Thursday, April 24, 2008

believing in free will and engaging in honesty

A fascinating piece by Chuck Colson on research into the connections between beliefs and actions in general-- and beliefs about conscience and free will (vs. determinism) in particular-- and with applications to Darwinism and materialism (hat tip: Linda Christiansen)...

Nearly every major story involving an ethical or moral lapse is soon followed by an explanation of why such failures are inevitable. These "explanations" do not involve Original Sin or flawed institutions created by fallen people. Instead, they usually invoke materialistic causes rooted in natural selection: People do what they do because such behavior enabled their ancestors to pass on their genes.

This denial of free will is known as determinism. Determinists insist that their explanations neither justify wrongdoing nor weaken people's resolve to do the right thing.

A recent study shows just how wrong they are.

Researchers recently published the results of experiments testing the link between the belief in free will—that is the ability to choose right and wrong—and honesty. Kathleen Vohls of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia gave college students a math exam in which students would be paid for each correct answer.

They told the students that "a computer glitch would cause the answers to appear on the screen" and that they should press a key to keep from seeing the answers. Students were told that failure to press the key was cheating, although no one would know who had cheated.

Prior to taking the exam, some of the students were asked to read a piece that said that "most educated people do not believe in free will." Another group read a piece affirming free will, and a third read about sugar. Really.

You can probably guess what happened: The "no free will" group was "more likely to let the answer appear—that is, to cheat.

This pattern held up in another test involving self-grading: Students in the "no free will" group were, again, significantly more likely to cheat.

Vohls told Mercatornet Magazine that these findings tie "in with evidence that cheating is on the increase" among college students. While there "are many possible reasons for this," the erosion in our belief in free will and conscience is almost certainly one of them.

Thus, according to Vohls, it is important to understand the "dangers" posed by the "links between determinism and unethical behavior."

She is right, and what is more troubling is that one piece was all it took to alter student's behavior. Imagine what a lifetime of this kind of indoctrination can do.

It is difficult to imagine a better example of why worldview matters....What our kids—and we—are being taught about who we are and why we are here shapes our worldview. It determines the kind of people we will become.

The belief that we are the product of random and impersonal forces makes it absurd to see ourselves as moral agents. So it is not hard to see why so many people take a "why bother" attitude toward moral issues.

Of course, Christians are not determinists. We know that things like compassion and valor and honesty are more than electrical impulses in the brain. Thus, not only can we explain why people do evil, but also we can explain why it is reasonable to expect them to do good as well.


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