James Holmes’ sick neuroscience experiment?

Over the past week I have not been able to shake this one nagging thought: that James Holmes’ study of neuroscience had something to do with his horrific crime in Aurora, Colorado.  Before you think that I am somehow blaming the field of neuroscience for this tragedy, please note that this is not my intent. But I do keep wondering whether James Holmes – clearly a troubled and unstable individual – developed his plan as some kind of sick demonstration to prove one of the most provocative insights from modern neuroscience: that free will is an illusion.

From the (still very few) books that I’ve read on the subject (such as Sam Harris’ Free Will and The Moral Landscape, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion, and Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis) one major theme is that free will as it is commonly understood does not exist. As Harris puts it in his most recent work:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.

The science behind this claim is powerful. From a range of studies over the past few decades, it seems clear that our conscious self is usually the last one to know about choices we have already made. As Jonathan Haidt describes it in The Happiness Hypothesis – we can view ourselves as riders of elephants. As Haidt puts it:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

So what does all of this have to do with James Holmes barging into the premier of Dark Knight and gunning down innocent people, and then claiming not to remember anything? I just keep wondering if Holmes, having been inundated with such discussions about free will and the inevitability of most of our actions, decided to take such concepts to their most terrifying conclusion. Perhaps in his sick mind he even hoped that his well-crafted demonstration could serve as the basis for a compelling doctoral dissertation that would somehow save his failing academic career?

Most likely my suspicions about Holmes are totally off-base, but they do raise a more fundamental question: how does belief (or lack of belief) in free will impact behavior? I’ve spent the past few days researching this question, and discovered that:

  1. There’s a lot of new research on this topic, and
  2. All of the research I’ve been able to find shows that when belief in free will is reduced, it tends to have a negative impact on behavior.

For example, in a much-cited study by Kathleen Vohs and and Jonathan Schooler, when undergraduate students read passages that argued that free will is an illusion, they were much more likely to cheat in a subsequent task than those who read different types of passages.  A study by Roy Baumeister, E.J. Masicampo and C. Nathan DeWall showed that when belief in free will was reduced, individuals were less inclined to help others and more likely to act aggressively. Another study by Baumeister (Stillman, Baumeister, Vohs et al) showed that believing in free will was positively correlated with both positive attitudes about ‘future career success’ and actual job performance. And in this study, neuroscientists detected that ‘inducing disbelief in free will’ negatively impacted brain functions related to motivation ). FYI – this page contains a nice summary of these studies and others.

For me, the most disturbing aspect of these studies is that they show the potential dangers of undermining belief in free will while simultaneously highlighting its illusory nature. In all of these studies, simply reading a few passages about determinism (how all phenomena are determined by previous causes) led the study participants to change their core moral attitudes and behaviors.  The individuals portrayed in these studies appear utterly malleable – no better than a basic computer program where the output depends completely on the selected input. This article – which explores how our beliefs in moral agency appear to be hard-wired (and sometimes even irrational) – made me even further despair. Is it true that a concept that lies at the core of any kind of moral life is no better than any other kind of gut instinct?

But the study of the relationship between belief in free will and actual behavior seems be a relatively new field – one where there’s room for a lot more research before any hard conclusions are drawn. In the meantime, as we struggle with the implications of these findings, it seems like faith ought to help. Perhaps free will is one of those things in life for which there is no scientific evidence, but which we simply have to believe in order to make life worth living. After all – isn’t free will at the root of religious belief and practice? I mean, why would God have bothered giving us the ten commandments if we had no control over our ability to obey them?

Unfortunately, I am also disturbed by how the faith community itself sometimes struggles with the concept of free will – for completely different reasons. In reading responses to the Aurora tragedy, I saw discussions like this one . To summarize the arguments here, it goes something like this:

Question: Why would a ‘good’ God let something evil like Aurora happen?

Response: Aurora was caused by one sinful human exerting his free will and making a terrible, tragic choice. The Aurora massacre was not caused by God.

Question: But if God is omnipotent, He could have prevented this human from making this terrible choice, right? (And while He was at it, he could stop the slaughter in Syria, in various locales in Africa, etc). If not, then human free will is a limit on God, and God is not omnipotent.

Response: No, God is omnipotent, and God is good, but God chose not to stop James Holmes (or all that other bad stuff) and we just don’t know why because God is a mystery.

I personally find this last response (which, by the way, is the punchline of the book of Job) to be deeply unsatisfying (please also reference my last post where I talk about when bad things happen in nature and how those bad things usually are part of a natural cycle of life, as opposed to human-generated evil that is just destructive). Anyway, it seems to me that many people of faith feel some level of discomfort with fully embracing the idea of free will and prefer to think that somehow God is orchestrating all our actions (or, as my friend’s child recently put it “Mommy, God is making us all walk around on earth. We’re his puppets and he’s pulling our strings from up in heaven”)

Up until this point I had been thinking that the best way to find truth is to look for those places where faith and science can agree. But when it comes to free will, I am terrified that this approach may point to a rejection of free will. If it comes to that, I think I may have to switch allegiances. Perhaps rather than having faith in God, I will have faith in Free Will instead. I am too scared to live in a world without it.

