Experimental Philosophy Advances

Experimental philosophy is a young (and controversial) subdiscipline of philosophy, but enough of it has been conducted that potentially informative meta-analyses are now possible. The first ever x-phi meta-analysis to be published will soon be appearing in Consciousness and Cognition. It is by Adam Feltz (Michigan Tech) and Florian Cova (University of Geneva) and is entitled “Moral Responsibility and Free Will: A Meta-Analysis.” It raises doubts about the findings of some earlier x-phi work. From the abstract:

Recent research suggests that emotional reactions play a prominent role in judgments about free will, influencing judgments about determinism’s relation to free will and moral responsibility. However, the extent to which affect influences these judgments is unclear. We conducted a metaanalysis to estimate the impact of affect. Our meta-analysis indicates that beliefs in free will are largely robust to emotional reactions.

A version of the paper is available here. (via Sara Protasi)

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Shen-yi Liao
9 years ago

Thanks, Justin, for linking to this. I just want to also note that, although this is the first meta-analysis, many “effects” in experimental philosophy have been well replicated. Interested readers can find more information at http://pantheon.yale.edu/~jk762/xphipage/Experimental%20Philosophy-Replications.html .

Joshua Knobe
9 years ago

Just wanted to put in a plug for this meta-analysis, which definitely deserves all the attention it has been getting. I don’t know if people have been following the progress of experimental philosophy on free will, but just in case, I thought maybe I should quickly explain what it is that just happened.

One striking finding in the experimental philosophy of free will is that people tend to be more incompatibilist when they think about the question in the abstract and more compatibilist when they think about concrete cases. A question then arises about why people show this effect. I and others had earlier suggested that the explanation might lie in people’s emotional reactions. (People have less emotional engagement with the abstract question, more with the concrete cases.) What the meta-analysis shows is that this hypothesis is actually incorrect. The effect is not in fact the result of emotional engagement.

One especially exciting thing about the refutation of our hypothesis is that it leaves the field with an important question. Given that the effect isn’t due to emotional reactions, why exactly is it that people’s intuitions about free will are so different in the abstract vs. the concrete?

[Finally, just a quick addition to Shen-yi’s super helpful post above. I wanted to mention that the page he links to provides lots of information both about which effects are successfully replicating and about which purported effects are failing to replicate.]

9 years ago

“Why exactly is it that people’s intuitions about free will are so different in the abstract vs. the concrete?”

This is an interesting question, and it is indeed surprising to learn it has little to do with emotional reaction. However, is it hoped, or is there reason to believe, that answering this question will help resolve the philosophical debate about determinism and moral responsibility? More generally, is there a reason why should we should believe that a better, more accurate knowledge of any intuition and its causes will give us a better, more accurate knowledge about the object of that intuition?

This is a sincere question. Trying to anticipate the response, I might think that if the causes are primarily emotional, then I have less reason to give them credence. But I don’t think I have reason to give any intuition credence *qua intuition*. Alternately, I might think that if the cause is not emotional, then when we do determine the cause, it will be some fact or experience that provides evidence for the intuition. But this seems a bit unlikely, since the very fact that individuals don’t themselves know the causes of their intuitions suggests that they are unconsciously adopted and largely cultural, not evidential or rational.

Alan White
Alan White
9 years ago

Very interesting Joshua. I wonder if the folk try to stick to consistency with predisposed inclinations toward incompatibilism in the abstract cases (treasuring open-future, controlled choice), but sway toward more pragmatism about specific cases, seeing that some FW-related job has to get done. That might at least pry essential concerns about emotions out of the picture.

We need to move this conversation over to Flickers of Freedom. (Sorry Justin!)