What Do People Find Incompatible With Causal Determinism?

Cognitive Science 40 (8):2025-2049 (2016)
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Four studies explored people's judgments about whether particular types of behavior are compatible with determinism. Participants read a passage describing a deterministic universe, in which everything that happens is fully caused by whatever happened before it. They then assessed the degree to which different behaviors were possible in such a universe. Other participants evaluated the extent to which each of these behaviors had various features. We assessed the extent to which these features predicted judgments about whether the behaviors were possible in a deterministic universe. Experiments 1 and 2 found that people's judgments about whether a behavior was compatible with determinism were not predicted by their judgments about whether that behavior relies on physical processes in the brain and body, is uniquely human, is unpredictable, or involves reasoning. Experiment 3, however, found that a distinction between what we call “active” and “passive” behaviors can explain people's judgments. Experiment 4 extended these findings, showing that we can measure this distinction in several ways and that it is robustly predicted by two different cues. Taken together, these results suggest that people carve up mentally guided behavior into two distinct types—understanding one type to be compatible with determinism, but another type to be fundamentally incompatible with determinism.

Author Profiles

Joshua Knobe
Yale University
Adam Bear
Yale University


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