Belief is a special kind of human power. Agustin Fuentes, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, eloquently claims as much in his recent book Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being. It’s the “most prominent, promising, and dangerous capacity humanity has evolved,” he writes, the power to “see and feel and know something—an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth—that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that ‘something’ so that it becomes one’s reality.”
A great example of this is the widespread and intuitive idea that we have free will. Most people grow up with the notion that they are, in some sense, responsible for their thoughts and actions because, unlike animals, humans can think about their choices. We can reflect on what we should do, and other people—be they our parents or Supreme Court justices—can rightly hold us accountable. This is what most people mean when they talk about having free will. A Christian might say it goes back to Adam and Eve, who abused their God-given free will in defiantly eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. An atheist, on the other hand, may say we simply evolved free will along with other cognitive abilities that distinguish us from our mammalian cousins and ancestors.
You could also say that no such thing exists, a view which seems increasingly fashionable. “Cognitive neuroscience and popular media,” a new meta-analysis notes, “have been putting forward the idea that free will is an illusion, raising the question of what would happen if people stopped believing in free will altogether.” The paper, a preprint posted on PsyArXiv by University of Cologne social psychologist Oliver Genschow and his colleagues, delves into almost 150 studies, with over 26,000 participants, that sought to manipulate people’s belief in free will in order to tell whether believing, or disbelieving, in free will affects their morality. [Continue reading…]