To complement the paper of Sarkissian et al., which I wrote about the other day, I’ll present as briefly as I can the results of an earlier paper on beliefs about free will by Eddy Nahmias et al. (references to both papers are at bottom, free download on this one).
In contrast to the results of Sarkissian et al., Nahmias et al. conclude that the “average person” (in this case, students “drawn from an Honors student colloquium and several introductory philosophy classes at Florida State University”) were compatibilists about free will. In other words, given a hypothetical “deterministic” universe in which the future was completely determined by the laws of nature acting on the present situation, students still believed that in many concrete situations requiring “moral” judgement, individuals retained free will and moral responsibility for their actions.
Nahmias et al. posed three sets of questions to the students.
Students were given a deterministic scenario and asked two questions about it. Here’s the scenario:
As with the Sarkissian et al. paper, there is no quantum indeterminacy in this scenario, which almost certainly means that one cannot deduce the future state of the universe from the present one, but I don’t think that would affect the results, and at any rate it would be hard to explain to undergraduates the idea of pure indeterminacy.
The students were first asked if the scenario given above was possible. The majority of the students said “no” for various reasons (including quantum indeterminacy!), but also for nondeterministic reasons, like “the computer could never acquire that much information.” Like the students in the Sarkissian et al. study (the latter from four countries), then, these students were not deterministic.
Then the crucial question about free will:
Regardless of how you answered question 1, imagine such a supercomputer actually did exist and actually could predict the future, including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction):
Do you think that, when Jeremy robs the bank, he acts of his own free will?
76% of the students said “yes,” indicating a compatibilist view of free will. Given the deterministic scenario, it’s clear that either this is genuine compatibilist free will exercised in a deterministic universe, or else the students believed in libertarian free will despite the deterministic scenario! That would understand an inability to comprehend true determinism.
To test whether the students accepted free will only because Jeremy did something bad, Nahmias et al. also asked them if Jeremy had free will in this deterministic universe if either b) went jogging (a “neutral” action) or c) saved a child from a burning building (a “praiseworthy” action). They were also asked if Jeremy had moral responsibility in the bank-robbing and saving-child situations.
In all cases the results were “yes”, with more than 60% of the students agreeing that Jeremy had both free will and moral responsibility. Here are the results given in bar charts:
As the authors note, as have other philosophers like Dan Dennett, judgements of moral responsibility are closely aligned with those of free will.
In this study, the authors wanted to see if the respondents thought that Jeremy could have acted otherwise in this situation. They call this the “ability to choose otherwise” (ACO), and this is what many see as a libertarian notion of free will. The authors describe the question:
In these cases, participants were asked—again, imagining the scenario were actual—whether or not Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank (case 6), whether he could have chosen not to save the child (case 7), or whether he could have chosen not to go jogging.
The bar graph gives the ACO (“could have chosen otherwise” figures compared to those already given for judgement about whether Jeremy had free will:
The authors summarize these data:
In the blameworthy variation, participants’ judgments of Jeremy’s ability to choose otherwise (ACO) did in fact track the judgments of free will and responsibility we collected, with 67% responding that Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank. However, in the praiseworthy case, judgments of ACO were significantly different from judgments of his free will and responsibility: Whereas a large majority of participants had judged that Jeremy is free and responsible for saving the child, a majority (62%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to save the child?’’ Finally, in the morally neutral case, judgments of ACO were also significantly different from judgments of free will—again, whereas a large majority had judged that Jeremy goes jogging of his own free will, a majority (57%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to go jogging?’’
I have two comments here. I’m puzzled that despite the presentation of an explicitly deterministic scenario for human action, 67% of the students still concluded that Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank. While that could superficially be seen as compatibilism, it also seems to be a compatibilism based largely on an acceptance of libertarian free will, so that perhaps the students don’t understand the real conflict between libertarianism and determinism.
Second, the notion of “choosing otherwise” may mean different things in a praiseworthy versus a blameworthy situation. In the bank-robbing situation, it may mean that the students really did think Jeremy had a choice. In the “save-a-child” situtation, it may mean that it would be unthinkable for Jeremy not to save the child, so “no choice” is a sign of moral duty, not freedom of will.
