Experimental Philosophy Shines Scientific Light on Free Will [Study]

December 13, 2011

For thousands of years, philosophers have used logic and debate to try to uncover the answers to ethical questions. Over the last ten years, however, researchers have begun exploring philosophical questions using the same research methods social scientists have been using for decades.

“Mostly what people have done is work on these problems in conceptual ways. You think through the problems; you think about the implications of various theses. And a lot of excellent work has been done on complex philosophical issues using those techniques over the last 2,000 years,” according to Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona. Nichols is a philosopher and cognitive scientist who recently published an article in the journal Science that seeks to shed light on the age-old philosophical debate over the existence of free will. According to Nichols, experimental philosophy can help thinkers examine such questions.

Philosophers have long debated whether human behavior is the result of free will or whether all behavior is predetermined, either by a supreme being or by experiences and decisions that have come before it.

The concept of free will has generally proven the most popular of the two, but even people who believe strongly in free will often make exceptions to the rule, absolving people of responsibility for their actions under certain circumstances. Similarly, even people who believe in predetermination sometimes hold people accountable for their behavior.

“The dilemma is how do we reconcile how we normally think about causal explanation with this intuition that we have that our decisions are not just the product of these inevitable causal chains,” according to Nichols. “It seems like something has to give, either our commitment to free will or the idea that every event is completely caused by the preceding events.”

As part of his research, Nichols explored young children’s ideas about the nature of free will. Children typically said that a ball had no freedom to do anything but roll down a ramp into a box. However, nearly all of the children said that an adult could have chosen to do something besides reach his hand into a box. These responses suggest that ideas about the nature of free will may be formed at a very young age.

Adults seemed more conflicted in their response to questions about free will and personal responsibility. Most people agreed that humans are not morally responsible for themselves in a theoretical universe where their decisions are predetermined by past decisions and events. However, if the scenario was expanded to include a human living in that universe who commits a shocking crime, most of the same participants who concluded that free will was impossible in such a universe were nevertheless prepared to assign full moral responsibility for the crime to the person who committed it.

One explanation for the inconsistent responses is that people find it easy to think logically when they are calm, but when they are emotionally aroused, they tend to blame the actors involved, even if there is no reason to believe they are responsible. “When you present people with an emotionally laden transgression, and if you ask if the person is morally responsible, then people overwhelmingly say that the person is responsible, even if their action was determined,” said Nichols.

Experimental philosophy has the potential to shed light on the thought processes that lead people to philosophical conclusions. “The movement is less than 10 years old and there are now hundreds of publications in experimental philosophy…I think it’s been a huge success just in terms of the body of research that’s been produced.”

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