Folk fears about freedom and responsibility: Determinism vs. reductionism

Journal of Cognition and Culture 6 (1-2):215-237 (2006)
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Abstract

My initial work, with collaborators Stephen Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Jason Turner (2005, 2006), on surveying folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility was designed primarily to test a common claim in the philosophical debates: that ordinary people see an obvious conflict between determinism and both free will and moral responsibility, and hence, the burden is on compatibilists to motivate their theory in a way that explains away or overcomes this intuitive support for incompatibilism. The evidence, if any, offered by philosophers to support the claim that incompatibilism is intuitive has consisted of reports of their own intuitions or informal polls of their students. We were skeptical about the reliability of such evidence, so we used the methodology--”now associated with the label 'experimental philosophy'--”of conducting formal surveys on non-philosophers. Our participants read a scenario that describes a deterministic universe and were then asked to judge whether agents in those scenarios act of their own free will and are morally responsible for their actions. Using three different scenarios with hundreds of participants, we consistently found that the majority (2/3 to 4/5) responded that agents in deterministic universes do act of their own free will and are morally responsible. That is, we found that most ordinary folk do not seem to find incompatibilism intuitive or obviously correct. Our results have been challenged in various ways, philosophical and methodological. For instance, Shaun Nichols (2004, this volume) and Nichols and Joshua Knobe (unpublished) offer some experimental evidence suggesting that, in certain conditions, most people express incompatibilist and libertarian intuitions. I will respond to this work in the following section. I agree that people express conflicting intuitions about free will (after all, we consistently found a minority of participants expressing incompatibilist.

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Eddy Nahmias
Georgia State University

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