Nov 13, 2011 | By

Experimental Philosophy – Is Free Will at Issue?

Experimental Philosophy – the New New Thing?

This month’s Scientific American (November 2011, p.57) featured an interesting article on “Thought Experiments” by Joshua Knobe.  The idea is that rather than simply designing logical arguments about key philosophical questions such as free will and morality, which philosophers have been doing from armchairs for thousands of years, philosophers can actually test the way humans think and react using experimental, scientific techniques.

Knobe first describes an experiment testing the linkage between the concept of free will and moral responsibility.  The experiment posited for the participants a universe in which  every person’s action is explainable by prior causes and circumstances, in a chain of causation stretching back into the past.  When asked whether such an individual would be morally responsible for his or her actions, respondents tended to say “no”.  But when asked the same question in the context of a detailed and grisly scenario of murder, respondents tended to say the person was morally responsible in spite of the lack of freedom

This result was corroborated by a second experiment which asked a similar question about moral responsibility in the context of a philosophy lecture about free will.  If the lecture was hypothesized to be “in a few years”, people tended to take the “not responsible” position even in the case of the grisly example, but if the lecture was “in a few days”, the response was similar to that above – the individual was felt to be morally responsible.

Knobe then theorizes that people tend to use different cognitive approaches to moral problems – the more distant situations involve abstract theoretical judgement and the more immediate situations elicit a more emotional response.  In this formulation,  Knobe seems to imply that the theoretical conclusion is based on reason, while the emotional conclusion is not.

While interesting, the experiments and their conclusions are not particularly satisfying. Knobe admits that these tests do not provide any indication as to whether any of the judgements about free will and morality, theoretical or emotional, are true.  More troublesome for me is the notion that Knobe is testing with a hypothetical – the “no free will” assumption – that may, in itself, interfere with the subject’s reasoning.

Specifically, it would seem that our brains are built with a foundational premise that free will exists.  The immense human capabilities for perceiving, planning, assessing and deciding are all built as if it is possible to change outcomes and consequences. Decisions matter – and can lead to outcomes that are better or worse.  This implies that a human agent is afforded with at least some measure of ability to change what would otherwise result. This is free will.

Whether you believe these human capabilities are the outgrowth of evolutionary development or the manifestation of a higher order spiritual quality, they clearly establish a “free will” premise to human life. Even if this free will premise were simply an illusion, and our choices were fully determined by prior causes, it would still dominate our conscious experience. Every day, thousands of times a day, we each exercise decisions and judgements that seem to be exercise of free will.

From this vantage point, it would appear that asking people to assume that humans do not have free will is really stretching the limits of credibility. It would therefore make sense that in conceptualizing more distant and abstract scenarios people are able to dissociate from their experience and imagine a fully deterministic world. However, in a scenario with a more realistic and immediate presentation, it may become more difficult for people to remain dissociated from their actual experience in the world in which they live – the world where free will is the operating premise.

I would conclude that experimental philosophy may bring value in helping to understand how people think and react, but the traditional tasks of “armchair” philosophy in sorting and clarifying language and assumptions will be needed more than ever.

3 Responses to “Experimental Philosophy – Is Free Will at Issue?”

  1. Joris Driepinter says:

    Minor thingy:
    “it would appear that asking people to assume that humans do not have free is really stretching the limits of credibility. ”

    You missed a word there.

    Also, I’ve been perusing your blog through the past day and I found it interesting.

    Cheers, Joris

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Joris. The typo is fixed – “to assume that humans do not have free will….” Interesting that I inadvertently left out the word “will”. You perceived the error and chose to bring it to our attention. I chose to fix it. Acts of free will that make the point.

  2. […] is a continuation of an old debate, one that I dealt with in previous articles on Experimental Philosophy and Materialism.  Neuroscientists like Burton seem determined to extrapolate from the finding that […]

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