Lack of free will levite Ephraim
The Levite of Ephraim by A.F.Caminafe. (1837, Lyon. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

I am going to write about the consequences of disbelieving in free will, but first I want to tell you a biblical story that has stayed etched in my memory to this day. It goes like this:

There was a traveler of the tribe of Levi and his concubine who came to the town of Gibeah. It is said to have been located southwest of Jerusalem in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin.

As they sat down to dine, they were attacked by the townspeople. He offered his concubine to the mob in order to prevent being assaulted himself. The concubine was raped all night by the mob.

The next morning, the man carried his murdered concubine to their hometown. He cut her body into twelve pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel.

The people, especially those of the tribe of Ephraim, upon hearing about the dastardly deed were outraged and proceeded to raze several Benjaminite towns, killing every man, woman, and child in them.

Was this really God’s will?

I was shaken by this story. The image of the man carrying his woman’s body, all alone, silent, grieving, probably crying quietly, tugged at this little boy’s heartstrings. “Why did the townspeople do it?” I asked my teacher. “They were bad people but they believed they were carrying out God’s will,” was the answer.

And why did the people of Ephraim kill every man, woman, and child? Because they believed they were meting out God’s punishment.

Of course, a young child cannot quite put his finger on the philosophical inconsistencies of the answer. But six decades later, I am still asking the same questions about religious zealots who rape, kill, and maim their own because they believe it is “God’s will.”

Don’t they have a will of their own? Why is it that religious zealots seem to me to be more prone to violent behavior than other groups?  And, why is their social world-view often tinged with cruelty toward their fellow human beings? Doesn’t “the good book” preach love and tolerance?

When God sanctions killing

Brad Bushman, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is the lead author of a study, “When God sanctions killing: effect of scriptural violence on aggression,” It was published in the March 2007 issue of Psychological Science. It’s a bit old but still a valuable read on this topic.

Bushman directed ~500 students to read the tale about the tribe of Ephraim in order to study the role of “higher authority” in the propagation of religious violence. For half the students he added another passage:

When the man returned home, his tribe prayed to God and asked what they should do. God commanded the tribe to “take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the Lord.”

Then, the students took part in an exercise designed to measure aggression. About half of the study participants were from Brigham Young University and almost all of them were religious Mormons. The other half were from the Free University in Amsterdam. Of the Dutch group, only 50% believed in God, and 27% in the Bible (astonishingly high percentages, for Europeans).

But for both groups, regardless of whether they lived in the U.S. or the Netherlands, or whether they believed in God or not, the trends were the same. Those who were told that God had sanctioned the violence between the Israelites were more likely to act aggressively in the subsequent exercise.

What does it mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean. One cannot conclude that religious people are more aggressive than non-religious people. But it does suggest is that people are more prone to aggression when they feel that it is sanctioned by some higher authority, be it God, or his clergy.

Later studies suggest that there is a deeper aspect to the story. In the February 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin researchers from the University of Kentucky and Florida State University described a fascinating series of experiments in a paper titled, Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness.

As the authors stated, they started from the premise that “laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression.

An obvious consequence of this assumption is that “disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable.

Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression.

  1. In the first experiment, they found that induced disbelief in free will reduced the willingness to help others.
  2. The second experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior.
  3. And lastly, experiment 3 found that participant-induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others.

The authors concluded that “although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

More on the question of free will

The May 2011 issue of Psychological Science adds another contribution to the question of free will in an article by scientists from the University of Padua in Italy. It is titled, Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation: The Brain Minds Whether We Believe in Free Will or Not.

First, let’s understand what is meant by “preconscious motor preparation”. About 30 years ago, the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that when a subject is hooked up to EEG electrodes and electrical activity is recorded when he is about to perform some voluntary activity (say, press a Y or an N on his computer keyboard in response to a question flashed on the screen), a few milliseconds before the activity is initiated there will be electrical activity called “readiness potential”.

