The Phenomenology of Free Will Eddy Nahmias (with Steven Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Jason Turner) Florida State University November 1, 2004 Tucson, Arizona
“Empirically Informed Philosophy” • Attempt to empirically test the empirically testable claims philosophers make, about, for example: • Human nature and psychology (e.g. claims about character traits) • Intuitions about thought experiments • Folk concepts • Human experience (phenomenology) “Too many moral philosophers . . . have been content to inventtheir psychology or anthropology from scratch….”-- Darwall, Gibbard & Railton
A Tale of Two Projects Surveying Freedom Phenomenology of Free Will • Philosophers say: “People’s concept of free will is X” and “People’s intuitions about free will are P.” • Their evidence is: “My concept is X” and “My intuitions are P.” • So, we decided to test people’s concepts of and intuitions about free will. • Then, we discuss the implications of such data for the debate. Philosophers say: “The experience of free will is Y” and “The experience of being able to choose otherwise is Q.” Their evidence is: “My experience of free will is Y” and … So, we decided to test people’s phenomenology of free will (roughly, of deliberation, choice, etc.). Then, we discuss the implications of such data for the debate.
Motivating the Project “The experience of freedom serves, in some philosophical theories, as a datum from which conceptual consequences are derived. The conceptual problem of freedom thus becomes intertwined with the phenomenological problem.” --David Velleman • What is the “datum” offered by the “experience of freedom”? • What conceptual claims are derived from this datum? • How should we go about getting this datum?
Conceptual PhenomenologicalDisputes Disputes • What are the relevant experiences? • Deliberation, choices, voluntary action, etc. • Categorical vs. conditional analyses of “could have done otherwise.” • Actions as caused by agents alone vs. actions caused by mental states. • “Close call decisions” vs. “confident decisions” as paradigmatic instances of free choice.
The “Universality Assumption” • Certain human experiences (including free will) are universal • If people reflect on them, they will describe them in roughly the same way. • Ordinary folk may lack the reflective capacity to do this. • But trained philosophers are reflective. • Hence, the philosopher’s description of his experience is sufficient to capture the essence of the experience—i.e. its phenomenology. • No need to consult the folk!
1. Ability to do otherwise: The Libertarian phenomenology • Keith Lehrer: “I am in fact convinced (rightly or wrongly) that no matter how I choose, I could have chosen to act differently in exactly that situation, that is, under exactly the same external and internal motivational conditions… This accurately describes what I find by introspecting, and I cannot believe that others do not find the same.” • C.A. Campbell: “Everyone must make the introspective experiment for himself: but I may perhaps venture to report . . . that I cannot help believing that it lies with me here and now, quite absolutely, which of two genuinely open possibilities I adopt.”
1. Ability to do otherwise: The Libertarian phenomenology • John Searle: “Reflect very carefully on the character of the experiences you have as you engage in normal, everyday human actions. You will sense the possibility of alternative courses of action built into these experiences…. each thing we do carries the conviction, valid or invalid, that we could be doing something else right here and now, that is, all other conditions remaining the same. This, I submit, is the source of our own unshakable conviction of our own free will.”
1. Ability to do otherwise: The Compatibilist phenomenology • Adolf Grunbaum: “Let us carefully examine the content of the feeling that on a certain occasion we could have acted other than the way we did, in fact, act. What do we find? … this feeling simply discloses that we were able to act in accord with our strongest desire at that time, and that we could indeed have acted otherwise if a different motive had prevailed at the time.” • J.S. Mill: “When we think of ourselves hypothetically as having acted otherwise than we did, we always suppose a difference in the antecedents: we picture ourselves having known something we did not know; which is a difference in the external inducements; or as having desired something, or disliked something, more or less than we did; which is a difference in the internal inducements …”
2. The cause of the choice: The Libertarian phenomenology • Boyle et al.; “the essentials of the experience on the basis of which people often think their choices are free…. [include that the agent] thinks that the causal conditions apart from his own choosing are not sufficient to bring his choosing about.” • Roderick Chisholm: If an agent’s action is “brought about by his own beliefs and desires … then since they caused it, he was unable to do anything other than just what it was that he did do” and hence he was unfree.
