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Experimental Philosophy on Free Will and Determinism

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posted on 2021-11-11, 22:19 authored by Aldridge-Sutton, Robin

In the debate over whether free will is compatible with determinism most philosophers on both sides think that folk intuitions are a constraint on philosophical theorising. Most also think that the same criteria are required for free will in all cases. But recent attempts to empirically study folk intuitions about free will appear to show that these two positions cannot be jointly maintained. That is because folk intuitions about free will appear to represent compatibilist and incompatibilist criteria for free will in different cases. In response to this some philosophers have run new studies to demonstrate problems with older ones and undermine their results. One such study has been claimed to show that some participants mistakenly inferred that an agent‘s mental states have no effect on their actions given determinism. In this thesis I argue that the questions about causation that were used in this study were too ambiguous to show this. My central point is that when considering the causal history of an action we tend to privilege the earlier causes over later ones. When participants responded that an agent‘s mental states have no effect on their actions they may have meant that there were earlier conditions that caused the agent‘s mental states which then caused their actions. This would show that the participants had made the correct inference that given determinism the causal histories of an agent‘s actions extend back in time to events outside of the agent‘s mind. Thus the problem of the apparent mismatch between folk intuitions and philosophical theories of free will remains. I also suggest that the results of these studies also appear to demonstrate a greater level of disagreement among folk intuitions about the same cases than philosophers seem to expect. This raises questions about whether the same theory of free will has to apply to everyone, and if so, whether folk intuitions support any such theory. In chapter one I begin by briefly describing the free will debate and the role that folk intuitions usually play within it. I describe some debate over the usefulness of folk intuitions in philosophy, and make some small contributions on behalf of their usefulness. I describe and defend the recent movement towards attempting to empirically study folk intuitions on philosophical issues. In chapter two I describe the empirical studies that seem to show that folk intuitions about free will represent compatibilist criteria in some cases and incompatibilist criteria in others. I suggest that they also seem to show that when considering the same case some folk have compatibilist intuitions and some have incompatibilist intuitions. I raise some questions about the implications of rejecting the assumption, which most philosophers seem to make, that people generally have the same intuitions about the same cases. In chapter three I present the study that is claimed to show that participants in the earlier studies were confused, and thus that they did not really have incompatibilist intuitions. I present my arguments against it and conclude that for now the original interpretation of those studies stands, along with the problems it raises.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Perszyk, Ken