Thursday, December 22, 2011

is free will an illusion?

ScientificAmerican | 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.

Read Nichols, S. forthcoming paper The Indeterminist Intuition: Source and Status. The Monist.


nanakwame said...

You know I enjoy Plekanov - but what process determines  critical thinking vs. magic thinking? The pause, the tweak, what is that?