Introduction and Context
So far in the free will vs determinism debate we’ve looked at the two major positions (libertarian free will and causal determinism), two interpretations of the debate (compatibilism and incompatibilism), and two positions on the relationship between the free will debate and moral responsibility (Strawson’s Basic Argument and Frankfurt’s compatibilism).
All the positions in the debate seem to rely on eliciting our intuitions in favor of their case. Each side assumes that the “man on the street’s” intuitions will support their respective position. Of course, the proponents of the various arguments don’t have any evidence of this beyond anecdotal responses from students in their 101 classes. However, as any good scientist who wears a lab coat will tell you, the plural of anecdotes is not evidence.
With this in mind, Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer, and Turner (NMN&T) set out to scientifically investigate exactly what the general public’s intuitions are about the relationship between causal determinism, free will, and moral responsibility. More specifically, they wanted to find out if people are natural (i.e., pre-theoretical) compatibilists or incompatibilists. Otherwise stated: are the common sense notions of free will and determinism mutually exclusive or compatible?
Lets see the details of what they found out and how it might impact the philosophical debate…But first, do the first thought experiment to see what your own intuitions are:
Thought Experiment 1: Jeremy Case
Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a super-computer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time. It can look at everything about he way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25, 2150 AD, 20 years before Jeremy Hal is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6pm on Jan. 26, 2195. As always, the supercomputer’s prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6pm on January 26, 2195.
Questions: (1) Did Jeremy rob the bank on his own free will? (2) Do you think when Jeremy robs the bank, he is morally blameworthy for it? (3) Could Jeremy have chosen not to rob the bank?
Method and Objectives
Philosophy corrupts! There have been quite a few studies showing that people’s intuitions change (on a vast array of philosophical issues) depending on how many philosophy classes one’s had. Philosophers on either side of the debate think that their arguments are the most intuitively compelling and most in line with common sense…but of course they do! They’ve been corrupted! Testing philosophers won’t do, we need to test the intuitions of the pure, innocent, and uncorrupted general public…
Why is it important that philosophical theories take into account folk intuitions?
(1) Because if a philosophical position has no roots in common intuition it “runs the risk of being nothing more than a philosophical fiction.” In other words, for philosophical theories have to any practical value, they have at least some relationship to common sense views of the world.
(2) Because our theories of free will and determinism should use notions of such that are also captured by the common sense understanding of the terms–not some highly technical meaning that is unrelated to how folk think of the terms.
What Do the Results Mean to the Debate? BoP
In resolving the free will determinism debate, why should we give a crap about what people’s intuitive judgements are? This presupposes that intuitive judgments magically track truth. Without any good reason to believe the truth-tracking nature of intuitions (e.g., they are often wrong), it seems that eliciting folk intuitions is perhaps interesting data about the psychology of humans but it isn’t evidence either way in the debate. NMN&T agree but suggest that folk intuitions can be used to determine burden of proof. If the majority of people’s intuitions strongly align with one position, then it seems reasonable to shift the burden of proof to the opposing side.
The Results for the Jeremy Case
(1) 76% said Jeremy robbed the bank on his own free will.
Controlling for the Type of Act
In order to control for the fact that Jeremy performs a blameworthy act (which could cause emotional responses that prime the subjects for blaming judgments and overwhelm the effect of determinism) 2 other versions were introduced. In version 2, Jeremy does a praiseworthy action–saving a child, and in version 3, Jeremy does a neutral act (goes jogging).
(2) In cases 2 and 3, the results were similar to the original case: 68% and 79%, respectively, said Jeremy acted on his own free will. So, it seems that overall, people judged that Jeremy acted on his own free will regardless of the type of the act.
Relationship between Judgments of Moral Responsibility and Judgments of Free Will
(3) The next question was to determine evaluation of moral responsibility (“do you think that when Jeremy robs the bank/saves the child, he is morally responsible?”): 83% said he’s morally responsible in the bank-robbing cases and 88% for the child-saving case. Conclusion A: Judgments about free will are closely tied to judgments about moral responsibility.
Relationship between Judgments about the Agent’s Ability to Choose Otherwise and Judgments about Free Will and Moral Responsibility
The final issue to investigate was the folk intuitions about the relationship (in a deterministic world) between an agent’s ability to choose otherwise (ACO) and judgments about that agent’s free will and moral responsibility.
(4a) In the blameworthy variation (bank robbery) evaluations of Jeremy’s ability to choose otherwise more-or-less followed evaluations of free will and moral responsibility. 67% said he could have chosen not to rob the bank. (Difference of 9% from “he robbed on his own free will”)
(4b) In the praiseworthy variation (saving the child), only 38% of subjects said he could have chosen to act otherwise Vs 68% saying he acted on his own free will (Difference of 30%!).
(4c) In the neural version (going jogging) only 43% say he could have acted otherwise compared to only 79% who said he goes jogging on his own free will: A difference of 36%!
Most People have Frankfurtian Compatibilist Intuitions: an agent’s actions can have free will and be responsible without possessing the ability to do otherwise. Recall that Frankfurt’s version of compatibilism is that freedom of the will=having second-order volitions. However, you still have freedom of the will even if your second order volitions are genetically, environmentally, or psychologically determined. The case for compatibilism is most pronounced in the non-blameworthy cases. (Agent can’t choose otherwise yet most people still say the agent has free will).
Free will: 76% say Fred kept the wallet on his own free will and Barney returned it of his own free will. (similar to Jeremy)
Moral Responsibility: 60% said Fred was blameworthy and 64% said Barney was praiseworthy. (94% consistency)
Conclusion: Evaluations of moral responsibility tracks appraisals of free will.
Ability to Choose Otherwise (ACO): 76% say they could have acted otherwise: ACO tracks MR and Free will.
The ACO needs further study. These preliminary results only come from 1st year north american college students. For a stronger inference about universal intuitions on free will and determinism, similar studies would have to be conducted on a wider demographic (different cultures, geographies, socio-economic groups, etc…)
To better understand how are people interpreting the terms (free will and determinism), the study needs to be applied to a wider demographic.
Despite the fact the the majority seem to be compatibilist, there is a large minority that are incompatibilists. Maybe there’s diversity in the population. It might be interesting to study if there is any unifying traits in the determinist group.
The Burden of Proof Shifts to incompatibilism. Incompatibilists often cite intuitions as evidence for their view, but the study’s results show that they’re going to have to rely on some other from of support/evidence.
Complaint: Deterministic nature of the scenario still isn’t strong enough to capture the technical meaning incompatibilist philosophers have in mind.
Reply: Ok, but how do we do that without bringing in other confounding factors?
Brilliant neuroscientist example: A neuroscientist pre-programs Jeremy to want to rob the bank. Problem: maybe judgments about moral responsibility and free will are not because of deterministic nature but b/c the presence of an active manipulator. Determinism is supposed to be a position about how the world “just is”. Determinism doesn’t imply that we are being manipulated, unlike what the neuroscientist case would imply.
If we can find a way to “turn up” the determinism in a thought experiment and it leads to lower evaluations of moral responsibility and free will, then maybe incompatibilists are right. But if the contrary happens, then it is more certain they are wrong about common intuitions.
What is the evidentiary role of intuitions? Why should we suppose they track truth? Should philosophical theory’s have to take into account untrained intuitions?