2. The cause of the choice: The Libertarian phenomenology • Carl Ginet: “My impression at each moment is that I at that moment, and nothing prior to that moment, determine which of several open alternatives is the next sort of bodily exertion I voluntarily make.” • Kristine Korsgaard: “when you deliberate it is as if there were something over and above all of your desires, something which is you, and which chooses which desire to act on” (1996, 100).
2. The cause of the choice: The Compatibilist phenomenology • W.T. Stace: “Acts freely done are those whose immediate causes are psychological states in the agent.” • Joseph Priestly: “all that a man can possibly be conscious of … [is] that nothing hinders his choosing or taking whichsoever of the fruits appears to him more desirable.” • Harry Frankfurt: Autonomous action involves acting on “a desire with which the person is satisfied,” where “being or becoming satisfied is like being or becoming relaxed.”
3. Close calls vs. Confident Choices • Descartes: “In order to be free I need not be capable of being moved in each direction; on the contrary, the more I am inclined toward one … because I clearly understand that there is in it an aspect of the good and the true… the more freely do I choose that direction.” • Peter van Inwagen: We exercise free will rarely, only when we face choices “in which it is not obvious to the agent, even after reflection, and when all the facts are in, how he ought to choose.” • Robert Kane: “There is a tension and uncertainty in our minds about what to do… The uncertainty and tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves.”
The Libertarian Description • I’m confronted with a choice between two alternatives, A and B. I consider reasons for each alternative. I feel these reasons are finely balanced such that at some point I, and nothing else, cause (but not without reason) a choice or intention to act on one alternative over the other. I feel that the choice was such that given the exact same external conditions and internal conditions (e.g. my desires and reasons), I could have chosen the other alternative. I feel I have made a free choice. • William James: “It often happens that no paramount and authoritative reason for either course [of action] will come … we find ourselves acting, as it were, automatically, and as if by spontaneous discharge of our nerves, in the direction of one of the horns of the dilemma.”
The Compatibilist Description • I’m confronted with a choice between two alternatives, A and B. Reasons for each alternative come to mind. As I deliberate, it becomes clear to me that I have better reasons for one alternative over the other. I feel that my choice follows from those reasons and nothing is forcing me to choose as I do. I feel that I could have chosen the other alternative if I’d had different reasons, but I didn’t. I feel I have made a free choice. • James: “The arguments for and against a given course seem gradually and almost insensibly to settle themselves in the mind and to end by leaving a clear balance in favor of one alternative, which alternative we then adopt without effort or constraint. . . . We have, however, a perfect sense of being free, in that we are devoid of any feeling of coercion.”
What follows? • Both descriptions are accurate: • Some choices feel like the libertarians say and some feel like the compatibilists say. • Then neither side can use phenomenology as prima facie evidence for their position and to shift burden of proof to other side. • Some people experience free will like the libertarians say and some people experience it like the compatibilists say. • May explain the interminable debate: some philosophers draw theory from one type of experience and others draw competing theory from a different type of experience.
What follows? • The libertarian description is most accurate. • Shifts burden of proof to compatibilist to explain away the feeling of freedom, not to “change the subject” with a “quagmire of evasion” or a “wretched subterfuge.” • Some support that we have libertarian free will (contra skeptics)—e.g. that determinism is not universally true. • The compatibilist description is most accurate. • Shifts burden of proof to libertarian (or skeptics) to explain why we need metaphysically demanding theory of free will when our phenomenology doesn’t demand it.
What follows? • It just doesn’t matter (phenomenology is irrelevant to such debates). • To have free will you must believe you have it. • To believe you have free will, you must “feel it.” • There’s no way to tell (Impossible to get objective data about subjective experiences) • Impossible in principle (philosophical concerns about nature of consciousness, introspection, etc.) • Impossible in practice
Studying the Phenomenology of Free Will • Psychological Research • 1) Introspectionism (Wells’ Phenomenology of Acts of Choice) • 2) Perceived Freedom • 3) Westcott’s Psychology of Human Freedom • Our Studies • 1) Free-response surveys • 2) Fixed-response surveys • 3) Talk-aloud studies and phenomenological interviews Why not helpful? Plea for help!
