Picture: Experiment. 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.



  1. 1. Kevin Kim says:

    This sounds an awful lot like ground covered by Herbert Fingarette in 1972. He contended in his Confucius: The Secular as Sacred that the word “responsibility” has two principal senses: (1) being the locus/origin of an action, and (2) being a moral agent. Sense (1) applies to a mother bear killing a hiker who strayed too close to her cubs: when someone asks, “Who killed the hiker?” we can point to the bear. Senses (1) and (2) apply to a man who kills a family: he did it, and he’s a murderer. Sense (1), however, is usually enough of a reason to motivate a community to go out and capture/kill the bear that ate the hiker, but is, for whatever reason, insufficient in most Western societies as a reason to mete out extreme punishments to the insane.

  2. 2. William Russell says:

    What exactly is the alternative being offered to determinism which clears up the responsibility problem? Without strict determinism (material or otherwise), we are necessarily random in our actions, if only partially – and insofar as our actions are random, how are we responsible for them?

    We always hear about how determinism undermines free will, as if there’s some other (nicer) possibility enabling “true choice”, in which we (whatever “we” are in this scenario) can take actions freely. In the end you’re suggesting something analogous to a “spirit realm” in which our “will” can make decisions in such a way that we’re responsible for them (so not random) without their being determined by our current state. It isn’t coherent.

  3. 3. Luigi Semenzato says:

    Here’s my take on this. We cannot explain “free will” rationally, but we are very fond of the concept, so that even when we are told to pretend it doesn’t exist, we fail to do so in emotionally charged situations. We are fond of free will for two reasons. Firstly, because it works. The assumption of free will and personal responsibility is a useful one for dealing with complex social issues, even if it’s an illusion. Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, believing in our own free will is part of a set of inborn instincts that were shaped into our brains by evolution. You can easily see these instincts even in other animals, particularly social mammals. The sense of fairness and guilt, for instance. Even my dog acts guilty when he does something bad. Should I assume that my child feels guilty when he acts guilty, but my dog does not? In the case of free will, if I believe I had a choice when I did something wrong, then I am likely to put more effort at retraining myself to make a better choice next time. If I don’t believe it, why bother? And of these two attitudes, which one leads to a higher rate of survival?

  4. 4. Vicente says:

    Ok here we have the free will issue again.

    IMO, there are two possible positions, to be a determinist or a dualist. Once you are a dualist you might consider the possibility of free will to be.

    If we behave like a very complex physical system, then that’s it, doesn’t matter if the governing equations are deterministic, chaotic, probabilistic (quantum), the difference is whether we can predict our future behaviour (by “brute force” assuming almost infinite computing power, gedankenexperiment kind of), or we can just calculate the probability of certain future behaviour. In both case, there is no free will.

    If we accept that we are something more than a physical system, then the non-physical part could account for free will, or not, but it is a precondition for it in any case.

    If our behaviour can be model as the solution of huge a physical equations system, then is not just that there is no free will, there might not even be will. We wouldn’t have got more will than the computer has when you press the submit comment button triggering the comment upload. The concepts of will and free will are difficult to dissociate. Even if you do something pushed by the circumstances, you could say that the action was free, you just took into account the pressing factors to make the free choice (if it were case).

    To me, the choices are: determinism or dualism. Mind you, dualism doesn’t guarantee free will. Compatibilism will require of dualism anyway.

    The solution of the problem of consciousness is an indispensable input for the solution of the problem of will/free will.

  5. 5. John says:

    I am surprised that both the ‘experimenters’ and the correspondents on this blog believe that the free-will debate is about determinism.

    What should amaze us about the conscious free will debate is that it contains an obvious regress (a version of the regress spotted by Ryle half a century ago). If a decision just pops into the mind of a conscious intelligent agent then it cannot be said that the decision was “free will” – it was just a hunch. So how can an intelligent agent decide something? For an intelligent agent to make a conscious decision she must be conscious of the process by which the decision is made. But each step of the process can be said to ‘just pop into mind’ so our intelligent agent must be aware of every step in the processes that gave rise to every step.. and this applies ad infinitum. (See Conscious free will and empiricism which also has an answer to the regress).

    Given that this philosophical flaw in the “free will debate” is both obvious and well known the experimental philosophers cannot be doing philosophy at all. There is no need for their experiment and all it served to demonstrate is that the experimenters were as ill-informed about free will as their subjects.

    I like your comment that ‘experimental philosophy’ looks like psychology.