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15 Responses to James Holmes’ sick neuroscience experiment?

  1. Anonymous says:

    On the question of free will, I love the Adam and Eve story in the Bible. Clearly God gave them free will. And there were consequences when they chose not to follow God’s instructions. I believe God is all powerful in Love, but is clearly not a puppeteer. We make choices every hour of the day and we need to appeal to God to lead us in the paths of righteousness. Thanks again for a thoughtful essay.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi Jean – thanks for reading and responding. I agree that the Adam and Eve story is a perfect example of how religion is really supposed to be all about the choices we make – otherwise what’s the point? But I do see a strand within religion of real ambivalence towards free will. I also am not sure exactly what it means when we say that God is all powerful in Love. It sounds beautiful, but what does it really mean? The only other way I’ve been able to deal with this whole problem is by challenging the whole way we think and talk about God, acknowledging that this whole thing of making God into a Being that has these certain attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, etc) is just humans anthropomorphizing the ineffable (and yes, that is how the Bible talks about God, but the Bible was written by humans trying to convey their experiences of the Divine, it wasn’t directly written by God). Anyway, I realize these are huge topics. Thanks again and we’ll have to find a time to get together to have a more in-depth discussion about this!

  2. Al Clapsaddle says:

    I feel that, like any parent, God sees the worthlessness in making His children do anything. He gave us free will and hopes that we will learn to love Him and return to Him. In times of trial I realize even more how much I need God.

  3. A.D. says:

    If it was an experiment, who was he proving it to? It seems to me that whether he wanted to prove it to himself or to the people in the theater, he can’t exempt himself from this lack of free will, so what various forces were acting on him to make him act in such a way? Is he saying, hey, I have no free will, it’s not really me acting here? Or, you have no free will, so will respond to me in predetermined ways? I guess
    I don’t understand why spraying bullets in a movie theater is a logical conclusion to the idea that you have no free will – even if a view that things are predetermined leads people to behave badly, why that particular bad act? (Not being rhetorical – I really just don’t get the connection – I haven’t read the research you’re referring to.) Because if none of us has free will, why isn’t everyone shooting up movie theaters?

    (This is totally aside from the really fascinating questions you pose about free will, but I would want to know more about the first year curriculum of a neuroscience grad program, because I’m not sure the question of free will is as central as you postulate. And really, I don’t see how even a really disturbed mind could see getting a dissertation out of the experience – not morally, just practically!)

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi A.D., great questions and I’m glad you pushed me on this. Obviously this is hypothetical, but what I kept thinking about was whether Holmes was exploring this idea that he had no choice but to do what he did – the idea that given a specific set of personal realities (genetic, neurological, biological realities) and external stimuli (whatever was going on in his life at that time), any individual will act in the same given way – there’s no other possible outcome. Yes it was Holmes who did this crime, but given the situation, it couldn’t have been different – Holmes ultimately had no choice in his fate. That, I believe, is the deterministic, incompatibilist view of reality that is espoused by Sam Harris and other prominent thinkers in neuroscience and neuroethics (although it’s not the only point of view – there are those who embrace Compatibilism, which argues that there is a way for determinism and free will to coexist – I have to confess that I find these arguments really confusing and need to read more of them before I can represent them accurately). Anyway, I also am not familiar with a first year neuroscience graduate program curriculum, but given the prevalence of these ideas in the field I’m pretty sure Holmes would have encountered them. There also seems to be quite a bit of focus in the field on analyzing the neurological bases of criminal behavior – trying to understand what changes in the brain that leads people to behave in unacceptable ways. So given the pop-culture version of this stuff that I’ve read, I just kept wondering what kind of effect these insights might have had on someone like Holmes who clearly is very unstable.

      Does that make the point clearer? Oh and re the dissertation point – yes obviously that’s totally ridiculous in any sane mind but obviously he’s not sane.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments!

      • seeingfaith says:

        By the way – hi Anna – didn’t realize that was you! So you can probably speak more clearly to the pressure cooker of academia than I can. I guess I can kind of see how someone who is really fragile psychologically could get driven completely around the bend by it…not sure if you ever saw anything close to that back in your days in academia…

  4. Joan Michie says:

    We are free to make decisions – unless we have a mental illness that creates bizarre reality and inhibits our decision making being “truly free”. Sigh…God’s thoughts? We don’t know them.

  5. adronzek says:

    Yeah, sorry the full name doesn’t show up! I wasn’t trying to be sneaky – I can never remember what my login is in all these different systems. 🙂

    Academia can definitely drive people around the bend, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it played a part here (though I can also believe his failure to thrive in the PhD program resulted from whatever mental problems led to this act). But my (totally unscientific unresearched) sense is that academia is so self-centered, such a closed-shop, that if academia were really the trigger (rather than the location for something else going on), the aggression would be directed at academia. Unfortunately there have been incidents of violence associated with the pressures of grad school and they’re usually directed at faculty/students in the program rather than random strangers.

