In "Thought Experiments" (Nov 2011, Scientific American) Joshua Knobe makes a good case, based on experiments, that the tension between deterministic views of free will and  embrace of free will arise from a conflict between two forms of human cognition: abstract, theoretical, high level versus immediate emotional response.

It is beginning to seem increasingly plausible that people's sense of perplexity and inner conflict regarding the problem of free will does indeed derive from a tension between their more abstract theoretical judgments and their more concrete emotional responses.

On a related topic of objective moral truths,

These studies suggest a hypothesis about the roots of relativism. Perhaps the pull people sometimes feel toward moral relativism is related to a kind of openness. ...: people feel drawn to relativism to the extent that they can open themselves to other possibilities.

Experimental philosophy threw open a window, and I enjoy its bracing gust through dusty tomes and stale arm chair hot air.




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Very interesting! Thanks!

Funny that the first post I should come across of yours since my last email to you would be one one the question of free will! My response to this post is mixed. First of all, determinists (I call myself a causalist for reasons I am about to get to) do not have a view of "free will", except to say that it doesn't exist. What we have is "will". You know what, why don't I just copy what I wrote recently on this subject:


The way I see it, there is no such thing as free will unrestrained by causality. There is, however, such a thing as "will". This is the set of internal motivations which compel us towards such things as decision-making, and inevitably which decisions we actually end up with ("choosing"). So we can get rid of the terminology "free will", which denies cause-effect relationships in the world and mind ("free" meaning, in this context, free from causality). This means we can also dispense with terms like "self-determinism". We have will, which just means we are motivated and that these are internal motivations rather than external motivations over which we clearly have no control. But we just are what we experience, so that which "we" will is just what defines who "we" are. And to avoid any problems with the word "determinism", I just call myself a "causalist". This means that there is a cause for every effect, and it allows you to skirt the issue of whether everything is strictly determined without admitting of any freedom from causal forces. And it is closer to hard determinism rather than soft, which is essentially self-contradicting, except that it does not force one to say that everything is strictly determined which, if you know anything about QM, does not appear to be the case anyway.


So, referring also back to our previous treatment of the subject, there are external motivations over which we clearly have no control, and then there are internal motivations. Most of these we clearly have no control over either (physiological reactions and such), and then there remains some part of what we call our "selves" which we think we really do have control over. This subset of internal motivations is what is called "will" or "volition". Now, according to this post, people who embrace the notion of free will do so because of an "immediate emotional response" rather than "high level human cognition". It is believed that free will exists because it feels like we have control over some aspects of our "selves". This sense of control is an experience which itself seems to be beyond our control - either we feel it or we don't. Most everyone I would think has had this experience of seeming control. But reason suggests that if everything follows the natural laws of cause and effect, then even this sense of control is misleading. And further reasoning bears this out. Firstly, if we attempt to define the self, we end up essentially with something along the lines of "we are the sum of our experiences" - "we" do not control our experiences, but rather our experiences just are what "we" are. Or as I argued above, "we just are what we experience, so that which "we" will is just what defines who "we" are". Secondly, we might also remember that the things we have experienced up until this point, and this whether we include those things which we have "willed" or not (such as the stuff of our dreams, or our physiological reactions to our environment, or the many leaps our minds make even in our process of reasoning, etc.), have, in all likelihood, had their origin in causes well beyond our everyday experiences. Thirdly, it is difficult to imagine our having any ability whatsoever to manipulate our brain chemistry down to the actions of individual neurons, etc. (without technical assistance). What we might easily imagine is manipulation of our brain chemistry, through ingesting the appropriate substances to produce the desired effects, or even through physical manipulation of the brain by technical means, all to, again, produce the desired effects. And then we should realize that it is that desire to so act in the first place which has caused our behavior, and that that desire likely had its causes as well. We might even imagine altering individual brain neurons, through technical means, to achieve a desired goal, but the same reasoning brings us back to that pesky pre-existing desire again. Fourthly, we might reason that the desire to believe in free will most likely has something to do with the facts that the illusion of control enables us to have a more coherent sense of self, so that it is "we" who are in command of our experiences, rather than our experiences being in command of us, and indeed, even defining who "we" are. Building on this, a coherent sense of self enables us to feel that "we" have certain responsibilities and values, and this in turn acts as a motivating force impelling us to action.


I have no "inner conflict regarding the problem of free will". I am perfectly aware that the only reason I am sitting here writing this tedious argument is that I have a great deal of motivation to have just these sorts of experiences and not others. My DVR has been paused at the beginning of "The Big Bang Theory" all the while I have been writing this, but my overriding motivation has been to entertain my desire to remove you and others of the falsity of this idea of free will. As soon as that desire has been satisfied, my desire to watch my show will kick in, or, in other words, "I" intend to go and watch my show. So my conclusion regarding Knobe's article is that it makes perfect sense that the notion of free will should arise from an emotional response rather than from higher-level thinking. But once one has removed one's pre/mis-conceptions about this idea, one's mind easily acclimates to the new surroundings and, in my opinion, gains a degree of clarity. I think the exact same thing is true of faith.

As it turns out, I have already watched this episode, and since I have not addressed the second portion of this post, I will do so now. I fail to see the connection between the two halves of the post, or what the issues of moral judgments or openness to other possibilities has to do with emotional responses vs. critical thinking, so I will simply respond as if this were a separate topic.


