Free Will in Experimental Philosophy

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Free Will in Experimental Philosophy

Although the “free will” problem envelops a spectrum of ideas, I agree with the following belief: “The folk are compatibilists about free will. ” While there are, of course, incompatibilists and indeterminists, for the most part, the general population consists of compatibilists. Now, I know experimental philosophy has a problem with the use of generalizations without actual statistics, but throughout this paper, I will explain exactly why the world revolves in a generally compatibilist manner.

Firstly, to speak of compatibilism, you’d have to assume that the world is deterministic, meaning that everything that happens from here on out, including human action, is caused by the facts of everything that has happened before it. With that assumption in mind, compatibilist believe that we still have free will as long as we aren’t operating under external limitations. The problem with that is that although compatibilists believe we are free, there is still disagreement on just exactly how free we may be, which is the weak spot indeterminists and incompatibilists use to try to break the argument.

One nature of compatibilism is referred to as classic compatibilism. This means that we’d be acting freely as long as we, without being impeded by any outside force, take a course of action that we personally choose for ourselves. These compatibilists believe that it is the presence of impediments such as “physical restraints, lack of opportunity, duress or coercion, physical or mental impairment, and the like” that would cause us to not act freely (Caruso, 2012). However, this line of reasoning is not accepted by those who support the Consequence Argument.

In the simplest terms, this argument states that no one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature. Also, no one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i. e. , determinism is true). Because of that, no one has power over the facts of the future (McKenna, 2004). Compatibilists respond to this by saying that the focal point should be the differentiation between free and un-free, and not by the absence of causes. Other philosophers argue that we act freely when our first order and second order desires become aligned.

Because our mental processes are more developed than those of younger children and simpler animals, we have the rationale to decide whether our instincts or raw desires should be acted upon. That rationale is referred to as the second order desires (Frankfurt, 1971). For example, Chris is at the bar with his girlfriend Ana. While Chris has stepped away to the restroom, Jose approaches Ana and flirts with her in a manner that she does not feel comfortable with. Once out of the bathroom, Chris sees this.

Enraged, he initially wants to go and physically put Jose in his place. In spite of this, he remembers that he is up for a promotion at work, and getting into a bar fight probably won’t help his chances of receiving it. He tells Ana to collect her things. They leave. What we see here is the protagonist, Chris, experiencing first order desires that make him want to hurt Jose. His second order desires are what tell him that although he is feeling those first order desires, his second order desires are not in agreement and therefore, he shouldn’t act on them.

Although some compatibilists seem to be satisfied with this reasoning because it justifies the causation of our actions, it doesn’t explain whether our thoughts and desires are consequences of the past as well. An example would be that Kate feels the desire to take a run in the park and does so. Yet, if determinism is true, which compatibilists believe it is, she is already determined to feel that way, and although she may want to feel that way, without any outside force acting on her she is not free (McKenna, 2004).

Her first order and second order desires may even align, but without the ability to do otherwise, due to determinism, she would not be free. Even so, compatibilist Michael Levin says “minding or accepting one’s desires is as much an effect of past causes as the desires themselves,” but if our internal desires are causally determined, they cannot also be free. All it would be is a different form of causality (Caruso, 2012).

Nevertheless, compatibilists argue that it isn’t necessary for an individual to have been able to do otherwise (Nahmias, Stephen, Nadelhoffer, & Turner, 2005). If there were the choices of A through Z and someone that could manipulate me into doing A that would do so if I didn’t do it on my own, I would still have free will if I picked A without the manipulation. In this case, compatibilist see me as having had free will because I chose A on my own. My 1st order desires were aligned with my 2nd and that is why A happened.

If I had been manipulated to do so, then the problem of free will would once again come into question, but being that the manipulator is fairly irrelevant to the story since I acted on my own accord, and would have done the same thing without the potential manipulative factor. Also, there a couple of studies done to determine what relationship non-philosophers believed existed between free will, determinism, and moral responsibility. In Study 1, there were three scenarios. Scenario 1 was negative. Scenario 2 was positive, and Scenario 3 was neutral.

In all three cases, between 68 – 79% of folk said there was free will. While there were some fluctuations in percentages when it came to the association between free will and the ability to choose otherwise, the amount of participants making judgments that disagreed with incompatibilism was two to three times greater than those that followed along with incompatibilist intuitions. This study was supported by their second study. In this study, they tell the subjects that everything in the universe is caused completely by their genes and environment.

The scenario takes twins, Fred and Barney, and places Fred with the Jerksons and Barney with the Kindersons. One day they both find a wallet with $1000. Fred keeps it, while Barney returns it to its rightful owner. When polling the participants, 76% said they both acted on their own free will and could have done otherwise. This shows that the majority of folk believe that compatibilism is true, and while external factors and facts of the past might influence the choice making process, it does not define it; therefore we are free within the confines of a determined universe (Nahmias, Stephen, Nadelhoffer, & Turner, 2005).

Now, why do I personally find “the folk are compatibilist about free will” to be true? Aside from the aforementioned statistics, the reason is that if we did not find a middle ground between free will and determinism, we wouldn’t do any of the things we do. Everything from the grading systems used in schools to receiving a promotion at work all the way to fighting wars is done in a compatibilist manner. The premise of all these concepts is the idea that if you choose do X, having the option of Y, Z will happen.

If you work hard enough in school (X), you will receive good grades (Z), even though you can just be lazy (Y). If you are the most productive and pleasant at your job (X), you will receive a promotion (Z). If we go into a war (X), we have the chance of winning (Z). While all the factors in each of those scenarios might have also been determined, there is no reason for us to feel disappointment when we really studied but still managed to only get a B on a test or when we lose troops across seas.

Though the previous paragraph does explain that folk believe in free will, it doesn’t explain why folk have the compatibilist view of free will. The reasoning for that is because while compatibilists believe that you can control some aspects of your life, you can’t control all of them. As Michael Levin said, “Compatibilist usually agree that free will does require behavior at least to be determined, since you cannot freely do what is beyond your control. ” For example, we are born and we die. The sun rises. The sun sets. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

There are certain laws of physics that we must adhere to. Some will argue that we believe those to be stable laws of how the universe will operate, but only because that’s what it’s done until now. Tomorrow we might not have the sun rise, and tomorrow we might inhale carbon monoxide and exhale nitrogen. However, since certain things have been fixed for a trustworthy amount of time, we, the folk, have accepted it as determined facts of the universe. The determined factors of the universe are the skeleton upon which we place the flesh that is our free will. ? References Caruso, G. D.

(2012). The Folk Psychology of Free Will: Arguement Against Compatibilism. Kriterion – Journal of Philosophy, 26, 56-89. Frankfurt, H. G. (1971, January 14). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal of Philosophy, 5-20. McKenna, M. (2004, April 26). Compatibilism. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/compatibilism/ Nahmias, E. , Stephen, M. , Nadelhoffer, T. , & Turner, J. (2005, October). Surverying Freedom: Folk Intuitions about Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Philosophical Psychology, 18(5), 561 – 584.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 9 November 2016

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