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Showing posts with label Free Will. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Free Will. Show all posts

Friday, February 17, 2023

Free Will Is Only an Illusion if You Are, Too

Alessandra Buccella and Tomáš Dominik
Scientific American
Originally posted January 16, 2023

Here is an excerpt:

In 2019 neuroscientists Uri Maoz, Liad Mudrik and their colleagues investigated that idea. They presented participants with a choice of two nonprofit organizations to which they could donate $1,000. People could indicate their preferred organization by pressing the left or right button. In some cases, participants knew that their choice mattered because the button would determine which organization would receive the full $1,000. In other cases, people knowingly made meaningless choices because they were told that both organizations would receive $500 regardless of their selection. The results were somewhat surprising. Meaningless choices were preceded by a readiness potential, just as in previous experiments. Meaningful choices were not, however. When we care about a decision and its outcome, our brain appears to behave differently than when a decision is arbitrary.

Even more interesting is the fact that ordinary people’s intuitions about free will and decision-making do not seem consistent with these findings. Some of our colleagues, including Maoz and neuroscientist Jake Gavenas, recently published the results of a large survey, with more than 600 respondents, in which they asked people to rate how “free” various choices made by others seemed. Their ratings suggested that people do not recognize that the brain may handle meaningful choices in a different way from more arbitrary or meaningless ones. People tend, in other words, to imagine all their choices—from which sock to put on first to where to spend a vacation—as equally “free,” even though neuroscience suggests otherwise.

What this tells us is that free will may exist, but it may not operate in the way we intuitively imagine. In the same vein, there is a second intuition that must be addressed to understand studies of volition. When experiments have found that brain activity, such as the readiness potential, precedes the conscious intention to act, some people have jumped to the conclusion that they are “not in charge.” They do not have free will, they reason, because they are somehow subject to their brain activity.

But that assumption misses a broader lesson from neuroscience. “We” are our brain. The combined research makes clear that human beings do have the power to make conscious choices. But that agency and accompanying sense of personal responsibility are not supernatural. They happen in the brain, regardless of whether scientists observe them as clearly as they do a readiness potential.

So there is no “ghost” inside the cerebral machine. But as researchers, we argue that this machinery is so complex, inscrutable and mysterious that popular concepts of “free will” or the “self” remain incredibly useful. They help us think through and imagine—albeit imperfectly—the workings of the mind and brain. As such, they can guide and inspire our investigations in profound ways—provided we continue to question and test these assumptions along the way.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Free will without consciousness?

L. Mudrik, I. G. Arie, et al.
Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Available online 12 April 2022


Findings demonstrating decision-related neural activity preceding volitional actions have dominated the discussion about how science can inform the free will debate. These discussions have largely ignored studies suggesting that decisions might be influenced or biased by various unconscious processes. If these effects are indeed real, do they render subjects’ decisions less free or even unfree? Here, we argue that, while unconscious influences on decision-making do not threaten the existence of free will in general, they provide important information about limitations on freedom in specific circumstances. We demonstrate that aspects of this long-lasting controversy are empirically testable and provide insight into their bearing on degrees of freedom, laying the groundwork for future scientific-philosophical approaches.

  • A growing body of literature argues for unconscious effects on decision-making.
  • We review a body of such studies while acknowledging methodological limitations, and categorize the types of unconscious influence reported.
  • These effects intuitively challenge free will, despite being generally overlooked in the free will literature. To what extent can decisions be free if they are affected by unconscious factors?
  • Our analysis suggests that unconscious influences on behavior affect degrees of control or reasons-responsiveness. We argue that they do not threaten the existence of free will in general, but only the degree to which we can be free in specific circumstances.

Concluding remarks

Current findings of unconscious effects on decision-making do not threaten the existence of free will in general. Yet, the results still show ways in which our freedom can be compromised under specific circumstances. More experimental and philosophical work is needed to delineate the limits and scope of these effects on our freedom (see Outstanding questions). We have evolved to be the decision-makers that we are; thus, our decisions are affected by biases, internal states, and external contexts. However, we can at least sometimes resist those, if we want, and this ability to resist influences contrary to our preferences and reasons is considered a central feature of freedom. As long as this ability is preserved, and the reviewed findings do not suggest otherwise, we are still free, at least usually and to a significant degree.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Do people understand determinism? The tracking problem for measuring free will beliefs

Murray, S., Dykhuis, E., & Nadelhoffer, T.
(2022, February 8). 


Experimental work on free will typically relies on using deterministic stimuli to elicit judgments of free will. We call this the Vignette-Judgment model. In this paper, we outline a problem with research based on this model. It seems that people either fail to respond to the deterministic aspects of vignettes when making judgments or that their understanding of determinism differs from researcher expectations. We provide some empirical evidence for a key assumption of the problem. In the end, we argue that people seem to lack facility with the concept of determinism, which calls into question the validity of experimental work operating under the Vignette-Judgment model. We also argue that alternative experimental paradigms are unlikely to elicit judgments that are philosophically relevant to questions about the metaphysics of free will.

