Shaun Nichols’ recent paper in Science drew new attention to the ancient issue of free will and also to the very modern method known as ‘experimental philosophy’. Experimental philosophy is liable – perhaps intended – to set the teeth of the older generation on edge, for several reasons. One is that it sounds like an attempt to smuggle into philosophy stuff that shouldn’t be there: if your conclusions can be tested experimentally they’re science, not philosophy. We don’t want real philosophy crowded out by half-baked science. It also sounds like excessive, cringing deference to those assertive scientists, as though some bullied geek started wearing football shirts and fawning on the oppressors. We may have to put up with the physicists taking our lunch money, but we don’t have to pretend we want to be like them.
Actually though, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in experimental philosophy. All the philosophy that goes by the name appears to be real philosophy, often very interesting philosophy; the experiments are not used improperly to clinch a solution but to help clarify and dramatise the problems. Often this works pretty well, and by tethering the discussion to the real world it may even help to prevent an excessive drift into abstract hair-splitting. Philosophers have always been happy to draw on the experiments of scientists as a jumping-off point for discussion, and there seems no special reason why they shouldn’t do the same with experiments of their own.
In this particular case, Nichols shows that there is something odd about people’s intuitive grasp of free will. Subjects were told to assume that determinism, the view that all events are dictated by the laws of physics, applied, and then asked whether someone would be responsible for various things. In the vaguest case they all agreed that in general, given determinism, people were not responsible for events. Given a specific example of a morally debatable act they were less sure; and when they were offered the example of a man who takes out a murder contract on his wife and children, most felt sure he was responsible even given determinism.
This is odd because it’s normally assumed that determinism means no-one can be responsible for anything. In order to be responsible, you have to have been able to do something else, and according to determinism the laws of physics say you couldn’t have done anything but what you did. It’s odder because of the distinction drawn between the cases. Where did that come from?
It could be that something in the experiment predisposed subjects to think they were required to make distinctions of this kind, or it could be that ordinary subjects are just not very good at coming up with strictly logical consequences of artificial assumptions; but I don’t think that’s really it. The distinction between the three cases appears to be a matter of who we’d blame – so it looks as if the man in the street doesn’t really grasp the philosophical concept of responsibility and relies instead on some primitive conception of blameworthiness!!!
But, um – what is the philosophical concept of responsibility? It’s pretty clear when we cite the laws of physics that we’re talking about causal responsibility – but causal responsibility and moral responsibility don’t coincide. It’s clear that you can be causally responsible for an event without being morally responsible: someone pushed you from behind so that you in turn pushed someone under a train. Less clearly, in some cases it is held that you can be morally responsible for events you didn’t deliberately bring about: the legal doctrine strict liability, Oedipus bringing a curse on Thebes, poor Clarissa wondering whether having been raped is in itself a sin. All of these are debatable; we might be inclined to see strict liability as a case of legal overkill: “we care so much about this that we’re not even going to entertain any discussion of responsibility – you’d better just make damn sure things are OK” . In the other cases we typically think the assignments of blame are just wrong (although Milan Kundera notably reclaimed the moral superiority of Oedipus in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Nevertheless the distinction between moral and causal responsibility is clear enough: does the determinist case equivocate between the two, and were Nichols’ subject actually just too shrewd to be taken in?
It seems it might be so. No-one would suggest to a writer that he was not the author of his novel because it was all the result of the laws of physics, although in one sense it’s so. No-one would accept on similar grounds that I’m not responsible for a debt, however abstract and conventional the notions of debt and money may be compared with the rigorous physical account of events. So why should should the physical story stop us concluding that on another level of description we can be interestingly and coherently blameworthy? That would be a form of compatibilism, the view that we can have our determinist cake and eat our free will, too. (I’d be a little uncomfortable leaving it there without some fundamental account of agency and morality, just as I’d be a bit unhappy to say that debt is a convention without some underpinning concept of money and economics – but that’s another discussion.) So perhaps Nichols’ subjects were compatibilists.
That would be an interesting discovery but… I hate to say this… an interesting discovery in psychology. The fact that most people are instinctively compatibilists provides no particular reason to think compatibilism is true. For that, we still have to do the philosophy the old-fashioned way. Scientists may be able to gather truth from the world, like bees with nectar: philosophers are still obliged, like spiders, to spin their webs out of their own internal resources.