Only a handful of prominent historical figures denied the
existence of free will (at least for non-religious reasons). Yet a disproportionately large number of them
had many symptoms associated with the autism spectrum.
Einstein, Russell, and Spinoza (ERS) each denied the existence of free will, and each has been repeatedly “diagnosed” with Asperger’s Syndrome. Einstein and Russell are two of only 20 historical figures diagnosed in the book Asperger’s Syndrome and High Achievement. Spinoza is one of only 21 historical figures diagnosed in the book The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger's Syndrome And The Arts. Here is a great video explaining the link between Einstein and autism.
If you’re willing to entertain that idea, then we reach the following conclusion: (1) ERS didn’t believe in free will and (2) ERS had many characteristics associated with the autism spectrum. My thesis is this: the combination of (1) and (2) was not a coincidence.
Putting aside for the moment the problem of “diagnosing”
historical figures with autism or Asperger’s, let’s ask the question: why would
there be a link between autism and denying the existence of free will? I have many different ideas for why there
might be a link between the two. Here,
I’ll mention a few:
- If affect irrationally biases compatibilists toward believing in free will (as Nichols and Knobe famously suggested), and if people with autism/Asperger’s are less emotional and more coldly rational, as they are often portrayed, then they may be more likely to be incompatibilist.
- If pessimism about moral responsibility and determinism is the result of the objective attitude, as Peter Strawson suggested, and if people with autism/Asperger’s have a greater degree of “scientific objectivity,” as Tyler Cowen has suggested, then those people may be more likely to be pessimistic.
- If people on the autism spectrum are more inclined to systematize the world and view it as a complex machine (as suggested by Simon Baron-Cohen), and if understanding people in terms of neurology (mechanical) instead of psychology (mental) inclines people to disbelieve in free will, as Nahmias and others suggested, then those on the autism spectrum might tend to disbelieve in free will.
- If the fundamental attribution error is one reason why people tend to believe in free will, then people on the autism spectrum might be less likely to do so, because at least one study shows that people on the autism spectrum are less vulnerable to the fundamental attribution error.
- The thesis that people on the autism spectrum are more skeptical about free will is consistent with Feltz, Cokely and Nadelhoffer’s data showing that compatibilists are more extroverted.
I also conducted a preliminary study with 21 random subjects
outside the local public library. I found that a composite score, averaging 10
primary features of Asperger’s Syndrome, was significantly correlated with
difficulty with making friends was also significantly correlated with
I find all of that fascinating, if only suggestive.
There is, however, a puzzle remaining. I’ve previously called anti-realism about
free will a form of “empathy too extreme for most.” But people on the autism spectrum have famous
difficulties with empathy. How can
anti-realists about free will both have lots of empathy (for people without
free will) and have empathy deficiencies (because of autism spectrum traits)?
I believe that there are answers to those riddles, and that
the answers are both subtle and fascinating.
But I’ll leave that for another post.
Gardeners, I would like to hear what thoughts, if any, you have about my hypothesis that there is a link between autism and beliefs about free will?