of an affluent family. Nathan F. Leopold Jr., aged nineteen, and Richard Loeb, eighteen, had spent months planning and rehearsing what they called “the perfect crime.” On the day of the killing, they chose a convenient victim: fourteen- year- old Bobby Franks, who was Loeb’s second cousin and the son of a local millionaire. As Franks walked home from school on a late afternoon in Chicago’s leafy Hyde Park neighborhood, the two pulled up alongside him in a rented roadster and invited him to hop in. After a few minutes of small talk about a tennis racket, they bludgeoned the boy to death and drove to the outskirts of a town near Indiana. Once there, they doused Franks’s face with hydrochloric acid to hinder identification by the police and hurriedly stashed his naked corpse in a drainpipe. Later that evening, the killers were back in Leopold’s elegant Hyde Park home. They drank and played cards, interrupting their game around midnight to phone Franks’s family and tell them to expect a ransom note for their kidnapped son. Leopold and Loeb never fathomed that they might be caught. These brilliant sons of privileged Chicago families—Leopold allegedly had an IQ of 200; Loeb had graduated from college by age eighteen—believed themselves exempt from the laws that governed ordinary men.

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Several days later, their plan unraveled when police found a distinctive pair of horn- rimmed eyeglasses at the crime scene and traced them to Leopold. Shortly thereafter, the two were indicted on charges of kidnapping and murder. Their parents hired famed attorney Clarence Darrow to defend them for committing what came to be known as “the crime of the century.” The monthlong trial culminated in August 1924 with a bravura summation by Clarence Darrow arguing for life in prison for the two instead of death by hanging:

Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite;

not for hate. . . . They killed him because they were made that way.

Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up

of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads

sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for

their blood.

Leopold and Loeb’s actions, in Darrow’s telling, were just part of the natural order of the world: “Nature is strong and she is pitiless. . . .We are her victims,” Darrow intoned. “Each act, criminal or otherwise, follows a cause; [and] given the same conditions, the same result will follow forever and ever.” In the end, the judge spared Leopold and Loeb the gallows, sentencing each to life in prison for murder plus ninety- nine years for kidnapping— not because they were victims of nature, an argument the judge explicitly rejected, but because of their youth. Darrow’s plea was remarkable. If “each act follows a cause,” then all of us, not just Leopold and Loeb, are nature’s victims. Bold as it was, however, the claim was not original. It drew on the ancient philosophical doctrine known as determinism, which states that every event is completely caused, or determined, by what happened leading up to it. Our decisions are the inevitable product of a vast array of influences—our genes (and the evolutionary history they represent), the mechanisms of our brains, our upbringing, and the physical and social environments in which we live. These forces converge to produce one and only one specific act, be it “choosing” soup over salad or murder over mercy. To borrow Darrow’s words, you have “no more power than a machine to escape the law of cause and effect.”

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience


What would it mean to live in a world in which people are simply mechanical devices responding to natural laws beyond their control, bobbing like corks in a sea of causes? If determinism is true, then the consequences are profound. First, we would need to radically overhaul our conception of moral responsibility. After all, if the choice you make in a given situation is preordained—is the only choice you can make—then what are we to do about blame? Absent the capacity to choose, according to a school of thought called hard determinism, there cannot be any blame. And if no one can be blamed, no one is morally deserving of punishment. If you commit an evil deed, it is not your fault. Nor is it to your credit if you behave like a saint. This account of human agency is devastating to the idea of free will (or “ultimate” freedom, as some philosophers call it). Hard determinists believe that society should adjust its legal practices accordingly. Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene and psychologist Jonathan Cohen contend that neuroscience has a special role to play in giving these age-old arguments more rhetorical bite. “New neuroscience will affect the way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones,” they write. “[It] can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control,” Greene adds. For emphasis, he and Cohen invoke an old French proverb, Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner (To know all is to forgive all). Their ultimate hope is that society will discard blame-based punishment as a nasty relic of a pre-neuroscientific age and insert in its place penalties whose purpose is to shape future behavior.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins elaborates on the notion of the criminal offender as something of a machine. He invokes the example of a car that has stopped working. “Instead of beating the car,” he notes, “we would investigate the problem. Is the carburetor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? . . . I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.” Biologist Robert Sapolsky extends the analogy. We do not ponder whether to forgive the car, he says; instead, we try to protect society from it. “Although it may seem dehumanizing to medicalize people into being broken cars, it can still be vastly more humane than moralizing them into being sinners.” This reasoning echoes Darrow’s appeal to the judge that Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were merely “two young men who should be examined in a psychopathic hospital and treated kindly and with care.”

Of course, people are not like cars or other inanimate, nonconscious entities. Cars do not respond to knowledge, sanctions, or rewards, but people do. And it is for this reason that they are capable of being ruled by law in the first place. Hard determinism does not dispute this point. It acknowledges that people are educable, that they are constantly assimilating new information and, therefore, always learning. Take the example of shifting social norms surrounding drunk driving and domestic violence. As people learned of stiffer penalties for these actions, more of them came to think of those acts as wrongful. Warnings operate on beliefs about the likely results of one’s actions. New information builds on old experience and current context to guide subsequent action. Endowed with self-awareness, people but not cars can influence the outcome of their causal chains by making a decision to change their diet, their work habits, and their future.

Thus, although hard determinists reject retributive justice, also known as “just-desert theory,” they do not deny that punishment sometimes has useful practical consequences, such as decreasing the chance that the criminal will reoffend. “Our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot,” writes David Eagleman. Although utilitarian punishment carries no moral condemnation whatsoever, it exerts a salutary effect by prompting the criminal to reform and by dissuading would- be lawbreakers who observe the adverse consequences they could face.  And, given hard determinists’ strict aim of reducing crime, the aversion may very well need to be highly unpleasant if that is the only way to deter future wrongdoing.

This general framework has been in place for thousands of years, but now some hard determinists are offering a new twist on this ancient view of the relationship between cause and blame. They are hazarding the empirical prediction that neuroscience will expose retributive punishment as scientifically mistaken. They predict that as neuroscientific study gradually reveals the underlying causes of behavior, the average person will come to see that his or her general sense of being free is just an illusion.

Excerpted with permission from Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Liliefeld. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

Meet the Writers

About Sally Satel

Sally Satel is a practicing psychiatrist and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

About Scott O. Lilienfeld

Scott O. Lilienfeld is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Emory University and a co-uthor of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

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