Free will may not be so free after all

U. ARIZONA (US) — Is life guided by free will or is it predetermined by a continuous chain of events over which we have no control?

Most people seem to favor free will, and while many, across a range of cultures, reject what is referred to as determinism, says Shaun Nichols, professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Arizona, they remain conflicted over the role of personal responsibility in situations that require moral judgments.

“Mostly what people have done is work on these problems in conceptual ways. You think through the problems; you think about the implications of various theses. And a lot of excellent work has been done on complex philosophical issues using those techniques over the last 2,000 years.”

Experimental philosophy is another tool that can offer new sources of information and help sort through some of these problems, Nichols says.

Details of Nichols’ findings are reported in the journal Science.

The debate over free will and determinism is one such problem. The central tenet in determinism is that everything that happens is the result of something that caused it to happen, which itself was caused by something earlier and so on.

The conflict comes when people are faced with making a choice or a decision that could go one way or another.

“The dilemma is how do we reconcile how we normally think about causal explanation with this intuition that we have that our decisions are not just the product of these inevitable causal chains,” Nichols says.

“It seems like something has to give, either our commitment to free will or the idea that every event is completely caused by the preceding events.”

When children were asked if a ball rolling down a ramp into a box could have done something else, they almost universally said “no.” But when asked if an adult who reached his hand into a box could have done something else, the answer was uniformly “yes.” The answers may indicate that these concepts form early on in life.

Adults show conflicting results when tested. Given a deterministic universe where every decision is the result of past decisions, people generally respond that no one can be held morally responsible for their actions in such a universe.

But when presented with a scenario in which a man in that theoretical universe has committed a particularly heinous criminal act, most test subjects agree that the man is fully morally responsible for his actions.

Conflicting responses may be due to the fact that when people are calm and collected, determinism is thought to exclude free will and moral responsibility. Cases that are much more emotionally charged and hit closer to home, however, elicit something different, Nichols says.

“When you present people with an emotionally laden transgression, and if you ask if the person is morally responsible, then people overwhelmingly say that the person is responsible, even if their action was determined.”

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