The Wilson Quarterly

Do humans have free will? The question is as old as dirt. Now experimental philosophers are trying to gain insight into the issue in a new way: by using techniques borrowed from the social sciences to uncover the intuitions that drive ordinary people to give different answers to questions about free will.

In one experiment, writes University of Arizona philosophy professor Shaun Nichols, participants are told to imagine a “determined” universe in which “every decision is completely caused by what happened before the decision.” Study participants tend to respond that people in such a universe should not be held responsible for their actions. But if they are asked whether someone in such a world could be held responsible for killing his own family, participants say yes. “Concrete cases of bad behavior lead people to attribute responsibility,” Nichols observes. This pattern seems to hold true across cultures.

The answer also changes when the scenario is less distant. If told that many scientists believe that our own world is determined, people are much less forgiving of wrongdoing than they are when the world under consideration is determined but imaginary.

Finally, human responses vary depending on the kind of wrongdoing being discussed. Imagining a determined world, people are less likely to hold a tax evader to blame than they are someone who has committed a more emotionally charged act, such as rape.

The divided responses people give in experimental philosophy tests pretty accurately reflect a centuries-old division among traditional philosophers. Some thinkers have argued that even a determined universe is “compatible” with the concept of moral responsibility, others that it’s not. Nichols says that the new philosophy will shed light on the “psychological mechanisms” behind each approach, and ultimately on the old-as-dirt question itself.

THE SOURCE: “Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will” by Shaun Nichols, in Science, March 18, 2011.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Damien Dempsey

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