Scientists say free will probably doesn't exist, but urge: "Don't stop believing!"

by Jesse Bering from Scientific American

 "Suspend disbelief for a moment and imagine that you have agreed, as a secret agent in some confidential military operation, to travel back in time to the year 1894. To your astonishment, it’s a success! And now—after wiping away the magical time-travelling dust from your eyes—you find yourself on the fringes of some Bavarian village, hidden in a camouflaging thicket of wilderness against the edge of town, the distant, disembodied voices of nineteenth-century Germans mingling atmospherically with the unmistakable sounds of church bells.

Quickly, you survey your surroundings: you seem to be directly behind a set of old row houses; white linens have been hung out to dry; a little stream tinkles behind you; windows have been opened to let in the warm springtime air. How quaint. No one else appears to be about, although occasionally you glimpse a pedestrian passing between the narrow gaps separating the houses. And then you notice him. There’s a quiet, solemn-looking little boy nearby, playing quietly with some toys in the dirt. He looks to be about six years old—a mere kindergartner, in the modern era. It’s then that you’re reminded of your mission: this is the town of Passau in Southern Germany. And that’s no ordinary little boy. It’s none other than young Adolph Hitler (image above).

What would you do next?

This scenario is, rather unfortunately for us, in the realm of science fiction. But your answer to this hypothetical question—and others like it—is a matter for psychological scientists, because among other things it betrays your underlying assumptions about whether Hitler, and the decisions he made later in his life, were simply the product of his environment acting on his genes or whether he could have acted differently by exerting his “free will.” Most scientists in this area aren’t terribly concerned over whether or not free will does or doesn’t exist, but rather how people’s everyday reasoning about free will, particularly in the moral domain, influences their social behaviors and attitudes. (In fact, the Templeton Foundation has just launched a massive funding initiative designed to support scientific research on the subject of free will.)..."

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