Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

Do People of all Cultures Believe in Free Will?

People of all cultures have something to say about free will.

Imagine a universe in which everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before. So the things that happened at the very beginning of the universe caused the things that happened next, which caused the things that happened after that... right up until the present day.  Now imagine that human decision making in this universe is no different from anything else.  Just like anything else that occurs, human decisions are completely caused by whatever happened before them. 

Now ask yourself: Is our universe actually like that?  Do we live in a universe in which everything is completely caused by whatever happened before it?  Or do we live in a universe in which human actions are somehow special and are not completely caused by anything that happened previously?  

In a new cross-cultural study, the experimental philosopher Hagop Sarkissian and his colleagues asked this question to people living in India, Hong Kong, Colombia, and the United States.  To see Hagop himself explaining the study, you can check out this YouTube video:

 

 

Surprisingly, people from all of these different cultures arrived at exactly the same answer!  Despite all of their cultural differences, they each concluded that human actions are not simply caused by whatever took place earlier -- that human beings have a special power of free will that allows them to do things that are not just caused by previous events.

So there must be some more general fact about people that makes it the case that, whatever culture they happen to grow up in, they always tend to arrive at this same conclusion.   But what could that more general fact be?

 [Full paper available here.]

Joshua Knobe is a professor in the philosophy department at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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