What kinds of alternative possibilities are required of the folk concept(s) of choice?

Consciousness and Cognition 48:138-148 (2017)
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Our concept of choice is integral to the way we understand others and ourselves, especially when considering ourselves as free and responsible agents. Despite the importance of this concept, there has been little empirical work on it. In this paper we report four experiments that provide evidence for two concepts of choice—namely, a concept of choice that is operative in the phrase having a choice and another that is operative in the phrase making a choice. The experiments indicate that the two concepts of choice can be differentiated from each other on the basis of the kind of alternatives to which each is sensitive. The results indicate that the folk concept of choice is more nuanced than has been assumed. This new, empirically informed understanding of the folk concept of choice has important implications for debates concerning free will, responsibility, and other debates spanning psychology and philosophy. Specifically, 'having a choice' appears to require genuinely open alternatives, or alternative possibilities that are actually realizable, while 'making a choice' appears to only require psychological open alternatives, or the ability to consider alternatives independent of whether these alternatives are actually realizable. We argue that these findings are relevant to the free will debate because choice is central to the folk concept of free will and many philosophical analysis of free will. The kinds of alternatives required for having a choice appear to be incompatibilist in nature, while the kinds of alternatives required for making a choice appear to be compatibilist in nature. If free will requires having choices, then this is perhaps evidence against compatibilism. If free will requires making choices, then this is perhaps evidence in favor of--or at least consistent with--compatibilism.

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Jason Shepard
Agnes Scott College


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