The authors proffered a third scenario because of the possibility that [they] “did not make the deterministic nature of the scenario salient enough to the participants.” (They were worried that the “supercomputer” example was not clear enough in mandating determinism.) They thus described a third scenario corresponding to determinism based on genes and environment:
Imagine there is a world where the beliefs and values of every person are caused completely by the combination of one’s genes and one’s environment. For instance, one day in this world, two identical twins, named Fred and Barney, are born to a mother who puts them up for adoption. Fred is adopted by the Jerksons and Barney is adopted by the Kindersons. In Fred’s case, his genes and his upbringing by the selfish Jerkson family have caused him to value money above all else and to believe it is OK to acquire money however you can. In Barney’s case, his (identical) genes and his upbringing by the kindly Kinderson family have caused him to value honesty above all else and to believe one should always respect others’ property. Both Fred and Barney are intelligent individuals who are capable of deliberating about what they do.
One day Fred and Barney each happen to find a wallet containing $1000 and the identification of the owner (neither man knows the owner). Each man is sure there is nobody else around. After deliberation, Fred Jerkson, because of his beliefs and values, keeps the money. After deliberation, Barney Kinderson, because of his beliefs and values, returns the wallet to its owner.
Given that, in this world, one’s genes and environment completely cause one’s beliefs and values, it is true that if Fred had been adopted by the Kindersons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to return the wallet; and if Barney had been adopted by the Jerksons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to keep the wallet.
The result were these: 76% of the participants judged that Barney returned the wallet and Fred kept it of their own free will. That result is similar to the figures from the Jeremy scenario. Further, 60% of the participants judged Fred blameworthy for keeping the wallet and 64% of the participants found Barney praiseworthy for returning it. These views were concordant 90% of the time. Finally, 76% of the participants judged that both Fred and Barney “could have done otherwise.”
Again, this evinces a superficial compatibilism, but I am a bit worried about the last result. Clearly, in a deterministic universe—one in which Fred and Barney’s actions were completely determined by their genes and environment—each could have made only one decision. Either the students do not understand what “could have done otherwise” means, or they have a very sophisticated notion, à la Dennett, of what it does mean, which is that at any given moment either decision was not possible in identical circumstances, but in slightly different circumstances a different decision was possible.
Although the authors note that the students’ replies indicate that they were compatibilist, I am worried that the students still don’t fully comprehend what determinism really means, something that I think philosophers need to clarify when asking such questions. I simply don’t think they’re sophisticated enough to comport “I could have behaved otherwise” with accepting a purely deterministic world. To the authors’ credit, though, they too worry about this.
I won’t summarize the authors’ discussion, but it’s a very good summary of the state of the art, with all the proper caveats and possible objections to their results. On the whole, I liked the paper.
I am of course a “hard incompatibilist”, but the subject of these papers was not to judge whether compatibilism or incompatibilism is the philosophically proper stance. Rather, Nahmias et al. and Sarkissian et al. had identical tasks: are most people compatibilists or incompatibilists? The former says “compatibilists”; the latter “incompatibilists.” How do we reconcile these conflicting results?
As Sarkissian et al. note, perhaps the students tend to be incompatibilists when presented with a scenario asking them to choose “world views”—the vast majority of students in their four-country samples were not determinists and did accept free will—while students tend to be compatibilists when presented, as did Nahmias et al., with more concrete moral dilemmas. This disparity deserves further exploration. But I also think that philosophers who are physical determinists (while accepting some quantum indeterminacy) need to work harder to convey that view to the public. After all, most secular philosophers dealing with this issue are deterministics. The difficulty of limning determinism might be evinced in some of the counterintutive results of the Nahmias et al. paper.
Nahmias, E., S. Morris, T. Nadelhoffer, and J. turner. 2006. Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility. Philosohical Psychology 18:561-584.
Sarkissian, H., A. Chatterjee, F. De Brigard, J. Knobe, N. S., and S. Sirker. 2010. Is belief in free will a cultural universal? Mind & Language 25:346-358.