Broadly speaking, there are two conceptions of free will. The first is libertarian free will, where one has metaphysical freedom from the laws of nature in making decisions. Libertarianism is usually understood to require mind-body dualism, in other words, a non-material soul.
The second is compatibilist free will, which generally recognizes that thoughts arise from the brain working according to physical laws, but still philosophically sees the concept of free will as useful.
One of the ongoing aspects of the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is whether it is appropriate to use the term “free will”, specifically whether a pragmatic compatibilist conception of free will matches up with people’s intuitive understanding of the concept, particularly as it’s used in ethical judgment.
The results of scientific studies of those intuitive understandings have tended to vary, with people often showing an inconsistency in how they regard free will. Now, a new study has looked at this closely, with a couple of moderately large sample sizes, and come up with results that appear to show that people are pragmatic in their conception of free will.
A new study tested whether people believe free will arises from a metaphysical basis or mental capacity. Even though most respondents said they believed humans to have souls, they judged free will and assigned blame for transgressions based on pragmatic considerations — such as whether the actor in question had the capacity to make an intentional and independent choice.
Across the board, even if they believed in the concept of a soul, people in a new study ascribed free will based on down-to-Earth criteria: Did the actor in question have the capacity to make an intentional and independent choice? The study suggests that while grand metaphysical views of the universe remain common, they have little to do with how people assess each other’s behavior.
“I find it relieving to know that whether you believe in a soul or not, or have a religion or not, or an assumption about how the universe works, that has very little bearing on how you act as a member of the social community,” said Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University and senior author of the new study. “In a sense, what unites us across all these assumptions is we see others as intentional beings who can make choices, and we blame them on the basis of that.”
To lead author Andrew Monroe, a former Brown doctoral student and postdoctoral researcher now at Florida State University, the findings also suggest that people have a perception of free will and culpability that is compatible with brain science in that it does not depend on a spiritual underpinning.
“Neuroscience is no threat at all to this concept of choice,” he said.
The study seemed to go out of its way to study whether people linked possession of a soul with having free will.
This experiment explicitly asked participants whether they believe in souls: 68 percent said they did, and participants were moderately religious, averaging 2.1 on a 0 to 4 scale.
Again, however, the characteristics that best predicted whether people judged the different agents to have free will or to be worthy of blame were the psychological ones of choice and intentionality. Soul’s statistical role in predicting assessment of free will was only 7 percent and its influence in the degree of blame was zero.
In the statistical models, a shared notion of metaphysical and psychological capacities contributed some predictive value, but further analysis determined that it came almost entirely from the robot, who had neither a soul nor the ability to choose and therefore bore no free will or blame by any criteria.
The findings suggest that the concept of a soul, while widely held, is not readily applied in day-to-day situations, Malle said.
It also suggests that people could come to regard non-humans as having free will if they come to believe that those actors — for example, a sufficiently sophisticated robot — have the capacity of independent, intentional choice.
Free will is a concept that many atheists reject, probably because it is often put forth as one of the theological theodicies, one of the defenses against the philosophical problem of evil. For them, the term “free will” refers to a pernicious theological concept that must be countered.
The results of this study seem to show that most people are more pragmatic in their understanding of the concept, even to the extent that they would recognize it in a sophisticated enough robot. However, something tells me that this won’t settle the debate, if for no other reason than the fact that this study took funding from the John Templeton Foundation.
I don’t believe in libertarian free will myself. In truth, I’m not even sure it’s a coherent concept. But I’m a compatibilist in the sense of having no problem with the phrase “free will” being used in an emergent sense or as a synonym for volition. I use it in the same sense that I use the word “faith” as a synonym for confidence, or “spirit” as a synonym for a mind-set or outlook.
Update: amanimal found this blog entry that sheds additional light on the study’s motivation and methods.