(0:05) You make that sound like it's an easy question, like this is a starter question. But it’s actually very hard.
So that's a good question, I think free will is...
Free will is…
Free will, I think is…
What free will is actually a pretty complicated question.
So, what is free will?
(0:31) Santiago Amaya:
Hello, this is Free Will Matters. My name is Santiago Amaya and I'm an associate professor in Philosophy at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. I am very happy to host this podcast.
The problem of free will has been at the center of many discussions in Western Philosophy for the last 20 centuries. But in recent years the problem has reappeared in a fresh form. There are new and exciting developments in the field that make this a fascinating topic of conversation. For this podcast we have invited various philosophers who work in free will. Philosophy might be a daunting thing, but with their help we will get to know better the what, the how and the why of free will. Welcome.
Today our guest is Eddy Nahmias. He's professor and chair of Philosophy at Georgia State University and associate faculty at the Neuroscience Institute there. Eddy is an experimental philosopher. He studies human agency, focusing on debates about free will.
Some people think there's a natural or intuitive view about free will. Eddy, you've done experimental work on what ordinary people's views are. In particular, you’ve ask people about determinism, the view that all present actions are determined by past events. Could you tell us a little bit of what you found?
(1:50) Eddy Nahmias:
Sometimes when you describe determinism to people, it makes them think bypassing is going on. They think, “my conscious self, my conscious deliberations, they're not actually playing a role because the underlying neurobiology has caused it or the past in the laws have forced my decision in a particular way such that my own conscious capacities didn't play a causal role.”
So what do you think it’s going on here?
So, bypassing seems to be the most intuitive threat to free well, at least in the experimental work we've been doing. And if that's true, then it might mean that if you explain to people clearly enough that, “you know what, if you are part of the natural world, if your conscious decision-making is actually something your brain does and even if it were completely caused by prior events, it's still going through your reasoning processes.” Then people
might not be freaked out and think, “oh, I don't have free will if determinism is true or if naturalism is true.”
As an experimental philosopher you essentially go about asking people what they think about certain philosophical problems. But one might wonder why do ordinary people's views on these problems matter? To what extent, do you think, should these views shape the way philosophers and scientists think about free will?
We don't care about ordinary intuitions about, say, the laws of Physics. If ordinary people think that heavier things fall faster than lighter things, they're just wrong. Who cares if they have that intuition? But I think in the free will case it's a little different because free will is a technical term, but it's something that is very closely tied to our self-image and our ordinary practices of praise and blame. The reasons we care about it are very closely tied to our ordinary ways of thinking. So, if our ordinary ways of thinking turn out to be radically mistaken, well, we need to know why. So that would be one important feature: to know the baseline for what we think needs to be revised or changed about our practices. But, if like me, you don't think people are radically mistaken about a lot of these things, then you might think their intuitions give you sort of a baseline of the most plausible theory.
Eddy, in your view, what are the most exciting recent developments in the field?
I'm particularly interested recently on work that's being done on the relevance or how we understand causation and how that's relevant to the free will debate. Work where we're trying to use what I think is the best theory of causation, Jim Woodward’s interventionist theory, and apply it to the free will debate. And the reason it's so relevant is 'cause if you think about it, what free will is largely about is causal control. Do we have as agents the right sort of causal control over our decisions, over our actions? So, I think we can use this causation literature and a good understanding of when something is a more important cause than something else to answer the question, when is somebody actually in control of their actions?
There are, as we’ve been talking about, many philosophers working on free will, asking all sorts of interesting questions. What is the most important and outstanding question that needs to be answered? Or better, what is the question that nobody is asking, and people should be asking more?
Yeah, I think the most important question is the one related to what I was just talking about, which is how to understand causation and then, once we get a better account of causation, looking at the scientific facts, actually doing the psychological and neuroscientific research to figure out to what degree are we in causal control of our actions.
And when I say, you know, “to what degree are we in control,” I mean, the stuff that we associate with free will like conscious imagination, deliberation, rational thinking, planning, to what degree does my goal of publishing a book on free will influence whether I end up publishing a book on free will. That's where we're going to have to do the scientific research to see to what degree do people actually have that kind of control over themselves, the sorts of things that we do care about a lot in ordinary life but are really hard to study. The science is just kind of getting started on being able to manipulate the variables in the way to tell us the answers to what I think is ultimately the interesting question, which is not, do we have free will or not, you know, all or nothing? But, to what degree and when do we have it? And maybe how could we increase it by changing or learning? Or how could we raise our children to have more of it so that they're more morally responsible? To me those are the really interesting questions.
Issues of determinism, bypassing or causation are, let's be frank, pretty abstract. But free will is a problem that matters for everyday life. Can you tell us a bit about some of these more concrete issues related to free will?
Punishment is, to me, a particularly interesting connection between the free will debate and the real world. When we have various people who have been charged with crimes, we want to know to what degree are they truly responsible, to what degree could they have avoided committing this crime. And, we talk about the insanity defense in sort of extreme cases where we say, yes, this person lacked the capacity to control their actions. But, presumably, with more fine grained information about people's psychological capacities, we would be able to say things like the 17 year old criminal is less responsible than the 25 year old criminal. Why? Because they don't have some of the capacities for rational self-controlled developed as fully.
Free Will Matters is part of the LATAM Free Will, Agency, and Responsibility Project. It is produced by Cerosetenta thanks to a generous grant of the John Templeton Foundation and with the support of Universidad de los Andes and the University of California in San Diego.
For more information, visit us at freewill.uniandes.edu.co