Mind you, this is “preconscious” because it happens before the subject is even aware of what his answer going to be. Which gives rise to the question of whether this voluntary act was the product conscious action. Or was it predetermined by the brain before it even entered consciousness?

Is free will just an illusion?

The feeling of being in control of one’s own actions is a strong subjective experience. However, discoveries in psychology and neuroscience challenged the validity of this experience and suggest that free will is just an illusion.

This is an important question for the Church that grapples with issues of sin and free will. Or, or the Justice system that daily confronts issues of personal responsibility.

Even Libet was aware that the conclusion that free will does not exist needed much more direct evidence than his experiment suggested. Later experiments, notably in a pivotal paper by Schurger, Sitt and Dehane demonstrated that what Libet observed was not the brain making a decision. 

Rather it was a misinterpretation of random brain activity, akin to fluctuations of the weather or the stock market. The actual decision by the brain coincided exactly with the subjects pressing the computer key: 150 msec.

Does belief or disbelief in free will manifest in brain activity?

The Psychological Science paper didn’t deal with the question of whether free will exists or not. The question it asked was quite profound nonetheless: does belief or disbelief in free will have any manifestation in brain activity? More specifically, does it affect the readiness potential?

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Thirty subjects were presented with selected paragraphs from Francis Crick’s book Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.

Half the subjects read, among other paragraphs, one that stated that free will is an illusion. The other half did not read that paragraph. The subjects were then asked to press a computer mouse when a cursor flashed across the screen.

The result: the ones who read the passage questioning the existence of free will had a significantly reduced “readiness potential” as compared to the control group.

Whether the readiness potential is a manifestation of preconscious, predetermined instruction by the brain how we should act is a matter of debate. But predetermined or not, it is part of voluntary control. And the study shows that believing that there is no free will, that all is predetermined by the brain, has, in turn, an effect on the brain and how it functions.

What are the consequences of determinism?

The familiar but unfortunate consequences of fundamentalist belief that all is predetermined by a higher authority have been with us since biblical times. And they are here today. So when we ask “how can ostensibly religious people commit atrocities?” there are no simple answers, but here is an attempt at some explanations.

Neurobiology tells us that disbelieving in free will reduces the brain’s control of voluntary activity. In other words, it is much more laissez-faire, anything-goes brain.

From an evolutionary point of view, we act on two levels:

  1. the individual aggressive animal
  2. the social empathetic one.

The latter requires self-control, which requires the feeling of self-control, illusory, or not.

Remove the belief in the existence of self-control and you removed the linchpin of civil society. Indoctrinate a person that God or your party leader (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others come to mind) predetermine all, that there is no such thing as free will, that there is no point in thinking for yourself because such a thing doesn’t exist, it is all illusory, and you create monsters of historical proportions.

From a psychological point of view, we as social animals are programmed to behave altruistically, exert self-control in our interactions with other members of our society. So when the aggressor in us asserts itself despite our religious or humanistic instincts it creates an unbearable cognitive dissonance.

We resolve it by denying belief in free will; God has willed us to do it, who am I to defy Him? As the comedian, Flip Wilson, kept making fun of this notion: “the devil made me do it”. Turns out, this is far from a laughing matter.

The bottom line

So regardless of whether free will is illusory or not (and recent neuroscience says that it is not illusory at all) – it is important that we believe it does exist. History taught us that the consequences of disbelieving in free will, of acceptance of determinism, are just too awful.


First published on May 30, 2011. Reviewed and updated by the author 06/21/17 and again on 8/12/20.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD

Dov Michaeli, M.D., Ph.D. loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us.

He was a professor and basic science researcher at the University of California San Francisco where he also taught biochemistry to medical students. During this time he was also the Editor of Lange Medical Publications, a company that developed and produced medical texts that were widely used by health professionals around the world.

He eventually left academia to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early-stage biotech company that developed products to improve post-surgical pain control.

He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, traveling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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