Error and judgment

Our results show that people make several errors about deterministic stimuli used to elicit judgments about free will and responsibility. Many participants seem to conflate determinism with different  constructs  (bypassing  or  fatalism) or mistakenly interpret the implications of deterministic constraints on agents (intrusion).

Measures of item invariance suggest that participants were not responding differently to error measures across different vignettes. Hence, responses to error measures cannot be explained exclusively in terms of differences in vignettes, but rather seem to reflect participants’ mistaken judgments about determinism. Further, these mistakes are associated with significant differences in judgments about free will. Some of the patterns are predictable: participants who conflate determinism with bypassing attribute less free will to individuals in deterministic scenarios, while participants who import intrusion into deterministic scenarios attribute greater free will. This makes sense. As participants perceive mental states to be less causally efficacious or individuals as less ultimately in control of their decisions, free will is diminished. However, as people perceive more indeterminism, free will is amplified.

Additionally, we found that errors of intrusion are stronger than errors of bypassing or fatalism. Because bypassing errors are associated with diminished judgments of free will and intrusion errors are associated with amplified judgments, then, if all three errors were equal in strength, we would expect a linear relationship between different errors: individuals who make bypassing errors would have the lowest average judgments, individuals who make intrusion errors would have the highest average judgments, and people who make both errors would be in the middle (as both errors would cancel each other out). We did not observe this relationship. Instead, participants who make intrusion errors are statistically indistinguishable from each other, no matter what other kinds of errors they make.

Thus, errors of intrusion seem to trump others in the process of forming judgments of free will.  Thus, the errors people make are not incidentally related to their judgments. Instead, there are significant associations between people’s inferential errors about determinism and how they attribute free will and responsibility. This evidence supports our claim that people make several errors about the nature and implications of determinism.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Free will beliefs are better predicted by dualism than determinism beliefs across different cultures

Wisniewski D, Deutschländer R, Haynes J-D 
(2019) PLoS ONE 14(9): e0221617. 


Most people believe in free will. Whether this belief is warranted or not, free will beliefs (FWB) are foundational for many legal systems and reducing FWB has effects on behavior from the motor to the social level. This raises the important question as to which specific FWB people hold. There are many different ways to conceptualize free will, and some might see physical determinism as a threat that might reduce FWB, while others might not. Here, we investigate lay FWB in a large, representative, replicated online survey study in the US and Singapore (n = 1800), assessing differences in FWB with unprecedented depth within and between cultures. Specifically, we assess the relation of FWB, as measured using the Free Will Inventory, to determinism, dualism and related concepts like libertarianism and compatibilism. We find that libertarian, compatibilist, and dualist, intuitions were related to FWB, but that these intuitions were often logically inconsistent. Importantly, direct comparisons suggest that dualism was more predictive of FWB than other intuitions. Thus, believing in free will goes hand-in-hand with a belief in a non-physical mind. Highlighting the importance of dualism for FWB impacts academic debates on free will, which currently largely focus on its relation to determinism. Our findings also shed light on how recent (neuro)scientific findings might impact FWB. Demonstrating physical determinism in the brain need not have a strong impact on FWB, due to a wide-spread belief in dualism.


We have shown that free will beliefs in the general public are most closely related to a strong belief in dualism. This was true in different cultures, age groups, and levels of education. As noted in the beginning, recent neuroscientific findings have been taken to suggest that our choices might originate from unconscious brain activity, but see, which has led some to predict an erosion of free will beliefs with potentially serious consequences for our sense of responsibility and even the criminal justice system. However, even if neuroscience were to fully describe and explain the causal chain of processes in the physical brain, this need not lead to an erosion of free will beliefs in the general public. Although some might indeed see this as a threat to free will (US citizens with low dualism beliefs), most will not likely because of a wide-spread belief in dualism (see also [21]). Our findings also highlight the need for cross-cultural examinations of free will beliefs and related constructs, as previous findings from (mostly undergraduate) US samples do not fully generalize to other cultures.

Friday, December 24, 2021

It's not what you did, it's what you could have done

Bernhard, R. M., LeBaron, H., & Phillips, J. S. 
(2021, November 8).


