One of the recurrent arguments made by free-will “compatibilists” (i.e., those who see free will as being compatible with physical determinism), is that those of us who are incompatibilists—in my case, I think people conceive of free will as reflecting a dualistic “ghost in the brain,” and find that incompatible with the determinism that governs our behavior—is this: “Nobody really believes in dualistic free will—the sense that one could have done otherwise. Thus, invoking your kind of incompatibilism is accepting a form of free will that nobody espouses. So why bother to beat a dead horse?”
Well, of course, they’re wrong insofar as there are many religionists who firmly believe and espouse dualistic free will. Except for Calvinists, for instance, many Christians think that God gave us libertarian (“I could have chosen otherwise”) free will so we can choose not only whether to accept Jesus as our savior, but also to do good or evil. That, these believers say, is why there is evil in the world: human-caused evil is simply a byproduct of the dualistic free will that God gave us. If we have the ability to choose God and Jesus, then an unavoidable byproduct is to choose to do good and evil. That’s explicitly dualistic. (I must add that this religious “free will” argument cannot explain the existence of physical evils, like earthquakes and childhood cancers.)
But many philosophers cite a seven-year-old paper of Eddy Nahmias et al. (reference below) that seems to show, using specific moral situations, that many people (by “people,” they mean honors students at Florida State University) feel that even in a deterministic universe, people still say that they choose actions of their own free will and are morally responsible for those actions. That seems to show that Florida State honors students are compatibilists. The Nahmias paper is ubiquitously cited as evidence that the average person is a compatibilist.
I am in the process of reading the Nahmias et al. paper for the second time, but have discovered that there is a spate of literature since 2006 that points to opposite conclusions: a majority of people think that a.) the universe is not deterministic and b.) that if the world were truly deterministic, then we have no moral responsibility for our actions.
I finished one of the latter papers yesterday (I read it first because it was shorter!), and will report on the Nahmias et al. paper tomorrow. But for the nonce let us not accept Nahmias’s results as the final word on what the “average person” believes about free will. I would also hope that those many readers who are compatibilists will not try to pick many criticisms with today’s paper but then go easy on the Nahmias paper simply because it comports with their beliefs. In truth, a scan of the Nahmias paper (I read it some time ago) shows that it’s somewhat problematic.
But more on that tomorrow. Let’s look at the paper by Hagop Sarkissian et al. (reference below).
The authors first recount the historical controversy, citing several papers showing that “folk intuition,” contra Nahmias et al, is indeed incompatibilist, and they find a correlation between the kind of study conducted and whether people are shown to be compatibilist or incompatibilist:
These studies that elicited compatibilist responses have an interesting feature: they ask participants to consider concrete cases, often of a type guaranteed to provoke affective responses (such as killing a person or robbing a bank). There is now a wealth of studies in social psychology exploring links between affect and theoretical cognition suggesting that such concrete, affect-laden cases may introduce biases in folk judgments (e.g. Lerner, Goldberg and Tetlock, 1998; Smart and Loewenstein, 2005). It is therefore important to see whether the compatibilist intuitions hold up when participants are presented not with a case likely to trigger affect, but instead asked more directly whether moral responsibility can be possible in a deterministic universe.
In other words, if you give students general scenarios of how the world works, rather than special case studies (even if both limn a deterministic world), subjects show themselves as incompatibilists.
One of these studies, cited by Sarkissian et al., was done by Nichols and Knobe (2007, reference below). In the first part of their studies they presented the students with two different kinds of universes: Universe A is fully deterministic and Universe B is indeterministic insofar as decision-making occurs. That is, in Universe B, but not A, people could have chosen otherwise at any point when they must make a decision:
Nichols and Knobe then asked, “Which of these universes do you think is most like ours? (circle one)
Nearly all participants in that study (I haven’t read it, but presume they were American college students), chose “B”: the indeterminstic universe. In other words, the vast majority of people believed in dualistic free will and were indeterminists about decisions.
Then Nichols and Knobe gave the students a concrete situation:
In this case, in the deterministic universe (the one students almost all rejected), most (72%) still held Bill morally responsible. That is a compatibilist response! Clearly, outlining a concrete situation rather than an abstract one changed the students’ judgements.
