Psychological Research on Free Will Intuitions: A Critical Review

5. Experimental Philosophy on Free Will

Experimental Philosophy on Free Will: An Error Theory for Incompatibilist Intuitions
Eddy Nahmias, Dylan Murray
New Waves in Philosophy of Action 2010, eds Jesus Aguilar, Andrei Buckareff and Keith Frankish, Palgrave-Macmillan, 189–216

Author's Abstract

We discuss recent work in experimental philosophy on free will and moral responsibility and then present a new study. Our results suggest an error theory for incompatibilist intuitions. Most laypersons who take determinism to preclude free will and moral responsibility apparently do so because they mistakenly interpret determinism to involve fatalism or 'bypassing' of agents' relevant mental states. People who do not misunderstand determinism in this way tend to see it as compatible with free will and responsibility. We discuss why these results pose a challenge to incompatibilists.


249 Georgia State University undergraduates enrolled in critical thinking or psychology course (58% female)

The authors [Nahmias and Murray 2010] of this study have a commendable objective. As they themselves write, in view of the stalemate between compatibilists and incompatibilists, their aim is to 'gain a better understanding of people's pre-philosophical intuitions about free will, moral responsibility, and determinism' [190]. The authors begin by discussing in some detail [195-9] the shortcomings of the Nichols and Knobe [2007] study. They explain how the design of the Nichols and Knobe study primes participants and encourages them to falsely interpret determinism as entailing 'bypassing'. 'Bypassing' is the term Nahmias and Murray use for that process by which an agent's actions are caused by forces that bypass the agent's conscious self. In this study, Nahmias and Murray aim to eliminate the inherent biases of the Nichols and Knobe study. They predicted a strong correlation between a participant's incompatibilist response and their belief that determinism entails bypassing of an agent's decisions, beliefs and desires.

Good study design included randomization of survey questions and elimination of participants who did not pass a comprehension test and who answered the survey too quickly. As with many of these kinds of studies, participants were restricted to US university undergraduates. This limitation means that we need to exercise some caution in generalizing the results to entire populations.

To test the hypothesis that incompatibilist survey responses are the result of priming and miscuing, the authors subjected participants to one of four versions of the test. These four versions consisted of the description of determinism used in the earlier Nichols and Knobe [2007] study or from the two earlier Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer and Turner [2015, 2016] studies combined with either a concrete or abstract scenario. The authors cut and diced the survey results using a variety of statistical methods and presented the results in some considerable detail.

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

In summary, their predictions about the distorting effects from using abstract scenarios and the Nichols and Knobe description of determinism were borne out by the results. Incompatibilist responses were found to be strongly correlated with participants' incorrect attributions of bypassing to determinism. Conversely, compatibilist responses were strongly correlated with the absence of attributions of bypassing. In particular, further statistical analysis revealed that incompatibilist responses were directly caused by participants' misattribution of bypassing from reading an abstract scenario.

As the authors conclude, 'the vast majority of participants who express apparent incompatibilist intuitions interpret determinism to involve bypassing, while those who express prima facie compatibilist intuitions tend not to misinterpret determinism in this way . . .' [207] What follows is that 'most laypersons do not have genuine incompatibilist intuitions' [209]. Their paper ends with a consideration of some key objections to their methodology and their conclusions.

All up, this is a very thorough study and one that supports my own ordinary language approach to the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists. (See my Free Will and Compatibilism [Allan 2016] for a full treatment.) I concur with the authors' admonition that when 'philosophers end up mired in disputes about the proper analysis of a technical concept of "free will" that no longer connects with ordinary concepts and practices, then these debates risk being irrelevant' [194].

robust methodology, but restricted demographics
Study results:
strongly supports compatibilism
strongly supports compatibilism

Copyright © 2016

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