  6. 6. quentin says:

    @William Russel

    What do you call “Random”? It requires a clarification.
    As far as I know, we call “Random” what is unpredictable. Apparently, that is your definition too. However in that sense, “true choice” for a person is “random” for another one – strictly speaking, something random for an observer is not necessarily blind or irresponsible (though it can be the case). Actually randomness does not entail anything about responsability or irresponsability, and I think we need another criteria for distinguishing between blind-randomness and responsible-randomness… Let me propose awareness.

  7. 7. quentin says:


    It seems to me that the moment when free-will supposedly plays a role is not before an idea poped into mind, but then and after – when this idea is transformed into will and becomes an actor of our intention.

  8. 8. Alex says:

    Sorry if this gets a bit waffly – but I think William Russell’s comment of “without strict determinism (material or otherwise), we are necessarily random in our actions, if only partially – and insofar as our actions are random, how are we responsible for them?” sums up the horns of the free will dilemma fairly accurately – it’s interesting to note, however, that a similar problem is faced in quantum physics – how to account for the collapse of the wave function from a range of possibilities in superposition into a single actuality. The theory gives you the likelihood of each value occuring but nothing within the theory specifies which value, in actuality, will occur – and this is, as far as I understand it, an ontological rather than epistemological randomness.

    I always liked Henry Stapp’s take on the subject, drawing on Von Neumann. You can certainly disagree with his views on the precise mechanisms of consciousness and quantum physics, but given that quantum physics has certainly reopened the debate on determinism, it seems a bit silly to run an experiment telling subjects to assume the truth of a highly contested proposition in physics, and then to note that they run into incoherency when confronted with actualities. So does determinism, as current physical theories stand (pace Bohm, for the purposes of debate!).

    On a related note, I really liked the BBC’s recent article on smell: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12827893 – about how smell may or may not be best explained by quantum physics. The reason being that while it’s intuitively easy to see (and hence to study) physical correlates for visual qualia via the EM spectrum, I’ve never really understood how chemical elements supposedly translated into the qualia for smell and taste. It would be interesting if more and more quantum effects are discovered at work in the brain and indeed the sensory system more widely, and would certainly open up more room for interpretations similar to Stapp’s.

    As ever, apologies for rambling comments with imperfect knowledge!



  9. 9. Vicente says:


    I’ve never really understood how chemical elements supposedly translated into the qualia for smell and taste.

    All the senses have the same problem in what to qualia concerns, no matter if it is sight, smell or touch.

    The physical or chemical stimulii are transduced into nervous signals and then reach the corresponding brain areas, how do then qualia emerge is a mystery.

    Actually you could directly electrically stimulate the olfatory nerve and get all kind of sensations without any external chemical involved in the process.

    The problem the BBC documentary presents is how to map the molecular properties into olfatory cell responses.

    “without strict determinism (material or otherwise), we are necessarily random in our actions, if only partially – and insofar as our actions are random, how are we responsible for them?”

    We would be as random as a computer or a robot running a programme. To me this is the case (with no free will), we would be running multilayer architecture software, we run the law’s of physics programme, that is used to run the laws of biology programme, that is used to run the social programme and so on…

    It is just that some would have better or different HW and SW than others, but we would all be “androids”. Maybe we would include some random number generators for some functions but that’s all.

    This means epiphenomenalism in what to consciousness concerns.

  10. 10. John says:

    Alex: “I think William Russell’s comment of “without strict determinism (material or otherwise), we are necessarily random in our actions, if only partially – and insofar as our actions are random, how are we responsible for them?” sums up the horns of the free will dilemma fairly accurately ”

    I do not agree. Whether the world is deterministic or not Ryle’s regress makes the discussion a non-sequitur. Free will cannot be about determinism because the conscious intelligent agent cannot have its own conscious rational processes and does not know its unconscious thoughts until they have popped into mind so it has not consciously willed them. Worse still we cannot know a decision until after it has been made so how can we decide whether the decision is right? This is yet another “Ryle’s Regress” in which we need to decide whether we have decided that we have decided… before we can truly know we have decided (or we can just give up and let the unconscious parts of our brain pop an answer into our minds but then we don’t know how we came to the decision so it is not “free will”). These well-known philosophical points mean that “free-will” cannot be about determinism versus non-determinism, free will must be about something else if it is to exist at all.

    Quentin: “It seems to me that the moment when free-will supposedly plays a role is not before an idea poped into mind, but then and after – when this idea is transformed into will and becomes an actor of our intention.”

