Friday, March 25, 2011

Is there Free Will?

The New York Times has a good introductory article that debates the question of whether or not free will (or "Agency" as we call it in the social sciences) really exists. While this may seem to be a question that is properly debated in philosophy departments, Anthropologists have long debated the existence of free will. Specifically, they have been interested in understanding to what extent there can be free will when we are quite often constrained society and its cultural values. Overall, most Anthropologists follow in Schopenhauer's footsteps and are compatibilists who agree with the famous dictum that "Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills."

Though the article does not discuss the role of Anthropologists in researching this important topic, it points out that notions of free will are cross cultural. From the article:

Intellectual concepts of free will can vary enormously, but there seems to be a fairly universal gut belief in the concept starting at a young age. When children age 3 to 5 see a ball rolling into a box, they say that the ball couldn’t have done anything else. But when they see an experimenter put her hand in the box, they insist that she could have done something else.

That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up, as experimental philosophers have discovered by querying adults in different cultures, including Hong Kong, India, Colombia and the United States. Whatever their cultural differences, people tend to reject the notion that they live in a deterministic world without free will.

They also tend to agree, across cultures, that a hypothetical person in a hypothetically deterministic world would not be responsible for his sins. This same logic explains why they they’ll excuse Mark’s tax evasion, a crime that doesn’t have an obvious victim. But that logic doesn’t hold when people are confronted with what researchers call a “high-affect” transgression, an emotionally upsetting crime like Bill’s murder of his family.

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