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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fate and free will - and empirical research

There is an excellent thread over at Practical Ethics on free will, commenced with a post by Brian Earp. One thing that's especially useful is the discussion, particularly by Neil Levy, of how the folk seem to understand free will. Some empirical research has been done on this, and also on the effect that it has on people if they are presented with denials of free will (which is interesting from my viewpoint for a number of reasons, but not least because it could shed light on what is conveyed by the expression, perhaps at an unconscious level).

There is actually rather little published research on all this, so you could get a handle on the literature quite quickly if you go and read the references in the thread. Read the whole thread for yourself, by all means, and better still read the articles and other references that are cited, mainly by Levy. Don't take my word for anything.

But ... meanwhile, one thing that leapt out at me was this part of Levy's discussion of the empirical research:
In response [to an earlier article], Nahmias et al. 2007 (Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Mechanism: Experiments on Folk Intuitions. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31) argue that the description of determinism Nichols and Knobes used causes people to think that future actions had to happen no matter what anyone did. That is, the descriptions suggested fatalism, not determinism (where an event is fated if I can’t avoid it, like Oedipus’s killing his father – it doesn’t matter what Oedipus does, because the event occurs independently of what he does). Nahmias et al. therefore suggests that it is the incompatibilist response, and not the compatibilist response that is a performance error. They think that incompatibilist intuitions are caused by confusing determinism with bypassing mental states: people are not worried that their thoughts are determined; they are worried that their actions might be determined regardless of what they think. In support of this, they showed that if determinism was described in psychological terms (‘once specific thoughts, desires, and plans occur in the person’s mind, they will definitely cause the person to make the specific decision he or she makes’), incompatibilist responses fall dramatically.
Nahmias et al might be wrong, of course, and the earlier study in which the folk appear to reject compatibilism might be right. But in any event, if we want to get a grip on what is actually bugging the folk when they worry about free will, we'd do well to see what understandings of their understandings are defensible on the basis of the empirical research. It does seem from this description that what is bugging the folk may be the question of whether fatalism is true. If so, "free will" for the folk isn't anything as spooky as often asserted by Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, but, in essence, the denial of fatalism.

Now, if all that is meant by "you have free will" is that certain fatalist (and/or perhaps passivist) views are false, compatibilism is in good shape. However, the concept of free will may not have a lot to contribute in, e.g., theodical debate. If so, so be it (I never actually thought it did). In any event, I am not arguing here in any settled, dogmatic way that that is all free will means to the folk.

Rather, it seems to be an open question what free will means to them, needing further empirical research - though there seems to be some fairly strong support for the idea that "acting freely" (not necessarily, in my view, the same concept as that of having free will) has a fairly stable meaning for the folk. Namely: "they described free actions and choices as those free from constraints like compulsion and coercion and regarding which they had time to deliberate."

If that is all free will means to the folk (i.e. if they conflate the concepts of free will and acting freely), then it does appear that the folk view of the matter is (a) not spooky, related to religion, or related to dualistic notions of the mind; and (b) not likely to be useful for theodical purposes (theologians might as well give up on the idea).

There's more to be absorbed in all this, but these studies appear to be grist to my mill that the folk don't necessarily have a spooky notion of free will ... and that books, articles, and blog posts which seek to refute some spooky notion - then conclude that we don't have free will, as "free will" is usually understood! - are on shaky ground.

9 comments:

Tom Clark said...

According to a Pew survey, around 80% of Americans believe they have souls, and I imagine plenty of folks share this belief worldwide. Such a belief might influence ideas about agency, even if when asked about free will they don't spontaneously bring it up. Supernaturalism about the self might translate into supernaturalism about agency: being exempt from cause and effect relations. And indeed, cross cultural research suggests that people have contra-causal intuitions, see http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/experiments-in-philosophy/200901/do-people-all-cultures-believe-in-free-will Quote:

"Surprisingly, people from all of these different cultures arrived at exactly the same answer! Despite all of their cultural differences, they each concluded that human actions are not simply caused by whatever took place earlier -- that human beings have a special power of free will that allows them to do things that are not just caused by previous events."

