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Free Will Without Metaphysics

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Free Will Without Metaphysics

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Free will is the ability to transform thoughts and desires into actions, and this ability to act freely is presumed to underlie people's practice of moral praise and blame as well society's practice of legal punishment. However, many scholars believe that people's concept of free will is hopelessly corrupted by metaphysical assumptions, such as a belief in the soul or a belief in magical causation. Because science contradicts such metaphysical assumptions, science may also invalidate the ordinary concept of free will and thereby unseat a key requisite for moral and legal responsibility. Such a concern, however, turns on the exact content of people's concept of free will. Here we discuss a program of research that seeks to clarify the folk concept of free will and its role in moral judgment. Our data show that people have, not a metaphysical, but a psychological concept of free will: they assume that "free actions" are based on choices that fulfill one's desires and are relatively free from internal and external constraints. Moreover, we argue that these components—choice, desires, and constraints—lie at the heart of people's moral judgments. Once these components are accounted for, the abstract concept of free will contributes very little to people's moral judgments. What does it mean to have free will? When asked, people widely believe that they have free will (Baumeister, Crescioni, & Alquist, 2010), and free will is commonly asserted as a critical underpinning for moral and legal responsibility (Greene & Cohen, 2004). But for such a seemingly widespread and important concept, there is remarkable confusion over its definition and use. Philosophers and theologians have debated the question of free will for millennia. Today, neuroscientists and psychologists have joined philosophers in trying to answer some nagging questions about free will: Is it an illusion (Wegner, 2002)? Is it incompatible with determinism (Nichols, 2011)? Can people be morally responsible without it (Greene & Cohen, 2004)? However, what is the "it" in each of these questions? The "it" is the folk concept of free will. It is this concept that is suspected to be an illusion, incompatible with determinism, and required for moral responsibility. Unfortunately, scholars know very little about what constitutes this ordinary concept of free will. We therefore need clarity both on the concept and the underlying phenomenon, and in doing so we must go beyond philosophers' and scientists' intuitions. We must empirically examine ordinary people's conceptualization of free will and their application of this concept in everyday life. Without taking seriously the actual folk concept of free will, any theory of free will is at "risk of having nothing more than a philosophical fiction as its subject matter" (Mele, 2001, p. 27). Science and philosophy might discover facts that suggest revisions to the folk concept of free will; but without knowing what the concept is we can hardly revise it. * This chapter was made possible through the support of a grant from the Big Questions in Free Will project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed here are our own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
Content may be subject to copyright.
In press, In Mele, A. (Ed.), Surrounding free will. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Free Will Without Metaphysics*
Andrew E. Monroe1 and Bertram F. Malle2
1Florida State University, 2Brown University
Free will is the ability to transform thoughts and desires into actions, and this ability to
act freely is presumed to underlie peoples practice of moral praise and blame as well
societys practice of legal punishment. However, many scholars believe that peoples
concept of free will is hopelessly corrupted by metaphysical assumptions, such as a belief
in the soul or a belief in magical causation. Because science contradicts such
metaphysical assumptions, science may also invalidate the ordinary concept of free will
and thereby unseat a key requisite for moral and legal responsibility. Such a concern,
however, turns on the exact content of peoples concept of free will. Here we discuss a
program of research that seeks to clarify the folk concept of free will and its role in moral
judgment. Our data show that people have, not a metaphysical, but a psychological
concept of free will: they assume that “free actions” are based on choices that fulfill ones
desires and are relatively free from internal and external constraints. Moreover, we argue
that these componentschoice, desires, and constraintslie at the heart of peoples
moral judgments. Once these components are accounted for, the abstract concept of free
will contributes very little to peoples moral judgments.
What does it mean to have free will? When asked, people widely believe that they have free
will (Baumeister, Crescioni, & Alquist, 2010), and free will is commonly asserted as a critical
underpinning for moral and legal responsibility (Greene & Cohen, 2004). But for such a
seemingly widespread and important concept, there is remarkable confusion over its definition
and use. Philosophers and theologians have debated the question of free will for millennia.
Today, neuroscientists and psychologists have joined philosophers in trying to answer some
nagging questions about free will: Is it an illusion (Wegner, 2002)? Is it incompatible with
determinism (Nichols, 2011)? Can people be morally responsible without it (Greene & Cohen,
2004)?
However, what is the “it” in each of these questions? The “it” is the folk concept of free
will. It is this concept that is suspected to be an illusion, incompatible with determinism, and
required for moral responsibility. Unfortunately, scholars know very little about what constitutes
this ordinary concept of free will. We therefore need clarity both on the concept and the
underlying phenomenon, and in doing so we must go beyond philosophers’ and scientists’
intuitions. We must empirically examine ordinary people’s conceptualization of free will and
their application of this concept in everyday life. Without taking seriously the actual folk
concept of free will, any theory of free will is at “risk of having nothing more than a
philosophical fiction as its subject matter” (Mele, 2001, p. 27). Science and philosophy might
discover facts that suggest revisions to the folk concept of free will; but without knowing what
the concept is we can hardly revise it.
* This chapter was made possible through the support of a grant from the Big Questions in Free Will
project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed here are our own and do not
necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
2
In this chapter we present a program of research focused on developing an empirically
grounded model of the folk concept of free will. Specifically, we address three questions
underlying the question of free will: What is people’s concept of free will? How are free will
and moral judgment related? And does threatening people’s belief in free will affect social
perception and moral judgment? Before delving into these questions, we offer a brief
justification for the study of folk concepts.