We are more likely to judge agents as morally culpable after we learn they acted freely rather than under duress or coercion. Interestingly, the reverse is also true: Individuals are more likely to be judged to have acted freely after we learn that they committed a moral violation. Researchers have argued that morality affects judgments of force by making the alternative actions the agent could have done instead appear comparatively normal, which then increases the perceived availability of relevant alternative actions. Across four studies, we test the novel predictions of this account. We find that the degree to which participants view possible alternative actions as normal strongly predicts their perceptions that an agent acted freely. This pattern holds both for perceptions of descriptive normality (whether the actions are unusual) and prescriptive normality (whether the actions are good) and persists even when what is actually done is held constant. We also find that manipulating the prudential value of alternative actions or the degree to which alternatives adhere to social norms, has a similar effect to manipulating whether the actions or their alternatives violate moral norms, and that both effects are explained by changes in the perceived normality of the alternatives. Finally, we even find that evaluations of both the prescriptive and descriptive normality of alternative actions explains force judgments in response to moral violations. Together, these results suggest that across contexts, participants’ force judgments depend not on the morality of the actual action taken, but on the normality of possible alternatives. More broadly, our results build on prior work that suggests a unifying role of normality and counterfactuals across many areas of high-level human cognition.


Why does descriptive normality matter for force judgments?

Our results also suggest that the descriptive normality of alternatives may be at least as important as the prescriptive normality. Why would this be the case? One possibility is that evaluations of the descriptive normality of alternatives may be influencing participants’ perceptions of the alternatives’ value. After all, actions that are taken by most people are often done so because they are the best choice. Likewise, morally wrong actions are much less commonplace than morally neutral or good ones. Therefore, participants may be inferring some kind of lower prescriptive value inherent in unusual actions, even in cases where we took great lengths to eliminate differences in prescriptive value.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Get lucky: Situationism and circumstantial moral luck

Marcela Herdova & Stephen Kearns 
(2015) Philosophical Explorations, 18:3, 362-377
DOI: 10.1080/13869795.2015.1026923


Situationism is, roughly, the thesis that normatively irrelevant environmental factors have a great impact on our behaviour without our being aware of this influence. Surprisingly, there has been little work done on the connection between situationism and moral luck. Given that it is often a matter of luck what situations we find ourselves in, and that we are greatly influenced by the circumstances we face, it seems also to be a matter of luck whether we are blameworthy or praiseworthy for our actions in those circumstances. We argue that such situationist moral luck, as a variety of circumstantial moral luck, exemplifies a distinct and interesting type of moral luck. Further, there is a case to be made that situationist moral luck is perhaps more worrying than some other well-discussed cases of (supposed) moral luck.

From the Conclusion

Those who insist on the significance of luck to our practices of moral assessment are on somewhat of a tightrope. If we consider agents who differ only in the external results of their actions, and who are faced with normatively similar circumstances, it is difficult to maintain that there is any major difference in the degree of such agents’ moral responsibility. If we consider agents that differ rather significantly, and face normatively distinct situations, then though luck may play a role in what normative circumstances they face, there is much to base a moral assessment on that is either under the agents’ control or distinctive of each agent and their respective responses to their normative circumstances (or both). The role luck plays in our assessments of such agents, then, is arguably small enough that it is unclear that any difference in moral assessment can be properly said to be due  to this luck (at least to an extent that should worry us or that is inconsiderable tension with our usual moral thinking).

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Free Will and Neuroscience: Decision Times and the Point of No Return

Alfred Mele
In Free Will, Causality, & Neuroscience
Chapter 4

Here are some excerpts:

Decisions to do things, as I conceive of them, are momentary actions of forming an intention to do them. For example, to decide to flex my right wrist now is to perform a (nonovert) action of forming an intention to flex it now (Mele 2003, ch. 9). I believe that Libet understands decisions in the same way. Some of our decisions and intentions are for the nonimmediate future and others are not. I have an intention today to fly to Brussels three days from now, and I have an intention now to click my “save” button now. The former intention is aimed at action three days in the future. The latter intention is about what to do now. I call intentions of these kinds, respectively, distal and proximal intentions (Mele 1992, pp. 143–44, 158, 2009, p. 10), and I make the same distinction in the sphere of decisions to act. Libet studies proximal intentions (or decisions or urges) in particular.


Especially in the case of the study now under discussion, readers unfamiliar with Libet-style experiments may benefit from a short description of my own experience as a participant in such an experiment (see Mele 2009, pp. 34–36). I had just three things to do: watch a Libet clock with a view to keeping track of when I first became aware of something like a proximal urge, decision, or intention to flex; flex whenever I felt like it (many times over the course of the experiment); and report, after each flex, where I believed the hand was on the clock at the moment of first awareness. (I reported this belief by moving a cursor to a point on the clock. The clock was very fast; it made a complete revolution in about 2.5 seconds.) Because I did not experience any proximal urges, decisions, or intentions to flex, I hit on the strategy of saying “now!” silently to myself just before beginning to flex. This is the mental event that I tried to keep track of with the assistance of the clock. I thought of the “now!” as shorthand for the imperative “flex now!” – something that may be understood as an expression of a proximal decision to flex.

