Shaun Nichols, intuitions about reasons for action, and free will

Shaun Nichols – a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Arizona – recently wrote an article in the popular-science magazine Scientific American – Mind entitled Is Free Will an Illusion? What struck me was how poor the reasoning was.

The crux of the argument seems to me thus:

“Yet psychologists widely agree that unconscious processes exert a powerful influence over our choices. In one study, for example, participants solved word puzzles in which the words were either associated with rudeness or politeness. Those exposed to rudeness words were much more likely to interrupt the experimenter in a subsequent part of the task. When debriefed, none of the subjects showed any awareness that the word puzzles had affected their behavior. That scenario is just one of many in which our decisions are directed by forces lurking beneath our awareness.

Thus, ironically, because our subconscious is so powerful in other ways, we cannot truly trust it when considering our notion of free will. We still do not know conclusively that our choices are determined. Our intuition, however, provides no good reason to think that they are not. If our instinct cannot support the idea of free will, then we lose our main rationale for resisting the claim that free will is an illusion.”

So, the argument seems to run: 1. We have some reasons to doubt our conscious intuitions about the reasons for the decisions we make. 2. Therefore, no conscious intuition about our decisions provides a good reason for anything. 3. Therefore, our conscious intuition about free will does not provide a good reason for believing there is such a thing as free will that guides our decisions.

Granted, Nichols’ article was written with brevity, and for a popular-level kind of discourse. Yet, this reasoning leaves me baffled. (It reminds me of Randolph Clarke’s statement that the idea our intuition about free will could tell us something about the causal nature of the universe was ‘incredible‘.)

Response: of course intuitions about the causes of our decisions can be incorrect. Indeed, one can see this in some cases by honest, conscious introspection on the real cause of our actions: “Did I make that comment about so-and-so because I really believe it, or as retribution for an earlier comment they made?”, and so on. Recent empirical evidence showing how certain of our conscious beliefs about the reasons for our actions seem to conflict with subconscious reasons is interesting. Yet, it is only suggestive when applied to something specific like intuitions about the causal efficacy of something we call free will.

An intuition is, prima facie, a reason to believe something. If other methods of reasoning and evidence suggest the intuition is incorrect, then we can investigate how to reconcile the views. Then, if ultimately we decide to go with the ‘counter-intuitive’ evidence, we can conclude that the intuition isn’t a good reason. Yet, we can’t get to that conclusion about the veracity of conscious intuitions about the nature of free will from mere speculation based on evidence about the nature of certain other kinds of conscious intuitions about reasons for action.

3 thoughts on “Shaun Nichols, intuitions about reasons for action, and free will

  1. Pingback: Shaun Nichols on the illusion of free will | Anthony Burgoyne

  2. Michael Scholtes

    Anthony, I think you were too quick to dismiss Nichol’s argument. In general our intuitions map to the territory, which is why they are useful. Cognitive science has evidence that this map breaks down where introspection into our own cognitive processes is concerned. So an intuition that I have free will can no longer be accepted as evidence to increase my level of belief in that fact. (Aside: in Steven Pinker’s “How The Mind Works” he speculates that even consciousness itself might be “an illusion”. More interestingly, he speculates that our mental modules evolved for survival in an ancestral environment might be simply incapable of handling the abstractions required to think about consciousness.)

  3. admin Post author

    “[a.] Cognitive science has evidence that this map [of intuitions to territory] breaks down where introspection into our own cognitive processes is concerned. [b.] So an intuition that I have free will can no longer be accepted as evidence to increase my level of belief in that fact.”

    Yes, that seems roughly equivalent to Nichols’ claim. Yet, for the argument to go through, it seems that the evidence involved in a. will have to be very strong and far-ranging. Yet, the examples Nichols provides are underwhelming.

    Consider this: if the argument is correct, and we can’t trust our introspection into out own cognitive processes (as you put it), what reason do we have for trusting our intuition that there is at least an illusion of free will? For that illusion in our experience (the sense that we are acting freely) is the basis of action as well (we talk about this illusion of free will, and so on). But that is to say that you and I, having this discussion, have no reason to think that we are actually talking about anything, illusion or not. Rather, we are simply making sounds that have no reference to anything (illusion or not). Yet, that is absurd. Therefore, there has to be something wrong with the argument so broadly conceived as to be about ‘introspection into our own cognitive processes’. Which is just the point: Nichols is trying to get a specific outcome from vague and weakly suggestive evidence.

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