People Believe All Kinds of Things
Some scholars dismiss the study of folk concepts. Many ordinary beliefs are culturally
variable, inaccurate, and confused; why should we expect anything different for free will? But
this view misunderstands the nature of folk concepts and their role in everyday life. Rather than
being immature beliefs, folk concepts categorize phenomena and organize the relationships
among categories (Malle, 2006). For example, people have a robust concept of intentionality
(Malle & Knobe, 1997; Malle, Moses, & Baldwin, 2001) that is cross-culturally and cross-
linguistically stable (Malle, 2008). It governs quick and effortless categorization of behavior
(Barrett, Todd, Miller, & Blythe, 2005; Malle & Holbrook, 2012; Scholl & Tremoulet, 2000),
explanations of behavior (Heider, 1958; Malle, 1999; Reeder, 2009; Woodward, 1998), and
moral judgments (Darley & Shultz, 1990; Lagnado & Channon, 2008; Malle, Guglielmo, &
Monroe, 2012; Ohtsubo, 2007; Young & Saxe, 2009, see also Dahourou & Mullet, 1999, for a
replication with a non-Western sample). The intentionality concept is not so much a belief about
facts in the world but, akin to a Kantian category, it fundamentally constitutes how people
perceive the social world.
In the same way, people’s folk concept of free will might structure how people perceive and
respond to certain aspects of the social and moral world (see Baumeister, Masicampo, &
DeWall, 2009; Vohs & Schooler, 2008). If we can empirically establish what this folk concept is
and how it functions in human cognition we can better evaluate the troubling claims that it is
imbued with metaphysics and a burdensome prerequisite for morality.1
Common Claims About the People’s Folk Concept of Free Will
Scholars of free will don’t agree on many things, but they seem to agree on what ordinary
people’s concept of free will is. Specifically, it is commonly taken to be a deeply metaphysical
concept that involves magical thinking and rejects the normal laws of causality. Cashmore
(2010) writes: “Free will makes ‘logical sense,’ as long as one has the luxury of the ‘causal
magic’ of religion,” but “neither religious beliefs, nor beliefs in free will, comply with the laws
of the physical world” (p. 4502). Others echo this anti-scientific attitude: “Free will is the idea
that we make choices and have thoughts independent of anything remotely resembling a physical
process(Montague, 2008, p. R584). “The jargon of free will in everyday language…requires us
to accept local pockets of indeterminism in an otherwise deterministically conceived world
view(Maasen, Prinz, & Roth, 2003, p. 8).
If these characterizations of the folk concept are correct, then what people subscribe to runs
counter to science and is apt to be overturned. But overturning free will presents a problem,
because free will is commonly viewed as necessary for moral and legal responsibility. For
1 If some scholars then want to add statements about what free will “really is, then they should no
longer make claims about ordinary people but need to establish independent criteria for the truth of those
statements.
3
example, Greene and Cohen (2004) claim that the law is predicated on a libertarian assumption
of free will. Darwin makes a bolder claim, arguing that without a belief in free will “one
deserves no credit for anything... nor ought one to blame others” (Darwin, 1840, p. 27).
Therefore, if science undermines the existence of free will, then the justification for our moral
and legal practices may be lost. This threat, however, rests on the critical assumption that people
have a metaphysical concept of free will. Yet, before we charge people with holding such a
confused concept, and before we declare their mental and moral practices corrupt, we need
scientific evidence.
An Empirical Investigation of Free Will
Investigations of free will have recently garnered widespread popular and scientific
attention. These studies, however, often focus on some variation of the Libet experiments
(Filevich, Kühn, & Haggard, 2013; Haggard, 2011; Lau, Rogers, Haggard, & Passingham, 2004;
Libet, Gleason, Wright, & Pearl, 1983; Schurger, Sitt, & Dehaene, 2012; Trevena & Miller,
2010) or on probing people’s intuitions regarding whether free will and moral responsibility are
compatible with determinism (e.g., Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer, & Turner, 2005; Nichols &
Knobe, 2007). Empirical investigations into people’s conceptualization of free will itself are
virtually non-existent.
In a first study on the topic, Monroe and Malle (2010) probed people’s concept of free will
by inviting them to report “what you think it means to have free will.” This approach mirrored
Malle and Knobe’s (1997) research, which successfully demonstrated that the criteria for a
concept could be elicited by asking people to explicate the concept (e.g., “When you say that
somebody performed an action intentionally, what does this mean?” p. 106).
Monroe and Malle’s (2010) findings strikingly diverged from the widespread claims about
the folk concept of free will. Metaphysical commitments were all but absent in the data. Out of
the180 participants tested, and the 259 total responses collected, only a single participant gave a
response that fit a metaphysical interpretation of free will: “Free will is when you can make a
decision that is completely untouched by outside factors” (Monroe & Malle, 2010, p. 216). In
the remaining 258 statements, people converged on a psychological definition of free will. They
defined free will as (a) being able to make a choice; (b) acting consistent with one’s desires; and
(c) being (reasonably) free of constraints (see Table 1). Importantly, the constraints that people
mentioned were psychological in nature and referred to such factors as peer pressure and social
status (e.g., “[making] decisions without fear and overriding influence from others”; “To be able
to say and do whatever you want no matter your race, IQ, or finance [sic] situation”).
Table 1.
Monroe & Malle’s (2010) content coding of folk definitions of free will
Coding Categories
Percent of Participants Mentioning Each Category
Ability to make a decision or choice
65%
Doing what you want
33%
Acting without constraints
29%
4
The goals of this first study were modest. We set out to empirically document people’s
conceptualization of free will, and it appears that people hold a psychological, not a metaphysical
concept of free will. Though a single study is insufficient to bolster this conclusion, additional
data have recently emerged that are consistent with Monroe and Malle’s (2010) findings.
In one such study, Stillman, Baumeister, and Mele (2011) asked participants to produce an
autobiographical account of actions they felt were either performed “of their own free will” or
“not the result of free will.” The results paralleled those of Monroe and Malle (2010). People in
the “free will” condition reported behaviors associated with pursuing goals, making choices, and
acting against external forces (e.g., temptation or pressure from others). By contrast, participants
in the “no free will” condition wrote about behaviors under constraint, such as in the presence of
powerful authority figures. Metaphysical commitments were tellingly absent in both conditions.
These preliminary data cast doubt on the characterization of people’s concept of free will as
magical and metaphysical. Instead they suggest that the ordinary understanding of free will is
rooted in the folk concept of intentionality (especially the components of desire and choice) and
extends beyond it by also considering internal and external constraints on behavior. However,
the studies by Monroe and Malle (2010) and Stillman et al. (2011) share two limitations. First,
both rely on undergraduate student participants and therefore may not be representative of the
population at large (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). Second, both rely on people’s
explicit reports on the concept of free will. Thus, one could argue that people’s concept is still
implicitly metaphysical; people simply fail to report these implicit metaphysical commitments.
