Thursday, November 1, 2012

Survey Showing Most People are Determinists?

Eddy Nahmias, Stephen Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Jason Turner conducted a survey on free will.[i]  They argue these studies suggest that ordinary people’s pre-theoretical intuitions about free will and responsibility do not support incompatibilism.  It appears to be false—or certainly too hasty—to claim that ‘‘most ordinary persons. . . believe there is some kind of conflict between freedom and determinism’’ (Kane, 1999, p. 218).  In this post, I am going to dispute their interpretations of the results of their study. 

The surveyors only present the results of a doubly revamped survey in their paper.  Of the first round they say: “In some initial surveys we found that people do not understand the concept ‘determinism’ in the technical way philosophers use it. Rather, they tend to define ‘determinism’ in contrast with free will.” (565)  Likewise they report “Examples of participants’ definitions of ‘determinism’ include: ‘‘Being unable to choose’’, ‘‘That people have a set fate’’, and ‘‘The lack of free will’’. Many others thought it meant ‘determined’, as in ‘resolute’. (579)   Here’s how they interpret these results: “It does not suggest that people consider ‘determinism’, as defined in (one of ) the technical ways philosophers define it, to be incompatible with free will or moral responsibility. Rather, it seems that many people think ‘determinism’ means the opposite of free will, as suggested by the phrase ‘the problem of free will and determinism’.
Seeing what questions they asked and the numbers on the responses would have been helpful.  But even based on what has been given, their interpretation looks highly doubtful.  The understanding of determinism and it’s relation to free will is exactly what’s in question.  Do most people believe determinism result in us not having choices, having a fate, lacking free will?  According to the first survey, yes they do.  But that undermines the surveyors conclusion. 

In any case, the study was changed.  But again, libertarian looking results led to a revision.  In pilot studies we found that some participants seemed to fail to reason conditionally (e.g., given their explanations on the back of the survey, some seemed to assume that the scenario is impossible because Jeremy has free will, rather than making judgments about Jeremy’s freedom on the assumption that the scenario is actual). To correct for this problem, Question 1 asked participants whether they think the scenario is possible (the majority responded ‘‘no’’, offering various reasons on the back of the survey).”  The survey question assumed determinism, so most of the participants objected to the question.   So the survey was changed to allow the respondents to say the scenario involving determinism was impossible.  Most people said no. 
That’s three strikes against the conclusion.  Now let’s look at the questions in their final form:
Scenario: Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a supercomputer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time. It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25, 2150 AD, 20 years before Jeremy Hall is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195. As always, the supercomputer’s prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195.
Computer Makes Prediction (2150) ------->  Jeremy is Born  (2170) ------>  Jeremy robs a bank (2195)
Figure 1 Jeremy Case 1: Bank Robbing Scenario.
When asked to “suspend disbelief” about the scenario, 76% said Jeremy had free will, 68% said Jeremy was blameworthy and 67% said Jeremy could have chosen otherwise.
It’s reasonably clear the scenario implies determinism (that’s why most objected to it).  One problem is I would have answered the questions the same way.  I am a libertarian, but if God told me libertarianism is false and determinism is true, I would become a compatibilist rather than a hyper-Calvinist.  So these survey results do not support the surveyors conclusion.  They don’t even measure if people believe in libertarian free will or not.  Rather, they test that if people learned they were wrong about libertarianism, would they become compatibilists or hard determinists. 
Let’s look at the second survey scenario.
Scenario. Imagine there is a world where the beliefs and values of every person are caused completely by the combination of one’s genes and one’s environment. For instance, one day in this world, two identical twins, named Fred and Barney, are born to a mother who puts them up for adoption. Fred is adopted by the Jerksons and Barney is adopted by the Kindersons. In Fred’s case, his genes and his upbringing by the selfish Jerkson family have caused him to value money above all else and to believe it is OK to acquire money however you can. In Barney’s case, his (identical) genes and his upbringing by the kindly Kinderson family have caused him to value honesty above all else and to believe one should always respect others’ property. Both Fred and Barney are intelligent individuals who are capable of deliberating about what they do. One day Fred and Barney each happen to find a wallet containing $1000 and the identification of the owner (neither man knows the owner). Each man is sure there is nobody else around. After deliberation, Fred Jerkson, because of his beliefs and values, keeps the money. After deliberation, Barney Kinderson, because of his beliefs and values, returns the wallet to its owner. Given that, in this world, one’s genes and environment completely cause one’s beliefs and values, it is true that if Fred had been adopted by the Kindersons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to return the wallet; and if Barney had been adopted by the Jerksons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to keep the wallet.
When asked about this scenario, 76% said Fred and Barney had free will, 60% said Fred is blameworthy and 76% said Fred and Barney could have done otherwise. 
The problem with this scenario is that determinism accounts for who we are but not what we do.  Only on a weakened counterfactual theory of causation does this scenario present causal determinism.  So the results do not support the authors conclusion.  They run the risk of backfiring.  Given who we are is determined, what we do is not determined in that we still have free will, still are morally responsible and still are able to do otherwise than we do. 
I have no doubt that developing an unbiased survey would be difficult.  Maybe other surveys do a better job.  But this one provides evidence that the common man view is libertarian rather than determinist.

[i] Eddy Nahmias, Stephen Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Jason Turner. Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions about Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Philosophical Psychology. Vol. 18, No. 5, October 2005, pp. 561–584. 

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