Why did I say “now!” exactly when I did? On any given trial, I had before me a string of equally good moments for a “now!” – saying, and I arbitrarily picked one of the moments. 3 But what led me to pick the moment I picked? The answer offered by Schurger et al. is that random noise crossed a decision threshold then. And they locate the time of the crossing very close to the onset of muscle activity – about 100 ms before it (pp. E2909, E2912). They write: “The reason we do not experience the urge to move as having happened earlier than about 200 ms before movement onset [referring to Libet’s partipants’ reported W time] is simply because, at that time, the neural decision to move (crossing the decision threshold) has not yet been made” (E2910). If they are right, this is very bad news for Libet. His claim is that, in his experiments, decisions are made well before the average reported W time: −200 ms. (In a Libet-style experiment conducted by Schurger et al., average reported W time is −150 ms [p. E2905].) As I noted, if relevant proximal decisions are not made before W, Libet’s argument for the claim that they are made unconsciously fails.

Monday, July 5, 2021

When Do Robots have Free Will? Exploring the Relationships between (Attributions of) Consciousness and Free Will

Nahmias, E., Allen, C. A., & Loveall, B.
In Free Will, Causality, & Neuroscience
Chapter 3

Imagine that, in the future, humans develop the technology to construct humanoid robots with very sophisticated computers instead of brains and with bodies made out of metal, plastic, and synthetic materials. The robots look, talk, and act just like humans and are able to integrate into human society and to interact with humans across any situation. They work in our offices and our restaurants, teach in our schools, and discuss the important matters of the day in our bars and coffeehouses. How do you suppose you’d respond to one of these robots if you were to discover them attempting to steal your wallet or insulting your friend? Would you regard them as free and morally responsible agents, genuinely deserving of blame and punishment?

If you’re like most people, you are more likely to regard these robots as having free will and being morally responsible if you believe that they are conscious rather than non-conscious. That is, if you think that the robots actually experience sensations and emotions, you are more likely to regard them as having free will and being morally responsible than if you think they simply behave like humans based on their internal programming but with no conscious experiences at all. But why do many people have this intuition? Philosophers and scientists typically assume that there is a deep connection between consciousness and free will, but few have developed theories to explain this connection. To the extent that they have, it’s typically via some cognitive capacity thought to be important for free will, such as reasoning or deliberation, that consciousness is supposed to enable or bolster, at least in humans. But this sort of connection between consciousness and free will is relatively weak. First, it’s contingent; given our particular cognitive architecture, it holds, but if robots or aliens could carry out the relevant cognitive capacities without being conscious, this would suggest that consciousness is not constitutive of, or essential for, free will. Second, this connection is derivative, since the main connection goes through some capacity other than consciousness. Finally, this connection does not seem to be focused on phenomenal consciousness (first-person experience or qualia), but instead, on access consciousness or self-awareness (more on these distinctions below).

From the Conclusion

In most fictional portrayals of artificial intelligence and robots (such as Blade Runner, A.I., and Westworld), viewers tend to think of the robots differently when they are portrayed in a way that suggests they express and feel emotions. No matter how intelligent or complex their behavior, they do not come across as free and autonomous until they seem to care about what happens to them (and perhaps others). Often this is portrayed by their showing fear of their own death or others, or expressing love, anger, or joy. Sometimes it is portrayed by the robots’ expressing reactive attitudes, such as indignation, or our feeling such attitudes towards them. Perhaps the authors of these works recognize that the robots, and their stories, become most interesting when they seem to have free will, and people will see them as free when they start to care about what happens to them, when things really matter to them, which results from their experiencing the actual (and potential) outcomes of their actions.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?

Oliver Burkeman
The Guardian
Originally posted 27 APR 21

Here is an excerpt:

And Saul Smilansky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, who believes the popular notion of free will is a mistake, told me that if a graduate student who was prone to depression sought to study the subject with him, he would try to dissuade them. “Look, I’m naturally a buoyant person,” he said. “I have the mentality of a village idiot: it’s easy to make me happy. Nevertheless, the free will problem is really depressing if you take it seriously. It hasn’t made me happy, and in retrospect, if I were at graduate school again, maybe a different topic would have been preferable.”

Smilansky is an advocate of what he calls “illusionism”, the idea that although free will as conventionally defined is unreal, it’s crucial people go on believing otherwise – from which it follows that an article like this one might be actively dangerous. (Twenty years ago, he said, he might have refused to speak to me, but these days free will scepticism was so widely discussed that “the horse has left the barn”.) “On the deepest level, if people really understood what’s going on – and I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years – it’s just too frightening and difficult,” Smilansky said. “For anyone who’s morally and emotionally deep, it’s really depressing and destructive. It would really threaten our sense of self, our sense of personal value. The truth is just too awful here.”


