Religion and the social utility of free will
- Published on 22 June 2010
- Written by Derek Michaud
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Belief in, or at least debate about, free will has long been a staple in ethical, legal, religious and philosophical discourse. In many contexts, the ability to make a free choice is the precondition for being guilty of committing a violation of a legal or religious code of behavior. That’s why children are not usually found guilty of a crime even when they are known to have engaged in the activity prohibited by law when done by “willful” adults. A recent article suggests that belief in free will serves important functions in keeping society together and proposes that religion may be a key factor in supporting that belief.
With the advent of the cognitive and neurological sciences however much of our common sense understanding about the freedom of our will has become questionable. If our choices are the result of complex data processing by our brains for example then in what sense our we free to choose? How can we be said to have made a free choice between options when the choices we make are the results of the neurological equipment we have at the moment of our choosing? Questions like these have prompted some researchers to question the existence of “free will” while others have appealed to areas of uncertainty in our cognitive processing in order to identify a locus of “freedom” in our choices.
A recent article avoids the exceedingly tricky question of the objective existence of free will, Baumeister and colleagues ask the related but more accessible question of the utility of belief in the freedom of the will. “We proposed that the capacity to exercise free will evolved as an adaptation to meet the requirements of cultural life. . . . we identified four types of action control that we believe constitute the operation of the free will: self-control, choice, planning, and initiative.” The researchers hypothesize further that “religion could have served this role [of supporting belief in free will] well by promoting self-control and facilitating choice.”
For the original article by Roy F. Baumeister, Isabelle M. Bauer, and Stuart A. Lloyd, “Choice, free will, and religion” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2 no.2 (May 2010): 67-82, see here.