    So, something pops into mind then you perform a set of processing steps on it to make a decision. If the processing steps are rational then they are deterministic so your “will” is fully determined by the idea that “popped into mind”. By definition you know nothing about the origin of this idea that just “popped into mind” – is that “free will”? Is free will a set of rational steps based on a stimulus of unknown origin? Well, suppose this is indeed the case, if this is so then what is the basis for each of these rational processing steps? Surely they are just popping into mind as well. For instance, suppose the first processing step consisted of a statement using inner speech, if it does not just “pop into mind” we would need to consciously construct every phoneme of every word and the connections between them.. There is no time to explore the infinite regress that occurs at every step of rational processing so our “free will” becomes reduced to nothing more than a succession of objects that just pop into mind.

  11. 11. Charles Wolverton says:

    Einstein’s succinct version of what I take to be John’s essential point was: “You can will what you want, but you can’t will what you will.”

    From a Rortian pragmatist perspective, the important questions to ask about free will and/or determinsim relate to whether belief in either affects practice, either personal or communal.

    With respect to personal practice, I would answer “It shouldn’t at all.” One need only ask: “What would I do if determinism were somehow irrefutably confirmed?” I consider the only sensible answer to be “Carry on as before.” That answer comes naturally to me since I’ve lived my whole intellectual life under the assumption that the concept intended to be captured by “determinism” is the way things work. But I think it should be anyone’s answer. To think that one could do something different under a given set of circumstances seems to me to misunderstand determinism. (“different” from what?) And I see the answer to the companion question “What would I do if free will were somehow irrefutably confirmed?” is essentially the same because we necessarily act as if we believed in the concept intended to be captured by “free will” even if we profess philosophical disbelief in that concept.

    With respect to communal practice, I think we would need to distinguish moral responsibility and social accountability. The former only makes sense if some concept of “free will” is assumed, so it vanishes if one assumes strict determinism. But the latter is clearly necessary for a functioning society. However, the objective of the legal system would need to become protection and therapy rather than punishment. This doesn’t mean that it would no longer be necessary to remove offending actors from society, possibly permanently (not necessarily excluding execution in extreme cases), only that protection of society and effective therapy should be the objective. Moral outrage should be left to individuals as needed for personal emotional comfort.

  12. 12. quentin says:


    “If the processing steps are rational then they are deterministic ”

    If it’s free will, then they are not deterministic. My suggestion is that awareness and intention are mixed into the same movement (which is precisely what we call being conscious). There is no additional “rational processing step” over awareness : if free-will exists, it is entirely confined inside consciousness – otherwise it is not free-will. Consciousness *is* the process.

  13. 13. John says:

    quentin: “Consciousness *is* the process”

    I hope I am not being regressive if think I agree. The only point I would add is that “consciousness” is probably not a simple process consisting of stepwise computation. This was the tentative conclusion of Conscious free will and empiricism in which I argue that conscious free will is linked to geometry rather than process.

    Charles: “From a Rortian pragmatist perspective, the important questions to ask about free will and/or determinsim relate to whether belief in either affects practice, either personal or communal. ”

    Perhaps I would first ask what is the point of doing anything?

  14. 14. Charles Wolverton says:

    “Perhaps I would first ask what is the point of doing anything?”

    I’m not sure what to make of this rather unfocused question, so I have ask in response “As opposed to what?”

    But if you mean in some teleological sense of “point”, my answer is “None, but that doesn’t preclude living as if there were some.” I know several people who are accurately described by “nihilist” as I understand that word, and we all live normal and full lives.

  15. 15. Charles Wolverton says:

    Re determinism and randomness, ala quantum effects or others:

    Considering these to be mutually exclusive suggests the assumption that “deterministic” is synonymous with “perfectly predictable”. But if one interprets the former as something like “the belief that everything unfolds according to physical laws”, although randomness does, of course, preclude perfect predictability, it leaves “determinism” – at least in that sense – untouched. And I think the discomfort people often feel about the idea of life as “deterministic” is really a fear of it’s being “predictable”.

    An accompanying fear seems to be that if our actions are either random or determined, we don’t have control of our actions. But that too seems to suggest a particular concept of agency, somewhat along the lines that John is disputing. I have recently read a couple of opinions to the effect that some huge (like high 90s) percent of our actions are “unconscious” – which certainly seems to suggest that we have “control” only in some relatively meaningless sense.

  16. 16. quentin says:


    No pb. Having read the article you linked, I am not surprise we finally agree on this…
    And of course, the previous message was addressed to you, not Alex 😉

  17. 17. John Davey says:

    Isn’t there a difference between free will and determinism ? One question asks if the universe is entirely deterministic (answer presumably no after the development of quantum mechanics) and the other asks if the feeling of apparent choice corresponds to a a real state of affairs in the brain. One doesn’t require the other I don’t think.

