In the Age of Science Can You Still Be Responsible?

2596-Jenn-1x1-125pxTax season is upon us in the United States and many Americans are facing a dilemma that has plagued taxpayers since the first tax was imposed on mankind: do I cheat or play by the rules? What if you knew that it was not under your power not to cheat? Would you feel better about spending that extra c-note you scored on less than legal terms? Of course, the IRS probably wouldn’t care how much better you felt and, responsible or not, becoming better friends with Benjamin Franklin may land you in a cell you’ll share with Bubba Franklin. But how seriously can we really take free will in a world that largely has been explained in terms of natural law and ironclad argument?

In an emerging field called experimental philosophy (or x-phi), philosophers are attempting to use experimental data to draw philosophical conclusions about ethics, epistemology, and other disciplines. Jon Lackman for the New York Times surveys recent work being done to apply experimental philosophical methods to the seemingly intractable free will question. He mainly surveys the field and doesn’t draw any conclusions other than that the data doesn’t really allow us to draw any conclusions. There does seem to be a strong relationship to what test subjects believe about free will and how they act. He also underscores the dissonance between theories about free will both in science and philosophy and the average person’s beliefs about it.

This emphasizes a theme I’ve been exploring where the first-person experience of a particular phenomenon like the existence of God or free will often varies widely with a third-person analysis of that phenomenon. It’s a tough sell for a person to believe she’s not responsible for her actions (or – probably more likely – that others are not responsible for their actions, particularly when those actions harm her) even if there are strong arguments to the contrary. The experimental data seems to prove this out. Lackman writes,

This behavior in the lab, the researchers noted, squares with studies in recent decades showing an increase in the number of college students who admit to cheating. During this same period, other studies have shown a weakening in the popular belief in free will (although it’s still widely held).

So what are theorists to do? Does “proving” one does not have free will matter if common sense telling us that we’re responsible is so strong?

See the NYT article here.

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