Determinism and Moral Responsibility


Emotional responses to a scenario will override the rational belief that complete determinism negates moral responsibility, according to expermental philosopher Joshua Knobe:

3:AM: So can you say a little about the kind of experiments you’ve been doing. For instance, there’s the experiments investigating intuitions about freewill that you’ve written about which might strike readers as being a strange thing to try and run experiments about.

JK: Yes, well, since the very beginning of philosophy and the Ancient Greek period philosophers have been debating about whether freewill is compatible with determinism. So the question is, if everything we do is completely determined, if each thing we do is completely determined by what happened beforehand, then can we still be morally responsible for the things we are doing? And some people say, ‘Obviously not! If everything is determined then we couldn’t be morally responsible for them.’ But some people say, ‘No, that’s no problem at all. Whether you are morally responsible has got nothing to do with whether you are determined. These are just two completely separate issues.’ So what we were interested in was what were the psychological roots of this conflict.

So we were interested in finding out what it is within people that is drawing them to the one side or to the other side of the issue. So we thought; maybe it’s people’s abstract theory that is drawing them to the idea that someone who is determined cannot be morally responsible. And that it’s people’s more immediate emotional responses that are drawing them to the view that people who are totally determined can be morally responsible. So we tried to devise these questions that would make people think about the issue either from a more abstract, theoretical perspective or from a more concrete, emotional, immediate perspective. So I guess the study you already know is the one where everyone was told about this universe, Universe A, where everything was determined. And then some people were just asked in the abstract, in Universe A, could anyone be held to be morally responsible for anything they do? And people said overwhelmingly no, absolutely not. We got the same response in America, in Japan, in India, in Columbia. Everyone was saying the same thing, giving the same answer: definitely not! You cannot hold anyone morally responsible. No one can be morally responsible in this universe. But then in the other condition, we asked a more concrete question. So we said, ‘Consider this one guy, his name is Bill, and he lives in this determinist Universe A. So this guy, Bill, he falls in love with his secretary. So he decides to leave his wife and family. Then he sets up an incendiary device to burn them all to death.’ And then we asked whether they thought this one guy, Bill, was morally responsible for what he did. And in this case people say ‘Totally!’ That guy Bill is morally responsible even though he lives in Universe A. Everyone said this. But in the other condition everyone said that no one in Universe A could be morally responsible. So it seems as if people who have been made to think about it in this more emotional way are giving one answer and people being asked to think about it in a more rational, more abstract way, are giving the exact opposite answer. And so this is a significant difference and helps us to think about why we believe what we believe.

-from Indie Rock Virtues – Josh Knobe interviewed by Richard Marshall

via @anibalmastobiza


The Anosognosia of Philosophers

Philosophers the world over suffer from anosognosia. Their primary disability is that they work in a field, a discipline, that never progresses, yet most of them get state money in the form of salaries. This creates cognitive dissonance and is apparently impossible to live with. So, they develop anosognosia and simply deny that philosophy never progresses. They assert that philosophy does progress, because, after all, we now know that . . . wait for it . . . theory X is true.

-Eric Dietrich, There Is No Progress in Philosophy

via @vaughanbell and @petemandik

Lady Gaga, Nick Bostrom, and the Future of Humanity

Lady Gaga – Born This Way (Audio) currently has 2,832,550 “listens” on YouTube since being posted yesterday. It’s reminiscent of Madonna’s Vogue from 1990 (watch video).

Just wait until Lady Gaga’s video for Born This Way is released…


Until then, let’s watch this lecture by Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom, part of the Hard Problems in Social Science symposium.


The Future of Humanity, in New Waves in Philosophy of Technology, eds. Jan-Kyrre Berg Olsen, Evan Selinger, & Soren Riis (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2009) [pdf]

But more importantly, what will Lady Gaga wear to the Grammys tomorrow? Such suspense!

James Fowler on What Causes Clustering in Social Networks

What Causes Clustering in Social Networks?

Lecture by UC San Diego professor James Fowler, part of the Hard Problems in Social Science symposium.


Frequent collaborators Fowler and Christakis are co-authors (along with Jaime Settle) on the recent paper, Correlated genotypes in friendship networks:

Maps of the friendship networks show clustering of genotypes and, after we apply strict controls for population stratification, the results show that one genotype is positively correlated (homophily) and one genotype is negatively correlated (heterophily).

But not everyone is convinced that friends connect on a genetic level:

The findings are based on patterns of variation in two out of six genes sampled among friends and strangers. But the claim is a hard sell for some geneticists, who say that the researchers have not analysed enough genes to rule out alternative explanations.

. . .

“If this was a study looking for shared genes in patients with diabetes, it would not be up to the standards of the field,” says David Altshuler, a geneticist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge. “We set these standards after 10 years of seeing so many irreproducible results in gene-association studies.”

Genetic Future is also skeptical:

I suspect most regular readers are already thinking suspicious thoughts, and with some justification: Genetic association studies on behavioral traits are notoriously littered with false positives, and the more headline-worthy the findings, the more caution we should apply. That’s not to say that all behavioral genetic studies should be discarded outright, but certainly we should be careful to set our threshold high for a study like this one.

Finally, a paper by Russell Lyons (PDF) criticizes the methods used for social network analysis:

We present cautionary examples of what can go wrong when assumptions behind statistical procedures are insufficiently examined, even when the analysis is performed by highly reputed and otherwise careful practitioners. Our examples come from a series of recent papers by Christakis and Fowler that claim to have demonstrated the existence of transmission via social networks of various personal characteristics, including obesity, smoking cessation, happiness, and loneliness. Those papers also assert that such influence extends to three degrees of separation in social networks.

More from Christakis and Fowler.

Further viewing: Nicholas Christakis Tells Us How and Why the Social Becomes Biological


Top ten social-science questions…

as named by a bunch of old Harvard professors

   (and a few others)…

1. How can we induce people to look after their health?

2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?

3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?

4. How do we reduce the ‘skill gap’ between black and white people in America?

5. How can we aggregate information possessed by individuals to make the best decisions?

6. How can we understand the human capacity to create and articulate knowledge?

7. Why do so many female workers still earn less than male workers?

8. How and why does the ‘social’ become ‘biological’?

9. How can we be robust against ‘black swans’ — rare events that have extreme consequences?

10. Why do social processes, in particular civil violence, either persist over time or suddenly change?