Folk Fears about Freedom and Responsibility: Determinism vs. Reductionism

Nahmias, E. "Folk Fears about Freedom and Responsibility: Determinism vs. Reductionism." Journal of Cognition and Culture 6(1-2): 215-37, 2006.

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. In surveys of non-philosophers, we consistently found that the majority 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, especially by Shaun Nichols, who suggests that, in certain conditions, most people express incompatibilist and libertarian intuitions. In this paper I will offer some alternative interpretations of Nichols’ experimental results and then present new experiments whose results suggest alternative psychological mechanisms are driving some of the conflicting results of folk surveys. My goal is to bolster the claim that most people’s pre-philosophical intuitions do not pick out determinism as a threat to free will and moral responsibility, but instead ordinary people fear that certain reductionistic or mechanistic descriptions of decision-making and action conflict with freedom and responsibility. I believe that intuitive support for incompatibilism derives in large part from presenting determinism in a way that co-opts these fears of reductionism. Put simply: the most intuitive pre-philosophical view is that free will and responsibility are possible so long as our conscious deliberations, plans,
and decisions make the right sort of causal contribution to our actions, so any thesis that suggests our actions are caused by processes that bypass our conscious mental life is intuitively threatening to freedom and responsibility. I will conclude with a brief discussion of the various conflicting intuitions the nascent experimental work has uncovered, conflicts that potentially help to explain the enduring nature of philosophical debates about free will.

(Introduction, edited)

(My publication)Posted:Jan 01 2006, 12:00 AM by enahmias
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