Another set of students were asked a more abstract question:
Clearly, whether you see respondents as compatibilist or incompatibilist depends on how you ask the question. It is possible, for instance, that sudents interpret the world according to abstract theories (the second question) and so are largely incompatibilist. Or they could judge specific situations, evincing compatibilism. What is manifestly clear, and something people haven’t emphasized, is that the subjects almost all believe in an indeterministic universe in which people can, in a given situation, make more than one decision. To me, that’s clearly incompatibilism if, like most of us, you accept a determinstic universe. Or at least it shows that most people aren’t determinists.
The present paper by Sarkissian et al. extends Nichols and Knobe’s (“abstract situation”) results to four groups of students from four places: a total of 231 undergraduates from a.) two US universities, b.) an Indian university, c.) Hong Kong university, and d.) a university in Bogotá, Colombia. Their aim was to see how notions of determinism and moral responsibility varied across the world.
They presented all the students with the same two universes described by Nichols and Knobe: Universe A, deterministic, and Universe B, indeterministic for decision making (that, of course, means indeterministic for other stuff, since once a libertarian decision is made, the course of history is forever changed). They asked two questions again. Here’s the first one:
And here are the results: the large majority of students in all four areas believed in an indeterministic universe, one in which people could have decided otherwise:
In all four areas, 60-75% were moral incompatibilists: they thought that in a deterministic universe, people are not fully morally responsible for their decisions. So, on the whole, students are both indeterminists and incompatibilists.
The impressionistic notion that people don’t accept determinism is seen in these two studies, and perhaps as well their belief in moral responsibility depends on kind of universe we really don’t have. At any rate, the lesson is that we need to teach people that Universe A is the right one (excepting, of course, some quantum indeterminacy), and that Universe B, in which people have libertarian free will, is the wrong one.
This study, using an abstract situation, gives no evidence that the average person is a compatibilist. (Remember, though, that these are all students who were surveyed. What the study shows is that students from four diverse places show similar moral and physical intuitions.)
One curious result of this study, however, was that the minority of students who responded to the first question as determinists also tended to respond to question B as compatibilists. That is, a significantly higher fraction of those who believe in a clocklike world thought people were more morally responsible than did the larger fraction of people who believe in a world in which people could make free, libertarian decisions! It’s possible that this means that those people hold to moral responsibility even more tenaciously because they think that accepting a deterministic world tends to lead people to behave immorally. It also suggests that the more we convince people that the world is deterministic, the more people will accept moral responsibility—that is, compatibilism will grow. Now I don’t believe in the notion of “moral responsibility” in a world where nobody can freely choose their actions, but to each their own.
To me, the data show that the most important task for scientists and philosophers is to teach people that we live in Universe A. If most people think they don’t, then any philosophical version of compatibilism is logically (but not emotionally) incoherent. And I still feel that accepting a deterministic world has enormous beneficial consequences for how we punish and reward people, especially when it concerns the judicial system. In a deterministic universe, there’s no room for punishment based on retribution, or differential punishment based on the notion that people could vs. could not choose how to behave. But philosophers seem to prefer arguing about semantics (“compatibilism” vs. “incompatibilism” when nearly all admit a deterministic universe) than discussing the very real implications of accepting determinism. I’m beginning to think that such philosophers are deliberately removing themselves from the real world.
Sarkissian et al. go on to speculate whether these views are innate or are learned through experience (of course, both factors may act). They reach no decision, and I find their results much more interesting than the speculations.
These results are at odds with the findings of Nahmias et al., and, at least insofar as the Universe A vs. Universe B question is concerned, convince me that most people don’t believe in physical determinism of decisions. I’ll argue tomorrow that the question posted to the Florida students by Nahmias et al. don’t fully lay out the consequences of determinism, but I need to first finish their paper. (I’ve read it before but want to refresh myself.)
One difference between the two sets of studies (Nahmias et al. vs. Sarkissian et al. and Nichols and Knobe) is that Nahmias et al. did not ask students to judge whether the universe was determinstic or indeterministic; rather, students were presented with a deterministic universe. Their study thus gives no information on the prevalence of “average people’s” views on determinism.
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.
Nichols, S. and J. Knobe. 2007. Moral responsibility and determinism: the cognitive science of folk intuitions. Nouse 41:663-685.
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.