See Inside November/December 2011

Is Free Will an Illusion?

Don't trust your instincts about free will or consciousness, experimental philosophers say


IT SEEMS OBVIOUS to me that I have free will. When I have just made a decision, say, to go to a concert, I feel that I could have chosen to do something else. Yet many philosophers say this instinct is wrong. According to their view, free will is a figment of our imagination. No one has it or ever will. Rather our choices are either determined—necessary outcomes of the events that have happened in the past—or they are ­random.

Our intuitions about free will, however, challenge this nihilistic view. We could, of course, simply dismiss our intuitions as wrong. But psychology suggests that doing so would be premature: our hunches often track the truth pretty well [see “The Powers and Perils of Intuition,” by David G. Myers; Scientific American Mind, June/July 2007]. For example, if you do not know the answer to a question on a test, your first guess is more likely to be right. In both philosophy and science, we may feel there is something fishy about an argument or an experiment before we can identify exactly what the problem is.

The debate over free will is one example in which our intuitions conflict with scientific and philosophical arguments. Something similar holds for intuitions about consciousness, morality, and a host of other existential concerns. Typically philosophers deal with these issues through careful thought and discourse with other theorists. In the past decade, however, a small group of philosophers have adopted more data-driven methods to illuminate some of these confounding questions. These so-called experimental philosophers administer surveys, measure reaction times and image brains to understand the sources of our instincts. If we can figure out why we feel we have free will, for example, or why we think that consciousness consists of something more than patterns of neural activity in our brain, we might know whether to give credence to those feelings. That is, if we can show that our intuitions about free will emerge from an untrustworthy process, we may decide not to trust those beliefs.

Unknown Influences
To discover the psychological basis for philosophical problems, experimental philosophers often survey people about their views on charged issues. For instance, scholars have argued about whether individuals actually believe that their choices are independent of the past and the laws of nature. Experimental philosophers have tried to resolve the debate by asking study participants whether they agree with descriptions such as the following:

Imagine a universe in which everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. So what happened in the beginning of the universe caused what happened next and so on, right up to the present. If John decided to have french fries at lunch one day, this decision, like all others, was caused by what happened before it.

When surveyed, Americans say they disagree with such descriptions of the universe. From inquiries in other countries, researchers have found that Chinese, Colombians and Indians share this opinion: individual choice is not determined. Why do humans hold this view? One promising explanation is that we presume that we can generally sense all the influences on our decision making—and because we cannot detect deterministic influences, we discount them.

Of course, people do not believe they have conscious access to everything in their mind. We do not presume to intuit the causes of headaches, memory formation or visual processing. But research indicates that people do think they can access the factors affecting their choices.

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