Monday, March 28, 2011

Experimental Philosophy addresses Free Will vs. Determinism

Shaun Nichols has done an interesting essay on the problem of free will, and Tierney offers a summary. In all cultures people tend to reject the notion that they live in a deterministic world without free will. From Tierney's review:
regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it's adaptive for societies and individuals to hold a belief in free will, as it helps people adhere to cultural codes of conduct that portend healthy, wealthy and happy life outcomes...The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.
The article and review note an interesting experiment in which people are asked to judge the moral responsibility of Mark, who cheats a bit on his taxes, and Bill, who falls in love with his secretary and murders his wife and kids to be with her. Most people cut Mark some slack but believe Bill fully responsible for his crime. The inconsistency makes sense if threat to social order is being factored into judging moral responsiblity.  Again, from Tierney:
At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.

But there is also a school of philosophers — in fact, perhaps the majority school — who consider free will compatible with their definition of determinism. These compatibilists believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

Does that sound confusing — or ridiculously illogical? Compatibilism isn’t easy to explain. But it seems to jibe with our gut instinct that Bill is morally responsible even though he’s living in a deterministic universe. Dr. Nichols suggests that his experiment with Mark and Bill shows that in our abstract brains we’re incompatibilists, but in our hearts we’re compatibilists.

“This would help explain the persistence of the philosophical dispute over free will and moral responsibility,” Dr. Nichols writes in Science. “Part of the reason that the problem of free will is so resilient is that each philosophical position has a set of psychological mechanisms rooting for it.”


  1. Why is free will treated as a boolean property, anyway? It makes so much more sense that there is a spectrum of "will" from determined to free, and where we fall on that spectrum, both as a species and as individuals, is a complex (as in complicated) function. Thus, it's not a question of whether we are morally responsible, but that yes, we are, but to what extent?

  2. The point and the line in the world of opposites defines the process of free will. The classic definition of a line segment being “the shortest distance between two points” tells us that the beginning of any line segment is an object with no volume, area, width or length, that defines an exact location in space. Therefore, that which cannot be measured is the start of everything measurable. Additionally, notwithstanding that a line is straight by definition, there is no such thing as a straight line because, according to Einstein et al, space is curved. But when we look we only “see” the straight line segments and there are innumerable mathematical formulas and theorems centered on the relationship between them in how they intersect or how they remain apart from each other; all the while we are really working with the curved sections of one very large loop. So the straight line is, in the ultimate reality, an arc. Accordingly, we must conclude that we are always dealing with an unseen truth that governs our lives and exists beyond our capacity to notice. Most of us refer to this unseen truth as “G-d”.
    To wit, the line is the boundary that sets limitations, defines the end of one side of an area and separates two opposing sides. It is the contraction of infinity to the finite. It is the formation of something from nothing because a line segment and its endpoints have no substance; not even energy. Nonetheless it is a part of reality and if you cross over you are on the other side. Sometimes you can go back but don’t want to, sometimes you wish you could but can’t and sometimes you can bounce back and forth like a ping pong ball until some one close to you screams, “I wish you’d make up your mind already!” More at