Nichols in Science, “Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will”

“Many central philosophical problems—such as problems concerning free will, morality, and consciousness—have their roots in our ordinary ways of understanding the world. It takes no special training to come to appreciate questions like “How can a material object be conscious?” or “Is morality only relative to culture?” Such problems resonate with common sense. Experimental philosophy is a recent movement that brings new techniques to bear on philosophical problems. The techniques are actually familiar experimental methods from social science, but the targets of these experiments are distinctively philosophical, like the common-sense philosophical problems surrounding free will, morality, and consciousness. Because these problems are grounded in common sense, experimental philosophers aim to diagnose the psychological origins of philosophical problems, and such diagnoses might indicate new avenues of treatment.” Shaun Nichols (University of Arizona, USA), “Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will,” Science 331: 1401-1403, 18 March 2011.

“A person typically will not regard her current action as free unless he or she feels like it is her own voluntary action. Developmental psychologists have recently shown that, in some circumstances, young children reason in a way that suggests a belief in determinism. When observing physical events like a light going on, children expect there to be a causal explanation for the event. After they have observed a light going on when a switch is flipped, if the switch subsequently fails to turn on the light, young children reliably search for a causal explanation for why the light did not turn on. However, experimental philosophers have also found evidence suggesting that 3- to 5-year-old children reject determinism in the context of human action. With a child observing, an experimenter performed a simple action such as putting her hand in a box, and the child was then asked whether the experimenter could have done something else. The vast majority of children said that the person could have done something else. Most children did not, however, say the same thing after observing a physical event like a ball rolling into the box. Rather, in that case, children denied that the ball could have done something else. The conflicting intuitions that give rise to the problem of free will may already be present at an early age.”

“The results from experimental philosophy confirm what many philosophers already maintained: that common sense is committed to indeterminism about decision-making. What leads people to reject statements of determinism? What are the psychological sources of this reaction? One explanation with an impressive philosophical pedigree is that people reject determinism because introspection does not reveal a deterministic set of causes of action. An alternative proposal focuses on the way people think about the self as an agent. As noted above, research on the sense of agency shows that both internal and external cues contribute to the sense that “I” produced an action.”

“A psychological account of the genesis of free-will beliefs probably cannot directly show that such beliefs are true or false. But knowing why people believe in free will might well put us in a position to evaluate whether or not people’s belief in free will is justified.”

“People seem to be torn on whether morality has an objective footing or is merely relative to culture. What factors pull in those different directions? People also find it difficult to make sense of the idea that a physical object such as the brain could produce conscious experiences. Why is that connection challenging to understand? If we can comprehend the psychological sources of these kinds of problems, we might be in a better position to resolve or defuse the problems.”

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One Response to Nichols in Science, “Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will”

  1. Devon Perkins says:

    It has always interested me too, the origin of our sense of free will. I think it has a lot to do with ignorance. The experiment noted compared the operation of human thought and a rolling ball. These are two very different cases, in that one is complicated and the other, fairly simple. There is not much going on as a ball, of ostensibly one material, rolls into a box. This is essentially a Newtonian physics problem, relating forces with the laws of inertia, gravity, and friction. For some reason our mind is able to comprehend this kind of action, and thus we call it deterministic because we can predict outcomes with astounding accuracy even intuitively (a football quarterback may not know the formulas of physics, but he sure can predict how to throw a football to the right place at the right time with great accuracy). In the case, though, of a person deciding whether or not to drop a ball in a box, there are much more complicated systems occurring: there are many different chemical reactions occurring among many different materials inside the brain, and a myriad of past experiences could trigger the mind to desire a different choice. We cannot figure out any clear way to predict outcomes, and therefore, our intuition renders it impossible to do so. The rationalization? We call it free will, I call it simply a lack of ability. We call our minds free willed because we have the illusion that our decisions cannot be completely predicted. This may very well be true, but its not necessarily due to a free willed mind, instead it’s very possibly due to calculations that are just beyond our capabilities.

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