I personally have a nuanced, though also somewhat perplexing (yes, even to myself. I haven't got it all completely worked out in my mind) view as to whether morality is subjective/objective or relative/absolute. I think these are at least two separate issues, and maybe more than that. There are clearly (to me anyway) some very objective things we can say about morality, but I think the first thing that should be said is that morality, and values in general, arises from a being's ability to have subjective experiences of value. So whereas a rock is amoral, as it cares not a whit whether it is left completely alone, or whether you talk to it, or roll it down a hill, or blow it to smithereens (the rock does not value even its own existence), people and complex animals clearly can and do have experiences of value and morality. This means that there are basic things about morality which are both objective (the objective fact that morality arises from subjective experience) and subjective (the experiences themselves).


To my mind, this means that there are absolute truths about morality (e.g. it can never be the case that a being incapable of subjective experience can be a moral agent). But it also seems to imply that there is an element of relativity to morality as well. If value arises out of experience, then all values are relative to an agent capable of subjective experience. So it seems to me that while morality could be expressed in a very precise, limiting, objective way, even to the point of approaching an absolute truth, it also appears that it is impossible to remove even the smallest degree of relativity from morality. (I am thinking this all through as I go.) I might even be able to go so far as to say that these are false choices - morality may be both absolute and completely relative, i.e. relative to a specific agent, there may be an absolute truth as to what the moral thing to do is. It is likewise easy for me to say that morality can be completely objective as well as completely subjective - if we understand that subjective experiences are objectively real, then we can say a great deal objectively about those subjective experiences. There does not appear to be any necessary contradiction between these terms either. If they are understood correctly, they may compliment each other rather than conflict with each other.


In any case, my reasoning above may be a perfect balance of being open to reasonable possibilities and being closed to unreasonable possibilities, or it may fall far short of that ideal. Surely it is the case that one can be too open to other possibilities, as was the case with a professor of mind who insisted that "everything is connected" in some way, to the point that even what we are thinking about an object can have effects on that object (through some undefined, or even unexpressed, processes). And obviously one can be not open enough. Hopefully I am open just the right amount. And while I'm not sure that I made my point (or even what that point is anymore), I still don't see what this has to do with the article you cited, or even with experimental philosophy. In fact, I remain skeptical that experimental philosophy is even a real thing. There are experiments, which are scientific, and there is philosophy, which can (and had better!) take scientific findings seriously, but it is up to the philosopher to make connections between the two, not to stand in for the scientist. I dunno.

Briefly, along the dimension of tension between abstract theoretical judgments and concrete emotional responses, both of your replies come across as all of the way on the "abstract theoretical" end of the continuum to me. Please consider the possibility that there is a sense in which you are protecting yourself from the inner conflict Joshua Knobe studies with a highly intellectual vocabulary and style. A certain amount of vulnerability and introspection is helpful, to me, to "grock" his position. One has to be in touch with feelings, gut feelings, and acknowledge their power.

I completely agree that "A certain amount of vulnerability and introspection is helpful" and that "One has to be in touch with feelings, gut feelings, and acknowledge their power." Particularly in philosophy I think, arguments which do not hit the right emotional notes often fall flat. One cannot do ethics, or even political philosophy, without understanding how the human heart works. So I would ask you to consider the possibility that, despite my "highly intellectual vocabulary and style" (thanks! :-) ), I take great pride in allowing myself to feel, to listen to my intuitions and allow myself to be in touch with, and receptive and vulnerable to, my emotions. I would also argue that when one is in touch with one's emotions while at the same time aware of the objective facts of the matter, ideas flow at their smoothest, so if I came across as highly intellectual, I can assure you that 1. this is hardly always the case, especially when I am speaking about a topic I am far less comfortable with, and 2. it is just because I haven't found there to be any weight, either emotional or rational, to any arguments I have heard for the idea of free will. I recall telling you that your idea of free will possibly being an "emergent property" arising out of the interplay of genes and reason (I think those were the two variables you mentioned) was probably the best argument I had heard in favor of free will, but, for the reasons I provided, didn't seem plausible and certainly didn't seem to outweigh the arguments against free will. The idea of free will seems even less plausible now, in the lights of the findings of the Knobe article, then it did when I was still struggling to find any and all possible counterarguments to my position. I now am far more convinced that I have explored and exhausted all of the options, and the only rational conclusion one can draw is that free will is a bad idea, one which arose most likely from religious thinking, or at least from thinking which predates virtually everything we now know about human psychology and neurology. It is outdated and has outlived its usefulness. In fact I have written long arguments as to how we would be much better off if we discard the idea. Primarily, being forced to acknowledge that there is always a cause for someone's actions, and not being permitted to dismiss someone's bad behavior as being due to them having a bad character or "freely choosing" to be immoral or irrational, forces us to seek to better understand each other, and can this be a bad thing? In fact there is a basic concept in psychology known as the fundamental attribution error, also known as confirmation bias, which says that it is a fundamental error to attribute one's behavior to stable character traits rather than to the complexities of circumstance. Here is a good article on wikipedia:     In fact everything I learned in my years studying psychology, social psychology, sociology, and philosophy has been taken into account, and the evidence is just overwhelming. I simply cannot reconcile the idea of free will with any intuitions or reasons in my possession. The idea has as much weight to me as the idea of deities, and it has as much evidence and is just as tied to (understandable) emotional states.


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