Below we bring empirical data to bear on each of these claims. We first consider the possibility
that the explicit concept of free will espoused by university students fails to replicate in a general
population sample.
Free Will in the Community
In a new study, we explored people’s folk concept of free will by employing a structured
interview of community members. We randomly selected individuals from the phone book who
lived within a 5 mile-radius of campus and invited them into the lab for a paid study. These 39
participants (19 female) were older (M = 34.2, SD = 15.5) than a typical undergraduate sample,
and though they self-identified as considerably liberal (M = 2.4 SD = 1.12, on a 1-7 scale), they
were evenly split with regard to identifying themselves as religious (20 did, 19 did not). The
interviews were audio recorded and later transcribed by a research assistant who was blind to the
study’s goals. Three independent coders classified participants’ open-ended responses to the
interview questions.
In addition to putting Monroe and Malle’s (2010) finding to the test with a more
representative sample, we also wanted to probe several additional aspects of people’s concept of
free will, including its connection with other potentially related concepts (e.g., free choice, acting
freely, intentionality), its application (e.g., building a novel agent that has free will), and specific
beliefs about free will (e.g., whether it is inborn or develops over time).
The concept. If people’s concept of free will is indeed a psychological concept featuring
choice, desire, and lack of constraints, then community members should define free will
similarly to the college students in Monroe and Malle (2010). Indeed, we replicated this
conceptual structure (Table 2), again finding no mention of souls, indeterminism, or other
metaphysical commitments.
5
Table 2.
Components of community participants’ lay definitions of free will
Coding categories
Percent of Participants
Choice
41%
Desires
38%
Forethought
26%
Free from (external or internal) constraints
74%
Reference to metaphysics, souls, or indeterminism
0%
In two respects, community participants’ lay definitions differed from those of university
students in Monroe and Malle (2010). First, community participants cited the absence of
constraints much more frequently (74%) than student participants (29%). This perhaps speaks to
a difference in the salience of constraints that emerges with age. While college students
experience relatively few constraints on their behavior, older community members may be
keenly aware of the various constraints impinging on their lives (e.g., bills, jobs, children).
Second, community members mentioned an additional component of free will that was absent in
the student sample—forethought. This component was exemplified by “weighing the benefits of
action,” “premeditation,” or “having thought out one’s actions.” This criterion presupposes the
process of choice but serves to characterize the type of choice as being thoughtful or made in
consideration of the future. Such a component is consistent with our contention that people’s
conception of free will is an extension of the folk concept of intentionality, in which
considerations of forethought and awareness play a considerable role (Malle & Knobe, 1997).
Relations to other concepts. In addition to defining free will, participants were asked to
define several other concepts that were hypothesized to relate to free will: free choice, acting
freely, and acting intentionally. With regard to free choice, nearly half of participants (41%)
explicitly linked free will and free choice. Whereas free will was described as a general
capacity, free choice was defined as a concrete demonstration of one’s free will (e.g., “Free
choice is almost like a slight step down from free will.” “Free choice is sort of the same as free
will where they made a decision based on what they knew and how they felt.”). In addition to
the explicit link between the two concepts, people defined free choice as having similar qualities
to free will including being free from constraints (56%), making a choice (21%), acting on
personal desires (20%), and forethought (13%). A unique component of free choice was that of
options (23%): participants defined free choice as requiring behavioral alternatives (e.g., “they
had several options available to them”).
Participants’ definitions of “acting freely” largely focused on making choices (56%) under a
lack of constraints (56%). A subset of participants (13%) interpreted acting freely as
spontaneity—not in a metaphysical sense, but as acting impulsively (e.g., “not thinking through
carefully”; “acting recklessly”). Finally, definitions of “acting intentionally” mirrored Malle and
Knobe’s (1997) conceptual structure, with participants reporting that acting intentionally
required a desire for a particular outcome (26%), a belief about how to bring about said outcome
(35%), deliberating and intending to act (31%), and to a lesser extent, being aware of one’s
actions (9%).
Applications. Going beyond semantic intuitions, we also asked community participants to
indicate how they would “build” an agent that has free will (“If you wanted to build a biological
6
organism [or a robot] that had free will, what abilities would it need to have?”). Choice was
again the dominant category, with 81% of participants citing it as a necessary ingredient for an
agent to have free will (e.g., “for it to be naturally free will it would have to be able to choose”).
The category with the second-highest prevalence (35%) was a capacity for autonomy – defined
as being able to resist constraints (“It would have to be able to choose to not be persuaded by an
external factor”). Just under a quarter of participants mentioned ether consciousness (22%) or
being ambulatory (22%). However, these capacities were usually mentioned in service of choice
(e.g., “…but also to have some sort of consciousness in which it could actually think and
consciously reason to come to the decisions”) or for carrying out chosen actions (e.g., “It would
need to be able to move around relatively freely or have a chance to—for me—that it could have
a chance of carrying out its will”). To a lesser extent people mentioned needing desires, goals,
and preferences (16%) or moral principles (14%) in order to have free will, but once more, they
failed to mention any conditions that could count as metaphysical requirements (e.g., a soul,
uncaused causer).
Specific beliefs about free will. We also asked people to express some beliefs they had
about free will—revealing more their conception, not their concept of free will. These responses
provide further evidence for the claim that free will in ordinary people’s mind is a psychological
process. Asked whether free will is something that humans are born with or develops with age,
the majority of participants (71%) reported that an agent’s capacity for free will develops over
the lifespan, compared with 21% who viewed free will as an innate, unchanging module. For
example, one participant wrote: “I think it develops with age. You’re born with some free will
but it’s more just biological actions, not something you think about… But I think as you develop,
you develop opinions and the ability to think for yourself.” Conversely, when asked whether
something could “ take away the capacity for free will,” 94% of participants answered yes.
When asked specifically what factors could take away free will, people reported coercion (63%),
brain damage (40%), and physical limitations (37%), such as paralysis.