By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what is seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness).  "For the free will sceptic," writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, "it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible." Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other - and especially the way we treat criminals - might change beyond recognition.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

For Whom Does Determinism Undermine Moral Responsibility? Surveying the Conditions for Free Will Across Cultures

I. Hannikainen, et. al.
Front. Psychol., 05 November 2019


Philosophers have long debated whether, if determinism is true, we should hold people morally responsible for their actions since in a deterministic universe, people are arguably not the ultimate source of their actions nor could they have done otherwise if initial conditions and the laws of nature are held fixed. To reveal how non-philosophers ordinarily reason about the conditions for free will, we conducted a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic survey (N = 5,268) spanning twenty countries and sixteen languages. Overall, participants tended to ascribe moral responsibility whether the perpetrator lacked sourcehood or alternate possibilities. However, for American, European, and Middle Eastern participants, being the ultimate source of one’s actions promoted perceptions of free will and control as well as ascriptions of blame and punishment. By contrast, being the source of one’s actions was not particularly salient to Asian participants. Finally, across cultures, participants exhibiting greater cognitive reflection were more likely to view free will as incompatible with causal determinism. We discuss these findings in light of documented cultural differences in the tendency toward dispositional versus situational attributions.


At the aggregate level, we found that participants blamed and punished agents whether they only lacked alternate possibilities (Miller and Feltz, 2011) or whether they also lacked sourcehood (Nahmias et al., 2005; Nichols and Knobe, 2007). Thus, echoing early findings, laypeople did not take alternate possibilities or sourcehood as necessary conditions for free will and moral responsibility.

Yet, our study also revealed a dramatic cultural difference: Throughout the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, participants viewed the perpetrator with sourcehood (in the CI scenario) as freer and more morally responsible than the perpetrator without sourcehood (in the AS scenario). Meanwhile, South and East Asian participants evaluated both perpetrators in a strikingly similar way. We interpreted these results in light of cultural variation in dispositional versus situational attributions (Miller, 1984; Morris and Peng, 1994; Choi et al., 1999; Chiu et al., 2000). From a dispositionist perspective, participants may be especially attuned to the absence of sourcehood: When an agent is the source of their action, people may naturally conjure dispositionist explanations that refer to her goals, desires (e.g., because “she wanted a new life”) or character (e.g., because “she is ruthless”). In contrast, when actions result from a causal chain originating at the beginning of the universe, explanations of this sort – implying sourcehood – seem particularly unsatisfactory and incomplete. In contrast, from a situationist perspective, whether the agent could be seen as the source of her action may be largely irrelevant: Instead, a situationist may think of others’ behavior as the product of extrinsic pressures – from momentary upheaval, to the way they were raised, social norms or fate – and thus perceive both agents, in the CI and AS cases, as similar in matters of free will and moral responsibility.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Free to blame? Belief in free will is related to victim blaming

Genschow, O., & Vehlow, B.
Consciousness and Cognition
Volume 88, February 2021, 103074


The more people believe in free will, the harsher their punishment of criminal offenders. A reason for this finding is that belief in free will leads individuals to perceive others as responsible for their behavior. While research supporting this notion has mainly focused on criminal offenders, the perspective of the victims has been neglected so far. We filled this gap and hypothesized that individuals’ belief in free will is positively correlated with victim blaming—the tendency to make victims responsible for their bad luck. In three studies, we found that the more individuals believe in free will, the more they blame victims. Study 3 revealed that belief in free will is correlated with victim blaming even when controlling for just world beliefs, religious worldviews, and political ideology. The results contribute to a more differentiated view of the role of free will beliefs and attributed intentions.


• Past research indicated that belief in free will increases the perception of criminal offenders.

• However, this research ignored the perception of the victims.

• We filled this gap by conducting three studies.

• All studies find that belief in free will correlates with the tendency to blame victims.

From the Discussion

In the last couple of decades, claims that free will is nothing more than an illusion have become prevalent in the popular press (e.g., Chivers 2010; Griffin, 2016; Wolfe, 1997).  Based on such claims, scholars across disciplines started debating potential societal consequences for the case that people would start disbelieving in free will. For example, some philosophers argued that disbelief in free will would have catastrophic consequences, because people would no longer try to control their behavior and start acting immorally (e.g., Smilansky, 2000, 2002). Likewise, psychological research has mainly focused on the
downsides of disbelief in free will. For example, weakening free will belief led participants to behave less morally and responsibly (Baumeister et al., 2009; Protzko et al., 2016; Vohs & Schooler, 2008). In contrast to these results, our findings illustrate a more positive side of disbelief in free will, as higher levels of disbelief in free will would reduce victim blaming. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Robot sex and consent: Is consent to sex between a robot and a human conceivable, possible, and desirable?

