Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?

This is the title of a recent paper by a group promoting ‘experimental philosophy‘. This involves the “use of the methods of experimental psychology to probe the way people think about philosophical issues and then examine how the results of such studies bear on traditional philosophical debates” (Nadelhoffer and Nahmias, 2007: 123)

The paper examines two related philosophical concepts, determinism and moral compatiblism, and seeks to discover whether views regarding these differ across national cultures. Reading the paper through the lens of the Four Cultures is an interesting experience.

First a couple of quotations from the paper to set the scene:

‘individuals everywhere might experience a human social world that seems persistently and stubbornly unpredictable, and this experience might feed into the belief that human decision making is indeterministic.’ (p.15f.)

‘while the problem of free will has historically been the prerogative of philosophers, the current study suggests that researchers everywhere who investigate folk psychology, folk physics, and moral cognition have contributions to make in solving this particular puzzle.’ (p.17)

Grid-group cultural theory might specifically contribute the following:

  • An opportunity to conduct ‘experimental philosophy’ within the framework of Grid-group cultural theory. The theory explicitly claims that a fourfold structure of conflicting cultural biases both relativises and constrains all social institutions, including morality. This could be tested (and has been to an extent), and could inform other studies.
  • A testable (and tested) claim that culture is not primarily based on national characterisitcs, as is assumed in the study, but cuts across nations and other institutions along the lines of the four cultures. There is a parallel claim that where there are national cultural differences these can be explained with reference to Cultural Theory. Thus to argue that Asians have a different view of the individual from that of westerners, as this study does, is to ignore entirely the conflicts that exist within nations and institutions between Individualism and the other three cultural biases.
  • An understanding of the recursivity of knowledge about the environment. We don’t merely hold the universe to be one way or another on the basis of observation – we actively strive to make it more like we believe it to be, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This recursivity does not just influence our beliefs inside our heads, it also influences our social arrangements, from our family eating arrangements, to our built environment, to our political and religious institutions.The outcome of this is to suggest that the minority identified in the study who say they live in a deterministic universe, or the majority who say they live in a universe that includes moral responsibility in some sense actually do.
  • This latter point raises a methodological question regarding studies of determinism and morality. Where exactly does determinism/indeterminism lie? The assumption of the study is that its locus is in the expressed beliefs of the individual subject and that these beliefs can be best understood in aggregate (eg. ‘In each of the four samples, the majority of subjects responded that our universe is not deterministic. This option was chosen by 82% of subjects in the United States sample, 85% in the India sample, 65% in the Hong Kong sample, and 77% in the Colombia sample.’). The fact that these individual subjects are all university students is not taken to bias the results in any particular direction. It is the contention of Grid-group cultural theory, however, that subject and context need to be taken into account together, as they form an indivisible nexus. For instance, a working definition of a university could well be:
    ‘a university is a chief member of that set of institutions that instils in its subjects the strong belief that they have personal control over their lives’.
    In this regard a university as a context for views about free will would be more like a shopping mall than a prison or a factory. Indeed the small proportion of students in the study who said the universe is deteministic seems to bear this out. The upshot of this is that a more exhaustive study would question subjects in a variety of institutional contexts, recognising that ‘philosophical opinions’ both shape and are shaped by the contexts in which they are held..

What this study contributes to a reading of grid-group theory is to raise the question of whether the cultural bias of Fatalism is inherently deterministic (our lives are controlled) or indeterministic (our lives are not controlled). The Fatalism quadrant seems to point to an alternative position: that our lives are controlled, but not by us. Thus determinism is held to be extrinsic to the self, while the self experiences life as indeterminate. Examples include:

  • Prisoners, whose lives are controlled by rules of which they are rarely informed;
  • bingo or scratch card players, who have no way of knowing who will win, except that someone definitely will;
  • British school children, whose ‘choice’ of high school is determined by means of a lottery.

A Fatalist universe would have its own distinctive morality, in which the subject must minimally conform to the ethical expectations of others, while nevertheless believing that their behaviour will not influence any actual outcome. Again, to the extent that the methods of experimental philosophy are held to be valid, this claim could be tested.

On experimental philosophy see:

Philosophy’s great experiment (Prospect magazine)


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