These results, in conjunction with the previous research by Monroe and Malle (2010) and
Stillman et al. (2011), show considerable support for the claim that the folk concept of free will
is fundamentally psychological, not metaphysical. Community members and college students
alike identify choice and a lack of constraint as the core components of free will. Moreover, this
pattern emerges when people define the concept (e.g., what does it mean to have free will?) and
when they apply the concept (e.g., what capacities would an agent need to have free will?).
Yet these findings will not satisfy the skeptic who might insist that people have implicit
commitments to metaphysical properties of free will (e.g., being an uncaused causer).
Unfortunately, no study that fails to provide evidence for metaphysical commitments can satisfy
the skeptic; for there might always be some better, more clever way to expose those cloaked
commitments. In this way, the claim of metaphysical commitments is dangerously close to an
unfalsifiable hypothesis. Nonetheless, as dogged empiricists we must keep trying to put the
hypothesis to a test. In so doing, two challenges await. First, most assessments of implicit
cognition rely on language (e.g., techniques of unscrambling or semantic priming), but the
candidate metaphysical assumptions about free will are difficult to formulate in ordinary
language: How do we translate charges such as “uncaused causer”? “contra-causal will”?
“nondeterminism”? Second, no clear criteria have been offered for identifying something as
“metaphysical.” Is counterfactual reasoning metaphysical? Is a choice from among options
metaphysical?
7
In two recent studies we tried to at least partially address these challenges. First, we
examined two properties that most scholars would consider metaphysical: breaking the causal
flow of the universe and being an uncaused causer. Second, rather than gathering explicit
definitions of each property we asked people to make judgments about whether various
behaviors instantiated the property, and we assessed the speed with which they made those
judgments. The guiding assumption was that people are facile at making judgments of such
properties as choice and intentionality (Malle & Holbrook, 2012); if they (implicitly) consider
certain agents as “uncaused causers” or consider behaviors as “breaking the causal flow of the
universe” then they should also be fast and facile at making those judgments.
To test these hypotheses we adopted a paradigm used by Malle and Holbrook (2012) to
investigate simultaneous inferences. Participants listened to short descriptions of immoral
behaviors, some intentional (e.g., “Kaylee took money from her mom’s wallet”), some
unintentional (e.g., “Yolanda broke her grandmother’s heirloom vase”). After reading each
behavior, participants received one of several possible probes and pressed a yes or no key in
response. The probes were: INTENTIONAL? (“Did the person act INTENTIONALLY in this
case?”); FREE WILL? (“Did the person have FREE WILL in this case?”); CHOOSE? (“Did the
person CHOOSE to act this way?”); BREAK? (“Did the person BREAK the causal flow of the
universe here?”); OPTIONS? (“Did the person have other OPTIONS in this case?”);
UNCAUSED? (“Was the person’s action completely UNCAUSED by anything that came before
it?”). Participants were trained on the meaning of each of the probes and worked through practice
trials before responding to the experimental trials. The dependent variables were the likelihood
of making the particular inference (proportion of yes responses to each probe) and the speed of
making it (reaction time for yes responses).2 (We report averages across two studies but display
the separate means in Figures 1 and 2.)
The data showed a clear pattern across the two studies. Replicating previous results (Malle
& Holbrook, 2012), people were fast at making inferences of intentionality, M = 1325 ms (SD =
346). Moreover, inferences of choice (M = 1212, SD = 350) and having options (M = 1230, SD
= 310) were at least as fast, if not faster. The key question in this study was whether inferences
of free will would cluster with inferences of intentionality, choice, and having options
(suggesting that people have a psychological concept of free will) or with the metaphysical
properties of breaking the causal flow and being uncaused (suggesting that people have an
implicit metaphysical commitment to indeterminism). The data support the hypothesis of a
psychological concept of free will. People’s speed to infer free will (M = 1242, SD = 328)
clustered with intentionality, choice, and options, whereas judgments of breaking the causal flow
(M = 1659, SD = 390) and being uncaused (M = 2050, SD = 372; assessed only in Study 2) were
significantly slower, p < .01. (See Figure 1).
People’s likelihood of making the various inferences (proportion of yes responses for each
probe) showed similarly stark differences (Figure 2). In both studies people were near ceiling in
making the psychological inferences (free will, intentionality, choice, and options) and much less
likely to make the metaphysical inferences (breaking causal flow, being uncaused). Together
with the reaction time patterns, these results show that while people are able to answer the
metaphysical questions when pressed, those concepts are far from intuitive and quite distinct
from the judgment of free will and its psychological components.
2 We report here the results for intentional behaviors only because there is obviously no free will,
intentionality, and the like present for unintentional behaviors. These behaviors were included primarily
to make it impossible to assume by default that every presented behavior is intentional, free, etc.
8
Figure 1. Reaction times for “yes” responses to probes.
Figure 2. Likelihood of “yes” responses to probes.
"Yes" reaction times (in ms)
Study 1
Study 2
% "Yes" responses
Study 1
Study 2
9
These first empirical investigations of the folk concept of free will have revealed a number
of important findings. First, we repeatedly demonstrated that people’s concept of free will lacks
the strong metaphysical commitments commonly attributed to it. Rather, these data support the
claim that people hold a psychological concept of free will. Both university students and
community members explicitly characterize free will as choice, acting intentionally, considering
options, and acting free of (or overcoming) constraints. Moreover, these explicit reports are
confirmed by several reaction time studies. Judgments about free will, choice, intentionality, and
having options form a tight conceptual bundle, while metaphysical concepts such as breaking
deterministic laws and being an uncaused causer are outside of people’s everyday concept of free
will.
Is Free Will Needed for Moral Judgment?
Thus far it seems that the best way to characterize people’s concept of free will is as a
concept without metaphysics. However, maybe we have been asking the wrong questions.
Perhaps people’s metaphysical commitments surface only when they use the free will concept
for a central purpose—when making moral judgments. We therefore investigated next the
connection between free will and moral judgments.