Frank, L., Nyholm, S. 
Artif Intell Law 25, 305–323 (2017).


The development of highly humanoid sex robots is on the technological horizon. If sex robots are integrated into the legal community as “electronic persons”, the issue of sexual consent arises, which is essential for legally and morally permissible sexual relations between human persons. This paper explores whether it is conceivable, possible, and desirable that humanoid robots should be designed such that they are capable of consenting to sex. We consider reasons for giving both “no” and “yes” answers to these three questions by examining the concept of consent in general, as well as critiques of its adequacy in the domain of sexual ethics; the relationship between consent and free will; and the relationship between consent and consciousness. Additionally we canvass the most influential existing literature on the ethics of sex with robots.

Here is an excerpt:

Here, we want to ask a similar question regarding how and whether sex robots should be brought into the legal community. Our overarching question is: is it conceivable, possible, and desirable to create autonomous and smart sex robots that are able to give (or withhold) consent to sex with a human person? For each of these three sub-questions (whether it is conceivable, possible, and desirable to create sex robots that can consent) we consider both “no” and “yes” answers. We are here mainly interested in exploring these questions in general terms and motivating further discussion. However, in discussing each of these sub-questions we will argue that, prima facie, the “yes” answers appear more convincing than the “no” answers—at least if the sex robots are of a highly sophisticated sort.Footnote4

The rest of our discussion divides into the following sections. We start by saying a little more about what we understand by a “sex robot”. We also say more about what consent is, and we review the small literature that is starting to emerge on our topic (Sect. 1). We then turn to the questions of whether it is conceivable, possible, and desirable to create sex robots capable of giving consent—and discuss “no” and “yes” answers to all of these questions. When we discuss the case for considering it desirable to require robotic consent to sex, we argue that there can be both non-instrumental and instrumental reasons in favor of such a requirement (Sects. 2–4). We conclude with a brief summary (Sect. 5).

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Free Will & The Brain

Kevin Loughran
Philosophy Now (2020)

The idea of free will touches human decision-making and action, and so the workings of the brain. So the science of the brain can inform the argument about free will. Technology, especially in the form of brain scanning, has provided new insights into what is happening in our brains prior to us taking action. And some brain studies – especially the ones led by Benjamin Libet at the University of California in San Francisco in the 1980s – have indicated the possibility of unconscious brain activity setting up our body to act on our decisions before we are conscious of having decided to act. For some people, such studies have confirmed the judgement that we lack free will. But do these studies provide sufficient data to justify such a generalisation about free will?

First, these studies do touch on the issue of how we make choices and reach decisions; but they do so in respect of some simple, and directed, tasks. For example, in one of Libet’s studies, he asked volunteers to move a hand in one direction or another and to note the time when they consciously decided to do so (50 Ideas You Really Need to Know about the Human Brain, Moher Costandi, p.60, 2013). The data these and similar brain studies provide might justly be taken to prove that when research volunteers are asked by a researcher to do one simple thing or another, and they do it, then unconscious brain processes may have moved them towards a choice a fraction of a second before they were conscious of making that choice. The question is, can they be taken to prove more than that?

To explore this question let’s first look at some of the range of choices we make in our lives day by day and week by week, then ask what they might tell us about how we come to make decisions and how this might relate to experimental results such as Libet’s. At the very least, examining the range of our choices might provide a better, wider range of research projects in the future.

Friday, January 1, 2021

The weirdness of belief in free will

Berniūnas, R, et al.
Consciousness and Cognition
Volume 87, January 2021, 103054


It has been argued that belief in free will is socially consequential and psychologically universal. In this paper we look at the folk concept of free will and its critical assessment in the context of recent psychological research. Is there a widespread consensus about the conceptual content of free will? We compared English “free will” with its lexical equivalents in Lithuanian, Hindi, Chinese and Mongolian languages and found that unlike Lithuanian, Chinese, Hindi and Mongolian lexical expressions of “free will” do not refer to the same concept free will. What kind people have been studied so far? A review of papers indicate that, overall, 91% of participants in studies on belief in free will were WEIRD. Thus, given that free will has no cross-culturally universal conceptual content and that most of the reviewed studies were based on WEIRD samples, belief in free will is not a psychological universal.


• The concept of free will has no cross-culturally universal conceptual content.

• Most of the reviewed studies on belief in free will were based on WEIRD samples.

• The term “free will” is inadequate for cross-cultural research.

