I have argued that the traditional free will debate has focused too much on whether free will is compatible with determinism and not enough on whether free will is compatible with specific causal explanations for our actions, including those offered by empirical psychology. If free will is understood as a set of cognitive and volitional capacities, possessed and exercised to varying degrees, then psychology can inform us about the extent to which humans (as a species and as individuals) possess those capacities and manage to exercise them across various situations. While recent work on the role of consciousness in action has been misinterpreted to suggest its role is illusory, recent work in social psychology presents a more viable challenge to our free will. The extent to which we can act on reasons we would accept or can know why we are doing what we do appears to be much less than we presume. Further work is necessary, of course, and it will need to involve both philosophical analysis and psychological investigation. Questions regarding the nature of human freedom and responsibility clearly require the conceptual resources of philosophy and the empirical resources of psychology.
A different kind of empirical research is exploring what people believe about free will and moral responsibility so that we can better understand ordinary intuitions about these issues and explore what drives people’s conflicting intuitions. We should also study how people’s beliefs about their own and others’ freedom influence their behavior and their attributions of personal responsibility. This last issue is especially relevant today. We see more and more information from the sciences of the mind purporting to explain human behavior, and often the popular press portrays this information in a way that suggests our actions are caused by our genes or our brain activity, as if these causal processes simply bypass us. Novelist Thomas Wolfe puts it like this: “The conclusion people out beyond the laboratory walls are drawing is: The fix is in! We’re all hardwired! That, and: Don’t blame me! I'm wired wrong!”32
Unfortunately, some scientists and science journalists suggest that any scientific explanation of human behavior threatens free will. They seem to believe that determinism must preclude free will (they don’t recognize the compatibilist option) and, more problematically, they treat scientific explanation of human behavior as equivalent to determinism—and therefore as an obvious threat to free will.33 Psychological research on human agency does have the potential to explain away the existence of free will, though this will depend not on whether determinism is true but on the extent to which the relevant research suggests we do not have the cognitive capacities required for free and responsible action. But such research also has the potential to explain the existence of free will rather than explain it away—to explain how conscious deliberation and planning affects our choices, how we are responsive to reasons, and how intentional action works.
Indeed, I have not discussed two types of psychological research apt for a chapter with this title and essential to understanding the nature and scope of human freedom. First, research on our experiences of voluntary action, decision-making, and deliberation would help elucidate why we have these experiences and in what ways they are relevant to our actions. Though Wegner’s work bears on these issues, there has been too little research specifically on the phenomenology of free will.34 Second, research on the cognitive and neurobiological components of voluntary action, decision-making, and deliberation would help elucidate the mechanisms underlying these psychological processes. Alas, I have no space left to discuss these fascinating topics here.35
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