Free will is viewed as a Big Question in part because it is assumed to undergird everyday
morality. This assumption is typically interpreted to imply that if an agent did not act of her own
free will, then it is inappropriate to blame or punish her. “The concept of free will most
philosophers are interested in is the one that is necessary for moral responsibility and attributions
of praise and blame(Nahmias et al., 2005, p. 576). Is this also true for people’s folk concept of
free will?
The connection between free will and morality appears to be fertile ground for study.
Previous research examining free will beliefs and moral judgment has shown that metaphysical
considerations, such as highlighting the presence of a deterministic universe, can produce
variability in people’s blame judgments (See Nahmias, 2006; Nahmias, et al., 2005; Nichols,
2006; Nichols & Knobe, 2007; Roskies & Nichols, 2008). Thus, by examining the connection
between free will and moral judgments we can perhaps unearth metaphysical commitments
lurking in people’s concept of free will.
One commitment commonly attributed to people is that free will requires the presence of a
soul as a “first mover” or “magical cause” (e.g., Cashmore, 2010; Montague, 2008). Bargh and
Earp (2009) claim that people’s concept of free will is “laden with the concept of a soul, a non-
physical, unfettered, internal source of choice-making” (p. 13). However, Nahmias, Coates, and
Kvaran (2007) showed that very few people (15-25%) agree with the statement “Humans have
free will only because they have nonphysical souls.” In our interview study we also found
people reluctant to claim that a soul is necessary for having free will. When asked explicitly
about such a necessity, about one third of participants (28%) affirmed that a soul is necessary for
free will; a third (36%) denied any relationship between having a soul and free will; and the final
third (36%) were unsure whether the soul was needed for free will. But whatever people
reported explicitly, it is still possible that, for many people, a belief in some kind of soul reveals
an unconscious metaphysical commitment that guides ascriptions of free will and, therefore, their
moral judgments.
In a recent series of studies (Monroe, Dillon, & Malle, 2013) we set out to explicitly test the
claim that having a soul is necessary for free will. If correct, then people’s willingness to ascribe
free will to an agent should depend on whether that agent is believed to have a soul.
10
Additionally, insofar as free will is necessary for moral responsibility, ascriptions of a soul
should also be predictive of people’s judgments of blame. We contrasted this set of predictions
with Monroe and Malle’s (2010) proposal that people have a psychological concept of free will.
On this view, while many people may indeed believe in souls, such beliefs are irrelevant for
judgments of free will and blame. Rather, ascriptions of free will should depend primarily on an
agent’s perceived capacity for choice and intentional action, and these capacities should also
predict blame judgments.
In ordinary human agents, however, ascriptions of souls, choice, and free will are typically
confounded. To disentangle these properties, and to test the relationship between ascriptions of
choice and a soul to free will and morality, we conducted two studies. In the first study we
constructed five different agents whose descriptions varied in a number of features, most notably
in either having or lacking a human brain, a human physiology, and the capacity to make
choices. Participants read one of the five agent descriptions, made blame judgments about
various norm-violating actions the agent performed (e.g., throwing a water balloon off a theatre
balcony), and were invited to judge whether the agent had various capacities, including a soul,
choice, and free will.
The results showed that people based their decision to grant an agent free will on the agent’s
perceived capacities to make choices and to act intentionally, not on the possession of a soul.
For example, people granted souls only to human agents—both a normal human and a human
suffering from “Crick’s disorder,” which eliminated the person’s capacity to make choices. Of
these two human agents, however, only the normal human was granted free will. Conversely, a
cyborg (a human brain in a robot body) was denied a soul but granted the ability to make
choices, and people therefore ascribed free will to this agent. Similarly, the only capacities that
mattered for judging an agent blameworthy were the capacity for intentional action, choice, and
lack of external constraints; having or lacking a soul did not predict judgments of blame.
We replicated these results in a second study in which participants read one of four agent
descriptions that were pretested to explicitly manipulate (a) having the capacity for choice and
(b) having a soul: Normal human (choice present/soul present), Cyborg (choice present/soul
absent), Akratic Human (choice absent/soul present), or Robot (choice absent/soul absent). The
data confirmed the results of the previous study. Ascriptions of free will were largely predicted
by intentionality and choice (62% explained variance) rather than having a soul (8.5% explained
variance), and intentionality and choice explained the majority of the variance in blame
judgments (54%), while soul ascriptions failed to explain any variance at all.
The two studies also revealed that free will might not be as important for moral judgment as
previously thought. Free will only weakly predicted blame judgments, and its predictive power
was further reduced when we statistically controlled for the predictive power of intentionality
and choice. Specifically, in the first study, free will did not account for any unique variance
beyond intentionality and choice, and in the second study it explained only 2% unique variance
in blame judgments.
These studies suggest two conclusions that are consistent with Monroe and Malle’s (2010)
psychological account of free will. First, the perceived presence of a soul is neither necessary
nor sufficient for people to ascribe free will. It is not necessary because a cyborg without a soul
was granted free will; and it is not sufficient because a human with a disorder that disrupts
choice is granted a soul but not free will. By contrast, the perceived capacities for choice and for
11
intentional action are jointly necessary conditions for ascribing free will.3 Second, free will is,
by itself, not necessary for blame. Only insofar as “free will” is a shorthand for ascribing
intentional agency, choice, and lack of constraints does it predict blame. Once ascriptions of
choice and intentional action are taken into account, free will ascriptions contribute nothing new
to blame judgments.
Once again, however, we must confront the specter of the implicit; people might still have
some sort of implicit metaphysical beliefs about free will. One way to elicit those beliefs is to
challenge them and examine the effect on observable behavior (Baumeister et al., 2009; Nichols
& Knobe, 2007; Rigoni, Kühn, Gaudino, Sartori, & Brass, 2012; Stillman & Baumeister, 2010;
Vohs & Schooler, 2008). If challenging people’s (presumed) commitment to indeterminism, the
soul, or magical causation alters their moral judgments, then that would be evidence for
metaphysical commitments in people’s moral judgments.
Can Threatening Free Will Alter Social Perception and Moral Judgment?