From the General Discussion

Unfortunately, there has been little effort in cross-cultural (construct and external) validation of the very concept of free will. In explicating the folk concept of free will, Monroe and Malle (2010) showed that the ability to make decisions and choice are the most prototypical features (see also Feldman, 2017; Feldman et al., 2014). However, this is a description only of intuitions of English speaking participants. Here we tested whether there is a widespread consensus about the conceptual content (of free will) across culturally and linguistically diverse samples — hence, universality and cultural hypotheses. Overall, on the basis of free-listing results, it could be argued that two lexical expressions of English “free will” and Lithuanian “laisva valia” refer to the same concept of free will. Whereas Chinese ziyou yizhi, Hindi svatantra icchā, and Mongolian chölöötei khüsel, as newly constructed lexical expressions of “free will”, do not refer to the same concept of free will.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Do criminals freely decide to commit offences? How the courts decide?

J. Kennett & A. McCay
The Conversation
Originally published 15 OCT 20

Here is an excerpt:

Expert witnesses were reportedly divided on whether Gargasoulas had the capacity to properly participate in his trial, despite suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and delusions.

A psychiatrist for the defence said Gargasoulas’ delusional belief system “overwhelms him”; the psychiatrist expressed concern Gargasoulas was using the court process as a platform to voice his belief he is the messiah.

A second forensic psychiatrist agreed Gargasoulas was “not able to rationally enter a plea”.

However, a psychologist for the prosecution assessed him as fit and the prosecution argued there was evidence from recorded phone calls that he was capable of rational thought.

Notwithstanding the opinion of the majority of expert witnesses, the jury found Gargasoulas was fit to stand trial, and later he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Working from media reports, it is difficult to be sure precisely what happened in court, and we cannot know why the jury favoured the evidence suggesting he was fit to stand trial. However, it is interesting to consider whether research into the psychology of blame and punishment can shed any light on their decision.

Questions of consequence

Some psychologists argue judgements of blame are not always based on a balanced assessment of free will or rational control, as the law presumes. Sometimes we decide how much control or freedom a person possessed based upon our automatic negative responses to harmful consequences.

As the psychologist Mark Alicke says:
we simply don’t want to excuse people who do horrible things, regardless of how disordered their cognitive states may be.
When a person has done something very bad, we are motivated to look for evidence that supports blaming them and to downplay evidence that might excuse them by showing that they lacked free will.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Determined to Be Humble? Exploring the Relationship Between Belief in Free Will and Humility

Earp, B. D., et al.


In recent years, diminished belief in free will or increased belief in determinism have been associated with a range of antisocial or otherwise negative outcomes: unjustified aggression, cheating, prejudice, less helping behavior, and so on. Only a few studies have entertained the possibility of prosocial or otherwise positive outcomes, such as greater willingness to forgive and less motivation to punish retributively. Here, five studies (open data, materials, and pre-print at https://osf.io/hmy39/) explore the relationship between belief in determinism and another positive outcome or attribute, namely, humility. The reported findings suggest that relative disbelief in free will is reliably associated in our samples with at least one type of humility—what we call ‘Einsteinian’ humility—but is not associated with, or even negatively associated with, other types of humility described in the literature.

From the Conclusion

At the same time, in our final study, we found a positive relationship between belief in free will and several other measures of humility: ethical/epistemic humility, Landrum humility, and modesty, with the last of these remaining significant even with a conservative alpha criterion. Although this is contrary to what we expected, it is consistent with the dominant narrative in the literature according to which belief in free will is associated with pro-social traits and behaviors. We believe we are the first to show a relationship of any kind between belief in free will and this particular trait—modesty—and we hope to explore this relationship in more detail in future work.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Natural Compatibilism, Indeterminism, and Intrusive Metaphysics

Nadelhoffer, T., Rose, D., Buckwalter, W.,
& Nichols, S. (2019, August 25).


The claim that common sense regards free will and moral responsibility as compatible with determinism has played a central role in both analytic and experimental philosophy. In this paper, we show that evidence in favor of this “natural compatibilism” is undermined by the role that indeterministic metaphysical views play in how people construe deterministic scenarios. To demonstrate this, we re-examine two classic studies that have been used to support natural compatibilism. We find that although people give apparently compatibilist responses, this is largely explained by the fact that people import an indeterministic metaphysics into deterministic scenarios when making judgments about freedom and responsibility. We conclude that judgments based on these scenarios are not reliable evidence for natural compatibilism.

Here is an excerpt from the Discussion:

The most obvious rejoinder for natural compatibilists is to deny that our intrusion items are properly construed as measures of creeping indeterminism. On this view, our items beg the question against compatibilism and our findings can be given a compatibilist-friendly interpretation.Here, the natural compatibilist is likely to appeal to the difference between the unconditional and the conditional ability to do otherwise. In an indeterministic universe, agents can have the unconditional ability to do otherwise—that is, they could have done otherwise even if everything leading up to their decision remained exactly the same. In a deterministic universe, on the other hand, agents merely have the conditional ability to do otherwise—that is, agents could have acted differently only insofar as something (either the past or the laws) had been different than it actually was. Compatibilists suggest that this conditional ability to do otherwise (along with other cognitive and volitional capacities) can ground free will and moral responsibility even in a deterministic universe. Incompatibilists disagree, insisting instead that free will requires indeterminism and the unconditional ability to do otherwise.