Patrick said...

"If that is all free will means to the folk (i.e. if they conflate the concepts of free will and acting freely), then it does appear that the folk view of the matter is (a) not spooky, related to religion, or related to dualistic notions of the mind; and (b) not likely to be useful for theodical purposes (theologians might as well give up on the idea)."

I think you're applying an overly analytical approach to a phrasing chosen by people without philosophical training, many of whom believe in background knowledge that is highly spooky, dualistic, and theological. On top of that, it seems that this question was interpreted so as to delineate between situations where people do or do not have free will... not whether people ever have free will in a global sense. So background assumptions seem to be implicitly included.

You'd be better off just coming up with a statement of the actual reality of neurology, but that's phrased in layman's terms, and then ask people, "If that's true, do people have free will?"

I honestly cannot imagine popular opinion supporting the compatibility of determinism and free will. Absolutely every conversation I've ever had about the subject in my entire life, from grade school until now, has contradicted the idea that people's beliefs about free will are compatibilist. I suppose its possible that I, and many others, have completely misunderstood everything we've heard on the subject, or that our experiences are bizarrely misrepresentative. But at present, this sort of claim seems on level with John Haught's insistence that "real" Catholics don't believe that the resurrection of Christ is a propositional matter- madness.

Neil said...

Tom, Josh's description is misleading. He is not entitled to what he claims. If his data supports incompatibilism (Nahmias et al object to the way in which determinism was described in the study), it nevertheless does not provide evidence that people think that free actions are uncaused. Indeterministic causation is perfectly compatible with the evidence. So its not evidence that people think that having a soul is required for FW.

Patrick: the evidence clearly supports your experience - people have incompatibilist theories about free will. But theories are one thing, and judgments of cases another. Why think that we should take folk theories to capture what they *really* believe?

Tom Clark said...

Neil, my guess, based on the same life experience as Patrick, is that people generally think (correctly) that they cause their free actions, but many (at least in the US) also believe themselves to be causal interveners, such that in a roll back scenario they suppose they could just as well have done something other than what they did even given all the causes in play. The soul, pre-theoretically and obscurely, is perhaps thought to have the capacity to have done otherwise in the exact same situation - the capacity to transcend naturalistic cause and effect. But of course I don't have Xphi data to back up this guess, so I could be wrong.

Btw, would indeterministic causation give me license to say that *I* caused something to happen?

Neil said...

Tom, some people think that agent causation is compatible with determinism. Ned Markoskian has such a view, so does David Velleman. So if their analysis is right, any causal story could give the result that you cause the action.

Tom Clark said...

Thanks Neil. I'm wondering if the Xphi research thus far rules out, or has tested for, the possibility that at least some of the folk might think along the following lines, taken from the beginning of Weight Loss Naturalism at http://www.naturalism.org/Weight_Loss_Naturalism.htm :

"Many folks struggling with their weight suppose that in consuming chocolate cake on a particular occasion - substitute your favorite fattening food - they could have resisted eating it, but failed to do so. Let’s replay the situation, they imagine: the waiter comes up, just as it actually happened, and asks me what I’d like to order. In the imagined re-play, as in the actual situation, I experience a strong impulse to order the cake and a simultaneous realization that to do so betrays my resolution to avoid fattening foods. In as many respects as possible I imagine the situation just as it was, setting all the conditions the same. But now, the imagined re-play diverges from what actually happened: I choose the lime sherbet. This suggests that in the real, actual situation just as it happened up to the moment of my decision, I could have ordered the sherbet, and that the failure to do so was in some strong sense my own independent doing. Even given the circumstances exactly as they were, inside me and outside me, it seems I could have chosen otherwise. So the fault, dear Brutus, was my own, of me the decider, not that of my situation, upbringing, biology, brain, or other factors."

Russell Blackford said...

