Philosophers have argued for centuries, millennia actually, about whether our lives are guided by our own free will or are predetermined as the result of a continuous chain of events over which we have no control. On the one hand, it seems like everything that happens has come kind of causal explanation; on the other hand, when we make decisions, it seems to us like we have the free will to make different decisions.
Most people seem to favor free will, and while many, across a range of cultures, reject what is referred to as determinism, they remain conflicted over the role of personal responsibility in situations that require moral judgements, said Shaun Nichols, a professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Arizona. Nichols is part of a growing number of researchers who are gaining insights into this philosophical dilemma by applying experimental methods commonly used by developmental psychologists and other social scientists. His latest findings (“Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will”) are published in the current issue of the journal Science.
Until recently, these points have been dissected using “careful and sustained thought, sharpened by dialogue with fellow philosophers,” Nichols said.
“Mostly what people have done is work on these problems in conceptual ways. You think through the problems; you think about the implications of various theses. And a lot of excellent work has been done on complex philosophical issues using those techniques over the last 2,000 years.”
Nichols calls experimental philosophy another tool that can offer new sources of information and help sort through some of these problems. The debate over free will and determinism is one such problem. The central tenet in determinism is that everything that happens is the result of something that caused it to happen, which itself was caused by something earlier and so on. The conflict comes when people are faced with making a choice or a decision that could go one way or another.