From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk Concept of Free Will

Abstract

People’s concept of free will is often assumed to be incompatible with the deterministic, scientific model of the universe. Indeed, many scholars treat the folk concept of free will as assuming a special form of nondeterministic causation, possibly the notion of uncaused causes. However, little work to date has directly probed individuals’ beliefs about what it means to have free will. The present studies sought to reconstruct this folk concept of free will by asking people to define the concept (Study 1) and by confronting them with a neuroscientific claim that free will is an illusion (Study 2), which invited them to either reconcile or contrast free will with determinism. The results suggest that the core of people’s concept of free will is a choice that fulfills one’s desires and is free from internal or external constraints. No evidence was found for metaphysical assumptions about dualism or indeterminism.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    For discussions of the ambiguities in Wegner’s concept of experience of conscious will, see Bayne (2006) and Nahmias (2002).

  2. 2.

    The reported data for the two studies were collected from a single sample. However, we wanted to address the definitional question prior to examining how participants dealt with the challenge, so the data are presented as two separate studies.

  3. 3.

    Malle and Knobe (1997) empirically supported this argument of shared cognitive labor with respect to the folk concept of intentionality. Definitional components initially emerging from a similar folk definition task were systematically varied in subsequent experimental tasks where they strongly predicted direct judgments of intentionality. We assume as our working hypothesis that the definitional components of free will show the same pattern.

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Correspondence to Andrew E. Monroe.

Appendices

Appendix A

Major Coding Categories

  1. 1.

    D Make decision/choice (e.g., “to have a choice in what you do,” “the ability to make your own decisions,” “the ability to decide for yourself your actions, choices, life”)

    • D-A mentions alternative options/possibilities (“you have a choice or option to take one or more paths in a situation”)

    • D-C control (e.g., “when someone has the ability to control their own actions and thoughts”)

  2. 2.

    W Doing what you want (e.g., “the ability to do what ever you want,” “ability to act on one’s owns needs and desires”)

  3. 3.

    I/E Acting without internal or external constraints (e.g., “To have the ability to act without restrictions,” “do whatever you want no matter your race, IQ, or financial situation”)

    • E Being able to resist specifically external influences on behavior (e.g., “no one else is controlling that decision,” “you aren’t forced into anything [that you don’t want],” “decline the negative pressures from peers”).

    • I Being able to overcome specifically internal limitations on behavior (e.g., “physically and mentally capable [of making your own decision],” “biological impulses can be overcome”)

  4. 4.

    N Free will does not exist

Appendix B

Coding Scheme for Responses to Neuroscientists’ Challenge to Free Will

Do participants accept the neuroscientists’ argument that “free will is a false impression?”

  1. 1.

    1 Yes - use when the answer is unequivocal (e.g. “I can believe that”)–no “buts” or “partials”

  2. 2.

    0 No–use when the answer is unequivocal

  3. 3.

    R With Reservations–use when the answer is wavering (e.g., “somewhat”) or with reservations in either direction

What reasons do participants give for refuting the arguments of the neuroscientists?

  1. 1.

    C Creation/Control of impulses (e.g. personality, external influences, higher order system that governs the neural impulses)

  2. 2.

    D Decision, choice or “will,”

    • Argument reaffirms free will, deliberation, choice, or having control over actions

  3. 3.

    E Neural impulses cannot explain all of our behavior

    • (e.g. morality, ethics, maladaptive behaviors, resisting “temptation,” learning from mistakes)

    • Also when referring to other causes of behavior beside neural impulses (e.g. “no, behavior is caused by many things”, “a higher power governs everything”)

  4. 4.

    S Shielding

    • the challenge bounce off a “shield” that is something more than just rejection (e.g. “makes us sound like robots,” “religious reasons”, “science doesn’t provide an adequate argument”)

    • N Makes no sense

Multiple codes are acceptable (e.g. E,C)

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Monroe, A.E., Malle, B.F. From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk Concept of Free Will. Rev.Phil.Psych. 1, 211–224 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-009-0010-7

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Keywords

  • Free Choice
  • Intentional Action
  • Challenge Question
  • Codeable Response
  • Folk Concept