A talk with Daniel Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He’s the co-author of “We Have No Idea,” about the unknown mysteries remaining in physics, and a co-host of the podcast Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe. I talk to Whiteson about free will. We talk a little bit about why we both think free will is unlikely to exist, but our main focus is on more psychological and emotional aspects: what are the results in our own lives of not believing in free will? What potential effects does lack of belief in free will have for people in general? Because the idea that free will doesn’t exist can make people anxious or sad, the idea that we are basically just automatons, the idea that our conscious experience of the world is like watching a movie we have no real control over.
There are many resources on free will out there, but here are a few that were either discussed in this episode or that I’ve found interesting:
- A critique of free will research, written by James Miles, author of book ‘The Free Will Delusion.’ I agree with a lot of his critiques, as I’ve found a lot of the writing on the topic unnecessary complex, indirect, or just bad. This paper is also interesting because it addresses an important aspect of thinking about this topic: people’s fear that taking away belief in free will will cause people to behave badly, and how this even impacts how academics and researchers talk about free will.
- Living Without Free Will, a book by Derek Pereboom, which argues that ethics and legal remedies remain logical and coherent even taking away concepts of free will.
- Episode of Daniel Whiteson’s podcast where they talk about free will and whether it’ll ever be possible to fully predict people’s behavior.
- A critique of Daniel Dennett’s critique of Sam Harris. Harris wrote a book The Illusion of Free Will, and Dennett is a believer in free will (although he defines it in a seemingly different way than other people).
- Information on Gazzanica’s research with split-brain patients, which supported the idea that our minds confabulate and create meaning/stories in a post-hoc fashion.
- A 2017 paper The Influence of (Dis)belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior, which examined how reading free-will-critical content made people less punitive.
- A good examination of free will and psychological effects of belief/disbelief in free will, by Greg Hickey, including a critique of a 2008 study that showed that reading free-will-critical content made people more likely to cheat, and critique of Daniel Denett’s support of free will.
- Probably my favorite book, which I mention in this talk: Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom.