17 Jun 2013, 03:12

Shifting the Intuitions of the Folk


Shifting the Intuitions of the Folk

Originally submitted by emil10001 on Mon, 12/20/2010 - 21:48

Executive Summary

The findings of experimental philosophy studies that show the folk intuitions on Free Will to show a Dualist Libertarian leaning. This paper tries to show that it is possible to shift the intuitions of the folk through narrowly focused discussion. The discussions executed in preparation for this paper seem to indicate that this might be a worthwhile effort.

This is a rough draft version of the paper, so I may update this a bit as it gets revised. Final, revised version in pdf form is here.


There have been several experimental philosophy studies done to try to determine the intuitions of the folk with respect to Free Will. Questions as to whether or not this was a worthwhile pursuit, and what to do with the information gathered. Such information might be useful for philosophers who write about Free Will to simply be more accurate in terms of their descriptions and understanding of the folk. The information may also be useful for a philosopher who wants to know what people think that they want to get out of Free Will. Another possible use for such information is to inform philosophers of what the public needs education on, and what needs to be corrected in the folk view. This intent of this paper is to show that shifting the intuitions of the folk is not an impossible task. The paper will present one method of intuition shifting, which is simply to have a discussion.

There is an initial problem that presents itself almost immediately when the topic of discussions with the folk is brought up, and that is that the folk hasn’t given this too much though, so how can they be expected to have an intelligent conversation on the topic? The answer here might be disappointing, as it doesn’t really matter whether or not the folk already has a good understanding prior to a conversation. What matters is whether or not they will be open to the difficult ideas presented, or whether they will dig in their heels and refuse to continue down a difficult line of reasoning.

The paper “Free Will and the Bounds of the Self,” by Knobe and Nichols, described the folk as Dualist Libertarians, at least in certain circumstances. Another possible term of the leanings of the folk would be the view of Agent Causation. It seems that the Dualism part is doing the heavy lifting for the folk of allowing freedom of action in an adequately determined universe, and it is plausible that this idea lines up well with Agent Causation. If a person’s position of Free Will will inform their position on responsibility, and their view of responsibility may inform their views on punishment, then it is important that the person have a good understanding of the topic of Free Will. Taking this perspective, it seems that the philosopher should be concerned with shifting the intuitions of the folk to be more in line with the current philosophical leanings regarding Free Will.


The basic concept of this paper is that given the basic difference in the leanings of the folk and philosophers, on the topics of Free Will and Responsibility, it is worthwhile to have discussions with the folk. Through discussions, it should be possible to get the folk to shift their intuitions on Free Will and Responsibility. This paper would like to start a dialog with people who epitomize the folk intuitions.

It seems to that the Dualist Libertarian view has its roots in the religious tradition, so naturally, seminary students would be good subjects for this discussion. Two of the participants in the discussions were seminary students, and the other two were Christians who claimed to have Dualist Libertarian leanings. Within the discussions, the views of the participants were discussed, including how they view people, souls, in what sense they thought that we have free will, and how those views impact their views of responsibility. Then, the views that seemed inconsistent with the views of compatibilism, physicalism and consequentialism were dissected and discussed at length, using thought experiments as a starting point. The discussions were finally grounded with some examples of how these views impact how we think about and make laws, and the sorts of reasons that we have for the laws that we make.

The measure of success for these discussions will be how open the participants will be at the end of the discussion to the idea of consequentialism. Given the position that what we have is free will in the compatibilist sense, consequentialism is a much more reasonable position than that of retributivism. If the discussion fails to move the participant, then given their initial views, retributivism may be a more comfortable position. There were some criteria laid down about what we might want to catch and have laws against. Those criteria would be that if an individual is harming someone else, themselves or infringing on the rights of another individual.

This appears to be a good place to make clear that the purpose of this paper is not to argue for a compatibilist, physicalist or consequentialist view. Rather, the purpose is to show that the folk are not incapable of participating in these sorts of discussions, and, more importantly, that they are capable of shifting their intuitions if they are presented with strong enough reasons to do so.


The discussions had a pre-defined structure as follows:

  • Opening statement of positions
  • Discuss a series of thought experiments
  • Discuss differences in positions
  • Discuss any remaining questions
  • Arguments for consequentialism
  • Conclusion

The structure was designed to attempt to get the participants, first to state their current intuitions, and then to get them thinking about the issue with a narrow focus on arguments that should lead to a particular conclusion. The goal of the discussion was also made clear to the participants from the start.

Thought Experiments

The following are the thought experiments that were used to seed the discussion:

Jones is sitting in a chair, and some activity in his brain causes his arm to twitch. Jones’s arm twitch causes a glass to be knocked over and broken. The noise from the broken glass causes his baby to wake up and start crying. Is Jones responsible for the baby crying?

‘Jone’s brain twitch’ was intended to get the participant thinking about ways in which Jones could be held responsible. There seem to be two clear ways in which one would want to hold Jones responsible. The first, would be that one could say that Jones is responsible in the sense that if either Jones or his wife needs to get up to calm the baby down, Jones should be the one chosen. There is another sense in which we might want to hold Jones morally responsible for disrupting his baby’s sleep, and in this sense, it is more difficult to hold Jones responsible, since he lacked the control necessary to have stopped the chain of events that caused his baby to wake up.

Bill Gates, having a large disposable income, has paid a neuroscientist to plant a transceiver module in his brain. He has also hired a team of people to listen in on all of his business dealings, using the transceiver. When he needs to make a business decision, he will be transmitted by the people through the transceiver. Bill always makes the decision transmitted to him. Can we hold Gates responsible for those decisions? Can Bill Gates be praised for those decisions?

This was a series derived from some of the thought experiments that were discussed in class. The main idea is to try to see if the participant can pick out that Bill had chosen to implant this transceiver in his head in the first place. The word 'praised’ was used to try to get the participants to think more about this than if they had been asked if we could hold Gates 'responsible.’ While there was more discussion about his praiseworthiness, the participants felt that Gates had chosen to install the transceiver, had chosen the team, and had likely chosen to go along with the choice sent to him.

There might also be questions as to whether or not Gates could have done something other than what was transmitted to him. There were several other experiments along these lines, where several knobs were turned, however the participants didn’t take long to point out that still, Gates had chosen to implant the transceiver. We would hold him responsible regardless of whether or not he could do otherwise.}

Suppose that there is a supercomputer designed to read all of the information in your body, all of the information stored in your brain, down to every cell, molecular bond and atom and will produce a physical clone of you. This clone will read your information, produce the clone, and a moment later, the clone will swap places with you. Then, the clone will be faced with a moral decision. Can we hold your clone responsible? Is it possible that we could hold you responsible? Is it likely that the clone will make the same decision that you would have made in the same situation?

This series of experiments turned out to be more difficult than the others. The intent of this was to see if it made any difference to the participants whether or not this clone had a soul, and whether or not that soul would allow the clone to do something different than they would do in a given situation. There is a lot to unpack here, and there was good discussion on several of the issues raised.

The first issue that gets raised is whether or not the participant willingly signed up for this experiment, and how much the participant knew going into the experiment. The next issue is whether or not the clone has any idea that it’s a clone, and whether or not that makes a difference. The clone was not a willing participant in the experiment, rather, it had this situation foisted onto it. Then we get to the problem of whether or not we can hold the participant responsible, since it was their brain states that let to the choice made by their clone.

This may have not been as clear-cut as the other thought experiments, but there was a lot to discuss here. This thought experiment really got the participants thinking about the problem, perhaps in a different way than they previously had.

Q: Two chess programs, program A and program B are set up on a computer to play each other in a series of chess matches. Chess playing programs rely on random number generators to make decisions during play about how long to consider each move. Instead of using the system’s random number generator, they are fed with one that can be easily reset, and will produce a determined, pseudo-random series of numbers. Once reset, the number generator will produce the exact same pseudo-random series of numbers, in the same order.

The two programs then proceed to play 1000 games against each other. Program A wins 682 of the games, and program B wins the remaining 318 games. The random number generator is reset, and another 1000 games are played. Given that the programs exist in a deterministic system, and that we are feeding them with the same random numbers, this series of one thousand games is identical to the previous thousand games. And, once again, program A wins 682 of the games, and program B wins the remaining 318 games. This is repeated several more times to demonstrate that this is truly a deterministic system, and that these games are clearly reproducible, in detail, given the same series of random numbers.

Upon analysis, it appears that in a number of games where B lost, if B had castled, it would have likely won. The programmer who wrote B says, “Oh yes, B could have castled,” even though it clearly did not. Can this be true?

A: There are three possible meanings of the word 'can’ or 'could’ that we need to consider in the above scenario. The first is the case in which we are saying that B could have castled in the exact situations in which it did not castle, using the same random numbers. Obviously, we have shown this to be impossible. We have given B multiple opportunities using the same set of numbers, and B never did anything different (in corresponding games). In this sense, the programmer is incorrect, B could not have done otherwise. There is another case however, in which the term 'can’ might be taken to mean, the ability in similar, though not exactly the same, situations. It might be the case that B’s programming was such that it did have the ability to be analytic enough to be able to castle in similar situations, but didn’t as a result of the number that it received from the pseudo-random number generator. For this, we might give the random number generator a different seed value, and run another thousand games. This time around, B wins more games, instead of 682 to 318, the results are 591 to 409. In this sense of the word 'can,’ the programmer was correct, B could have done otherwise in an important sense. Another possibility is that we, again, take the word 'can’ to mean the ability to do otherwise in similar situations, but B’s programming was analytic enough to recognize those types of situations where it would have been beneficial to castle. We could play with the random number generator all we want, and B would not take the appropriate action, and would not castle. In this case, B truly could not have done otherwise.

The Chess Playing Programs is a compatibilist favorite, as it illustrates the problem of 'could have done otherwise’ so nicely. It certainly did its job in this context as well, in helping the participants to really understand the issue of Free Will in a serious way, or at the very least, within the context of the conversation.


The discussions, in their entirety, have been posted online at http://tinyrobots.net/node/11. The participants in the discussion were Derek, Ian, Jackson and taev. The first discussion was with Derek. He is in seminary to become a Methodist pastor. The second discussion was with another seminary student named Ian. He is studying to become an Episcopalian minister. In search of a couple more participants, a post was made on Reddit. There were a couple of people interested in the discussion. The third participant was Jackson. He is currently working on a philosophy paper using Free Will as an argument against the problem of evil. The final discussion was with another Redditor, taev, who asked to be referred to by his Reddit name.


Derek’s basic view, regarding the topic at hand, was that people have souls, and those souls have one truly free choice, whether or not to accept God. The other decisions are all known to God before you make them. During the discussion some of the inconstancies in his views were addressed. The question of whether or not the soul was necessary was also discussed. The discussion followed the designed arc very closely. There was a fair amount of disagreement at the beginning. By the end, in light of arguments about Free Will and the impact that it has on moral responsibility, he was able to agree that it might be a good thing for society not to worry so much about holding people morally accountable.

The discussion started with defining a few relevant terms, to make sure that we were using the same words to mean the same things. I then gave my position and my goals for the discussion, with the intention to be as forthcoming as possible in this discussion.

Derek then gave his initial views. His view was that we have souls, that the soul is separate from the body, and that the soul is able to interact with the body. God is the Laplacian Demon, but God gives us the ability to choose. The only truly free choice that we are given is that we have the choice to accept or reject God. God can know every other decision that we make except the choice of whether or not to accept God. Derek said that the body limits the freedom of the soul, though didn’t elaborate much on how the soul would be free, or how the body is limited. He was also very concerned with personal responsibility, which was heavily tied to his beliefs. We took a few minutes to clarify his position before moving on. I suggested that he was already had some compatibilist leanings, with God as the Laplacian Demon.

After Derek stated his initial views, we moved on to the thought experiments listed above. Derek said that Jones was not responsible for his baby crying. Derek dug into the problem a little, and asked a few astute questions, but didn’t take much time to figure out the Bill Gates problem, pointing out that since Gates decided to implant the transceiver, we could hold him responsible.

The clone problem was more difficult. This experiment did have the intended effect of getting Derek to think from a physicalist viewpoint, about the problem of responsibility. Derek said that the clone would have the same opportunities as himself to make a decision, so we could hold the clone responsible. He said that he should not be able to be held responsible, as he was not actually making the decision himself, though he was less sure of this position than the other stances that he had taken. Going further into the clone problem, when asked if he and the clone would likely make the same set of decisions, Derek said that he thought that it would be possible to make two different decisions in that situation. He initially gave a physicalist backing for this response, but then retreated to the dualist view for an explanation. Derek also gave the clone free will, even if it makes the same choices that he would make in the same situations.

The chess playing programs were then discussed, which set up the rest of the discussion. This is a great thought experiment to get people thinking about the ways in which we could do otherwise in a given deterministic situation. The experiment was also the perfect way to explain the compatibilist position, and then move on with the discussion from there.

After the thought experiments, we went back over some of Derek’s initial views, and tried to work out some of the inconsistencies. The first problem that we looked at was his view that the choice to accept God was a free choice, and a that God could not know your decision prior to your making it. We took this from several angles, and concluded that it was problematic to say that God could be privy to some future decisions, but not others. That God would either know all of your decisions, or none of them, but couldn’t only know some of them. The next problem that we discussed was whether or not we could come up with a coherent concept of a soul worth wanting. Derek conceded that he might need to rethink his position on the soul, and that perhaps it wasn’t a necessary component of his beliefs. Though, he did say that he wanted to do some more research on the problem of souls from the theological perspective.

Once we had discussed those two problems, we talked about how we would want to hold people responsible, in light of what we had been discussing. The argument is for a consequentialist view of responsibility, and that as a society, we should be weary of holding people morally responsible. The examples of premarital sex and gay marriage were discussed, in terms of how we, as a society, should deal with those issues. We decided that, as a society, we shouldn’t try to hold people morally responsible for those things. Instead, we would want to hold people responsible for breaking rules that can be backed up by some basic arguments about what could be considered generally bad for society. We said that those basics would probably come down to that you should not allow someone to harm other people, themselves, or to infringe on the rights of other people. Derek had started out with some strong intuitions about responsibility, but agreed to the compatibilist view by the end of the discussion.


Ian’s views were a bit difficult to nail down exactly. Although, it turned out that he agreed with the principle arguments from the beginning. While there wasn’t much progress to be made, a good discussion was had none-the-less.

The position that Ian gave was that he thinks that physics may come to a point of being able to include something like a soul in its model of the universe. He did not, however, have a very solid understanding of physics. He also said that he didn’t think that God was outside of the universe. Ian felt that the universe would lack meaning without Free Will. Ian also thought that God gave us Free Will to provide him with more entertainment. When asked whether God has knowledge of all of our decisions, Ian described a similar view to Derek’s in that it had compatibilist leanings, with respect to God as opposed to determinism. His view was that we could still have free will even if God knows what you are going to do because of branching paths resulting in a multiverse. Though, after discussing physics a bit, Ian backed down from that argument. Ian did like the idea of compatibilism as being a pragmatic approach to free will. When asked if he felt that we needed the idea of a soul to get free will, he dodged the question, but also didn’t seem to lean on the idea of a soul to do any real work for us. As a result of that, we the soul out of the discussion.

Moving into the thought experiments, Ian said that Jones was not responsible for the baby crying. Ian answered that Bill Gates could be held responsible for the same reason that Derek gave, that Gates chose to have the transceiver implanted. Ian gave the counter-example of the German nation after World War II, where we punished the nation for allowing themselves to be led by their nefarious leaders. When asked about the clone experiment, Ian wanted to know if the clone knew that it was a clone. We said that it would not know that it was a clone, since it only has whatever knowledge he had a moment prior to the cloning. Ian thought that he could be held partly responsible, the distinction that he drew was that you would hold the clone responsible in a consequentialist way, but you might want to hold the original agent responsible in a retributivist way. This is because the original agent had been responsible for the brain states that the clone was given, and the original agent was at least partly responsible for producing the clone. When the original agent was not given a choice about creating the clone, he still does not hold the clone responsible in a retributivist way, but puts more of the responsibility on the researchers. We then discussed the chess playing programs, and unpacked the compatibilist notion of 'could have done otherwise.’

Ian, without much prompting, went on to describe a consequentialist view on his own. The example of teen sex was used to illustrate how removing morality from a situation might be beneficial to society. The Dutch view of this is very different from what we have in the US, and as a result of having a more consequentialist view of the problem, the Dutch have much better statistics regarding teen pregnancy and STD rates. Ian pointed out that we need an arbitrary line drawn to distinguish how we determine the age of consent. Ian tended to agree with the idea, and as the intent of the discussion was to get to this point, we decided to end there.


Jackson’s basic position was that our bodies limit the sort of Free Will that we have, and that we might be more free in certain circumstances. Jackson admitted that he was not sure of what the soul is or does. He thought that the soul had something to do with consciousness, but that he did not know if it had anything to do with free will.

In discussing the Jones thought experiment, Jackson was the first participant to break down the idea that you would not want to hold Jones morally responsible, but that if someone needs to go calm the baby down, it should be Jones. Jackson answered the Bill Gates problem in a similar way to the previous participants, holding Gates responsible for implanting the transceiver. We then turned a knob on the experiment, and narrowed the problem to only business decisions and whether Gates was praiseworthy for good decisions. Then we moved a step further and asked if he was being fed business decisions by a learning machine that he wrote. Jackson still held Gates responsible, again because he had made the decision to have the transceiver implanted. In the clone experiment, Jackson thought that the clone might make a different choice than he would make, and therefore the clone should be held responsible. Jackson also had a pretty good answer to the problem of the chess playing programs, recognizing that if you give a new set of numbers, that B might be able to castle when it needed to.

The discussion then moved to the topic of responsibility and ways in which we want to hold people responsible. Jackson agreed that the consequentialist position was much better suited to making laws that the entire society would be required to follow. Again, the example of teen sex was used to illustrate the consequentialist view. Again, we came to the issue came of the arbitrary line to draw for the age of consent. Still, we had agreed on the basic view of consequentialism. Jackson also took issue with the problem of punishment, and suggested that education might be a better way to go.


This conversation was a bit more tricky, as it started by getting off track. It seemed to be a good diversion, that provided material for later in the discussion, as well as some good insight into taev. Taev is probably the closest to what has been described as the folk view. By the end of the conversation, we were able to find some common ground and agree on some important points.

Taev’s view is that we have a limited sort of free will, as a result of the idea that God sets up your fate. He goes on to say that your freedom is whether or not to choose the things that God has chosen for you. Taev did say that he thought that we had a non-physical soul, but he wasn’t sure whether or not it played a part in free will. When asked if the soul does any work for us, taev said that our bodies were how our souls interact with the world. However, he also suggested that even if we have a soul, that we might not have free will if determinism was true. He wasn’t able to give an answer on the free will question because he said that he didn’t know whether or not we had free will. Taev didn’t have a big problem with consequentialism, as he thought that the government’s job was to uphold the law, and that God was the one to judge someone based on moral reasons.

Moving on to the thought experiments, taev did not hold Jones morally responsible for the baby crying, while saying that physically, he is more responsible than anyone else. Taev pointed out the transceiver as a red herring in the Gates experiment, and said that Gates would be praiseworthy in his good business decisions. He made the analogy of our praising the President when he makes a good decision, despite relying on a team of advisors to inform him. In the clone experiment, Taev initially viewed the clone as a 'creation,’ but then changed his mind and said that it could be held responsible. He likened it to identical twins, where the inputs are similar but they become different people. In the analysis of the chess playing programs problem, taev got close to the right answer, saying that the castle may have been one of the moves that B was choosing from.