Monday, August 17, 2020

It’s in Your Control: Free Will Beliefs and Attribution of Blame to Obese People and People with Mental Illness

Chandrashekar, S. P. (2020).
Collabra: Psychology, 6(1), 29.
DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.305


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.


The purpose of this brief report was to test the hypothesis that belief in free will is strongly correlated with attribution of personal blame to obese people and to people with mental illness for their adverse health outcomes. The results showed consistent positive correlations between the free will subscale and the extent of blame to obese individuals and individuals with mental illness. The study employed both generic survey measures of internal blame attributions and a survey that measured the responses based on a person described in a vignette. The current study, although correlational, contributes to recent work that argues that belief in free will is linked to processes underlying human social perception (Genschow et al., 2017). Besides theoretical implications, the findings demonstrate the societal consequences of free-will beliefs. Perception of controllability and personal responsibility is a well-documented predictor of negative stereotypes and stigma associated with people with mental illness and obesity (Blaine & Williams, 2004; Crandall, 1994). Perceptions of controllability related to people with health issues have detrimental social outcomes such as social rejection of the affected individuals (Crandall & Moriarty, 1995), and reduced social support and help from others (Crandall, 1994). The current study underlines that belief in free will as an individual-level factor is particularly relevant for developing a broader understanding of predictors of stigmatization of those with mental illness and obesity.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Does encouraging a belief in determinism increase cheating?

Nadelhoffer, T., and others
(2019, May 3).


A key source of support for the view that challenging people’s beliefs about free will may undermine moral behavior is two classic studies by Vohs and Schooler (2008). These authors reported that exposure to certain prompts suggesting that free will is an illusion increased cheating behavior. In the present paper, we report several attempts to replicate this influential and widely cited work. Over a series of five studies (sample sizes of N = 162, N = 283, N = 268, N = 804, N = 982) (four preregistered) we tested the relationship between (1) anti-free-will prompts and free will beliefs and (2) free will beliefs and immoral behavior. Our primary task was to closely replicate the findings from Vohs and Schooler (2008) using the same or highly similar manipulations and measurements as the ones used in their original studies. Our efforts were largely unsuccessful. We suggest that manipulating free will beliefs in a robust way is more difficult than has been implied by prior work, and that the proposed link with immoral behavior may not be as consistent as previous work suggests.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Justice without Retribution: An Epistemic Argument against Retributive Criminal Punishment

Gregg D. Caruso (2020)
Neuroethics ​13(1): 13-28.


Within the United States, the most prominent justification for criminal punishment is retributivism. This retributivist justification for punishment maintains that punishment of a wrongdoer is justified for the reason that she deserves something bad to happen to her just because she has knowingly done wrong—this could include pain, deprivation, or death. For the retributivist, it is the basic desert attached to the criminal’s immoral action alone that provides the justification for punishment. This means that the retributivist position is not reducible to consequentialist considerations nor in justifying punishment does it appeal to wider goods such as the safety of society or the moral improvement of those being punished. A number of sentencing guidelines in the U.S. have adopted desert as their distributive principle, and it is increasingly given deference in the “purposes” section of state criminal codes, where it can be the guiding principle in the interpretation and application of the code’s provisions. Indeed, the American Law Institute recently revised the Model Penal Code so as to set desert as the official dominate principle for sentencing. And courts have identified desert as the guiding principle in a variety of contexts, as with the Supreme Court’s enthroning retributivism as the “primary justification for the death penalty.” While retributivism provides one of the main sources of justification for punishment within the criminal justice system, there are good philosophical and practical reasons for rejecting it. One such reason is that it is unclear that agents truly deserve to suffer for the wrongs they have done in the sense required by retributivism. In the first section, I explore the retributivist justification of punishment and explain why it is inconsistent with free will skepticism. In the second section, I then argue that even if one is not convinced by the arguments for free will skepticism, there remains a strong epistemic argument against causing harm on retributivist grounds that undermines both libertarian and compatibilist attempts to justify it. I maintain that this argument provides sufficient reason for rejecting the retributive justification of criminal punishment. I conclude in the third section by briefly sketching my public health-quarantine model, a non-retributive alternative for addressing criminal behavior that draws on the public health framework and prioritizes prevention and social justice. I argue that the model is not only consistent with free will skepticism and the epistemic argument against retributivism, it also provides the most justified, humane, and effective way of dealing with criminal behavior.

The info is here.