Born to believe we’re born free?

As far as philosophical conundrums go, the problem of free will is as old as the hills. But what’s the problem? In a nutshell, the issue is whether we can possibly have the capacity to make free choices — that is, whether we can really exercise freedom of the will so that we’re fundamentally responsible for what we do.

Now, there are a range of answers to this question. In part these turn on what sort of world you think we live in. Perhaps we live in a deterministic universe in which the future unfolds inexorably from earlier conditions according to the laws of cause and effect described by science. In a deterministic universe, what happens at any given point in time is fully determined by what has happened before; similarly, there is only one possible future that can occur, given the deterministic laws of the universe. And then the question is, “Can free will and genuine responsibility for our actions possibly exist in such a universe?”.

So-called ‘incompatibilists’ say ‘No’, free will is not possible if determinism is true. But incompatibilists come in at least two kinds. One, the ‘hard determinist’, says that determinism is true, and therefore free will is a fiction. Other incompatibilists, the libertarians, say that if determinism were true it would rule out free will, but that, in fact, it isn’t true. (Quantum mechanics often makes an appearance at this point.) Libertarians then have to explain how indeterminism makes free will possible, rather than simply adding a roll of the die to human action.

Then there are the compatibilists. Compatibilists argue that even if determinism is true, it does not pose a threat to free will — so long as we think clearly about free will means. For many compatibilists, the supposed problem of free will results from confusions about what free will entails or requires. Dan Dennett talks about the ‘varieties of free will worth wanting’, and argues that determinism does not undermine our everyday conception of free will. (Note: compatibilism, in one form or another, is the dominant view in contemporary philosophy.)

The debates between these various philosophical positions are deep and difficult. And they show little sign of imminent resolution. In part, the problem of free will remains central in philosophy because the fears about determinism, and what its truth might mean for our notions of responsibility, are hard to allay (and, some would say, for good reason). Often, these fears are couched in terms of how people intuitively think about free will: many incompatibilists say that it’s obvious, or at least common in their experience, that people find determinism and free will irreconcilable. Sometimes compatibilists say that everyday intuitions are on their side. The trouble is, until recently no one had systematically looked. What, in fact, do ordinary people without philosophical training think about these questions? Do theythink we live in a deterministic universe or not? And if we did, would it pose a threat to notions of free will, moral responsibility, culpability and blame?

There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to ask people. And this is just what many cognitive scientists, psychologists and experimental philosophers have been doing in recent years. I report on some of the results of their studies in an article in this week’s New Scientist.

The basic upshot shot is that people are neither straightforwardly incompatibilist or compatibilist when it comes to thinking about free will. Most people do not naturally believe that we live in a deterministic universe. And they also do believe that we have free will. But what happens when you present people with a description of a deterministic universe, and ask the general question “Can free will and moral responsibility exist in such a world?”. Some studies suggest that people tend towards an incompatibilist answer, and say “No”. But they also show that when considering a specific person committing a concrete despicable act in a deterministic universe, people will say they acted freely and hold them to moral account — suggesting a more compatibilist position, in which determinism isn’t the death of free will. Our philosophical position on free will, in other words, seems to be context sensitive, not absolute. Other studies suggest that compatibilism is, in fact, a more natural default position; it’s only certain ways of talking about determinism and human decision making that make us react as incompatibilists, and see determinism as a threat to free will. To further complicate matters, it appears that some people may naturally tend towards a more global compatibilism, and others to general incompatibilism (and then to stick to one or the other across contexts).

In fact, when it comes to free will, our inner philosopher seems to be very practically minded. It looks as if people are less interested in resolving the philosophical conflict between free will and determinism than holding people to account for their misdeeds. And this makes social sense, given how important notions of free choice and responsibility are when it comes to thinking about rewarding and punishing behaviour. When someone does something very bad, the abstract question of whether they really acted freely takes a back seat to the desire to hold that person accountable for what they’ve done.

These are relatively early days in the psychological exploration of how we think about free will, responsibility, and associated ideas about culpability, praise, blame and punishment. Expect a lot more over the coming years. In the meantime, if you want to know more, and can’t access the New Scientist piece, check out the pages of the following researchers and take a look at their papers:

Roy Baumeister (Florida State University)
Edward Cokely (Michigan Tech)
Adam Feltz (Schreiner University)
Joshua Knobe (Yale University)
Alfred Mele (Florida State University)
Thomas Nadelhoffer (Dickinson College)
Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University)
Shaun Nichols (University of Arizona) – see his recent essay on experimental philosophy of free will in Science here
Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota)

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About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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