  18. 18. Shankar says:

    I thought that Laplacian determinism was essentially abandoned after the advent of QM theory.
    If free will has something to do with QM, then I suggest that QM may also have a role to play in qualia. The two seem to fit each other. Moral decisions are made against the backdrop of good/bad qualia rewards/endurance.

  19. 19. John says:

    Charles: The reason I asked about the “point of doing anything” is that the free will debate is about whether we can find our own reasons for actions. When you argued that free will did not matter because we just carry on anyway this was equivalent to the nihilism you professed: “I know several people who are accurately described by “nihilist” as I understand that word, and we all live normal and full lives.” So thanks for clarifying your position.

    Shankar and John: The fact that we observe change (that time seems to flow) means that determinism cannot be the whole picture. In the immortal words of Herman Weyl, the great physicist-philosopher: reality is a “four-dimensional continuum which is neither ‘time’ nor ‘space’. Only the consciousness that passes on in one portion of this world experiences the detached piece which comes to meet it and passes behind it, as history, that is, as a process that is going forward in time and takes place in space” . But this does not look like a simple result of quantum mechanics either – we should be embedded in time yet we seem to be like a cursor that passes over the time dimension, how is this done – extra dimensions, weird loops in spacetime, or what?

  20. 20. Arnold Trehub says:

    John, wouldn’t we have to say that reference to any existing physical entity or event *must* imply a its persistence > 0 on a time dimension? How else could we envision existence? So when we talk about something in space, we necessarily imply space-time.

  21. 21. Alex says:

    (I think this may very well be off at a tangent, as I’m just passing and haven’t read the comments thread yet) Just a quick one- wouldn’t people arguing that ‘the author is dead’ be fervently arguing that the ‘author’ of a piece of work did not ‘themselves’ write it, and that the work has to be considered in the context of the wider milieu from which it emerged? Just wondering…

  22. 22. woodchuck64 says:

    Nichols shows that there is something odd about people’s intuitive grasp of free will.

    Yes, my intuitive grasp of my own free will is that it is highly deterministic — I want to do what I want to do, it matters not that those desires come from genes and an environment beyond my control– while my intuitive grasp of your free will is that it is highly libertarian — you could have freely chosen not to do that awful crime, damn you–.

  23. 23. Vicente says:


    I believe you are somehow confusing free will with creativity…

    They did themselves write them, we don’t know if as a result of their own free will, or as part of a cause-effect chain out of control.

    If a genetical mutation creates a new species, we can say nature was creative, but probably no will was involved.

  24. 24. John says:

    Arnold: “”..wouldn’t we have to say that reference to any existing physical entity or event *must* imply a its persistence > 0 on a time dimension?”

    My understanding of what you are saying is that we cannot escape being “pinned in” to a spatio-temporal sequence. This was part of McTaggart’s argument and I agree that it’s a good one. To summarise this part of the argument: if all reality is events with fixed positions in time and space then there is no room for anything to be re-sequenced, everything is “set in stone”. There would certainly be no free will if this were the case.

    McTaggart then goes on to argue that if all reality is events in space and time, if they are all “nailed into” a fixed matrix, then there cannot be any events that are passing through it (that are continually creating new events denoted by the changing relations of past, present and future between events). He notes that contrary to this fixed idea of reality our experience contains continual “change” and concludes therefore that an entirely fixed set of temporal events cannot exist and time itself must be unreal. This would blow the whole case for determinism out of the water because any succession of events is not required to be absolute – there would be no “time” that demands one event follow another.

    I agree with McTaggart that for us to experience “change” means that we are continually creating new events denoted by the changing relations of past present and future between events. Unlike McTaggart I would not abandon the whole idea of “time” and instead propose that we are like a cursor moving over spacetime, Weyl was also saying this. The concept of experience being like a moving cursor would require that the notion of “time” should be amended, space-time would contain “dimensional time” and change would involve “becoming”.

    Dimensional time has been experimentally proven to exist, it is the “time” that enters into Relativity Theory. Dimensional time is literally a direction for arranging events and in a given 4D slice of the universe the matrix of events is fixed.

    “Becoming” has not been described by any widely accepted physical theory. Certainly the QM multiverse theories carry the possibility of “becoming” because at any instant an observer could switch from one 4D matrix of events to another. Notice that in many multiverse theories of quantum physics the past will always be consistent with the qm state of any point and this has the disturbing corollary that the observable world will always appear deterministic even if the universe isn’t.

    Alex: “wouldn’t people arguing that ‘the author is dead’ be fervently arguing that the ‘author’ of a piece of work did not ‘themselves’ write it”

    This was the substance of McTaggart’s argument, how can the temporal relations between events be perpetually changing? See above.

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