Relevant psychological studies? • Lots in the behaviorist/cog psych tradition on the objective conditions of decision-making (including economics and game theory). • Few systematic investigations of the experiences of subjects during decision-making, even in introspectionism and phenomenology.
Introspectionism (Well’s The Phenomenology of Acts of Choice) • Subjects presented with 2 liquids, choose one to drink, and then offer “a full report of all the processes which had been introspectable … from when the two alternatives were presented to the moment when he made his choice and reacted.” • Subjects are aware of the instructions (the ‘determining tendency’). Suggests (contra Libet and Wegner) that conscious intentions not epiphenomenal?
Introspectionism • Negative affect with close calls: “the normal trend of conative activity in the act of choice is impeded: the subject reports that he is ‘baffled,’ ‘helpless,’ ‘impotent,’ ‘inhibited,’ etc. Displeasure, and other affectively toned contents such as dismay, discomfort, confusion, surprise, etc. make their appearance.” • “Until the resolve to let things go, consciousness was very troubled; a great feeling of impotence”
Introspectionism • Passive tone of subjects’ reports: • Meaning of Ziv seemed to develop. Ziv seemed to be attracting me rather than my determining it. I seemed to be passive. Ziv seemed to draw me. Chose Ziv and drank with pleasure. • Something seemed to say, ‘Stop and think which is the best. Choose for a good reason.’ …Tension and annoyance seemed to be increasing. Seemed to reach a breaking-point. Then my eye happened to fall on Klum. Found I was taking it. • A sense of being drawn in a certain direction. Direction only definite, nothing in consciousness at the end. • Meb-Vab present in a sort of jumble. Clear knowledge both very unpleasant. Nearly equally so…. Oscillation. Distinct feeling of strain.... Floating notions of ethical grounds. I accepted rather than chose Mep.
Problems with Introspectionism • Training subjects in language of theoretical debates. • “I could distinguish a sort of mental movement towards Tauk. Still more hesitation, a distinct reference to ‘self.’ I designated Laip with a strong consciousness of action.” • Wells: “Having once caught the experience of Self-activity, they were able to identify it in subsequent though weaker experience…. And this is in no sense an unscientific method of observing phenomena. In microscopic work, for example, an inexperienced beginner … misses [certain objects], although they are plainly there for the [experienced] observer who is looking for them.”
Perceived Freedom • Ivan Steiner: “I would go further and propose that we ought somehow to legitimatize and dignify research in which all dependent variables are abstracted from subjects’ responses to inquiries concerning their feelings of control and choice. Perhaps that sounds outrageously phenomenological, but … until someone discovers a better way of gaining access to those experiences, we ought to listen to what subjects have to say.”
Perceived Freedom • Greater perceived freedom when: • The options are similar in attractiveness than when they are equal or very different. • The choice is between positively valenced options rather than negatively valenced ones. • The subject feels informed about the options involved and competent about the area of choice. • There are moderately more options rather than very many or just a few, especially if there is sufficient time to deliberate about them. • But not really choices so much as predictions.
Westcott’s The Psychology of Human Freedom • “Much as the phenomena of human freedom cry out for study from a human science viewpoint, there has not been much response. By a human science study, I mean systematic empirical study of the ways in which human freedom is experienced and the way human freedom affects and is affected by human life.” • Descriptive trends in reports of “unfreedom”: “prevention from without” “Unpleasant affect” “Conflict and indecision”
Our Studies • Philosophers use a sample size of one. • Psychologists rarely study first-person experiences in systematic way, and when they do there are problems or they aren’t relevant to our purposes. • Our hope is to motivate an effort to close this gap: philosophers present the problems and distinctions such that they can be empirically tested.
1. Free-response surveys • Exemplar of acting of your own free will. What did it feel like? • Example of free choice. What did it feel like? • “Philosophers and psychologists often talk about what it feels like to act of your own free will. How would you describe the feeling of acting of your own free will?”
