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Professor Richard Holton (MIT) will be giving a talk on “Determinism, self-efficacy, and the phenomenology of free will,” this coming Monday, 11th February 2008, at the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar, and he has kindly offered to circulate his paper before the seminar.


Some recent studies have suggested that belief in determinism tends to undermine moral motivation: subjects who are given determinist texts to read become more likely to cheat or to go in for vindictive behaviour. One possible explanation is that people are natural incompatibilists, so that convincing them of determinism undermines their belief that they are morally responsible.

I suggest a different explanation, and in doing so try to shed some light on the phenomenology of free will. I contend that one aspect of the phenomenology is our impression that maintaining a resolution requires effort—an impression well supported by a range of psychological data. Determinism can easily be interpreted as showing that such effort will be futile: in effect determinism is conflated with fatalism, in a way that is reminiscent of the Lazy argument used against the Stoics. If this interpretation is right, it explains how belief in determinism undermines moral motivation without needing to attribute sophisticated incompatibilist beliefs to subjects; it works by undermining subjects’ self-efficacy. It also provides indirect support for the contention that the awareness of the exertion of effort is one of the sources of the phenomenology of free will.

Richard’s paper can be found here, and he welcomes any comments/suggestions before or after the seminar.


  1. 1. Posted by Al Gammate | March 15, 2009 4:24 am

    Hello Richard:

    I enjoyed reading your article entitled “Determinism, Self-Efficacy, and the Phenomenology of Free Will.”

    Determinism, as I understand it, implies that human behavior is dictated by chains of cause and effect, leaving humans without free will.

    Given this, sustained exertion of effort doesn’t necessarily prove that free will exists.

    Let’s say that I grew up in a family teaching me that persistence overcomes resistance – that to accomplish anything worthwhile, one must never give up!

    Let’s say that not only does my family teach me the value of persistence, but they also teach me the value of becoming a physician.

    Let’s say that everything in my environment (what I see, hear, and read) indicates that being persistent and becoming a physician are very good, and not being persistent or not becoming a physician is very bad.

    Would it surprise you if I became a physician?

    Since my environment had mentally brainwashed me into believing that being persistent and becoming a physician are very good things, if I became a physician, couldn’t you say that my situation was deterministic (without free will)?

    The sustained exertion of effort required in medical school could have been due to my previous brainwashing that persistence overcomes resistance.

    So sustained exertion of effort could be deterministic (without free will), if it’s fueled by a preprogrammed belief! And who is to say that all sustained efforts aren’t!

  2. 2. Posted by Rich Wllson | December 17, 2010 5:35 am

    An interesting article, but I believe many miss the point. If one suggests that there is free will by presupposing that there is an “I” than the answer is “no”. The individual can only be a product of two, possibly, three, things. His genetics-nature. His environment-nurture. and..if one pre-supposes a God, God-spirit. In reality there is no “I”, in the sense one determines who “I” is. No one can suggest that they created themselves. Some may argue that this is not the case, in that we make “choices” throughout our lives and thus make, or remake, ourselves during that journey. I would suggest that one is still making decisions based on the interplay of the previous three influences.

    That being said, many make the mistake of drawing the wrong conclusion and suggest, as the article suggested, that in the absence of “real” free will the individual cannot be making choices, concludes that all is pre-determined, and thus becomes less motivated to make any choice at all.

    What is being left out is the continuing influence of the environment. This points to the vital importance of ensuring an environment which motivates, and changes, individuals in a positive way.

    A simple example would be legal restrictions on theft, as well as cultural and social mores supporting those restrictions, or the former supporting the later. The interplay between genetics and environment continues, the individual continues to, apparently, make choices, but the environmental influences have predisposed many to make the “choice” not to steal.

    The point is that coupling responsibility and free will, and suggesting that only by having free will can one either be held accountable or have an effect on the outcome causes many to “give up”. From the standpoint of the free will debate, one continues to be judged by his actions even when he is not “responsible” for them. Recognizing that one continues to be responsible, even in the absence of “choice”, is an important step in eliminating the feeling of powerlessness which is at the root of the results discussed in the article.

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