To test this hypothesis we presented participants at a local public beach (N = 275) with one
of six challenges to free will or one of two control conditions: a pro-free will statement or no
statement. The majority of the free will challenges were experimental manipulations from
previous research (Baumeister et al., 2009; Nahmias et al., 2005; Nichols & Knobe, 2007; Vohs
& Schooler, 2008); one was an implied threat to free will (Greene & Cohen, 2004), and we
derived one unique challenge from responses in our interview study reported earlier.
Participants were presented with one of the seven “challenge” statements and then read
about an agent who committed a moral violation.4 For example, in one condition participants
were presented with the following text:
People are nothing but a pack of neurons. Their joys and sorrows, memories and
ambitions, and their sense of self are no more than the activation of a vast assembly of
nerve cells. All of people’s decisions and actions are completely caused by a particular
pattern of neurons firing in the brain – demonstrating that such things as beliefs, desires,
and values don’t in fact guide decisions.
One afternoon Sean stole expensive clothing from a department store. As always, the
behavior was completely caused by a particular pattern of neurons firing.
After reading the statement and the moral violation, participants rated the action’s
wrongness and the agent’s blameworthiness. In addition, participants were asked to decide
which of eight properties accurately described the agent’s behavior. Four were phrased in folk-
psychological language (e.g., “acted intentionally”; “had free will”; “made a choice”; “acted
3 Choice and intentionality are not sufficient because an act chosen under severe constraints is not
seen as free (Monroe & Malle, 2010).
4 Though each person received only one blameworthy behavior, we varied the blameworthy
behaviors between subjects so that, between participants we collected data on six different blameworthy
behaviors. Pretesting established that two behaviors were weakly negative (starting a fight with a
coworker; sunbathing nude), two were moderately negative (stealing expensive clothes; tricking a cashier
into giving too much change back), and two were strongly negative (cheating on a spouse; selling drugs to
children). In light of results by Nichols and Knobe (2007), one might hypothesize that the negativity of
the behaviors might moderate the effect of threatening free will beliefsstronger effects of the free will
manipulation on weakly negative behaviors than on strongly negative behaviors. However, we found no
significant interaction between condition and behavior negativity (p > .5).
12
freely”), and four were phrased in what may be considered metaphysical language (e.g., “made a
‘break’ in the causal laws of the universe”; “was fully determined”; “couldn’t have acted
differently”; “the decision was caused by his brain”). Participants were asked to evaluate each
characterization of the agent’s behavior and decide if it sounded “certainly correct,” “maybe
correct,” or “not at all correct.” Finally, participants indicated whether they had found the initial
statement (one of the seven challenges or pro-free will statement) persuasive.
We found no effect of condition on judgments of blame and wrongness (see Figure 3 for
blame results). That is, no claim about the nonexistence (or existence) of free will altered
people’s moral judgments, compared with the control condition. Additionally, in spite of the
free will challenges, people strongly endorsed the folk-psychological characterizations (i.e.,
choice, acting freely, and intentionality) of the agent’s action. On average, 75% of participants
considered the folk-psychological characterizations “certainly correct.” By contrast, only 12%
of participants considered the metaphysical characterizations “certainly correct.” Neither the
lack of effects on moral judgments nor the preference for folk-psychological property ascriptions
can be explained by participants’ rejection of the challenges as unpersuasive. The variability in
rated persuasiveness of the challenges was unrelated to people’s moral judgments and unrelated
to their endorsement of the characterizations of the agent’s behavior (ps > .4).
Figure 3. Blame ratings across free will threat and control conditions
Thus, people strongly hold that agents act intentionally, make choices, have free will, and
are morally responsible, even in the face of challenges to beliefs in free will. This finding might
suggest that people’s social and moral judgments are recalcitrant to just about any information.
But that is clearly not the case. In one study (Monroe & Malle, 2014), for example, we
manipulated whether an agent met eligibility criteria (cf. Roskies & Malle, 2013) for being
morally responsible, such as maturity, understanding the wrongness of one’s actions, and the
Blame intensity
13
ability to make (or inhibit) choices. We found dramatic reductions in blame, particularly when
an agent was unable to make choices or understand the wrongness of his actions.
In a second study (Monroe & Malle, 2014) we examined people’s perceptions of
intentionality and judgments of blame for agents whose behavior was disrupted at various stages.
Participants read descriptions of different agents (one at a time) who seriously harmed a stranger.
The agent descriptions manipulated (within subjects) the proximity of the disruption to the
agent’s action; most distant were disruptions in causal histories (e.g., being abused as a child),
followed by disruptions to deliberation (e.g., overwhelming emotions), then disruptions to choice
(e.g., having an intention to act planted by a hypnotist), and most proximal were disruptions to
action execution (e.g., a seizure makes the agent’s arm move sooner than planned).
The proximity manipulation failed to generate the originally hypothesized linear pattern, but
a post-hoc analysis revealed that participants clearly differentiated the disruptions as a function
of the agent’s ability to make a rational choice. They blamed the agent strongly when choice
capacity was intact but harm was unconventionally caused (e.g., a seizure causing the agent to
move sooner than planned). Blame was reduced when choice was partially disabled (e.g.,
overwhelming emotions, coercion), and even more so when it was entirely disabled (e.g.,
psychosis, brain abnormalities, hypnosis). (See Figure 4). Further, blame was strongly predicted
by the perceived intentionality of the agent’s action (ps <.01). However, we want to emphasize
that this interpretation of the data emerged post hoc; we are currently working on replicating this
pattern of results.
Figure 4. Post hoc analysis of three clusters of limitations on choice and their effects
on blame and intentionality judgments
Thus, we may conclude that the earlier reported “free will threats” challenged aspects of free
will that are irrelevant for social perception and moral judgment. By contrast, once relevant
features of mind and behavior are challenged—such as choice and intentionality—blame is
altered predictably.