A. Choice/Decision B. Doing What You Want • Feeling of Responsibility D. Acting against Responsibility • E. Positive Affect (invigorating, etc.) F. Negative Affect (fear, etc.) • G. Control H. Conscious
Free Response • “It doesn’t ‘feel’ like anything to make a decision of your own free will.” • “I’m not sure you can ‘feel’ your will.” • “It felt normal.” • “I can’t really describe what it feels like to make a choice.”
2. Fixed-response surveys Imagine you’ve made a tough decision between two alternatives. You’ve chosen one of them and you think to yourself, “I could have chosen otherwise” (it may help if you can remember a particular example of such a decision you’ve recently made). Which of these statements best describes what you have in mind when you think, “I could have chosen otherwise”: A. “I could have chosen to do otherwise even if everything at the moment of choice had been exactly the same.” B. “I could have chosen to do otherwise only if something had been different (for instance, different considerations had come to mind as I deliberated or I had experienced different desires at the time).” C. Neither of the above describes what I mean.
62% 35% A – Even if everything had been the same B – Only if something had been different C – Don’t Know
Control during deliberation When you deliberate about what to do, you probably consider and weigh different reasons for and against a given course of action. You may not always consider every reason for or against an action when you deliberate; some reasons come to mind during deliberation, and some do not. Which of the following best describes how you feel when these reasons come to mind: A. I control which reasons come to mind. B. The reasons come to mind without my controlling it. C. Mostly, I control which reasons come to mind, but some reasons come to mind without my controlling it. D. Mostly, the reasons come to mind without my controlling it, but I control whether some reasons come to mind. E. None of these descriptions seem accurate to me.
A. I control which reasons come to mind. B. The reasons come to mind without my controlling it. C. Mostly, I control. D. Mostly, the reasons come to mind without my controlling it. E. None of the above.
3. Talk-aloud studies • Anders Ericsson and Herbert Simon’s Protocol Analysis (1993): “Talk aloud method” • “Talk aloud as much as you comfortably can…. Just act as if you are alone and speaking to yourself. Don’t explain your thoughts….” • Method does not disrupt “the course or structure of the thought processes.” • “The information that is heeded during the performance of a task, is the information that is reportable” and vice versa. • “The verbal data are not in the least epiphenomenal but highly pertinent to and informative about subjects’ cognitive processes and memory structures.”
Why is the data so hard to get? • Relevant experiences may be too “thin” to be noticed or reported easily—not normally noticed because so normal (“you don’t miss them ‘til they’re gone”). • Decisions need to be more significant (have a prudential or moral element). • How much of $100 will you give to charity? • Train subjects to introspect? • Triangulate with behavioral and neurophysiological data. • We need a better sense of where to begin.
4. Phenomenological Interviews • Subjects as co-investigators and experts (about their own experiences) • Open-ended questions • Coded for themes • But where’s the data? • Are we experts on our own minds?
Conclusions? • Relationship between phenomenology and philosophical theories. • Lack of psychological research on the experiences related to concept of free will. • Filling the gap will not be easy. • The burden is on the libertarian!
Further (and Deeper) Questions • How can we overcome the methodological problems about obtaining phenomenological data? • Responses each side could offer to such data? • Metaphilosophical questions about the role of phenomenological “data” in this (and other) philosophical debates • Relationship of phenomenological data to conceptual issues and to the project of surveying folk intuitions and conceptual use.
Testing Austin’s Putt • Austin claims ordinary language suggests: “I could have holed” a short putt means “I could have holed it given the exact same conditions (i.e. that time). … A human ability or power or capacity is inherently liable not to produce success, on occasion, and that for no reason.” We asked: • Imagine you are playing putt-putt and you have just attempted a short putt but missed it (perhaps you can actually remember an event like this). You think to yourself, “I could have made that putt.” Which of these descriptions best captures what you mean when you think, “I could have made that putt”: • I could have made that putt under the exact same conditions. • I could have made that putt under very similar conditions. • I could have made that putt only if something had been different. • I make putts like that sometimes and I miss them sometimes. • None of the above.
A – Under the exact same conditions B – Under very similar conditions C – Only if something had been different D – I make sometimes; I miss sometimes E – None of the above