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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Q&A;: Shaun Nichols

Shaun Nichols, an experimental philosopher at the UA, has been tackling age-old philosophy with new technology and interdisciplinary techniques. His latest study was published in this month’s Science journal focused on how free will and responsibility are interconnected and how they illuminate the philosophical problem of free will.  Experimental philosophy works to apply logical judgments to philosophical questions.

Arizona Daily Wildcat: How did you get involved in experimental philosophy?

Nichols: I started in experimental philosophy because there were lots of questions about why we think the way we do about philosophy.

I was interested in trying a different avenue. A lot of philosophical problems have their roots in common sense but there are clear psychological questions.

My interest was really driven by an attempt to find a new source of evidence, to figure out how the problems arise in the first place.

How helpful is the UA in experimental philosophy?

We have had a dozen studies since I’ve been here, and it’s an active place in experimental philosophy. I think that part of what makes the UA attractive is that there is a long and strong tradition in cognitive science, and experimental philosophy is within that tradition, using an interdisciplinary approach to tackle these old questions.

How much of experimental philosophy is psychology? Sociology?

It’s driven by philosophical problems. It’s driven by questions that are rooted in the question of philosophy. But the techniques are really psychological. So they’ll use survey studies, just like psychologists use a wide-range of techniques.

How does experimental philosophy then deal with free will?

Free will has its roots in the way we think about the world. When you are thinking about why something happened, there has to be a reason for why that happened. I think that we think about other people that way as well.

One the one hand, everything that happens is caused by what happened before. But when I am making decisions, it doesn’t feel like it’s caused by what happened before. So why do we think that way? That’s what I’m interested in. The debate is, in a way, there’s a kind of stalemate in the philosophy of free will. Understanding why we think the way we do might shed more light on the debate.

What does this study add to the debate?

It’s about responsibility. Free will and responsibility are closely tied. You can’t be responsible without free will and without free will you can’t be responsible.

Some philosophers think that free will and responsibility are involved in determinism but people don’t think that determinism precludes compatibility.

In the study, we wanted to see which side was right.

Some of the answers conflict with how we normally think about responsibility.

When you are thinking abstractly about responsibility, they find it really powerful. But if you get them upset, then that kind of swamps that calm, cool, collected response.

What questions were asked?

When we described determinism to people and we asked this abstract question: In a universe where people are predetermined, are people responsible? They said no.

But if someone (committed) a violent crime, like kills his whole family, then it’s the oppsite answer. When you present someone with situations that are really emotionally salient, that are really charged, then people are more likely to say yes.

It’s about the way you look at the problem.

Were there any surprises in this or other free will studies?

I was really surprised that there was as much cross-cultural uniformity. The U.S. is really unusual in what we think are culturally universal. That was surprising.

But even if you ask very small kids, if you ask them about physical objects, like a ball not hitting the bottom of a box, they’ll say no, it had to. But if you ask them the same thing about the person, even three-year-old kids are saying they could have made a different choice. So even kids have some sense of free will. It’s not just culturally widespread but it’s also very early.


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