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Unconventional
action
Partially disabled
choice
Entirely disabled
choice
Judgment extremity
Blame
intentionality
14
Unanswered Questions
Several questions remain unanswered by our studies. For one thing, we may have failed to
convince the skeptic who suspects lurking metaphysical commitments underneath the folk
concept of free will. If there are such commitments, however, they must be empirically
detectable. We therefore can only urge researchers to develop new methods to probe the concept
of free will for implicit, unconscious components that our studies have not detected. The criteria
are clear: there must be some evidence for a commitment; it must be arguably metaphysical (i.e.,
contradicting laws of nature); and it must be predictive of or necessary for ascriptions of free
will, choice, or moral judgment. In our own assessment, a soul, uncaused causes, or
indeterminism are unlikely candidates of such commitments. However, there is at least one
conceptual component that we have not yet examined in detail—the principle of alternative
possibilities (as philosophers call it) or the ordinary assumption that sometimes agents could
have acted differently. From our data it appears that something like the availability of “options”
is closely related to free choice (see interview study) and to free will (see reaction time studies).
But what aspect of “having options” is important to people? Is it that the agent could have acted
differently even if everything up to the moment of action was identical except that the agent
“chose” to go in a different direction? This seems rather unlikely. Given that people make sense
of decisions and actions by looking for an agent’s reasons that generated the decision to act
(Malle, 1999), if the agent chose A over B, then his reasons-for-A were involved in generating
this choice whereas if he chose B then his reasons-for-B were involved in generating that choice.
Therefore, not everything can be identical in two worlds in which an agent chooses two different
actions; the agent’s reasons that (at least partially) generated the choice, must be different as
well.
Alternatively, people may demand that an action is free (and subject to moral evaluation)
only when there was an actual possibility that the person could have acted otherwise—that is,
there was at least one possible world with the same past and the same laws of nature in which the
agent did not do what she actually did. If there is not such a possibility, then the action wasnt
free (Frankfurt, 1969). To test this hypothesis Miller and Feltz (2011) presented participants
with a number of scenarios in which an agent committed a car theft even though he could not, in
reality, have done otherwise. In Study 1, for example, Mr. Jones had a neural implant
programmed to cause his decision to steal a car at a specific time, just in case Jones did not
decide, on his own, to steal the car. As it so happens, he did decide on his own. Was he morally
responsible for deciding to steal the car? On a Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all agree) to 7
(strongly agree), participants’ mean was 5.6, and about 2/3 of them were on the “agree” side of
the scale (above the midpoint). So people don’t seem to demand that the agent could have (in an
otherwise parallel reality) acted differently; what matters is that in this reality the agent made a
choice and that this choice caused the action.
It would be interesting to let the alternative scenario play out—where the neural implant
“causes the agent’s decision” to steal the car. Because an agent’s normal decision-making
process (which includes forming an intention on the basis of reasons) is, on our model, essential
to free action, people’s blame should drop considerably under this condition. “Having options”
or “alternative possibilities” may thus be no more than a psychological description of an agent’s
situation before choosing to act: multiple subjectively possible and reasonable paths of action
and the capacity to use “normal” decision making faculties in selecting one of the paths. Even if
in reality all paths but one are blocked (but the agent doesn’t know that), actions that are based
on normally unfolding decisions from among such options are considered free. If the
15
subjectively represented options are limited—as in the prototypical case of a gun to one’s head
or strong pressure from authority—a decision is made, but the person “could not have”
reasonably decided otherwise and therefore acted intentionally but not freely.
This analysis can be pushed further toward cases in which an agent in fact did not
intentionally bring about an outcome (e.g., a driver accidentally injuring a pedestrian). Here
people blame the agent if they conclude that he could have prevented the outcome (Malle et al.,
2012). How do they arrive at this conclusion? This is an empirical question that has received far
too little attention, in part because the exact process of constructing counterfactuals is not well
understood. Perhaps people simulate the decision situation—and if, in this simulation, clear and
reasonable options emerge that the agent must have rejected (e.g., deciding to not try pulling the
accident victim out of the car), people consider the agent blameworthy. But are people
committed to a parallel possible world? To a nondeterministic interpretation of the universe? We
think not. But we don’t yet have the data to be confident.
The Myth and Reality of Free Will
We began this chapter with a question: What does it mean to have free will? We presented
the initial results of a research program aimed at answering this question. Though the research is
surely incomplete, there are several conclusions we are inclined to draw about how people
conceptualize free will and how they use this concept in everyday life.
What is people’s concept of free will? The data presented here support the view that
people have a psychological concept of free will—essentially, free will is choice and intentional
action, without constraint. Moreover, each study we conducted failed to provide evidence for the
widespread claim that people are committed to a metaphysical notion of free will. A skeptic
might insist that we have not asked the right questions or that people’s commitments are deeply
intuitive and implicit. But by offering empirical evidence where before there has only been
scholarly conjecture, we argue that the burden of proof is shifting toward those who claim that
people have a metaphysical concept of free will.
What is the relationship between free will and moral judgment? Moral judgments are
widely thought to presuppose free will—people do not blame (or praise) an agent who lacks free
will. In one sense this is correct. The capacity for free will is necessary for ascribing moral
blame insofar as it is a summary label for the capacities for choice and intentional action. But
our data suggest that once these two constituents of free will are accounted for, no further role is
left for a unique free will capacity to play. There is one way in which “free will” goes beyond
choice and intentionality: as freedom from constraints. This, the third component of the
psychological folk concept of free will (Monroe & Malle, 2010), makes a unique contribution.
Even when an agent made a choice and acted intentionally on it, if the agent had no reasonable
alternative option, the agent is not to blame.
What are the social implications of threatening free will? Threats to the belief in free will
cause people to behave in socially maladaptive ways (e.g., heightened cheating and aggression,
less helping, reduced learning; Baumeister et al., 2009; Stillman & Baumeister, 2010; Vohs &
Schooler, 2008). So far, no parallel effects have been found in the domain of social perception:
threats to the belief in free will do not seem to change people’s judgments about intentionality,
choice, freedom, or morality. More research is needed to reconcile these results (Schooler,
Vohs, Nahmias, & Nadelhoffer, 2013). It is possible, for example, that effects on behavior are
mediated by moral disengagement, diminished self-control, or ego depletion, whereas moral
judgments may not be susceptible to these processes in the same way. Moral judgments may
16
simply involve consideration of choice, intentionality, and preventability, and none of these
require a special belief in free will. It may even turn out that a belief in free will guides action
(Baumeister et al., 2010) whereas the folk-psychological concepts of choice and intentionality
guide social and moral judgment. But one thing is for certain: we need empirical data to resolve
these questions; discussions about whether free will “exists,or scholarly intuitions about the
folk concept of free will, cannot suffice.