When we reached the point of the discussion of trying to do away with morality from the point of view of society, taev dug his heels in a little. He did not want to give up the idea of holding people morally responsible, and thought that doing so might have dire consequences. Taev did go on to say that he did not think that it was the job of government to legislate morality, that the government should be an amoral institution. We decided to leave it at that, as we had agreed on the idea that government should not have anything to do with morality.


All four of the discussions went very well. The conversations were very pleasant, interesting and engaging. The focus was narrow enough that the participants didn’t have to be on-edge about side issues, which seemed to help. Rapoport’s Rules, as discussed in one of the earlier lectures, was very helpful in getting the participants to shift their thinking. I was also forthcoming about my goals in the discussion, and my positions and beliefs.

Some of the participants seemed to describe compatibilist leanings from the beginning of the discussion. However, instead of having a view of Free WIll that was compatible with Determinism, their view was that Free Will was compatible with the idea of an omniscient God, where God always knows what you are going to do. This was an unexpected view, and was discussed at length with the first participant. This issue was mainly untouched with the other participants, as it did not seem to help in moving the discussion in the desired direction.

Though not all of the discussions spent much time on the arguments against dualism, the couple that did seemed to be effective. What made them effective arguments was that the first thing that was done was to get the participants to explain their view of the soul, and to try to get them to describe how that might work. From there, the participant gets asked to describe how the soul, as a non-physical entity, could possibly interact with the physical universe without violating the laws of physics. If they give some response along the lines of, future physics might explain this, then the soul is a physical thing. If the soul is a physical thing, it should be able to be measured in some way, even though there has been no indication of such a thing. Then the participant is asked why we should include more in the picture than is necessary, when it seems that this extra part (the soul) is just added in because we want it there. Then, the other possibilities for types of souls are looked at, discussed and discarded. The participant is left with no coherent notion of a soul.

The approach taken here is problematic for a few reasons. The most glaring issue is that there were only four discussions that were used to inform this paper. It would be interesting to continue the discussions with more people of varying background and initial assumptions and see how the outcomes vary. Another problem here was the assumptions made about the participants positions prior to the discussion. The participants had differing views coming into the discussion, and those differing views may not have been well accounted for. At this point, without any follow-up, it would be difficult to say whether or not these discussions actually shifted the intuitions of the participants, or if they just changed their rational within the context of the conversation.

Some argue that the issues of freedom and responsibility are separate. It is possible that these discussions had too broad a scope with trying to include both free will and responsibility. However, the ideas that people have about responsibility do seem to be tied to their ideas about free will, and therefore seems to be relevant. It may be possible that it is actually not that difficult to get people to agree to the consequentialist view, without discussing free will at all. In that case, reaching a consequentialist conclusion may not have been a worthy goal of these discussions.

The thought experiment about the clone may have been problematic because it sneaks in views of self. Where the participants view of self would have an impact on on their answer. The topic of self was outside the bounds of the discussion, though the question was intended more just to get the participant to think about free will and responsibility from the physicalist point of view.


The discussions were all fruitful and seemed to have all reached the desired point. All four of the participants agreed with the basic arguments laid out by the end of the conversation, and also agreed to the conclusions laid out.

It seems that these sorts of discussions are worth having. From how these discussions went, one thing that seemed to be important was to be very up front with the participant as to what you are trying to accomplish with the discussion, or why you think that it is a conversation worth having. Perhaps if this were in the form of a public debate, it would be effective to let the audience know what your motives are, and why you think that this discussion is worth your time and energy. Perhaps giving the audience that information might give them enough understanding so as not to give more consideration than is desired to your opponent. If you make clear from the beginning that you feel that the views that you are debating against are not only incorrect, but somehow harmful to society, and that as a result, you feel compelled to challenge those ideas, perhaps there will be less of a possibility of your opponents’ views being adopted by the audience.


Original discussions on r/Philosophy and r/DebateAChristian.

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