    And thanks for the clarification – I see better what you mean. I guess I think if that were the case, he’d have to have both a belief that there’s no free will and an absolutely raging ego (which is probably the case…). That is, I can get that everyone has slightly different personal realities and genetic stimuli, so that people would all have different predetermined paths – but most people don’t go off the rails in this way, and act in such an incredibly anti-social manner. So I would think there still has to be way more going on (which I realize is compatible with what you said – maybe it’s just a matter of emphasis).

    I thought the article about “how our beliefs in moral agency appear to be hard-wired (and sometimes even irrational)” was interesting – I just skimmed it, but I wonder how the author/people running those experiments remove cultural factors. That is, the experiments involve adults who’ve grown up in a particular western society. So when you talk about intuitive responses, or being “hard-wired” to think a certain way – are they really identifying a particular physical cause? I don’t know why feeling like we’re morally free can’t be a result of beliefs ingrained in western society rather than some kind of literal physical hard wiring. (I’d love to see results of such experiments in non-western societies, where the Judeo-Christian concept of free will doesn’t dominate. For instance, isn’t there a strain of fatalism in Islam – what is written is written, as God wills – that kind of thing? And what about a worldview based in cycles/reincarnation?)

    (As for neuroscience curriculum – the PhD program at CU requires you to pick a department out of Behavioral Genetics (Integrative Physiology Department; Psychology Department), Behavioral Neuroscience (Psychology Department), Clinical Neuroscience (Psychology Department), Cognitive Neuroscience (Psychology Department), Integrative Physiology Department, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Neuroscience (MCD-Biology Department), Speech-Language and Hearing Sciences Department, Social Neuroscience (Psychology Department) – so it just seems hard to say much about what he was learning in the first year.)

  6. Pingback: My Not-So-Systematic Jistian Theology | Seeing Faith

  7. Jay Corwino says:

    The best argument against free will is that men commit way more violent crime than women. This leaves us with the silly notion that men have less free will for some reason or, more likely, that neither sex has any free will at all. If you ask me, gender difference in violent crime commission has to do with a combination of social conditioning (or the lack thereof in men), situational factors, and biology.

    • seeingfaith says:

      In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt does a really interesting profile of this gender difference: he describes how most of the top criminals all have this same genetic identifier – then at the end he he reveals that this genetic identifier is just what makes men men (I think it’s the Y chromosome, or testosterone, can’t remember right now). Anyway, I agree with you that the confluence of biological and social factors lead to greater criminal behavior in men. But I guess what makes me still hold out some hope that some form of free will exists is that you can have two people who have a very similar mix of both biological and social backgrounds, who end up acting very differently. To put it another way: while many criminals may have a similar profile (male, troubled childhood, etc), most males with similar backgrounds are NOT criminals. So there’s something else going on there. Perhaps its just additional variations in social conditions (a positive role model, some other genetic markers) but I still believe that you can have folks who have very similar backgrounds who end up behaving differently. As the mother of identical twin boys, I see this playing out almost every day!

      • Jay Corwino says:

        Some of the differences could be due to random changes taking place during development and beyond. For instance, suppose one fetus in a twin pair just so happens to receive better nourishment from the mother. Or consider the effect that hitting one’s head in the wrong spot might have upon behavior later on (especially in the prefrontal cortex). Also of note is the curious fact that identical twins raised apart turn out more similar in a multitude of ways that twins reared separately.


      • seeingfaith says:

        Very good points – I agree. I remember reading something just recently about how they’re making new discoveries in the parts of the human genome that were previously considered to be just ‘junk’ and how these parts may be ones that are modified in response to varying conditions (I think this might have been in the Science section of the NY Times, but don’t remember for sure) – that would support your point about ‘random changes taking place during development’. But I guess this just brings us back to one of the key questions that motivated this post in the first place: if, indeed, science can prove to us that free will is an illusion, AND we also have some fairly strong evidence that when people learn this fact that they then behave worse than they would have otherwise – where is this going to lead us as a species? I don’t think suppressing the truth is the answer (if indeed ‘free will as an illusion’ is definitely the truth) but I do think this raises enormous ethical issues. If you have any suggestions of things that would be good to read about this, please let me know. I think the subject of neuro-ethics is fascinating…

      • Jay Corwino says:

        Well, I would recommend both Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Harris is an incompatibilist and the latter is a compatibilist.

      • seeingfaith says:

        Sorry for the massively delayed reply – been very busy with some volunteer work. I have actually read both of these authors already (I’ve read several of Sam Harris’ books and have blogged about The Moral Landscape and Free Will). Anyway, I’ve found their arguments problematic. I will keep researching. FYI – the November issue of Philosophy Now has at least two articles that are relevant for this discussion “Free Will vs. Natural Necessity” and “On ‘Known to be False’ Materialist Philosophies of Mind”.

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