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... Preliminary evidence (e.g. Monroe et al., 2014;Monroe & Malle, 2010Vonasch et al., 2017) suggested that the folk concept of free will is in line with the psychological model; this systematic review will further enquire into how the wider literature fits into the theoretical framework. ...
... The folk concept of free will matters, for it structures people's subjective experience of volition and morality and shapes how people live in a society (Monroe & Malle, 2014;Shariff et al., 2008). Although laypeople may not have a sophisticated understanding of free will (Baumeister & Brewer, 2012), the reality of the folk beliefs and intuitions about free will should be based on empirical investigation, not the estimate by academics from armchairs (Guglielmo et al., 2009;Monroe & Malle, 2010). ...
... The growing body of literature from the past decades has yet to be reviewed systematically. There is wide and continuing disagreement over the meaning of free will (Baumeister & Brewer, 2012;Monroe et al., 2014), which created great confusion about the implications of free will research (Baumeister & Monroe, 2014). It remains unclear whether the definitions of free will in scientific investigations were in accord with lay people's conception of the construct, and scholars can make progress by moving away from academic and philosophical interpretations and towards a clearer understanding of the folk's conceptualisation of free will (Baumeister & Monroe, 2014;Monroe & Malle, 2014). ...
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The existence of free will has been a subject of fierce academic debate for millennia, still the meaning of the term “free will” remains nebulous. In the past two decades, psychologists have made considerable progress in defining lay concepts of free will. We present the first systematic review of primary psychological evidence on how ordinary folk conceptualise free will, encompassing folk concepts, beliefs, intuitions, and attitudes about free will. A total of 1,384 records were identified following a pre-registered protocol. After abstract and full-text screening, 18 articles were eligible for inclusion, comprised of 36 studies and 10,176 participants from regions including the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Turkey, and Germany. A narrative synthesis of results showed that for ordinary folk, especially the more educated population from the United States, free will is a dynamic construct centred on the ability to choose following one’s goals and desires, whilst being uncoerced and reasonably free from constraints. Results suggesting metaphysical considerations regarding consciousness, dualism, and determinism were inconclusive. Our findings provided preliminary support for a psychological model of folk conception of free will, and elucidated potential pathways mediating the effects of consciousness and dualism on free will attributions. Further research is needed to explicate the distinction between having free will and having the ability to exercise free will, as well as the cross-cultural validity of findings on folk conceptions of free will.
... For example, while participants do not easily imagine a soul when asked, "What does it mean to have free will?," they may still agree with the statement that a soul is necessary for free will if it is presented. Actually in a few existing studies, ambiguous results which can be interpreted either way have been observed with such metaphysical question items (Monroe & Malle, 2014;Nadelhoffer et al., 2014). Therefore, data using such question items needs to be developed in future studies so that the free description and the questionnaire-based methodology could complement each other. ...
... , the study byMonroe and Malle (2014), which had 39 participants of the general public, extracted such factors as (a) absence of constraints (74 %), (b) choice (41 %), (c) de- sires (38 %), and (d) forethought (26 %). Factor (a) corresponds ...
... In summary, belief in free will is the general belief that human behavior is free from internal and external constraints across situations (Feldman, 2017;Monroe & Malle, 2014). In particular, past research has demonstrated that belief in free will promotes the view that people have intentional control over behaviors and outcomes (Genschow et al., 2017;Genschow et al., 2019). ...
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People's belief in free will is shown to influence the perception of personal control in self and others. The current study tested the hypothesis that individuals who believe in free will attribute stronger personal blame to obese people and to people with mental illness (schizophrenia) for their adverse health outcomes. Results from a sample of 1110 participants showed that the belief in free will subscale is positively correlated with perceptions of the controllability of these adverse health conditions. The findings suggest that free will beliefs are correlated with attribution of blame to people with obesity and mental health issues. The study contributes to the understanding of the possible negative implications of people's free will beliefs.
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The existence of free will has been a subject of fierce academic debate for millennia, still the meaning of the term “free will” remains nebulous. In the past two decades, psychologists have made considerable progress in defining folk concepts of free will. However, this growing body of literature has yet to be reviewed systematically. This systematic review aimed to narratively synthesise primary psychological evidence on folk conceptions of free will, encompassing folk concepts, beliefs, intuitions, and attitudes about free will, to provide a definition grounded in laypeople’s perspective to guide future research. Database searches were conducted following a pre-registered search strategy. A total of 1,368 records were identified through database searching, and 16 additional records were identified through reference mining, author tracing, and contacting authors for unpublished manuscripts. After duplicate removal, ASReview, an open-source machine learning programme, was used to facilitate and optimise abstract screening. Finally, 57 full-text articles were assessed for eligibility, and 18 articles were eligible for inclusion, comprised of 36 studies and 10,176 participants from regions including the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Turkey, and Germany. The results showed that for ordinary folk, especially the more educated population from the United States, free will is a dynamic construct centred on the ability to choose following one’s goals and desires, whilst being uncoerced and reasonably free from constraints. Results suggesting metaphysical considerations regarding consciousness, dualism, and determinism were inconclusive. The findings provided preliminary support for a psychological model of folk conception of free will. All data and coding are openly shared.
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When perceiving, explaining, or criticizing human behavior, people distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions. To do so, they rely on a shared folk concept of intentionality. In contrast to past speculative models, this article provides an empirically based model of this concept. Study 1 demonstrates that people agree substantially in their judgments of intentionality, suggesting a shared underlying concept. Study 2 reveals that when asked to define directly the termintentional,people mention four components of intentionality: desire, belief, intention, and awareness. Study 3 confirms the importance of a fifth component, namely skill. In light of these findings, the authors propose a model of the folk concept of intentionality and provide a further test in Study 4. The discussion compares the proposed model to past ones and examines its implications for social perception, attribution, and cognitive development.