Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Science and Philosophy

(My struggle with computer and biological viruses continues, hence the delay.)

In an earlier entry, I wrote about why I do not read philosophy books. The main reason was that philosophers tend to think they can answer every question by just thinking about it hard enough with our modified ape-brains, a concept I found unacceptable.

But apparently there was a group of philosophers that I did not know about. It was with some excitement that I discovered, while reading a recent issue of Science, the existence of the field known as experimental philosophy. No, not the philosophy of doing experiments, a la Karl Popper; but using experiments to study philosophy. The author, Shaun Nichols, had my attention.

Nichols addressed one of the most difficult philosophical topics, the question of free will. If there is such a thing as free will, then humans have a soul, or at least a self, that can make decisions independently of the chemical reactions that occur inside the brain. If there is no free will (if determinism is correct), then everything we do can be traced by a network of cause and effect to our genes and our environments (prenatal, developmental, recent, and immediate). Now, in actual practice, it may be impossible to disentangle the causation; and so, just for the efficient operation of society, we have to assume free well (we cannot let murderers roam free just because they have a mutant version of a brain protein). But this does not answer the philosophical question.

Nichols admitted that the problem of free will was, from the viewpoint of philosophy, intractable. But he addressed the question of why people believe in free will vs. determinism. And this question can be addressed using psychological data. He pointed out that most people actually believe both viewpoints. When they are calm and discussing general principles, many people accept determinism; but when they are confronted with details of, for example, a gruesome crime, these same people will claim the perpetrator had free will and deserves punishment.

This is where the experiment comes in. The researchers studied the responses of experimental subjects (as usual, university undergraduates, the most thoroughly studied group of people in the world) to stories about realistic events: did the subjects blame the perpetrators of bad deeds (thus displaying a belief in free will), or did they not (determinism)? In one experiment, the students tended to blame the perpetrators for emotionally appalling deeds, but not for minor infractions. This demonstrated that their belief in free will was determined by the emotional impact of the deed. But prior to administering the questions, the researchers had presented them with one of two introductions. One introduction suggested that the universe is indeterminist (that people have free will); the other suggested a determinist universe. Students who had been experimentally preconditioned by the indeterminist introduction attributed moral responsibility to all of the infractions, whether minor or appalling. Students who had been experimentally preconditioned by the determinist introduction were less likely to lay blame for minor infractions—but they usually blamed the perpetrators of appalling deeds for what they did. This is an experimental affirmation of the hypothesis that people are more likely to believe in free will in circumstances in which an emotionally significant deed has been done.

If, in fact, our brains cannot know the truth, then philosophers seem destined to frustration—unless they take a new approach, such as experimental philosophy, which brings psychology, and thus science, into the realm of philosophical inquiry.

Reference: Nichols, Shaun. “Experimental philosophy and the problem of free will.” Science 331 (2011) (March 18): 1401-1403.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating study...it poses all sorts of questions, which lead to probing into the subject for deeply. Thanks for sharing!