One problem, with relying on personal experience to draw conclusions as to what the folk mean is that we all have different personal experiences of the folk - and of the the body of mythology, high literature, and popular literature that our culture has produced over many hundreds of years that is, presumably, responsive to the concerns of the folk (if we assume that the authors had some insight into what was bugging the people around them).

My experience of the folk, and of the relevant body of myth and literature, primes me to think that what is bugging the folk is, at least very largely, fatalism. So I was interested to see Nahmias et al drawing the same conclusion. If this conclusion is correct, compatibilism is in good shape (furthermore, the way the distinctions are often made to undergraduates is also in good shape - in my experience, the simplification that is taught to undergraduates is often something to the effect that "hard determinism" is the view that determinism is true and that it entails something very like fatalism).

Now, my experience is not going to settle the issue. However, my reading of the mythological and literary fiction over the centuries probably is wider than that of most people, including most philosophers, so I do think I have some epistemic advantage here. But in any event my point is just that we need to beware of relying too much on our personal experience in interacting with the folk.

TaiChi said...

Russell,

"Nahmias et al. therefore suggests that it is the incompatibilist response, and not the compatibilist response that is a performance error. They think that incompatibilist intuitions are caused by confusing determinism with bypassing mental states: people are not worried that their thoughts are determined; they are worried that their actions might be determined regardless of what they think."

I think this is correct. I suspect that when a respondent is given a scenario and asked to judge whether the protagonist in it freely wills, they will look to see whether an agent, as they conceive of one, is part of the causal chain in the scenario as described. That responses for free-will scenarios described mechanically support folk-incompatibilism, whereas scenarios described psychologically do not show this effect, is a reflection of the fact that the folk conceive of agents psychologically rather than mechanically*.

If this idea is right, then it would shed light on the intractability of theistic libertarianism. If one conceives of an agent as a soul, then no scientific description of what goes on when an agent picks donuts rather than bagels is going to look like a convincing demonstration that free-will and determinism are compatible, for the theistic libertarian won't see in an agent the description as they conceive of one. It's always going to look to the theist as though the agent is being bypassed by scientific description.

* (I won't go so far as to suppose that it reflects that the folk are dualists - it may just be that it is easier to see that an agent is involved in the causal chain when the scenario is described psychologically, whereas when it is described mechanically, it may be uncertain whether what is described is an unconsicous process or involves the agent's deliberative capacities.)


"There's more to be absorbed in all this, but these studies appear to be grist to my mill that the folk don't necessarily have a spooky notion of free will.. "

I agree, although they may have a spooky notion of what an agent is, if they're theists - in that case, you'd be incorrect that..

"..the folk view of the matter is (a) not spooky, related to religion, or related to dualistic notions of the mind; and (b) not likely to be useful for theodical purposes"

In any case, I'd like to know what you think: can Nichols and Knobe study folk intuitions about free-will without also studying folk intuitions about what counts as an agent? Surely these questions are so entangled that they'd need to be studied together and correlated, before we can interpret them.

Russell Blackford said...

TaiChi ... Ideally, we need many more - and much sophisticated - studies. The studies do seem to show that some people think that a non-material mind or soul is needed for free will, and perhaps some people (much the same ones?) require that there be some kind of indeterministic step somewhere for free will to exist. Also, we have evidence that that concern has been around for a long time (look at the way Epicurus introduced the swerve in his system, partly, it seems, to deal with free will ... though arguably the system also needed it for other reasons). So I'm not saying that worries about determinism play no role at all, or that they play a role for no one. But it does seem that they are not playing the main role for everyone, and even that concerns about fatalism play a larger role overall.

But there's a lot more research to be done, and it will have to involve large numbers of participants and complex surveys, etc. Unfortunately, most funding bodies - other than the Templeton Foundation - probably won't think the necessary money to do this is justified.

Still, we should, I suggest, all show a bit of modesty when we make claims about what the folk "really" have in mind, or what is "really" bugging them. It may, as I've often suggested, be fatalism, but it may be something else or a combination of things.