From the archives: In defense of free will and experimental philosophy

This is another post I’m moving over so I can refer to it in a new post. It’s a response to a post by Jerry Coyne about free will, written before Sam Harris’ book had everyone talking about it.

Jerry Coyne is unhappy with a Eddy Nahmias’ defense of free will, published on the NYT opinionator blog. Here’s Nahmias:

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.


This conception of free will represents a longstanding and dominant view in philosophy, though it is typically ignored by scientists who conclude that free will is an illusion. It also turns out that most non-philosophers have intuitions about free and responsible action that track this conception of free will. Researchers in the new field of experimental philosophy study what “the folk” think about philosophical issues and why. For instance, my collaborators and I have found that most people think that free will and responsibility are compatible with determinism, the thesis that all events are part of a law-like chain of events such that earlier events necessitate later events. That is, most people judge that you can have free will and be responsible for your actions even if all of your decisions and actions are entirely caused by earlier events in accord with natural laws. [This view is known as compatibilism – Hallq]

Our studies suggest that people sometimes misunderstand determinism to mean that we are somehow cut out of this causal chain leading to our actions. People are threatened by a possibility I call “bypassing” — the idea that our actions are caused in ways that bypass our conscious deliberations and decisions. So, if people mistakenly take causal determinism to mean that everything that happens is inevitable no matter what you think or try to do, then they conclude that we have no free will. Or if determinism is presented in a way that suggests all our decisions are just chemical reactions, they take that to mean that our conscious thinking is bypassed in such a way that we lack free will.

And here’s Coyne’s reply:

How do people conceive of free will, though? My own definition, which I think corresponds to most people’s take, is that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently. If you couldn’t, then determinism reigns and we’re not free agents, at least as most people think of them.Philosophers don’t like that notion—the idea that we’re all puppets on the strings of physics. So they do what theologians do when a Biblical claim is disproven: they simply redefine free will in a way that allows us to retain it. Like the story of Adam and Eve, it becomes a metaphor, with a meaning very different from how it was once used.

I’m sympathetic to much of what Coyne says about philosophy and theology, but here he’s completely missing the point. The problem with a lot of liberal theology is that there’s no motivation for it, aside from a desire to somehow save tradition from scientific and moral advances. And in the worst cases, left-wing theologians end up saying things about “God” that make “God” unrecognizable to the vast majority of religious believers. We know this because surveys show that in the US, at least, a larger percentage of the population still adheres to a relatively conservative brand of Christianity.

However, while Coyne asserts that his view of free will is the one most people have, he presents no evidence for this, whereas Nahmias has done actual research on what ordinary people (or at least undergraduates untutored in philosophy) think about free will. Nahmias doesn’t say as much as he could about his research, but anyone who’s curious about it can find free PDFs of some of his papers online (Google Scholar will do better than ordinary Google here).

Nahmias’ research is part of a movement known as “experimental philosophy,” and takes a totally different approach to understanding concepts like “free will” than the one taken by most philosophers and theologians. This means that he shouldn’t be lumped in with them–and I should mention that when I’ve talked negatively about philosophy on this blog, I’m not mainly talking about Nahmias and his fellow experimental philosophers. (Unfortunately, they haven’t solved the problem of philosophers being unable to agree on anything, though.)

I could go over some of the examples Nahmias gives subjects in his research, but instead let me repurpose one of Alvin Plantinga’s examples to make my point. Suppose Curley Smith, mayor of Boston, is offered a $35,000 bribe, and given his venality (and various other conditions, including his financial situation and estimate of the odds of getting caught), it’s a forgone conclusion that he’ll accept the bribe. Maybe if he were less venial, or he felt certain he’d be caught, he’d reject the bribe, but given how things actually are, there’s no way he’s going to reject it.

Now, given this, once Curley accepts the bribe, can we say he chose to accept it? Can we say he could have rejected it? I think the answer to both questions is “yes.” And I think the answer to these questions is still “yes,” even if what guaranteed Curley would accept the bribe was a matter of the laws of psychology. But being people’s actions being determined by initial conditions and laws is just what determinism is. So it seems determinism is compatible with choice, even compatible with being able to do otherwise in a sense.

I say “in a sense” because there’s a sense in which determinism means being unable to do otherwise. It means being unable to do otherwise holding relevant all initial conditions and laws exactly fixed. But in these contexts, I think it’s natural to say “he could have done otherwise” if what we mean is, “he might have rejected the bribe if he were less venal, etc.” And the majority of Nahmias’ subjects seem to agree.

Of course, I’ve described this example at the level of psychology, in terms of personality traits and so on. So you might think bringing in neuroscientific explanations of behavior changes things. But what Nahmias is reporting is that people are mainly bothered by the idea of their actions being the product of chemistry because they think that means the psychological stuff doesn’t matter. And what neuroscience actually does is explain the psychology in terms of chemistry and cell biology. It doesn’t make the psychology irrelevant.

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